The best and pleasantest way of reaching Islay is by the mail steamer which sails daily from West Loch Tarbert, and calls on certain days at Port Ellen in the south, while on other days it goes to Port Askaig at the north end of the island.
The passage to Islay is somewhat exposed, and in stormy weather the Port Askaig route is preferable, as the latter part of it lies in the land-locked channel which separates Islay from Jura. The sail through the Sound of Islay is very beautiful. As the steamer nears it, the lighthouse on McArthur's Head shows up boldly on the wild and precipitous Islay coast. To the right rise the magnificent hills of Jura. On entering the Sound of Islay two or three small islands are passed, on one of which (called Eilean am Fraoich or Heather Island) there are the remains of a fort, said at one time to have been used as a state prison; the channel then becomes narrower and narrower, until at Port Askaig it is barely half a mile in width. Here the modern mansion house of Dunlossit is seen on a commanding eminence, but the village of Port Askaig, which lies just below it, is hardly seen until the steamer is preparing to turn in to the pier. Port Askaig consists of a very few cottages, a telegraph office and a comfortable inn.
Kilarrow is the largest of the Islay parishes. It is separated from Kildalton by a boundary which runs from near Proaig on the east coast to Laggan on Loch Indaal; and a line stretching between Loch Indaal and Loch Gruinart divides if from Kilchoman on the west.
The parish takes its name from the church or cill of Maelrubha which stood at Bridgend, most likely near the existing churchyard, but of this there are no remains. Maclrubha was an Irish saint. He was born in 642. At the age of twenty-nine he came to Scotland and in 673 founded the Monastery of Applecross, which he ruled as Abbot, until his death fifty-one years later. Traces of him are found in no less than twenty other places in Scotland; the greater number of these are on the west, while the rest are either on or near the Moray Firth. Among the better known places called after him are Loch Maree in Ross and Amulree in Perthshire.
'His name, made up of consonants apt to be liquefied, occurs in many transmutations, such as Mulruby, Mulrew, Melriga, Marow, Morow, Mury, Murruy, Mareve, Arrow, Errew, Olrou, Ro, Rufus, Ruvius, and (taking in his title) Summaruff, Samarevis, and Summereve.'
The principal Islay road starts from Port Askaig and crosses to Bridgend on Loch Indaal, from whence it goes south to Port Ellen. About a mile and a half from Port Askaig and to the right of this road are the ruins of a chapel dedicated to St. Columba - Cill Challium Chille -, it is also called Kiells. Very little of the building is left nor is there any remnant of dressed stone on window or door. In the crowded and ill-kept churchyard there is only one carved stone to be seen.
No. 1, Plate I. - This is a very fine stone of unusual length, and is of interest as being one of the few specimens to which a period can be assigned. It is surrounded by a triple moulding. In the middle is a roughly-executed sword with foliated scrolls of fairly common design, executed however with great freedom and spirit. Each scroll ends in two grotesque animals. Above is a galley, which, though worn, shows indications of rudder, prow, mast, sail and cordage. The upper part of the mast has been obliterated to make room for the later inscription, D.M.E. 1707.
If the reader will refer to Graham's Antiquities of Iona and compare plate X. of that book the tomb of Angus Oig at St. Orans with this tone, he will find a very close resemblance between them, so close as to make it seem almost certain that the stones were carved about the same time, and, as Angus Oig died shortly after the Battle of Bannockburn, this would be early in the 14th century. The inscription on the Iona stone is this given by Graham: HIC JACET CORPUS ANGUSII FILII DOMINI ANGUSII MACDOMNILL DE ILA, but Drummond differs from him and assigns the stone to John the son of Angus who died in 1380. The inscription is now illegible.
Near the church may be seen the headless shaft of a cross (No. 2), of which an illustration is given in Dr. Stuart's Sculptured Stones of Scotland. The pattern is one of the most common, two stems forming a row of loops in each of which two leaves are intertwined, while similar leaves fill up the outside spaces. The only peculiarity is the introduction into the pattern of a number of little Greek crosses. Pennant, who visited Islay in 1772, describes this as a cross, not as the shaft of a cross; the top must therefore have disappeared comparatively lately.
