Clan Donald Magazine No 4 (1968) Online
Finlaggan by R. Maclagan Gorrie.
Finlaggan is not a great castle. It is the remains of a mediaeval dwelling house and chapel used by the chief of the Islay Macdonalds over several centuries, and the council house on the adjoining islet was where the Council of the Isles met and installed their chiefs, including Donald of Harlaw. A map of this little island on a fresh-water loch in Islay was printed in our last number, Clan Donald Magazine No.3, 1965. That also recounts how Captain Graham Donald was instrumental in finding the lost Footprint Stone.
But we know tantalisingly little about the way of life of the Islesmen of the 14th and 15th centuries, so archaeological research on Finlaggan should prove of vital interest to all branches of the clan as being the headquarters at a time when the Lordship of the Isles was making a major contribution to Scottish history. It has been known to Clan Donald as a holy place, possibly next to Iona in this respect, but has never become a place of popular pilgrimage as Iona has done.
Officials of the Ancient Monuments Inspectorate and of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments were in the past more directly interested in Norse records such as Viking burials, so Finlaggan has only recently been listed as a historic monument, since a party from London Museum aided by a small grant from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland made a survey in 1961. Since then the Commission have considered proposals for protecting the carved stones by putting them under a fibreglass roof, as the rate of deterioration is admitted to be serious, and Dr. I.F. Grant is convinced that some of these have actually been removed. But nothing has yet been done, and the Finlaggan Sub-committee of our Clan Donald Society appears to be helpless in the matter. Dr. Grant has warned us many times that these lovely carved stones are deteriorating, but improvements and conservation can only be undertaken with the authorisation of the Historic Monuments Commission.
The ancient ceremony of the installation of the Lord of the Isles is described in some detail in the history books. The new chief wearing a white robe had to take an oath to protect his people, and placed his foot in a stone footprint to show that he followed in the footsteps of his predecessors. A white rod indicated his power to rule his people justly. The ceremony was carried out in the presence of a bishop and seven priests.
The Council of the Isles consisted of 16 - 4 thanes or earls, 4 armins or knights, 4 bastards or squires, 4 freeholders who held their land "in factory." The stone table at which they sat was removed by orders of the Earl of Argyll in 1615, when he also ordered the destruction of the original footprint stone. The stone which turned up in 1965 is considered to be not the original but a replacement of about 1545 as it was cut into the under-surface of a grave cover of 1427, marking the burial place of John Mor Tanister, fifth son of Good John of Islay. John had re-roofed Finlaggan chapel in 1380 and endowed it.
Captain Graham Donald's book "The House of Islay" has recently been revised with a number of interesting footnotes added. Copies at 12/6 can be had from the author at Bowmore, Islay: or from the society's editor or secretary, Mrs. Sheila Chalmers. -R.M.G.
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