buckets full of thumbs

This is Kilfinichen or Kilfinichan. Once a medieval church stood here. Now it is a private estate. It was merged with the parish of Kilvickeon, whose church was destroyed during the Reformation.

The people that ruled and dominated this area on the island of Mull in the past, were the MacLeans, a very powerful clan indeed. But their power did not stretch as far as the island of Colonsay south of Mull, where the MacDuffies lived. This small clan was maybe geographically close to the MacLeans but not in their mindset. They sided with the mighty MacDonalds of Islay, who were enemies of the MacLeans.

Those two had a few violent encounters but none a bad as the one in the 16th century: the Battle of Port Bheathain in what became known as the Bay of the Thumbs. The fight that will never be forgotten on Mull started with the murder of a friend of the MacLean of Duart (the clan chief) in Glen More.

The murderer knew there would be retaliation and fled to Colonsay following the old wisdom: my enemies’ enemies are my friends. But how wrong was he, because the MacDuffies of Colonsay cut his head right off when the MacLean asked for justice. Then they sent the murderer’s head back to Mull. The way all this had been handled was not well received and the animosities between the MacDuffies and the MacLeans were still smouldering under the surface of apparent peace.

When the MacDuffies went on a cattle raid to Mull, they were facing a fighting force of MacLeans that was outnumbering them by far. They tried to escape, but the tide had gone out and boats in the bay were on the beach, far from the water line. In a desperate attempt to get the boats back into the water and make an escape, many lost an arm or a thumb. Legend has it, they had to take the cut off thumbs out of the boats in buckets once they were back on Colonsay.

The battle was fought somewhere in the Parish. The victims of the battle were not buried in the graveyard, they were buried where they fell. What happened to the thumbs of the MacDuffies on Colonsay might be everybody’s guess.

source and further reading:

Ian McPhee: The Naked Clansmen on Mull & Iona 1700 – 1860. Leicester, Matador; 2020

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