Highlands & Islands

Warrior women of Eigg and other tales from Small Isles

Aerial view of the harbour on Eigg Image copyright HES
Image caption An aerial view of the harbour on Eigg

A new book exploring the histories and legends of Scotland's Small Isles has been published.

Muck, Rum, Eigg and Canna lie between Ardnamurchan on the west Highland coast and the Isle of Skye.

In The Small Isles, author Prof John Hunter said the islands could today be described as "calm havens".

But in the past they were the scene of a 16th Century massacre and also have a story about female warriors murdering Christian pilgrims.

The book brings together the "forgotten histories" of the four islands for the first time, according to Historic Environment Scotland, which commissioned the writing of it.

Image copyright HES
Image caption The book features photographs of the islands taken by Victorian photographer Erskine Beveridge
Image copyright HES
Image caption The ruins of Coroghon Castle on Canna

Prof Hunter is emeritus professor of ancient history and archaeology at the University of Birmingham, an honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh and an expert on Scottish islands.

He said: "The Small Isles, consisting of Muck, Rum, Eigg and Canna, are known mostly because they have interesting names.

"They sit a good hour's ferry ride from Mallaig off the Scotland's west coast, and you might be justified in thinking these islands would have been good places for a quiet life? Wrong.

"Today, they may be calm havens of retreat, but their quiet landscapes hide centuries of hardship, intrigue, controversy and violence."

'Bandit country'

Human activity on the islands can be traced back thousands of years.

Some of the earliest people were drawn to the isles because bloodstone, a rock found on Rum that can be shaped in the same way as flint.

In following centuries, Prof Hunter said the islands were "bandit country" where even early Christian missionaries met with bloody violence.

Image copyright Scottish Life Archive/Scran
Image caption A more peaceful scene from the islands' past - grubbing cabbages on Muck in the 1960s

On Eigg in 617AD, St Donnan was beheaded and his fellow monks murdered.

"Legend tells how the murders were carried out by large female warriors who lived on the Sgurr - the great volcanic outcrop that broods over the skyline on Eigg," said Prof Hunter.

'Hide secrets'

The historian added that worst was to come in the 16th Century when almost the entire population of the island was wiped out during a feud between the clans Macdonald and MacLeod.

A band of MacLeods from Skye landed on Eigg where they found, and then massacred, the isle's Macdonalds in the cave where they were hiding from the raiders.

The book, which includes early 19th Century maps and archive photographs of landscapes and people, also examines the effects of the Highland Clearances on the Small Isles and the construction of Victorian sporting estates.

Prof Hunter said: "The Small Isles are fascinating in how they both display and hide their secrets within their modern landscapes.

"There are few places so geographically concentrated that provide such a vivid illustration of Scotland's past from prehistory to the present day."

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