To the north-east of the chapel are two places called Mulreesh and Cill Cilleagain. Captain Thomas considers that both these places were connected with St. Finlaggan, to whom the chapel on the island of Loch Finlaggan was dedicated.
There are the ruins of a chapel at Kilslevan, rather more than a mile to the south of Port Askaig, and near the private road from that place to Loch Ballygrant, but there are no sculptured stones to be seen near it.
At a short distance beyond St. Columba's chapel a road turns to the right and leads to the north end of Loch Finlaggan. Here, on a little island, barely separated from the land, are the ruins of one of the strongholds of the MacDonalds. Very little remains of the fortress, nor is it easy to trace the original plan through the accumulation of fallen masonry.
There are the remains of a jetty leading from the shore to the building, and there are traces of the keep and of an outer wall broken at intervals by round towers. To the north of the ruins there is a little grassy plain, said to have been the site of the garden. The chapel stands on the highest part of the island, and has suffered less than the rest of the building, while within and around it there are some very interesting stones.
The chapel measures 28 feet by 15 feet, and the walls are over 3 feet thick. The door was in the south wall, and there are indications of a double window at the east end. Until last year it was full of masonry which had fallen from the walls, but Mr. Morrison of Islay very kindly had the enclosure cleared.
The most interesting monument which has been brought to light is (No. 3, Plate II.) that of Donald, the son of Patrick, the son of Celestine. It represents a warrior in full armour, of the type generally to be met with in the Highland graveyards, but possibly from the stone having been underground, there is much more detail than is commonly found. The chain work of the camailed bassinet is worked out with extreme delicacy, there are traces of coudieres or elbow pieces, and the ornamentation of the scabbard and the buckles of the spurs are quite discernible. The figure, which is in very high relief, is in the unusual position, the left hand clasping the sword while the right hand holds a strap, of which the buckle is plainly visible. Below the figure there is a galley. There is an inscription to the right of the head , which runs - HIC JAT DON ALDUS FILIUS PATRICI : CELE STINI. Celestine of Lochalsh was brother to John, fourth Lord of the Isles, to whom Alexander, son of Celestine, succeeded. Another son was Master Neill, rector of Kilchoman in 1427. I have failed to find anything about the above Donald. The slab lies under the north wall of the chapel.
No. 4, Plate II. - Slab with three swords, and a design at the top nearly gone. The middle sword is placed rather higher than those at the sides, so that the guards should not overlap. The space below its point is filled by a rectangular object, perhaps meant for a book. The two vacant spaces above the outer swords are occupied by very small crosses with circles round the intersection of the arms. Little of the design is left anywhere, but enough to show that it is a very unusual one, probably unique.
No. 5, Plate III. - Only part of this slab is shown, the lower end being absolutely plain. The object at the top seems to be an anvil.
No. 6, Plate III. - A broken slab with the incised outline of a galley and sword.
No. 7, Plate III. - A small tombstone broken across, and very much worn. It has on it a sword or dagger and a simple form of scroll.
No. 8, Plate III. - A beautiful little stone in excellent preservation. I do not know if there is any evidence to prove that small slabs were placed above the graves of children; but probably it was the case, since tradition assigns Island Finlaggan as the burial place of the wives and children of the Lords of the Isles.
Besides these stones there are some others at Finlaggan which I have not illustrated. There are two fragments of a child's gravestone (no. 9); a large slab (No. 10) similar in design to No. 8, Plate III., and No. 28, Plate IX., but with indications of a galley at the top. Another slab (No. 11) is plain save for a triple moulding round the edge; and to the east of the chapel, near the shore, there is part of a slab (No. 12) with a handsome rope pattern along the sides.
The chapels on Island Finlaggan and that of St. Columba were anciently in the patronage of the Lords of the Isles. Before 1380 John Lord of the Isles is said to have roofed the chapel of Finlaggan and others, and to have given them 'the proper furniture for the service of God,' and maintenance for the officiating clergy.
