The Darker Side of the Isle of Skye

Grave of a crusader on st Columbas isle

Skye is famous for its breath-taking scenery, green tinged pools and spectacular mountain range.  Every year thousands of tourists flock to marvel in its magic and beauty. However, there is a darker side to Skye that many remain unaware of.  A bloodthirsty history that once turned the rivers and land blood red.

The Cauldron of the Heads

One of the most notorious sites in Skye is “Corie nan Ceann” – the Cauldron of the Heads.  This pool of water once bled red with the blood of the Macleod Clansman after their defeat in the Battle of Trouternes.  The Macleods fought the Macdonalds in 1539 over the disputed Trotternish territory on the banks of Snizort River at Skeabost.

Legend has it that the ruthless Macdonalds threw their enemies decapitated heads in the river upstream at St Columbas Island.  The bobbing heads became trapped in the large pool at the bottom of the waterfall, turning the entire pool of water a deep blood red. The site is now marked with a plaque and exudes an atmosphere that’s difficult to explain.

The Wars of the One Eyed Woman

The MacDonald and the Macleod Clans had been fueding for centuries .  Before the Battle of Trouternes Rory MacLeod had attempted to make peace by offering his sister in marriage to Donald MacDonald.  The “contract” as it were, was bound by an agreement called a handfast.  In a handfast arrangement the couple lived together as man and wife for one year and a day.  If the wife bore a son during this time, then the marriage would be legitimised.  If not, then both parties returned to their own families.

Skeabost bridge
Near the boundary of the disputed territory

Margaret MacLeod did not bear a son and had also lost the sight in one of her eyes.  Donald MacDonald had nothing but disdain for Margaret. Legend has it that he sent her back to her brother, tied backwards, on a one-eyed horse.  The horse was led by a one-eyed servant and followed by a one-eyed dog.  He sent them all back to Dunvegan Castle where Rory MacLeod awaited.

Rory Macleod was furious with the disrespect shown to his sister, his family and his clan.  He immediately declared war once more on the MacDonald Clan. This period of conflict that became known as “The War of the One Eyed Woman” The warring finally came to an end in 1601 with the final battle between the clans at Coire na Creiche.  The Macleods were ultimately defeated and 30 of their best men were taken captive.

The Battle of Coire na Creiche

The Battle of Coire na Creiche the largest and last clan battle in Skye. The brutality of this war was so extreme that the Scottish Crown was forced to step in and end the ongoing conflict.  Legend says that the river Allt Coir a ‘Mhadaidh ran red with the blood of both clans.  The location of the brutal battle of Coire na Creiche is one you may be familiar with.  It took place beside one of the most famous places on the Isle of Skye.  The beautiful and mysterious fairy pools. It certainly made me think twice last time I went for a dip under the back drop of the Cuillins.

St Columba’s Isle

A little way further upstream from the Cauldron of the Heads you will find Saint Columba’s Isle. The site is a sacred burial ground and the seat of the Bishop of the Isles from the 10th to the 16th century. A Cathedral was founded near a rock where the missionary St Columba had once preached. The island is now home to several church ruins from across the centuries.

Saint Columba’s Isle is a peaceful and idyllic spot in the Skeabost area of Skye. However, there are clues to its more tumultuous past.  It is said that no fewer than 28 chiefs of the MacNicol Clan lie buried in the holy ground, indicating their important link to the church. The graveyard is also home to three 16th century knights effigies. One is particularly well preserved and clearly represents the medieval knight complete with his armour and sword.

Wild Bishop Wimund

St Columba’s Isle is also home to another fascinating but brutal story. Bishop Wimumd or “Wild Wimund” as he was also known was the Bishop of the Isles during the 12th century. Things were different back then and as well as a Bishop he was also a warlord and sailor.  Wimund was not content on the Isle of Skye and the ambitious cleric got into a quarrel over land with the Bishop of Whithorn.  Wild Wimund was captured by Whithorn’s men where we was beaten, castrated and blinded.  He survived the ordeal but spent the rest of his life in a monastery near York. Another example of Skye’s savage past.

St Columba’s church ruins
One of the church ruins on Saint Columbas Isle

As you bathe in the green fairy pools, or cross the old Skeabost Bridge towards Saint Columbas Isle it’s hard to imagine a time when tranquillity didn’t reign supreme. However, beneath Skye’s unquestionable beauty lurks the memories of a dark and bloody past.  Whether it be the Cauldron of the Heads or the beautiful site of the most bloody clan battle ever seen on the island. There are stark reminders of what once was.

The contradiction between past and present simply makes the Isle of Skye all the more fascinating. I would thoroughly recommend you visit some of the sites so central to the history of Skye and immerse yourself in the legends that still live on.

If you are interested in reading about some of Skye’s more scenic sites check out our blog on our recent Skye trip here.

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