More than 50 human bones found in an island cave have been identified as belonging to the victims of one of Scotland’s most horrific atrocities.
Last October tourists discovered 53 bones and informed police, who in turn contacted Historic Environment Scotland (HES). Archaeologists have now dated the bones to the time of the infamous massacre of hundreds of islanders.
The cave, on Eigg’s south coast, gets its name from the story of a party of MacLeods who visited the isle in 1577 and allegedly made unwanted advances towards the local MacDonald girls. As a result, the men of Eigg rounded up the MacLeods, castrating some and dispatching them off the island in an open boat.
The youths were eventually rescued by some fellow clansmen but they vowed to return and take their revenge. The following spring the MacDonalds saw a large flotilla of MacLeod boats, with several hundred men under the command of Alasdair Crotach and his son William, approaching from Skye.
All the island residents fled to the cave of Francis — Uamh Fhraing — and despite the entrance to the cave being low and covered in undergrowth the entire population managed to crawl inside to a larger cavern where they hid.
The MacLeods searched the island for two days with no success and, frustrated, they decided to return to Skye. As they set sail, one of the MacDonalds left the cave, climbed to the top of the hill to see if the coast was clear, but was spotted. Making his way back to the cave he left footsteps in the snow, which enabled the MacLeods to find the islanders’ hiding place.
They piled thatch and roof timbers at the cave entrance and set fire to it, damping the flames so that the cave filled with smoke. About 390 people died, and only one family managed to escape to tell the tale.
The MacDonalds took their revenge one year after the massacre when they landed on Skye, barred up the entrance to a local church, set it alight and killed all but one MacLeod inside.
Almost 250 years later the author Sir Walter Scott visited the cave and found human bones, which were supposed to have been collected together and interred. In 1979 a boy on holiday visited the cave and found a human skull, but the recent find of 53 bones has baffled islanders.
Kirsty Owen, senior archaeology manager at HES, said the bones were dated to between 1430 and 1620. “This would of course tie in with the cave being used as the resting place of most of the population of Eigg following the massacre of 1577,” she said.
“There are likely to be more bones in the cave, but we are treating it like a war grave and will not proactively look for them. We are in discussion with the local community about reburial, which we would expect in six to eight months time.” http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/cave-yields-bones-of-islanders-massacred-in-clan-feud-302dbpdlk
- The Calum Maclean Project: The Eigg Massacre of 1577
Scottish clan history: the gruesome tale of Massacre Cave Scotsman 16 Mar 2016