In 1427 Alexander of Yle, Lord of the Isles and master of Ross, dates a charter at the island of Saint Finlaggan in Yle. In 1503 King James IV. Presented Sir Malcum Dungalsoun to 'the chaplainry of Sanct Colme and Sanctt Finlagane, situate in the ile of Ilaa,' vacant by the decease of Sir Angus Makbreochane, and belonging to the King's representation as Lord of the Isles. To the record of this presentation there is appended the following memorandum: - 'that thir twa chaplanrys war euir at the presentation of the Lordis of the Islis, and now at our Souerane Lordis presentatioun as Lord of the sammyn, quhill now that it is schewin to his Hienes that thai war fraudfully withhaldin fra him, and the sammyn schewin to his Hienes be the said ruerend faider.'
In 1527 King James V. presented Sir Malcolm Donaldsoun to the chaplainry of Illaneynlagane in the lordship of Ilay, then vacant by the decease of Sir Malcolm Macgillespy.
In 1542 the same King presented Sit Archibald M'Iliwray to the two chaplainries of Ellen Finlagane and Saint Columba, with the lands belonging to them, namely, Ballachlovan, Knokchlorycht, and Balleossyn, in Ila, which were vacant by the decease of Sir Malcolm M'Dougall. On the island the wives and children of the island lords were buried, while themselves were buried in Iona.
A manuscript history of the Macdonalds, written in the reign of King Charles II. (1649-1685), gives the following account of the ceremony of installing the Lords of the Isles, and of the constitution of their government: 'I thought fit to annex the ceremony of proclaiming the Lord of the Isles. At this the Bishop of Argyle, the bishop of the Isles, and seven priests, were sometimes present; but a bishop was always present, with the chieftains of all the principal families, and a ruler of the Isles. There was a square stone seven or eight feet long, and the tract of a man's foot cut thereon, upon which he stood, denoting that he should walk in the footsteps and uprightness of his predecessors, and that he was installed by right in his possessions. He was clothed in a white habit, to show his innocence and integrity of heart, and that he would be a light to his people and maintain the true religion. The white apparel did afterwards belong to the poet by right. Then he was to receive a white rod in his hand, intimating that he had power to rule, not with tyranny and partiality, but with discretion and sincerity. Then he received his forefathers'' sword, or some other sword, signifying that his duty was to protect and defend them from the incursions of their enemies in peace or war, as the obligations and customs of his predecessors were. The ceremony being over, mass was said after the blessing of the bishop and seven priests, the people pouring their prayer for the success and prosperity of their new created lord. When they were dismissed, the Lord of the Isles feasted them for a week thereafter, (and) gave liberally to the monks, poets, bards, and musicians' The constitution or government of the Isles was thus: Macdonald had his council at Island Finlaggan in Islay to the number of sixteen, viz., four thanes; four armins, that is to say, Lords or subthanes; four bastards, that is, squires or men of competent estates who could not come up with armins or thanes; and four free-holders or men that had their lands in factory, as Magee of the Rinds of Isla. Macnicoll in Portree in Skye, and Maceachern, Mackay, and M'Gillevray in Mull, Macillemhaoel or Macmillan, etc. There was a table of stone where this council sat in the Isle of Finlaggan the which table with the stone on which Macdonald sat were carried away by Argyle with the bells that were in Icolumkill. Moreover there was a judge in every isle for the discussion of all controversies, who had lands from Macdonald for their trouble, and likewise the eleventh part of every action decided.
To the south-west of Loch Finlaggan and near the farm of Ballimartin the Ordnance Map indicates two burial grounds. The nearer one to the farm shows the outline of a little chapel in a circular enclosure. There are no sculptured stones. The other site I searched for in vain, nor could anyone tell me about it.
Returning to the Post Askaig and Bridgend road we come next to the village of Ballygrant, from which the hill fort of Dun Bhorairaig or Dun lossit may be visited.
