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Clan Donald Magazine No 3 (1965) Online

Finlaggan 'Footprint Stone' Found by Domhnall Gruamach.

The following report addressed to the President of the Edinburgh Society has come to hand from a member resident in Islay, an ardent historian and loyal clansman. We publish it without comment at present, except to say how important such a find is at this time, emphasising the necessity for immediate action to preserve all the relics on the two islets in Loch Finlaggan. We hope that the Ministry of Works, whose Ancient Monuments Department has the care of the site, will now take steps to safeguard this valuable Stone together with the others already mentioned, and any others which may yet be found. - Donald J. Macdonald, President, Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh, 30th June 1965.

The Clan Donald "Stone of Destiny" has been found, after 350 years. The Stone of Inauguration of the Clan Donald, Kings and Lords of the Isles, the stone bearing the carved imprint of a human foot, in which every true Chief of the Clan has placed his left foot at the time of his inauguration, was kept in the sanctuary of one of the islets in Loch Finlaggan in Islay. Used as the sacred stone of the Island Lordship since the time of Somerled (King of Argyll and the Isles in 1164 AD), the stone was broken by the order of the Earl of Argyll in 1615 and cast away, a deed of senseless spite that has never been forgotten. By tradition the stone was kept on the smaller islet (The Council Isle) in Loch Finlaggan; but no trace of the stone, or even of its fragments, has ever been found either on or near this islet.

In 1962-63 Captain Donald (a son of the Dunyvaig Line of the House of Islay, who lives in Islay) formed the opinion that the Stone would have been more likely to have been used and kept on the larger islet (Eilean Mor), if only because the tiny Isle of the Council could not possibly have accommodated the vast concourse of clansmen who attended the ceremony of Inauguration of their Chief. Accordingly he had several discussions with a trusty colleague, Robert Hodkinson of Bowmore, who is a MacMhuirich of the Clan Donald on his mother's side. It was suggested to the latter that, after being broken under the eye of Argyll, the portions of the stone would then have been dropped into the Loch close beside Eilean Mor, almost certainly at a spot known to some of the remaining loyal clansmen. The question of the possibility of obtaining the services of a "frogman" to explore the water round the edge of Eilean Mor was then discussed, but there were certain difficulties involved at the time.

As the memory of Islaymen is long, and as the true folk of Islay are well able to keep a secret, Robert Hodkinson then began to initiate a little quiet gossip here and there to find out if any of the older folk had heard any rumour of a stone at Finlaggan with a correct footprint upon it. Several had indeed heard such a tale, but only vaguely. After some time and a great deal of patient enquiry, one piece of definite evidence emerged. This was the fact that the late Alec MacKinnon of Bowmore had hinted that he had seen such a stone, when engaged 70 years ago in cutting the very long grass on Eilean Mor. He had found it lying on the extreme northeast edge of the islet, in very shallow water, as if dropped by those carrying it on their way to the Stone causeway (now sunken) which unites Eilean Mor to the north shore of the Loch. Alec MacKinnon, who died several years ago, claimed that he had seen a carved footprint on this stone; that the stone had been cracked clean across, but that it had been mended with great skill and care. He decided to say nothing about it at the time, as he felt that too many "foreigners" might have taken too keen an interest; but, being a notably strong man, be had dragged the heavy slab single-handed to a place of safety and hidden it there. As there were faint traces of carving on the reverse side (as we now know) he laid it down with the footprint downwards, and with the carved side plainly visible so that to any inquisitive eye it would seem to be just one more ordinary gravestone. He was a wise man, and well able to keep his own counsel.

So far this was only hearsay, but well worth investigation, so Captain Donald asked Robert Hodkinson to check if there was indeed a faintly carved gravestone at or near the spot said to have been chosen by MacKinnon. Hodkinson did so and reported that there was such a gravestone, but that it was too heavy for him to raise up in order to look for the footprint. He could see, however, that the stone had at one time been cracked clean across, and beautifully mended.

