In October 2016, Trail discovered human remains on the Isle of Eigg. After a year of archaeological investigation, they were revealed to be those of a 500-year-old teenager. It’s the island’s darkest chapter.
Words Ben Weeks Photography Tom Bailey
Back in the autumn of 2016, photographer Tom Bailey and I spent an incredible night wild camping on the summit of An Sgurr, the lone, monolithic peak on the Isle of Eigg (you might have read about it in the January 2017 issue of Trail magazine). One of the four main Small Isles that sit gathered together in the Sea of the Hebrides south of Skye, Eigg’s human history is as fascinating as its geological past. But one particular event is perhaps the most famous: the massacre at the secret cave.
The atrocity is deemed to have happened long enough ago that the site of it has become something of a ‘dark tourism’ destination. The way to the Cave of Francis (Uamh Fhraing in Gaelic) is waymarked from the ferry terminal, although it’s rare to see it given this name. These days it is more commonly known as ‘Massacre Cave’.
The Eigg Massacre
The tale goes that in 1577 a group of MacLeod men from Skye visited Eigg and became overly amorous with some of the MacDonald women who resided on the island (the exact nature of this harassment varies depending on the account). As punishment, the MacLeods were rounded up by the MacDonald men, bound and set adrift in their boats to die at sea. But they were rescued by fellow MacLeods, who swore revenge. The MacDonalds saw them coming and fled to a hidden cave on the south coast of the island, where they lay low over several days until the MacLeods gave up the search and returned to their boats. However, as they were leaving, they spotted a lone MacDonald who had left the cave to check the coast was clear. The MacLeods returned to Eigg and followed footprints back to the cave. Here they lit fires at the entrance, the smoke being carried into the cave. Nearly 400 MacDonalds died from asphyxiation.
Tom and I called in on our way to catch the boat back to the mainland. Tom had visited before and had no great desire to visit again: “It’s not a cheery place.” But I had not, and was fascinated by its story. There had been a recent rockfall inside and visitors were advised that entering was ‘at their own risk’. The cave has a narrow, low entrance. But once squeezed though this initial section it opens up dramatically, being high, deep, and dark. We entered carefully, with the aim of taking a few photos for the article, and leaving. Tom was kneeling, snapping shots, when he spotted something lying on the earth. “What d’you reckon this is?” He held something out to me. I walked over, took it from him and turned it over in my fingers by torchlight. It was flattish, roughly triangular with a rounded bottom – like a compressed teardrop – and a couple of inches across, with the colour and texture of a walnut shell. “I don’t know. A nut of some kind?” Tom shook his head. “I think it’s bone.” It did look like bone – like old, long-buried, dirt-stained, bone. But neither of us could identify its shape, although it was prodding a memory of recognition somewhere in the back of my brain… Then Tom, who had been examining the ground around where he’d found the object, found something more easily identified. Protruding from the dark earth was a row of evenly spaced curved rods, the same tainted colour as the initial discovery. “These are ribs.”
If you spend enough time walking in the wilds of the Highlands, at some point you’ll come across the remains of an animal. Neither Tom nor I were able to definitively establish that these weren’t from a deer or sheep that had retreated into the cave to die. But we’ve seen animal bones before, and there was something indeterminably different about these; different enough that Tom was uncomfortable photographing them and refrained from doing so. “It doesn’t feel right.” Could they really be something more sinister?
In the 1840s, Scottish geologist and folklorist Hugh Miller visited Eigg and described seeing the bones of adults and children in the cave. The novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott took a skull back to his house in the Scottish Borders, and the problem of Victorian tourists collecting pieces led to the remaining bones being removed at the request of the islanders. There’s a story of a schoolboy finding a skull in 1979, but despite the Massacre Cave’s macabre past, actual confirmed evidence is scarce and few documented discoveries of human remains have been made in modern times. All things considered, it seemed unlikely that we’d stumbled across anything significant. Nonetheless, that teardrop bone was ringing a distant bell; I took a few snaps of it for record before we left.
Back home later that week, I browsed online diagrams of animal skeletons, hoping to match something to the photo on my phone. Then that forgotten memory skipped. A doctor’s appointment about a walking niggle. A diagram in a medical textbook. An illustration of the knee. A flurry of Googling soon revealed the answer. We’d found a human patella – a kneecap. I sent the pictures to Tom; he replied immediately: “That’s exactly what it is.” Then came another text from him. “I’m going to notify the police.”
Tom’s initial phone call to the Police Scotland call centre was met with sceptical disinterest, but resulted in a call back from Malcolm Cameron, an officer based in Fort William. He asked to be sent the images of the bone to determine if it warranted further investigation. The photos were sent, and a day or two later Malcolm was back in touch: “Forensics say it’s human. We’re sending a team to Eigg.”
For the next couple of weeks communication was frequent. The investigation enlisted the help of Historic Environment Scotland. A specialist archaeological unit was sent to the cave, and shortly afterwards the police advised Tom that around 50 bones had been recovered. But then it went quiet, and we remained in the dark as to what had come of the Massacre Cave bones.
At the time, Trail held off publishing the story, fearful that the remains could turn out to be more recent. In early 2017 Tom and I scoured the Internet for any information relating to the outcome of the investigation but, with nothing found, we gave up. This was a mistake. Towards the end of March the same year, the BBC News website ran a story with the headline ‘Bones linked to Scotland’s Eigg Massacre’. It told of how, in October the previous year, archaeologists had been called in to investigate a discovery in Eigg’s Massacre Cave and had unearthed 53 bones. The Times website also covered the find. They interviewed Dr Kirsty Owen, senior archaeology manager of Historic Environment Scotland, who explained that they had determined that the bones came from a single human skeleton and had been dated to between 1420 and 1630, linking them to the massacre of 1577.
Unfortunately this story passed us by. But then, in November 2017, just when we’d resigned ourselves to the fact that we might never know the truth, Trail’s editor Simon Ingram came across an article from The Scotsman online: ‘Teenager’s bones found at Eigg Massacre Cave’. There it was, the answer to our wondering. This update included the results of further tests performed by AOC Archaeology in Edinburgh; the bones belonged to an adolescent under 16 years old. The excitement of finally discovering the truth was tempered by the sobering thought that a child had laid undiscovered in a remote cave on a Scottish island for over 400 years.
The bones have been sent to Bradford University where further tests will aim to establish details such as the diet and lifestyle of the teenager. Then the remains will be returned to Eigg, where the island community will be involved in the decision as to what should happen next. Only 30 per cent of the skeleton has survived the centuries, but with no other remains currently at risk of loss or damage, no further archaeological excavations will be made.
Unless earth movement reveals any more buried secrets, this could be the final paragraph in the Massacre Cave story. We’re privileged to have been a part of it.