The Story Behind Scotland's Massacre Cave

Entrance to The Massacre Cave
Entrance to The Massacre Cave
Today, the Isle of Eigg, one of the Scottish Small Isles, is the most eco-friendly island in the UK. As tranquil as it may be, its harrowing history is forever entangled with one rocky cavern that still rests on the island. Scotland’s Massacre Cave.

Noted for its abnormally narrow entrance, the Cave of Francis or ‘Uamh Fhraing’ in Scots Gaelic as it was known back then, was at the forefront of one of Scotland’s bloodiest mass murders. Around 400 islanders from Clan MacDonald (almost all of the island’s population) were burned and suffocated alive by members of Clan MacLeod from Skye, a grim result of an ongoing clan rivalry.

Thought to occur around 1577, this venomous act was a revenge plan. The story goes that the MacLeods ended up on a small island off Eigg after a storm. While on dry land, these outsiders from Skye took what was not theirs, including the cattle. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when they reportedly molested the MacDonald women.

Isle Of Eigg

Outraged and vengeful, the MacDonalds are said to have shipped the MacLeods off the island, casting them out to sea. Once more, they seemingly broke each and every limb of the MacDonald Chief’s first-born son before discarding him in a boat, devoid of oars and bound to perish at a glacial pace.

Word has it that the son’s dead body somehow floated in the boat back to Dunvegan. Upon discovering the news, the chief of Clan MacLeod wouldn’t settle until justice was met. He ordered his warriors to return to Eigg.

Map Of Eigg, 1892

The Eigg islanders caught word of the impending arrival, so sought refuge in the Cave of Francis, where they hid for three days before being discovered. Camouflaged with its surrounds, the cave’s slither of an entrance helped conceal their whereabouts. It also led to their demise.

Left outsmarted, the MacLeod men couldn’t see a soul in sight apart from one female elder, who refused to divulge any clues as to the whereabouts of the other islanders. Confused, they proceeded to destroy the homes on Eigg before setting sail empty handed.

And then something heartbreaking happened. Merely checking to see if the coast was clear, a MacDonald lookout gave the game away and was spotted by the sea-bound MacLeods of Skye.

Entrance to The Massacre Cave

They returned to Eigg and covered up the cramped cave entrance with heather and other materials, before setting it alight. Within moments, approximately 400 members of Clan MacDonald suffocated from the harsh waves of thick encompassing smoke. Due to the small opening, no one could escape. From that moment on, it became the Massacre Cave. A glimmer of hope, one family are said to have survived the horrors from hiding in a different cave.

Bony remains kept surfacing in the Massacre Cave centuries after the genocide. Historian Camille Dressler told the BBC that Victorian tourists would take pieces as souvenirs, before islanders insisted that the bones were buried. In 1814, Sir Walter Scott found remains, which he described as ‘numerous specimens of mortality’. Due to a natural soil disruption, more bones emerged just last year. Archaeological investigations confirmed that they are indeed from the time of the Eigg massacre.