Highlands & Islands

Skull could offer clues to date of Eigg massacre

Isle of Eigg
Image caption Islanders on Eigg were locked in a violent feud with a clan on Skye

Scientists are hoping to accurately date a notorious 16th Century massacre on the Isle of Eigg by carbon dating a human skull taken from the site.

About 400 islanders, almost the entire population of the isle, were killed by a raiding party of Macleods from Skye.

At the time the Macleods were locked in a long, violent feud with the Macdonalds of Eigg.

The skull at the centre of the new study was taken as a souvenir by novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott.

Following a visit to Eigg, the writer took the skull back to his home in Abbotsford in Melrose.

Historic Environment Scotland, working with a number of universities, hope to study samples of the bone.

Fleet of warriors

Camille Dressler, chairwoman of the Eigg History Society, said the results could provide a closer date to when the massacre happened, and provide clues to the lifestyle of the islanders.

She said: "It has been very difficult to ascertain the exact date of the massacre, so the skull would help us pin down the date more accurately.

"At the moment, the carbon dating that we have from other bones are from 1540 to 1620."

Ms Dressler said the sampling could also reveal what kind of diet the islanders consumed, and diseases that may have affected the local population.

Samples could be extracted from the skull's teeth, but Ms Dressler said it could be six months to a year before the results were known.

Image copyright Christian Jones/Geograph
Image caption The entrance to the cave on Eigg

The massacre marked an escalation in the feud between the Macdonalds of Clanranald and the Macleods of Dunvegan on Skye.

Previously, the tit-for-tat violence had seen the Macleods beat and then leave for dead in a boat a son of chieftain Macleod of Dunvegan.

It is said the small boat was found after it drifted back to Skye.

Seeking revenge, Macleod sent out a fleet of warriors.

Their galleys were spotted by a watchman on Eigg and the islanders fled to a cave, the entrance of which was said to be hidden behind a waterfall.

When the raiders landed they only found an elderly woman who told them nothing of her fellow islanders' hiding place.

Searches for the islanders proved fruitless and the Macleods destroyed the Macdonalds' homes before setting off back to Skye.

By now it had started snowing and shortly after returning to sea the raiders spotted an islander, who had been sent out from the cave to check if the Macleods had left, against a snow-covered cliff face.

The Macleods immediately landed back on Eigg and followed the islander's footprints in the snow to the cave.

The waterfall was diverted and the cave's entrance was blocked with flammable material.

Victorian tourists

Macleod of Dunvegan is said to have hesitated at the last moment and decided the Macdonalds' fate should be left to the judgement of God.

If the wind blew inland from the sea he would have the material lit. If the wind blew from the land to the sea, it would not.

The wind blew in from the sea.

The remains of the massacred Macdonalds were not found for years afterwards.

Hugh Miller, a 19th Century geologist, described seeing skulls covered in green mould.

Victorian tourists took pieces of bones as souvenirs before all the remaining bones that could be found were buried in Eigg's graveyard at the request of concerned islanders.

Last year, more than 50 bones were found in the cave.

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