Finlaggan - Centre of The Lordship of the Isles
Finlaggan, the centre of the Lordship of the Isles, is an island settlement in the beautiful secluded Loch Finlaggan in the north east corner of the Isle of Islay. The site is maintained by the Finlaggan Trust and is sign-posted off the main road between Ballygrant en Keills. The trust put in timber walkways and paths at the site and provided good information panels. The former derelict cottage, rebuilt by the Finlaggan Trust, acts now as a small museum and interpretive centre, opened by one of the Trustees, Mr Bruno Schroder, on 22nd August 1989
Recent archaeological excavations have demonstrated that Finlaggan has been occupied since very early times, but it achieved most fame in the 14th and 15th centuries under the MacDonald Lords of the Isles. There are two islands, the larger accessible by a walkway or boat. It is called Eilean Mòr (large island). The path across the island goes over the remains of the 13th century defences and then through an area of old lazy-beds, probably dating to the 16th century.
When an area of these was excavated, underlying remains of at least two round houses and a small pit with Bronze Age pottery, were exposed. On the highest point of the island are the ruins of the 14th century chapel with its burial ground. There is also a small group of medieval grave slabs, including a fine child’s one and another with the effigy of Donald MacGilleasbuig, who was crown tenant of Finlaggan in the 1540s. This is one of the better preserved stones, the warrior effigy, probably dates from a period later than the occupation by the Lords of the Isles. It is thought to be a 16th century stone. The inscription on it could still be read clearly last century, but this is no longer possible. All the stones have suffered from being badly positioned and exposed to the elements, and the Finlaggan Trust has plans to have them placed under a shelter on Eilean Mòr.
Eilean na Comhairle - Council Island
Further along the ridge of the island are the upstanding gables of a small rectangular building. Like the chapel it has lime mortared walls and is of medieval date but survived in use into the 16th century, adapted into a two story house, possibly for Donald MacGilleasbuig.
In the 16th century, Eilean Mòr was covered with the houses, kilns and barns of a farming township. Now their dry stone walls are reduced to low mounds forming sub-rectangular or oval outlines. The most important structure on Eilean Mòr in the medieval period was the great hall, the foundations of which lie adjacent to MacGilleasbuig’s house. On approaching the island in the medieval period on the road along the west side of the loch, it would have been the most obvious structure, towering over all the other buildings. It was the hall, used for feasting and entertaining on a lavish scale, rather than castle walls, that marked the status of the Lords of the Isles.
In the area north and east of the hall extensive kitchens with ovens were discovered in the excavations. Other medieval buildings included a range of houses along the ridge between the chapel and MacGilleasbuig’s house and another smaller hall at the south tip of the island in an area separated off from the rest of the island by a wall. This may have been the private quarters of the Lords of the Isles.
One of the most remarkable discoveries of the recent excavations was that all these buildings, some twenty at any one time, were connected by a system of paved roads and alleys. One went from a jetty near the great hall to the chapel and another from the chapel past the great hall to the south end of the island. This jetty was the main access point to the island in the later medieval period. About 50 metres from the south tip of Eilean Mòr, is the smaller Eilean na Comhairle (Council Island – pronounced Ail-an-na-cor-le) so called because it was here that the Lords of the Isles built their council house. The council advised the Lords of the Isles, made laws and legal judgements according to the laws made by Reginald, son of Somerled, the ancestor of the MacDonalds. Eilean na Comhairle was connected to Eilean Mòr by a stone causeway, substantial remains of which can be traced under the surface of the loch.
On the surface of the island today are the foundations of three buildings, one of which has tentatively been identified as the council chamber. They were constructed over the foundations of a castle of 13th century date which, in turn had been erected on the reduced walls of an Iron Age fort. Finlaggan was the administrative and ritual centre for a large and powerful lordship. The main ritual events associated with it are the installation ceremonies for new lords:
At the ceremony of proclaiming the Lord of the Isles, 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 forefather’s 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.
Finlaggan Visitor Information Centre
The visitor information centre is open Mondays to Saturdays 10.30 to 4.30 and on Sunday afternoons from 1.30 to 4.30 until October. The site itself is open all year.
Other relevant information: The Carved Stones of Islay - The History of Islay
The Carved Stones of Islay - Parish of Kilarrow
The Lords of the Isles – where did their allegiances lie?
Inside the Finlaggan Visitor Centre