Isle of Eigg, Day 3: Island of the Big Women, Part 1

As I sit down to write this, it’s another brutally hot summer’s day in New York City. I’ve kept the blinds closed, lit a few candles, and turned the air conditioner on – all for it to feel a bit more like it did that night, last summer, on Eilean nam Ban Mora, the Gaelic name for the Isle of Eigg, which translates to, “The Island of the Big Women”.

The Only Taxi Driver on the Isle of Eigg, Charlie Galli, parked his van and followed me inside the Community Hall. Once inside, we found a group of women arranging a few folding chairs in a circle near the center of the room. There were about eight or ten women in total, including the four young women that had invited me out, and, to my surprise, Norah, the Seasonal Ranger for the Scottish Wildlife Trust that led us on the Guided Nature Walk earlier that day. 

“Charlie!” Norah’s face lit up, “Are you staying for the singing?”

I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d signed myself up for when I agreed to meet my newfound friends for “the singing” earlier that day. After arriving on Eigg, I learned that I happened to be visiting the island over the week of Fèis Eige, an annual festival of traditional music and culture, which started the day I arrived (Monday, July 8th, 2019) and culminated in a cèilidh on the eve of my departure (Friday, July 12th, 2019). I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay for the cèilidh, but I’d hoped to be able to make it to at least one or two of the other events hosted by Fèis Eige. I thought, perhaps, “the singing” might be one such event. I thought, perhaps, “the singing” might be a concert – showcasing traditional song – but, soon I would realise, I had actually agreed to join a weekly singing group, and they expected me to sing along!

“Oh, no, no, no,” Charlie declined, turning redder and redder in the face as Norah persisted.

Norah, as it turned out, was not only the founder of the Earth Connections Eco Centre (covered in Isle of Eigg, Day 1: Galmisdale Bay to Cleadale, Part 2), and not only the Seasonal Ranger for the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Guided Nature Walk (covered in Isle of Eigg, Day 3: A Guided Nature Walk…), but she was also the leader of the singing group I’d unknowingly agreed to join that evening. This made me laugh. It reminded me of the scene from Local Hero, in which “Mac” MacIntyre (played by Peter Riegart) asks the hotel owner, Gordon Urquhart (played by Denis Lawson), where he can find the village’s accountant. Urquhart tells Mac where he can find the accountant, only for Mac to later find out that Urquhart is not only the hotel owner, but also the accountant. 

“You have such a lovely voice,” Norah pleaded with Charlie as he backed out of the doorway.

“I’ll meet you doon the road in an hour, Mary,” Charlie called to me, before turning to leave, and then he was gone – leaving only women.

The Island of the Big Women

There are few different tellings as to why the Isle of Eigg became known as “Eilean nam Ban Mora” or “The Island of the Big Women”. I’m going to tell you my favourite version of events, below:

In the early 7th century, a Gaelic Priest by the name of Saint Donnán travelled from Ireland to the Isle of Eigg. Saint Donnán, also known as the patron Saint of Eigg or Donnán of Eigg, planned to convert the islanders from Paganism to Christianity. It is said that he established a monastery on the island, and developed a devout following, resulting in a group of fifty monks or more.

At the time, the Small Isles (an archipelago of islands in the Inner Hebrides, including the Isle of Eigg) were part of a kingdom belonging to a Pictish Queen – the Queen of Moidart. The Queen of Moidart, resentful of Saint Donnán’s arrival on Eigg, and his plans to spread Christianity, sent a troupe of Pictish warrior women* to defend the Isle of Eigg. (*I have also seen these women described as bandits, but throughout the different tellings, one thing remains the same — these women were abnormally large.)

As the story goes, one day, in 617 AD, the Pictish warrior women charged into Saint Donnán’s church during mass. Donnán pleaded with the women to wait until the mass was finished before they killed him. The women obliged, but as soon as the mass ended, the women slaughtered and beheaded Saint Donnán and his followers, one by one.

After burying the bodies, the women became entranced by a sudden apparition of flickering lights, hovering above where they’d buried the bodies. The women followed the lights until they reached Eigg’s distinctive peak, An Sgùrr. There, the women followed the lights into the loch below the Sgùrr, wading deeper and deeper, until — supposedly — they drowned. Today the loch is known as Loch nam Ban Mora — the Loch of the Big Women.

Pictured above is St. Donnan’s Roman Catholic Church, nestled amongst the trees, as a heavy mist hovers over the hills in the distance. Cleadale, Isle of Eigg.

Thank you, as always, for following along! I hadn’t intended for this post (and the next) to be a two-parter, but — to be honest — I’m surprised I even got this far! It was hard to get myself to sit down and write this week. My next post will be up Monday, August 10th or Monday, August 17th. Stay tuned!

All names and conversations are remembered to the best of my abilities.

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