Pennant describes it thus: - 'On the summit is a Danish fort, of a circular form, at present about fourteen feet high, formed of excellent masonry, but without mortar; the walls are twelve feet thick; and within their thickness is a gallery extending all round. The entrance is low, covered at top with a great flat stone, and on each side is a hollow, probably intended for guard rooms; the inside of the fort is a circular area of fifty-two feet diameter, with a stone seat running all round the bottom of the wall, about eight foot high. On the outside of the fort is another work, under which the vestige of a subterranean passage conducting into it, a sort of sally port.'
Though little remains of what Pennant thus describes, this may be due to some of the features being concealed by debris. The decay of a hundred and twenty years since his time has left little more than a circle of fallen stones, among which an entrance at the east and two fragments of wall passage can be traced. There is also a piece of the outworks to be seen on the north side. The situation is a magnificent one, and commands a view of Oa and of the Rhinns, as well as of the channel between Islay and Jura.
Near the high road, and about a mile west of Ballygrant, is the chapel of Kilmeny, which stands near the modern quoad sacra shurch. Only the west gable is standing, though a few traces of building at the east end who it to have been about fifty feet long.
I have given rubbings of two sculptured stones from this churchyard.
No. 13 and No. 14, Plate XXXI. - Both these stones are very much worn, so much that it is difficult to do more than form a general idea of their design. They have this peculiarity, however, that there is no trace of a sword on either, so that it is very probable that they at one time marked the graves of ladies of the House of the Isles, the more so as tradition points to many of the Finlaggan stones having been at various times removed to neighbouring churchyards.
It was only on my last day in Islay that I Found a third stone (no. 15) lying between them. It must have been completely covered until lately, and I have no chance of reproducing it. It is a very fine piece of work. A sword occupies the upper part of the slab and below it is a very large and beautifully-executed dragon. The three stones lie close together and to the south of the church.
Above Kilmeny is a hill fort called on the Ordnance Map Dun Guaidhre, the fort of Godfrey or Godred. It is situated on the northern outskirts of the chain of hills which separates the valleys of the Sorn and of the Laggan. The south side of the Dun is almost precipitous, and about a hundred feet from top to bottom. The top is a semicircular area about one hundred feet by fifty-seven feet. On the north side of this plateau there are indications of a rectangular building twenty-six feet by eighteen feet.
Round the hill, except on the north side, run three lines of defence, appearing partly as embankments and partly as trenches. In places the trenches are cut out of the rock. There are also the remains of what may have been guard houses both to the north and south of this fort.
A very similar fort is to be seen near Bridgend which I shall mention here. It is called Dun Nosebridge, and lies on the right bank of the Laggan River, about a mile to the west of Mulindry.
The name, according to Captain Thomas, is an elaborate corruption of the Icelandic words Hnaus and Borg, meaning Turf fort, and apt description, as the whole structure is covered with a most beautiful and velvety sward. The top of the hill has been cut away so as to form a level quadrilateral platform, 90 feet long by 50 feet wide. The longer sides run east and west and the platform is protected by earthworks. The slope towards the river on the south side is so steep as to render artificial defences unnecessary, but on the other sides the fort is strongly protected. On the west there are four trenches one above the other, with high earthworks between. One of these trenches if continued round the northern and eastern sides, to which from the nature of the ground it would form a sufficient protection. At the east end, however, a projecting lump of hill, below the main trench, is again protected by a smaller ditch. This is a most interesting place and well worth seeing.
Between Kilmeny and Bridgend is Emaraconart, whence a road leads to Ballimartin farm and to the south end of Loch Finlaggan. Of this Pennant writes, 'On Imiriconart are the vestiges of some butts where the great Macdonald exercised his men at archery.' Further on, and to the left of the road, and near the farm of Daill, a fort and a chapel are marked on the Ordnance Map, Dun Bhruichlinn and Cill Bhreanan, but of these I could find no trace, unless some substructures of a small building, properly oriented, among a mass of later ruins at Cill Bhraenan may be those of the church.
