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Book of Scottish Story
A Highland Feud by Sir Walter Scott


The principal possessors of the Hebrides were originally of the name of MacDonald, the whole being under the government of a succession of chiefs who bore the name of Donald of the Isles, and were possessed of authority almost independent of the kings of Scotland. But this great family becoming divided into two or three branches, other chiefs settled in some of the islands, and disputed the property of the original proprietors. Thus, the MacLeods, a powerful and numerous clan, who had extensive estates on the mainland, made themselves masters at a very early period, of a great part of the large island of Skye, seized upon much of the Long Island, as the isles of Lewis and Harris are called, and fought fiercely with the MacDonalds and other tribes of the islands. The following is an example of the mode in which these feuds were conducted:—

About the end of the sixteenth century, a boat, manned by one or two of the MacLeods, landed in Eigg, a small island peopled by the MacDonalds. They were at first hospitably received; but having been guilty of some incivility to the young women of the island, it was so much resented by the inhabitants, that they tied the MacLeods hand and foot, and putting them on board of their own boat, towed it to the sea, and set it adrift, leaving the wretched men, bound as they were, to perish by famine, or by the winds and waves, as chance should determine. But fate so ordered it, that a boat belonging to the Laird of MacLeod fell in with that which had the captives on board, and brought them in safety to the Laird’s castle of Dunvegan, in Skye, where they complained of the injury which they had sustained from the MacDonalds of Eigg. MacLeod, in great rage, put to sea with his galleys, manned by a large body of his people, which the men of Eigg could not entertain any rational hope of resisting. Learning that their incensed enemy was approaching with superior forces, and deep vows of revenge, the inhabitants, who knew they had no mercy to expect at MacLeod’s hands, resolved, as the best chance of safety in their power, to conceal themselves in a large cavern on the sea-shore.

This place was particularly well-calculated for that purpose. The entrance resembles that of a fox-earth, being an opening so small that a man cannot enter save by creeping on hands and knees. A rill of water falls from the top of the rock, and serves, or rather served at the period we speak of, wholly to conceal the aperture. A stranger, even when apprised of the existence of such a cave, would find the greatest difficulty in discovering the entrance. Within, the cavern rises to a great height, and the floor is covered with white dry sand. It is extensive enough to contain a great number of people. The whole inhabitants of Eigg, who, with their wives and families, amounted to nearly two hundred souls, took refuge within its precincts.

MacLeod arrived with his armament, and landed on the island, but could discover no one on whom to wreak his vengeance—all was desert. The MacLeods destroyed the huts of the islanders, and plundered what property they could discover; but the vengeance of the chieftain could not be satisfied with such petty injuries. He knew that the inhabitants must either have fled in their boats to one of the islands possessed by the MacDonalds, or that they must be concealed somewhere in Eigg. After making a strict but unsuccessful search for two days, MacLeod had appointed the third to leave his anchorage, when, in the gray of the morning, one of the seamen beheld, from the deck of his galley, the figure of a man on the island. This was a spy whom the MacDonalds, impatient of their confinement in the cavern, had imprudently sent out to see whether MacLeod had retired or no. The poor fellow, when he saw himself discovered, endeavoured, by doubling after the manner of a hare or fox, to obliterate the track of his footsteps, and prevent its being discovered where he had re-entered the cavern. But all his art was in vain; the invaders again landed, and tracked him to the entrance of the cavern.

MacLeod then summoned those who were within it, and called upon them to deliver the individuals who had maltreated his men, to be disposed of at his pleasure. The MacDonalds, still confident in the strength of their fastness, which no assailant could enter but on hands and knees, refused to surrender their clansmen.

MacLeod then commenced a dreadful work of indiscriminate vengeance. He caused his people, by means of a ditch cut above the top of the rock, to turn away the stream of water which fell over the entrance of the precipice. This being done, the MacLeods collected all the combustibles which could be found on the island, particularly quantities of dry heather, piled them up against the aperture, and maintained an immense fire for many hours, until the smoke, penetrating into the inmost recesses of the cavern, stifled to death every creature within. There is no doubt of the truth of this story, dreadful as it is. The cavern is often visited by strangers; and I have myself seen the place, where the bones of the murdered MacDonalds still remain, lying as thick on the door of the cave as in the charnel-house of a church.


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