It is no joy without Clan Donald;
it is no strength to be without them;
the best race in the round world,
To them belongs every goodly man.
The noblest race of all created,
in whom dwelt prowess and terribleness;
a race to whom tyrants bowed,
In whom dwelt wisdom and piety.
The staves of the Gaelic lament by the Mac-Mhuirich Bard in the Book of the Dean of Lismore at the loss of the MacDonald Lords still echo through the Isles. The line of the Great Sea-Lord Somerled, with whom the history of the western seaboard in the Middle Ages began, has run its course, and with the death of Angus Og at Finlaggan in 1490, it has, for all intents, met its tragic end. The Lordship, that vast, eternal sea kingdom, with its heart in ancient Finlaggan, has faded to near obscurity. But let there be no dirge for the Lost Lordship, no retrospective on the place of the Lords of the Isles in Scottish history - what's here at Finlaggan is history, a pervading sense of the political and social ambience that underscored the significance and magnificence of the place in the medieval Gaelic seaworld.
From an imposing Standing Stone at the northern approach to Finlaggan, it's possible to look down 6,000 - 8,000 years of human history. Indeed, the sloping valley that rims the loch and looks north to the Paps of Jura stretches in the opposite direction, veering southwest toward Black Rock, where the Lords of the Isles and their warbands beached longships on the shore of Loch Indaal. Lords, warriors and entourages made well-worn tracks from birlinns and nyvaigs along the furzelined roadway to the Great Hall of the MacDonald Chieftain, where, for nearly four centuries, a succession of Lords, the sons of Somerled and grandsons and great- grandsons and their sons, ruled Islay and the surrounding seas with impunity.
As rex insularum (king of the Islands), in 1158, Somerled's dominions covered 25,000 square miles and more than 500 islands. North to south, they stretched 200 miles from the Butt of Lewis to the Calf of Man, and were unified by the broad roads of the sea. Following the lead of his Norse-Gael ancestors, Somerled established fortifications on coastal heights and deep in lochs, where his galleys could be beached and warbands protected. The Great Sea-lord's territories were, then, well armed, and his Hebridean corridor to the Irish Sea, Europe, and the Mediterranean well fortified. With the world at his doorstep, Somerled kept the sealanes clear and, with a formidable fleet of fast galleys manned by fierce Norse-Gael warriors, he grew the fortunes of his expanding 'empire.'
The Heart Of The Lordship
In fact, Finlaggan was a settlement long before the coming of the Lords. This pristine hidden loch, sheltered in the bosom of hillocks, far from enquiring eyes, with its mysterious crannogs - Eilean Morand Eilean na Comhairle - was home to prehistoric man and refuge to Christian ascetics, long before medieval Islaymen claimed it as a royal residence and retreat. In a sense, there's always been a Finlaggan. From the dawn of civilization, its standing stones and monuments have held a religious significance and a spiritual aura, symbolizing and sanctifying the bonds and relationships of gods and men. And, indeed, artifacts and discoveries from Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age finds clearly show a pattern of continuous occupation. There's evidence that Eilean Mor, typical of a Celtic crannog, supported centuries of human settlement, including farmers, herdsmen, holy men, and nobles. The elusive Saint 'Findlugan,' said to be a contemporary of Columcille, may well have built an oratory or established a Christian settlement on the island or along the loch that bears his name.
Central yet secluded, accessible by a roadway from Caol Ile to Black Rock, Finlaggan was a holy place -- possibly a place of ancient inauguration of Celtic kings and chieftains, where archaic investiture rituals symbolic of king-marriages to goddesses of the land were passed down from druidic times. There may have been the symbolic footprint in the rock, as at Dunadd, and the ceremonial robe, white rod, horse and sword (bishops and abbots would have been historical afterthoughts). And, the Columban Christian tradition of holy Findlugan made this a twice-blessed spot. From a Gaelic perspective, it not only had appeal and dignity, it was a natural site to centre an expanding lordship. As the Lords gained in influence and wealth, Finlaggan continued to flourish as an administrative and cultural hub. Despite the effects of creeping feudalism and the gradual erosion of tanistry, Finlaggan remained distinctly Gaelic with Gaelic laws, structures, institutions, language, customs, and entertainments. It was not, however, unique. Even from MacAlpine's time, 9th-century Gaelic tribal kings developed unfortified royal centers and ceremonial sites like Forteviot, where they displayed their wealth and power, where they rode and hunted, and where they were simply 'at home.'