At four miles from Kilmeny we come to Bridgend, a most picturesque and delightful hamlet nestled in the woods which surround Islay House. There is a first-rate inn here, and this is undoubtedly the best centre for visiting the many interesting places in the north end of the island. Kiells, Finlaggan, Kilnave, Kilchoman and Nereabolls are all within drives of a couple of hours, while the Kilarrow churchyard, which is but a stone's throw from the inn, has sculptured monuments of great beauty and variety; there are no less than fifteen specimens in this little enclosure.
Beginning at the north-west corner of Kilarrow churchyard we have No. 16, Plate IV. Only the middle of this slab is shown. The border carries the following inscription: HEER LYES THE CHILDREN OF DAVID FRASER VIZ JAMES DANIEL CHARLES MARY SIMON AND JEAN DUF HIS WYF.I think there can hardly be any doubt that some of the work on this stone is older than the date 1618 which is carved at the top. The scroll to the right of the rapier seems to be very different from the thistles and roses on the left, and the skull, crossed bones and hour glass below. The cinquefoils introduced into the scroll on the left form part of the armorial bearings of the Frasers of Lovat, with whom this David Fraser may have perhaps been connected. The cinquefoil does not however appear on the shield, which can be difficulty be traced at the top of the stone.
No. 17, Plate IV. - An alto relief figure of an ecclesiastic. It is in a deeply-cut recess, and is habited in an alb and richly-decorated chasuble, the hands are joined. At the top are faint traces of two lines of lettering, preceded by a cross. Below the lettering is a chalice. The tracery below the figure is beautifully executed, with oak leaves at the corners of the cruciform design.
No. 18, Plate V. - Alto relief effigy of a warrior.
No. 19.- A broken slab with traces of a sword and of carving.
No. 20, Plate V. - This slab is noteworthy from the way in which the scroll pattern and border have been adapted to the irregular end of the stone. It is one of the few slabs mentioned by Pennant, indeed it is curious that he paid so little attention to them. As he visited Islay in July, however, the churchyards would be standing high in nettles, and he probably only saw those that were pointed out to him. He describes this and the next stone as follows: - 'The two most remarkable gravestones are one of a warrior in a close vest and sleeves, with a sort of philabeg to his knees, and the covering of his head of a conic form, like the bared of the ancient Irish; a sword in his hand and dirk by his side. The other has on it a great sword, a beautiful running pattern of foliage round it, and a griffin, a lion, and another animal at one end; near to them is a plain tablet, whether intended to be engraven, or whether, like Peter Papin, Lord of Utrique, he was a new knight and wanted a device, must remain undetermined.' Who was Peter Pain, Lord of Utrique?
No. 21, Plate VI. - An armoured figure in alto relief. The head has been broken off, but it lay near the rest of the stone not long ago; otherwise the stone is in better order than No. 19, and shows detail of the chain armour.
No. 22, Plate VI. - Only the top of this stone has been reproduced, the rest has been defaced with a later inscription: JOHN HEVES (Hughs?) MARCHAND IN LEVER 1702. The fragment of carved work which has survived is very good.
No. 23, Plate VII. - This stone is much weather worn, but enough of the design remains to show that it must have been an unusually fine one. The scrolls on either side of the sword are Very rich, while it is difficult to imagine anything, more elaborate than the wheel pattern at the top. The annexed diagram shows better than the engraving how the various bands interlace over and under each other with unfailing regularity. The date 1696 and scraps of late lettering have helped to injure this fine specimen.
No. 24, Plate VII. - The plaited square at the top of this stone is not common. Each band seems to have formed of three separate strands, though this fails to appear in the engraving. There is some depth in the carving, but the stone has a singularly rough and pitted surface which makes the pattern difficult to reproduce.
No. 26, Plate VIII. - A female figure in a niche. The tracery both above and below is much worn. The work at the top is something of the character of that on No. 23. Below the figure and to the left may be seen traces of a pair of shears.
No. 27, Plate VIII. - A slab with faint indications of a sword and scrollwork.
