After the defeat of the Spanish armada by the English navy in 1588, it is said that a critically damaged Spanish vessel took shelter in the bay of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. The ships that survived the English onslaught were forced to navigate their way home around the north and west coasts of Scotland. Several ships were lost along the treacherous Scottish coastline in terrible weather.

One ship, although the identity of the ship is not known for sure, (some sources say she was the Florida, the Florencia, the San Juan de Sicilia or the San Juan de Baptista, Duque di Florenzia - the Duke of Florence) rumours that the vessel was carrying a huge treasure with gold and silver plate and carrying the Armada paymaster's chest, a hoard of 30 million ducats in gold coin have persisted for many years, mysteriously blew up in Tobermory bay on the Isle of Mull.

It is said that in October 1588 the critically damaged San Juan de Sicilia anchored in Tobermory bay to take on supplies and make repairs, there are several theories of what happened next.

The most popular story of the event is that after sailing into Tobermory the captain arrogantly demanded food and aid from the local islanders. The chieftain of clan Maclean said that if the Spanish captain gave him 100 men at arms he could have all the food he liked, provided he paid for it. The Spaniard agreed and Maclean and his newly acquired mercenaries set out to attack MacLean's enemies,the MacDonald's on the Isles of Eigg, Muck, Rhum and Canna. As MacDonald reinforcements arrived the MacLeans and Spaniards withdrew burning and sacking lands throughout the region.

When Maclean returned the Spanish captain announced he was ready to sail. The Spaniard said that he would only pay once his men were returned. Maclean handed over the men at arms but kept three officers as hostages. Maclean then sent his young kinsman Donald Maclean over to the galleon to collect the gold.

Once on board the young Donald was taken prisoner. Even although there were still officers being held by MacLean the Spanish began to set sail. A short while later there was a huge explosion and the galleon sank to the bottom of the bay. Allegedly it was blown up by the MacLeans of Duart castle, however some find it is highly unlikely that MacLean would blow up his Spanish allies "Great ship" which was of such use to him in his feud with the MacDonalds.

Perhaps it could have been destroyed by an English spy or the MacDonalds who were at war with the MacLeans, the more romantic among us would like to believe that Donald Maclean, did in fact, realising that he had no escape and not wanting to let the greedy Spanish leave, had touched off the powder kegs in the magazine, perhaps, but we'll never know for sure!

I'm not one to spoil a good story by letting the facts get in the way . But there are some stories that contain so much information, most of it conflicting, that the process of separating fact from fiction becomes an almost impossible task. All of which brings us to the town of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull - more specifically, to its bay

Even children's books carry the story which has now been passed down through generations - that of the sunken galleon from the Spanish Armada which lies buried in the silt at the bottom of Tobermory Bay, complete with its haul of gold doubloons. The vessel was - so the story goes - blown up by locals, drowning hundreds of sailors, because she was trying to leave port without paying her dues.

It is a great story. Local people can recount the details as if they were there. The tourist industry on Mull positively thrives on it. But is there really a galleon? If so, which one was it and why was she in, of all places, Tobermory? More importantly, how much money and treasure lies beneath the sea only 400 yards from the pier in the port's small harbour?

The prevailing theory among those who have taken time to study the subject is that an Armada vessel most certainly found refuge in the sheltered waters of the bay. When the Armada was defeated in 1588 many vessels headed round the north coast of Scotland to escape the English. A number came to grief, notable El Gran Grifón off the coast of Fair Isle.

The name of the vessel which met its end in Tobermory Bay alters depending on who you listen to. Many claim it was the Almirante di Florencia, one of the treasure ships of the Armada. Often known simply as the Florencia, or the Florida, she would have been laden with the most fabulous Spanish gold and treasure. Others say the vessel was the San Juan de Sicilia (or San Juan de Baptista), with plenty troops on board but little in the way of treasure.
Finding the lee of Tobermory in the middle of winter was no mean feat for the Spaniards and it is highly unlikely they just happened upon it. More probably they were led there, either by a friendly vessel or after having captured a local fishing boat.

Once in Tobermory they were in waters owned by Mull's leading clan chief, Sir Lachlan Maclean of Duart Castle. A ruthless character, he would have known about any treasure chests on board the Spanish ship and would have been anxious to use anything that would help him increase his hold over the then important sea route between Argyll and the north coast of Ireland.

Whatever his motives, the story goes that either Maclean himself, some of his family or an emissary acting on his behalf (possibly an undercover agent from the English government) boarded the galleon and ignited its powder store causing a huge explosion which sunk not only the boat and the sailors on board - but also the treasure. Over the years some - but very few - valuable artefacts have been recovered. The story among locals is that the galleon has simply sunk into the silt at the seabed.

So of all the theories, which are most likely? Local historian Dr Jean Whittaker recently completed a book Lost Treasure which deals with all the galleon myths. Whittaker is convinced there was a ship there in the first place and further that it was the San Juan de Sicilia (or Baptista) which she claimed was simply commandeered by the Armada while in port in Sicily.

"I used to think that the most likely thing that happened to it was an accident and I still think that," Whittaker says. "However the English government were fairly panicky at the thought of these vessels dotted round the Scottish coast. They did not realise they were in such bad shape but Queen Elizabeth I, on hearing one was cosily tucked away in Tobermory, may have reacted quite strongly.

"After having routed the Armada they did not want any possibility of Mull being used as a Spanish offensive and it's not too much of an exaggeration to think that the English government was responsible for the explosion. I'm not saying that's definitive but it certainly shouldn't be discounted," she says.

And so that, as they say, is the story in Tobermory. Believe it if you will.


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