The ruling MacDonald Lords commanded a strong semi-independent maritime kingdom from their powerbase at Finlaggan. Not only did they govern wisely, seeking counsel from magnates and learned men, they followed royal protocols, endowed monasteries, exacted tribute, traded widely, and lived lavishly. In nominal vassalage to Norway until 1266 and to Scotland thereafter, they were, at least from their own perspective, on a par with the kings of Scotland, Norway, England, and the Continent. Sometime in the 12th or 13th century, this great maritime civilization fixed on the landlocked loch as its seat of power and royal residence -- it was its Tara. In fact, Finlaggan's antiquity, ritual significance, and long-standing pagan-Christian associations could not be ignored. At a comfortable distance from welltraveled searoads and off the beaten track, it was accessible from Port Askaig on the Sound of Islay and nearby Loch Indaal, both offering safe harborage, protection from Atlantic fury, and refuge and retreat from the chaos of coastal fortresses and less-sheltered castles, like those at Dunyvaig and Kilchoman on Islay.
The Finlaggan complex was, especially in the 14th and 15th centuries, a bustling Gaelic settlement built into the shoreline of the inland loch with two crannogs accessible to the mainland and to each other by raft or ferry and by a man-made bridge and causeway. The 'Big Island' housed a Great Hall for meetings, feasting, and entertaining, as well as royal apartments, guest quarters, a chapel, a cemetery, and a number of outbuildings -- as many as twenty -- interconnected by a paved road system. The Great Hall, built in late 13th century and improved over time, was a two-storey mortared affair with a slate roof and measured roughly 30' by 60'. As the Lords' showplace it was ostentatious and conveyed status; it towered over surrounding structures and could be seen from a great distance. It housed a large open hall with a massive fireplace and extensive kitchens, and had living quarters above.
On festive occasions the fare featured a variety of fish and meats - beef, venison, pork, and lamb - as well as breads and dairy (cheeses). Ales, mead, and wines from the Continent were on offer. The Lords and their visitors ate and drank well. A smaller building on the Island likely served the Lords as a second residence and offered them and their families a more relaxed homelife and privacy. There were on Eilean Mor other buildings that served as guest quarters, additional housing, workshops, barns, and storeage areas. They were typical period dwellings and outbuildings -- for the most part, modest oval or rectangular thatched structures with central hearths and timber walls built on stone and turf foundations. The chapel, a simple rectangular stone edifice situated on a rise, measured roughly 12' by 15'. Built in mid-14th century, it served a Christian community with a Celtic orientation that likely predated Columcille's Iona. Tombstones and grave slabs -- a headstone decorated with an anvil suggests the burial place of a blacksmith (perhaps the MacEachern, hereditary smith to the Lords); and a grave slab, depicts the familiar effigy of a 16th-century gallowglass in West Highland armour (perhaps the final resting place of Donald MacGillespie, a mercenary and Crown tenant of Islay in the 1540s). These and other sculptured monuments add a heroic imagery to the scene.
The smaller island, called Eilean na Comhairle or 'The Council Island,' boasted a stone building, as well a storehouse and residence; it was a meeting place for the Council of the Isles -- fourteen to sixteen chieftains of prestigious tribes whose number and make-up may have varied from Lord to Lord, and who advised and wielded influence and power commensurate with their territorial jurisdictions and the strength of their fleets. The Council, likely modeled on the Manx Tynwald, was, in fact, an effective and cohesive Norse-Gael-style parliament well suited to the Isles. It was a learned and skilled assembly of prominent Gaels that convened at Finlaggan. The smaller island was, because of its further distance from shore and narrow crossing from Eilean Mor to it, accessible by boat or causeway. Protected by towers manned by elite retainers on the loch shore, Finlaggan stood secure. It was not a fortress. It was a royal residence, a gathering place, a tranquil retreat at a remove from busy searoads and madding crowds.
The Lords 'At Home'
When the MacDonald Lords were 'at home' or there was a Council session or ceremonial occasion - the inauguration of a successor or death of a chieftain -- Finlaggan was the crossroad of the Isles. Its residences overflowed, and there were sizable gatherings of visitors stretched along the Loch's edge. Thoroughly Gaelic in prospect, at such times Finlaggan teemed with nobles and dignitaries and their extended families; with servants and retainers; with churchmen and members of the hereditary aes dana - poets, brehons, musicians, and scribes, as well as shipwrights, smiths, and other valued craftsmen. Highborn women with properties and dowries graced the celebrations, exquisitely dressed, and shared in the good fortunes of fathers, husbands and sons. On such occasions, there were recitations and music and songs and athletic competitions, as well as prodigious bouts of feasting and drinking that went well into the night or several nights. Artifacts rescued from the Loch tell the tale of Finlaggan. The Lords and their guests rode to the hounds and found good hunting on Islay.
