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The story of the Massacre Cave bones.

The discovery

In 2017 human remains were discovered inside a cave at Uahm Fhraing on the Isle of Eigg, known locally as Massacre Cave.

Subsequent recovery and osteological analysis of the remains identified two individuals; a 9-10 year old child and an adult of unknown age or sex. The remains were in a moderate state of preservation, with the child 30% complete and the adult represented only by the left and right patellae. None of the skeletal elements displayed any pathological changes. Radiocarbon dating of an adult cervical vertebra (unavailable for this analysis) has placed the remains between AD 1430 and 1620.

AOC Archaeology Group was commissioned by Historic Scotland to undertake an archaeological survey of Uahm Fhraing, known locally as Massacre Cave, following the discovery of human remains within the cave. The remains were originally discovered by a journalist visiting the island who upon discovery reported the matter to the police who promptly removed all of the remains from the island. Following the police investigation, which determined that the remains were historic in origin, AOC were asked to survey the site and retrieve any further remains. During a thorough walkover survey of the cave (20th-22nd February 2017) two separate clusters of animal bone were found in additional to three fragments of human bone, recovered from an area of disturbed ground subject to the police investigation.

What history tells us

The site of Uahm Fhraing is infamous as the site of a supposed massacre in AD 1577, perpetrated by the MacLeod clan against the MacDonalds as revenge for a previous altercation. The MacLeods reportedly landed on Eigg and followed the fleeing MacDonalds to the cave where they lit a fire in the narrow entrance way suffocating all 395 people hiding inside. Historically there is no physical evidence to support the occurrence of this event though it has been written about at length. There are accounts of remains being discovered in 1773, 1841 and 1845. A lengthy description of the cave, massacre and feud was completed by Hugh Miller who visited the island in 1846, nearly three hundred years later, and reports finding “the bones of adults and children in family groups with the charred remains of their straw mattresses and small household objects.”

The initial assessment

The remains retrieved during the police investigation were described in the report as being ‘completely jumbled’ and mixed with a layer of straw. An initial assessment of the remains has suggested that they belong to a single juvenile under 16 years of age (AOC 2016). Radiocarbon dating on what appears to be an adult cervical vertebra (C2) (Cook 2016) has placed the remains between AD 1430 and 1620, a relatively broad range that does include the date of the supposed massacre.

The osteological analysis

The human remains presented for analysis consisted of non-adult bones from the skull, torso, right arm, the left and right hands and the right pelvis. There were also two adult bones, the left and right patellae. Bone preservation was classed as Grade 2, reflecting moderate condition with some post-mortem erosion of the prominences and articular surfaces. Due to the size and consistency of bone morphology and the lack of duplicate elements, a minimum of two individuals were identified; an adult of unknown age and sex and a non-adult that was 30% complete.

Conclusion

The discovery of human remains inside Massacre Cave, Eigg has provided an opportunity to examine the validity of claims that a massacre took place at the site in AD 1577. The skeletal evidence is limited by the incomplete nature of the remains but demonstrates that two individuals; a 9-10 year old child and an adult of unknown age and sex, were deposited at the site between AD 1430 and 1620.

The discovery of human remains within a cave is highly unusual for the medieval period and it is recommended that a sample of bone from the non- adult be submitted for radiocarbon dating to determine whether the results concur with dates already provided by the adult vertebra.

None of the surviving skeletal elements displayed any pathological changes or any non-metric traits which may be used to infer relatedness. These results provide the first physical evidence that human remains were present within the cave, however it was not possible to determine whether they were placed there as part of a formal funerary rite or by some other means.

 

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