• Theories about the Cave of Swords

    by  • 3 October 2008 • Archaeology, Military & Police, Old Soldiers, Tales & Traditions, Vikings • 1 Comment

    A mysterious cave full of swords was once discovered on Mealisval, but the could not be found again.  Dave Roberts gave the story of the discovery of the cave in an article for Uig News and here gives a range of possible explanations.

    In the Iron Age (2000 years ago) people often deposited weapons made of bronze or iron into water. They also built and used underground passage ways – thought by some to have been routes to the ‘underworld’. In Orkney there are a number of manmade shafts with steps that lead downwards into the ground. Some of these have water in, and could have been wells, but others have no permanent water in the bottom. Could the Mealaisbhal cave with its staircase, be an Iron Age route to the underworld, and were the swords an offering to the gods?

    Other people have suggested that the swords are more recent than that. Perhaps they have a connection to a famous and desperate fugitive from justice, who lived in the Uig hills in the mid-nineteenth century. In the stories, Mac an t-Sronaich was supposed to be a very violent man who threatened, accosted and even murdered people. The official records however suggest that this was a gross distortion of the truth. Did he have an arsenal of weapons hidden in a cave? He is reputedly associated with just about every cave in Uig, and many much further afield. Many of the tales about him describe his aggression, but none make any reference to swords.

    A much more convincing theory is that the cave was a hiding place in the period immediately after 16th April 1746. In the aftermath of Culloden, and the defeat of the Jacobite army under the command of Charles Edward Stuart – everything ‘Highland’ became forbidden. This included the wearing of the kilt and the bearing of arms. Many of the people hid their now illegal weapons wherever they could. Some secreted claymores in the thatch of their houses. Maybe the Uig upper-enders hid theirs in a cave on Mealaisbhal. Their weapons would have been totally undetectable, but quickly and easily accessible if the need arose.

    Another possibility is that the swords date back to 1645, at the time of the Covenanters. This was a complex period in Scottish history. George Mackenzie, the second Earl of Seaforth, was a signatory to the Covenant, and was therefore opposed to the Kings ideas on religion and politics. Charles I was King of both Scotland and England (he was later executed by Oliver Cromwell’s English Parliament). The Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters formed an alliance with the Parliamentary cause in England. The Marquis of Montrose who had initially signed the Convenant, later sided with the King. The men of Uig were conscripted by Seaforth, and were sent to fight Montrose at Auldearn, near Nairn.

    The battle, at an early stage, was going well for the Covenanter army, but it soon became a disaster for Uig.  On 9th May 1645 the Seaforth Regiment, along with the Campbell of Lawers Troop had advanced into the outskirts of the village of Auldearn. However a counter attack overwhelmed the rebel army. During a stumbling retreat Montrose’s cavalry cutting the fleeing soldiers to pieces. No mercy was shown, and no prisoners taken; the wounded were slaughtered where they lay.  John Macaulay of Kneep was the sole Uigeach to survive, and of the 300 Lewismen who set off, only three came back alive. So could the swords be from this time? It is very unlikely; after all, the men who took their weapons with them did not survive to bring them back.

    Could it be that the swords were from an earlier period? What about the lawless times when there was incessant clan warfare between the Macaulays, Morrisons and Macleods? There would certainly have been plenty of swords about, but perhaps a hoard in the hills would not have been sensible. There are many tales of unexpected raids, so readily accessible weapons were essential.

    Maybe the swords go back to the Norse period. Uig was over-run by Vikings, who later settled and stayed for 400 years. It is thought that the people of Uig would have resisted the Norse attacks, and most of the men were probably killed. Were there bands of resistance fighters hiding in the hills, pursuing guerrilla warfare against the Norse colonisers?

    Until someone accidentally stumbles and falls into that cave again, the tantalising mystery of the swords will persist, and the speculation will go on forever.

    © Dave Roberts

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    One Response to Theories about the Cave of Swords

    1. 22 January 2009 at 3:07 pm

      Pretty interesting and deep stuff. Thanks for the post.

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