A few weeks later Mrs R. MacKinnon of Portnahaven, who teaches in Bowmore School and is one of Islay's keenest archaeologists, was taking some of her senior pupils on a visit of exploration to Eilean Mor, so Robert Hodkinson took her into his confidence, told her where the stone lies, and asked her to see if some of her strong lads could turn the slab gently over to see what was on the other side. This they did and she informed us that on the underside of the slab (5' 6" x 14") there is but one carving - a roughly carved but completely distinct footprint.

Accordingly on the 17th June a party set out for Finlaggan to make full study of the footprint-stone. The party consisted of Robert Hodkinson, Mrs MacKinnon, Captain Donald, John M. Paterson (of the Gaelic League of Scotland), John Kennedy of Bowmore (who is well versed in Islay history), and Ian Johnson (son of the late Duncan Johnson, the Islay Bard), as well as some of Mrs Mackinnon's pupils.

After a most careful examination of the stone not one of the party had the slightest doubt as to its authenticity and identity as being the footprint stone of the Lords of the Isles.

The following facts were observed:

1. The Footprint Itself: While this at first sight is the very crudely carved imprint of a bare left foot of apparently large size, the separate hollows for the five toes are most distinct, and provision is made for the "ball" and "arch" of an average human foot. The bare left foot (size 8) of one of the party was reverently placed in the imprint, and it fitted like a glove.

2. The Crack: This is clean across the slab, across the footprint itself, and appeared to have been mended.

3. Carvings on the Reverse Side of the Slab: While these are less distinct than those on the normal gravestones of Finlaggan, Mrs Mackinnon was able to detect that the outlines of the two main carvings on it were

(i)                  The clear outline of the Great Sword (symbol of Clan Donald sovereignty on land), and

(ii)                The Little Ship or Naibheag (symbol of sovereignty on sea).

The twin symbols of the Lordship ever since 1164.

Domhnall Gruamach
Islay, 20th June 1965.

Note: After receiving the above report from Islay, Dr. K. A. Steer of the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, visited the site and came to the following conclusions:

(1)   That the stone is a gravestone of the late 14th or 15th centuries;

(2)   That the crack is not a break subsequently mended, but a hair-crack caused by frost and filled with a reddish substance;

(3)   That the "footprint" is 18" by 5" and rather large for a normal foot.

In view of this opinion our informant in Islay has agreed that this cannot be the original stone used by Somerled's successors down to the early 15th century; but suggests that it may be one used by the Chiefs of Clann Iain Mhoir Ile (Dunyveg) when they claimed the representation of the line of the Lords of the Isles in 1545, on the death of Donald Dubh, last male of the main line. - D.J.M.

Loch Finlaggan, Islay - Eilean Mor & Eilean a Chomhairle.

Key: The residence of the Lords of the Isles for some 300 years consists of two islets on Loch Finlaggan: Eilean Mor, the settlement of the household of the Lords, their family and retainers, and the Chapel; and Eilean a Chomhairle, the Council Isle, where the representatives of the clans which made up this Gaelic federation gathered to discuss affairs of state.

Eilean Mor: (A) The great Hall (61' x 29'): (B) Stores and service building (25' x I8'); (C) The servants' quarters; (D), (E) and (F) Outbuildings; (G), (H) Guardhouses; (J) Mansion of the Lord of the Isles (19' x 12') adjoining the family dwelling (K). There is also a forecourt or verandah (61' x 26') facing south, roofed in and open-sided; (L) the Chapel with its burial ground, and a platform on which no doubt stood a carved cross like so many others found in Islay. Between the two isles was a causeway and timber bridge.

Eilean a' Chomhairle (Council Isle) contains three buildings, the largest of which is the Council Chamber (16' x 22'). The suggested purpose of the various buildings is subject to confirmation by more careful excavation and examination.

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