‘The Massacre of Eigg in 1577’

Published on: Author: CSCS 1 Comment

On 28 January 2014, the Centre was pleased to welcome Ross Crawford to discuss ‘The Massacre of Eigg in 1577’. Below are the lecture slides and a brief summary.

This presentation analysed the alleged massacre of Eigg in 1577, in which the MacLeods of Harris raided the island and asphyxiated the Clanranald population in a cave. It is held that 395 men, women and children were killed.

Divided into two sections, the presentation first analysed the contemporary political situation surrounding the purported event in 1577, before tracing its later legacy in both Gaelic tradition and the accounts of travelers to the island in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The over-arching methodology was objective assessment, without seeking to condemn or exonerate.

Much of the contemporary evidence fails to conclusively prove (or disprove) if a massacre took place in 1577, or indeed, the sixteenth century as a whole. Only one government report, written c. 1595, specifically mentions the atrocity, while many other notable sources are silent.

In the 1570s, a feud did break out between the MacLeods of Harris and the Clanranald over the lands of Glenelg in Lochalsh. This complex quarrel, also involving the Clan Fraser and the Campbells, clearly featured significant acts of violence between the MacLeods and the Clanranald, but contemporary documents do not directly mention a massacre of civilians on Eigg–in fact, they do not mention Eigg at all. Despite this ambiguity, this genuine feud in the 1570s has potential for future study in the themes of warfare, succession and politics in the sixteenth century.

An earlier date for the massacre as offered by tradition is similarly tenuous. Alastair Crotach, the famous MacLeod chief who died in 1547, is attributed as the perpetrator in tradition, but there is only a shred of evidence for his involvement found in the ‘History of the MacDonalds’, composed by Hugh MacDonald of Sleat in the mid-seventeenth century. Overall, the scarcity of available evidence makes conclusive statements about the veracity of the massacre difficult, yet as stated by Prof Thomas Clancy: ‘the absence of evidence isn’t the evidence of absence’.

Local tradition carried a story of the massacre through to the mid-eighteenth century, which travelers further embellished. The Gaelic version of the story was first recorded in James Boswell’s account of his tour of the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, which encapsulates why the local tradition was analysed in tandem with the external voice of the travelers. Some of the travelers, like Hugh Miller and James Wilson, looted the cave for ‘relics’ and ‘curiosities’; grisly trophies which made the event feel all the more real. In Wilson’s account,  some of the local inhabitants actively amplified the ‘scare-factor’ of the cave, to the fright (and delight) of Wilson and his crew. The burgeoning tourist trade in the Western Isles may have been the motive for the islanders’ complicity in this process, which generally cast the Gael in a poor light.

The local tradition survived, with the key motifs largely intact, through to the twentieth century. However, by this point, a degree of scepticism had crept into the re-tellings. In 1965, a local Eigg man, Duncan Ferguson, retold the traditional story with the caveat that he and the ‘old folk’ did not believe it ever happened.

Ultimately, the ‘mystery’ of the massacre of Eigg endures–the ‘truth’ elusive–and that may be essential to its long-running appeal. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from close assessment of a case study such as this: light can be shed on both the contemporary context and the evolution of Gaelic tradition.

On 4 February 2014, our seminar series continues with Professor Alan Riach’s ‘How British is Scotland? Anglification and the Arts of Resistance’. This will be held in the Western Infirmary Lecture Theatre at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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