AMID the atrocities that we hear about from various parts of the world, like Libya, it’s a sobering thought that here in the highlands, not that long ago, human life was similarly held in pretty low esteem.
Most Scots will be familiar with the story of the Glen Coe massacre, when soldiers under the command of Robert Campbell of Glenlyon killed 38 MacDonalds. Another 40 women and children died in the winter conditions as they tried to escape.
While that particular incident was particularly horrific because it was murder under trust – the soldiers took the MacDonald’s hospitality then rose and murdered them as they slept – it wasn’t unusual for inter-clan fights and battles to have a high mortality rate. A terrible incident on the Isle of Eigg was a good example of that.
Last week I visited the scene – the Massacre Cave on the south shore of the island. It’s a beautiful spot, looking out across the Minch to Muck and Col, with the Ardnamurchan peninsula and the Isle of Mull framing the horizon. The natural beauty of the place gives the story a poignant emphasis.
In the sixteenth century a lengthy feud took place between the MacLeod and MacDonald clans, which eventually led to the massacre of the Eigg’s entire population, bar one family that managed to escape. A party of MacLeods visited the island in 1576 and the men were thought to be over-amorous towards the local girls. The men of Eigg weren’t happy about this and they rounded up the Macleods and cast them adrift in an open boat. Fortunately for the youths they were eventually rescued by some fellow clansmen but they vowed to return and take their revenge.
The following spring they did just that. The Eigg islanders saw a large flotilla of MacLeod birlinns, with several hundred men under the command of Alasdair Crotach and his son William, approaching from Skye and they all made for a secret cave which went by the name of Uamh Fhraing, the cave of Francis. The entrance to the cave was low and covered in undergrowth but the entire population managed to crawl inside into a larger cavern where they hid.
The MacLeods searched the island for two days and in frustration decided to return to Skye. As they sailed from the shores of Eigg one of the MacDonals left the cave, climbed to the top of the hill to see if the enemy had gone but was unfortunately spotted. He quickly made his way back to the cave but he left tell-tale footsteps in the snow.
The MacLeods found the footsteps and traced them to the cave’s low entrance. They then piled thatch and roof timbers at the cave entrance and set fire to it at the same time damping the flames so that the cave was filled with smoke. Three hundred and ninety five people died, either by smoke inhalation or heat and oxygen deprivation. Only one family managed to escape to tell the tale.
Almost 250 years later Sir Walter Scott visited the cave and found human bones there. More recently, in 1979, a boy on holiday visited the cave and found a human skull. It was gifted to Birmingham Museum.