Finlaggan was, then, a thriving place of enterprise and trade, of negotiation and judgment, of hearty fellowship and generous hospitality, but Finlaggan was never a town or a burgh. It was an extended rural settlement of perhaps several hundred working people -- families who farmed, fished, herded, and worked local mines when they were not attending their Lords. And, because theirs was a distinctly maritime society, Islaymen designed, built, and sailed strong warships oft times to distant lands.
Women did what women in other medieval societies did - they laboured in fields alongside their men, bore and reared children, cooked, sewed, spun, knitted, milked, churned, and maintained sometimes hopelessly overcrowded households. There were, as well, tenants, slaves, and children of all ages. This was essentially a rigid aristocratic society made up of 'those who fought, those who worked, and those who prayed.' Those who fought and won, and those whose prayers were answered - perhaps prayers for appointments to high church offices -- lived well. The others, apart from periodic famines and hostile raids and diseases, like European peasants elsewhere, 'simply managed.' Their reward was, they were told, in the next world. If the Gaelic nobility 'married young and often,' kept mistresses, and tried to populate their realms single-handedly; and, if Gaelic society recognized 'handfasting' and divorce, there probably wasn't much of that among the toiling population who built and served castle and fleet; tended the Lords' cattle, sheep, and pigs; planted and harvested crops; paid food rents; and generally kept the Lords' tables and domains. Lords of the Isles were, after all, 'those who fought,' and, descended, as they were, from a fierce breed of Norse-Gael warriors and sea kings, they were, they believed, and genuinely believed, God's privileged, born to conquest and acquisition. Their wealth was in cattle and ships and land, but they collected and treasured gold and silver and precious objects, and they and their noble women adorned themselves in linens and silks and jewelry befitting their rank.
They practiced 'piracy' and raided one another's cattle because they could. They accepted fosterage, took and gave hostages, and traded slaves. From the 12th century onward, their small, maneuverable birlinns and nyvaigs were the scourge of the western seaboard and their axe-wielding gallowglasses eagerly sought as allies and mercenaries by warring neighbours. Like their Viking ancestors, they ruled the wave and gave no quarter. Finlaggan had witnessed the glories of the Lords and the triumphs of a Golden Age, but, as all things must pass, so would the Lordship and the Lords. Somerled's extensive kingdom would be divided by his sons and eventually restored, albeit in an altered configuration, under the powerful MacDonalds, before the wide sea world of the Lords would fall to the Scots kings.
The Finlaggan Legacy
Soon after the Forfeiture in 1493, Finlaggan was dismantled, its buildings razed, and its manuscripts destroyed to discourage attempts at restoration of the Lordship and eradicate all memory of its medieval Gaelic supremacy. In the end, perhaps the Lordship deserved better. It was, after all, a force for order across the North Atlantic, and its collapse brought on nearly two centuries of anarchy. It decided weighty matters of law, succession and inheritance, and gave direction to the cultural and spiritual life of an extended community. It kept the peace of the Western Highlands and the Isles in an otherwise tumultuous period. In Lords of the Isles: the Clan Donald and the Early Kingdom of the Scots, Ronald Williams reflects, 'Today it [Finlaggan] is a disappointing place - a loch set in featureless moorland, with a few pillars of crumbled masonry and outlines in the earth, which convey an atmosphere of dissolution, an abandoned place, empty of travellers, and a silent testimony to the transience of earthly kingdoms.' But Finlaggan is not at all disappointing. In its stones are reminders of Dunadd and Dalriada and a language and a tradition stretching back more than a millennium and a half through imaginative sagas, inspired lyric poetry, celebratory Bardic compositions, and brilliant songs and stories. The music of the piper dies on the wind, but Finlaggan lives as a monument to a vigorous, tempestuous race of Norse-Gael warriors and once great centre of a powerful sea kingdom. It has yielded intriguing secrets of a distant past, but there's more that lies beneath the surface.
Dan Casey is a writer and lecturer on things Irish and Scottish. He's published more than 150 books, articles, and reviews, as well as fiction and poetry - recent articles have appeared in History Scotland, Medieval History, Irish America, The Scots Magazine, Galway-Now, and Contemporary Review (Oxford). This story is published with kind permission from the Ileach.