Isle of Eigg, Day 3: Island of the Big Women, Part 2

… Where was I? Oh, that’s right! I was telling you about the Gaelic name for the Isle of Eigg – “Eilean nam Ban Mora” – which translates to, “The Island of the Big Women.” If you want to learn more about the Gaelic name for Eigg, and where it comes from, check out my previous post – Isle of Eigg, Day 3: Island of the Big Women, Part 1.

The picture on the left (or above, if you’re viewing on your phone) is of St. Donnan’s Roman Catholic Church on the Isle of Eigg. St. Donnàn’s legacy lives on as the patron saint of Eigg, but what about the Pictish warrior women? What about their legacy? In all versions of the tales I’ve read, Donnàn and his monks are slaughtered, one by one, on April 17th, 617 AD, but the telling as to how and why they’re murdered has changed over time. In my last post, I shared my favourite version of events, in which a Pictish Queen sends a troupe of warrior women to defend the Isle of Eigg against Donnàn, however, in some accounts, these women are not warriors, but bandits. The one thing that remains the same about these women, throughout various versions of the story, is that they are described as being abnormally large, hence the name “Eilean nam Ban Mora”, or “The Island of the Big Women.”

In one telling, there are no Pictish Queens or warrior women whatsoever, but one rich woman who presided over Eigg at the time of St. Donnàn’s arrival. For whatever reason, she didn’t take a liking to St. Donnàn, and she paid a group of men (bandits, perhaps) to take care of him. I have to admit, while it might not be my personal favourite version of events, it does seem to be the most likely – or at least, the least fantastical – telling of the tale. 

When I sat down to sing with the weekly choral group in the Eigg Community Hall on that Wednesday evening last July, I was only vaguely aware of the tale of the big women of the Isle of Eigg. Yet, after 45 minutes of singing with a group of women living on or visiting the island, I suddenly felt connected to Eigg in a way I hadn’t before. In that moment, I felt less like a spectator of the island, and more like a participant in its way of life. With this newfound sense of belonging, I hummed one of the songs I’d just learned, wet socks sloshing in my hiking boots, as I made my way down the narrow dirt road to meet Charlie for my ride back home. 

I had agreed to meet Charlie outside the Galmisdale Bay Café & Bar, so that he didn’t have to navigate his van back up and down the narrow dirt road in the fog. However, as I approached the bar, I noticed it was clearer now than it had been on the drive in, and I saw that – in the distance – the mainland was beginning to re-emerge from its slumber underneath a fluffy blanket of clouds. What a shame, I thought, that I wasn’t going to stay for a pint and enjoy the view, now that the rain had finally relented. 

Just then, I heard a woman’s voice.

“Hiya, Mary!”

I spun around to find my AirBnB host, Ailidh. As if she’d read my mind, Ailidh convinced me to stay for a drink, and promised to drive me home later that evening. 

I didn’t feel too bad to tell Charlie my change in plans, as I noticed that the Galmisdale Bay Café & Bar was a popular pickup/drop-off destination, and he already had plenty of other passengers piling into his van. 

After assuring her that, despite the weather, I was very much enjoying my time spent in her caravan on Eigg, Ailidh introduced me to a few of her friends – some old and some new. As I’ve mentioned before, I happened to be visiting the island over Fèis Eige, an annual festival of traditional music and culture. Fèis Eige attracts many of the same visitors, year after year, and many of these visitors form lifelong friendships with the islanders.

“That’s so-and-so,” Ailidh would point someone out to me, “She’s from Ireland.” “That’s so-and-so and such-and-such, they’re married.” “That’s so-and-so, you must hear him play tomorrow night!” Then, it was my turn, “This is Mary! She’s from New York!”

Ailidh was gregarious (at times, boisterous) and it seemed to spread from within her to the women around her like wildfire, until we dominated the picnic tables with joyful, raucous fits of laughter, leaving the men to retreat to a bench along the wall. I sat with one woman for a long while, and learned that she came to Eigg every summer with her husband and their children for the festival. We talked about Glasgow, and I wondered if I’d ever just passed her by on a train, would I have noticed the kindness in her eyes or the warmth in her smile? Ailidh would redirect the conversation to love, or lucid dreaming, and I would find myself sharing some of my most personal memories with these women – women I’d only just met an hour or so ago.

As the hours wore on, one woman would take my hand and use my thumbprint to unlock my iPhone, so that she could line up A Whisky Kiss by Shooglenifty on the Spotify queue, and I would willingly oblige as if I’d known her all my life. Every now and then, a man with a name I love, but won’t repeat, would bashfully approach our table to top up our whisky (which I think now, looking back, was actually his whisky) and offer us drags, rather than drams, of something just as smooth. 

“Big women on Eigg!” Ailidh declared as her fists gently pounded the table. “Big women on Eigg!” Another repeated, and I tossed my head back in laughter, as the men watched, unfazed, from the bench along the wall.

If you asked Ailidh about the legend of the big women of the Isle of Eigg, I’m not sure what version of events she would tell you, but there is one thing I know for certain, and that is that women live at the heart of Eigg, deep inside its center. Perhaps, if you’re a more spiritually minded person, you might say that’s where the big women went – to the heart of Eigg – when they followed the floating lights down into the depths of Loch nam Ban Mora (the Loch of the Big Women). Or, perhaps, if you’re a more rationally minded person, you might believe it’s far more likely that one rich woman presided over Eigg and paid to have St. Donnàn murdered. I’m here to ask: What if both stories can be true? What if one rich woman was so powerful that, over time, as the story passed from one generation to the next, she became a Pictish Queen and a troupe of abnormally large and extraordinarily dangerous Pictish women, all in one?

Walt Whitman once wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large. I contain multitudes.)” These are the women that the Isle of Eigg attracts – women that contain multitudes.

The Isle of Rum, as seen from the Bay of Laig, Cleadale, Isle of Eigg.

Thank you, as always, for following along! Check back on Monday, August 31st, for my final day on the Isle of Eigg! 

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


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