No. 28, Plate IX. - The head of a very simple cross. There is no carving on the reverse. A piece of the shaft, plain except for a single moulding along the edge, lay near it in 1890. In 1892 both fragments had disappeared.
No. 29, Plate IX. - The pattern on this stone is almost identical with one at Finlaggan (No. 8, Plate III.).
No. 30, Plate IX. - One of the best stones in this churchyard. The two monsters which terminate the scroll below the guard are somewhat worn. But the stag and griffon on either side of the hilt are drawn with unusual skill, so is also the design of interlacing stems and leaves at the top.
Pennant wrote: - 'In the churchyard is now prostrate a curious column, perhaps the shaft of a cross, for the top is broken off; and near it is a flat stone with a hole in the middle, the probable pedestal.' This cross shaft has been re-inserted in its plinth, and stands on a little eminence near the churchyard, and inside the grounds of Islay House.
No. 31, Plate X. - Shows the shaft as it now stands, but the reader must not imagine that the upper part has anything to do with the lower; it has been barbarously hacked out of a monumental slab as may be seen from the traces of a sword hilt and from other characteristics. Fig. 1 is not to scale.
The engraving on the right of Plate X. shows the other side of the cross-shaft. At the top is a kneeling figure with a rosary. Below that, under some simple scroll-work, is an illegible inscription, and below that again a mounted figure in a round-headed panel. Here there is also some lettering - I think the name PAULUS. If so it may be the proper name of some one commemorated by the cross, or may represent the Apostle on his way to Damascus.
No. 32, Plate X., is the plinth in which this cross is set. It is divided into panels in which are faint remains of carving. The fact of there being a bird depicted in the bottom right-hand corner seems to point to there having been the symbols of the first three evangelists in the adjoining panels, the bird itself being symbolical of St. John.
Near the eastern boundary of the parish there are several places whose names point to ecclesiastical sites - Cill Cileagain near Gruinart and Corsopol beside it. Two miles further north there is a place called Crois Mhor, and further north again Cill an Ailean.
Near Dun Nosebridge, already described, is the farm of Mulindry, on the site of a former habitation of the Macdonalds. Towards the end of the sixteenth century there was a great feud between Sit Laughlan Mor Maclean of Dowart and Sir James Macdonald of Islay, regarding the possession of the Rhinns. Owing to this feud Mulindry was, in 1586, the scene of a horrible massacre. In that year Maclean came to Isla to receive performance of the promises made by Macdonald, regarding the Rinns of Isla' Maclean took post at the ruinous fort of Elan Loch Gorme in the Rinns of Isla, and had not been long in this place when he received an invitation from Macdonald to come to the latter's home at Mullintrea, which was more convenient and better stored with provisions than the fort of Loch Gorme. Such, however, was the distrust felt by Maclean of this invitation, that it was only after solemn and repeated protestations by Macdonald that no hostility was meditated, that he was at length prevailed upon to comply with the request. Maclean accordingly came to Mullintrea, with eighty-six of his clan and servants, in the month of July 1586, and was sumptuously entertained on his arrival. In the meantime, the Macdonalds surrounded the houses in which Maclean and his followers were lodged, and made them all prisoners, with the exception of two, to whom they refused quarter. The house in which these two men were was burned to the ground, with its inmates. Gregory then relates that a report got about that Ranald MacJames, a Macdonald hostage left behind at Dowart, had been killed, and that in revenge for his supposed death two of the imprisoned Macleans were executed every day until only Sir Laughlan remained, who, as the result of mediation undertaken by the chiefs of the Campbells by order of the king, succeeded for the time in escaping from the hands of his rival.
The Laggan river forms one of the boundaries of this parish, and where it enters Loch Indaal there are the remains of a chapel. It is on the right bank of the stream, which it so closely overhangs that part of the south wall has already been carried away. Only very little remains of the walls. The inside length is about 24 feet by 10 feet. There are traces of an altar projecting about four feet from the east wall. There are also traces of a recess in the south wall in the place usually devoted to the piscine. There is a small enclosure round the chapel and some uncut stones which, from their relative positions and orientation, appear to be sepulchral.