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Behold the Hebrides
A Hebridean Tragedy
A Tale of an Eigg Cave


TO the geologist the Western Isles are of particular interest because of the study which their gigantic rocks and fissures afford. It is supposed, and, indeed, generally affirmed by most authorities, that some parts of the Hebrides witnessed the most stupendous volcanic activity the world has ever seen: hence the great gneiss and basaltic formations, which are so prominent a feature of the Isles.

Around the coast of the Island of Eigg there are one or two caves which are of unique interest not only to those who love the study of rocks, but also to the historian and folklorist. On the south-west side there is the famous cave known as Uamha Chrabhadh, or the Cave of Devotion, for it was within this cave that the Roman Catholics were accustomed to congregate and celebrate mass in Reformation times.

But there is another cave close by, which, besides being remarkable in its form, owes its importance to the fact that it was the scene of a tragedy. It is called Uamha Fhraine, or the Cave of Francis. Now, the entrance to this cave is so small that one is obliged to crawl on one’s hands and knees for a distance of some ten feet before reaching the lofty and spacious interior. It is said that long, long ago a few of the followers of Macleod of Skye, who were homeward bound from Glasgow to the Misty Isle, landed on the little island, Eilean Chaisteal, hard by, and molested some Eigg women, who were tending their herds on the hillside. When it became known on the island that these women had been maltreated, the inhabitants of Eigg rose up in wrath, and ad unum sought to ‘pursue and destroy those strangers,’ whom they knew not. We are told by Sir Walter Scott that the islanders ultimately seized the offenders, and, having bound them hand and foot, cast them adrift in an open boat, which the winds eventually conducted to the Isle of Skye. Other chroniclers tell us that they were instantly put to death by the enraged islanders; but this difference in detail, however, does not affect the main theme of my story.

Now, the then Chief of the MacLeods of Skye, who at the time was in residence in his ancestral seat at Dunvegan, was so full of anger, when he learnt that his kinsfolk had been so arbitrarily treated, that he hastily assembled his clansmen to discuss what steps they should take to punish the MacDonalds of Eigg, a people dependent on Clan Ranald. So, when they had conspired together for some time and had planned all manner of mischief against the men of Eigg, they sent a contingent from Skye for the purpose of ravaging the property of the MacDonalds, and of putting to the edge of the sword any inhabitants whom they might chance to find on the island.

But, when MacLeod and his retainers landed on the island, they found it desolate and uninhabited, for the people of Eigg had observed their galleys approaching afar off; and, having been apprised of their danger, they sought to conceal themselves in Uamha Fhraine. MacLeod was convinced that the MacDonalds had left the island, and had betaken themselves to another of Clan Ranald’s possessions, or perhaps, to the Long Island; but he meanwhile ordered his men to make a thorough search, and to destroy everything upon which they could lay their hands, so that the, MacDonalds would find nothing but charred homes and desolation around them, if ever they should return to Eigg.

MacLeod’s men traversed the island from end to end, burning and pillaging where-ever they went, because their Chief was so chagrined and disappointed to find that there was not a living soul to be found anywhere. And, on the third day, he straightway decided to embark again, and to return to Skye, for he suspected that the inhabitants of Eigg had been warned of his expedition, and had fled elsewhere for safety.

It was then that a very unfortunate episode ensued, partly through the fact that the MacDonalds were decidedly impatient of their confinement in the cave, and partly because a light fall of snow was the means by which the enemy traced them to their hidie-hole. Shortly after the MacLeods had raised anchor with the intention of returning with all speed to Skye, a scout was sent out of the cave for the purpose of reconnoitring. He was immediately seen by one of MacLeod’s seamen; and the galleys were ordered to make again for the shores of Eigg, in order that a more thorough investigation might be made. Having disembarked, the invaders, who by this time were doubly bent on vengeance, traced the scout’s retreat by his footprints in the freshly fallen snow. Contemporary historians tell us that, when the poor scout became aware that he had been seen, he made ingenious endeavours to destroy the track that led to his den by running about on the snow after the manner of a fox or hare. But his efforts were of little avail, for, when the enemy had landed again, the poor fellow’s steps were traced right to the mouth of the cave, wherein two hundred MacDonalds were concealed; and the MacLeods demanded that the men, who had perpetrated this outrage against their clansfolk, be instantly delivered up to them.

This request, however, was met by a peremptory refusal, for the MacDonalds trusted in the impregnability of their garrison, into which no one could gain admittance except by crawling on his hands and knees. The entrance of the cave was concealed by a stream which fell over it; and the Skye chieftain ordered that its water be diverted, so that he might carry out his scheme of revenge. When this was accomplished, a great fire composed of peat and sundried ferns was kindled at the mouth of the cave ‘and maintained with unrelenting assiduity,’ until all within were destroyed with suffocation. The smoke and fumes of this huge bonfire stifled every living creature, for they found their way into the minutest recesses of the cave.

Writing in 1814, Scott says that, when he visited the scene of this carnage towards the close of the previous century, he discovered heaps of bones, together with about forty skulls which were in a fair state of preservation. He suggests that the comparative fewness of the skulls may have been due to the subsequent burials of remains by neighbouring kinsfolk. The bones of the murthered MacDonalds, he relates, were strewn as thickly on the floor of the cave as in the charnel-house of any church he had ever seen. We learn, too, that Scott took a souvenir away with him when he visited the cave, because in one of his explanatory notes he writes: ‘I brought off, in spite of the prejudice of our sailor; a skull from among the numerous specimens of mortality which this cavern afforded.’ A more recent writer informs us that the sailors explained the prolonged calms, which prevented their boat from making any substantial progress for many day; by this act of Scott, for they considered that his conduct in removing anything from the cave was barbarous and sacrilegious.

So it was in Eigg that there was

A numerous race, ere stern MacLeod
O’er their bleak shores in vengeance strode,
When all in vain the ocean-cave
Its refuge to the victims gave.

Such is the story of a Hebridean tragedy; and many are the tragedies that are recounted in the annals of the Western Isles.


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