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Clan Donald Magazine No 12 (1991) Online

Finlaggan - The Cradle of Clan Donald - A New Beginning
By David H. Caldwell

Assistant Keeper, National Museums of Scotland

Ruins on two islands in Loch Finlaggan are known to be all that is left of a residential and administrative complex of the Lords of the Isles in the Medieval Period. On the smaller of the two, Eilean na comhairle or the Council Island, the Lords met with the leaders of West Highland society. Finlaggan also had a stone with afootprint used in the inauguration ceremonies of the Lords.

There is no doubt about it. There is a certain magic about Finlaggan that seems to affect everyone who visits the place. Two small islands in a loch, in a valley, with no roads, no houses and no trees might seem a bleak prospect but even when the sky is leaden with rain and the wind is howling it is possible to be struck by its charm - and mystery. It is difficult to define how or why but it must have something to do with the pathetic remnants of walls held together by weeds which still struggle to remain upright. If they give up the fight a lot will be lost.

Not that in my experience Finlaggan is always to be endured in bad weather. I have spent six weeks there in the summer months when the sun shone practically every day and the cattle came down to the water to cool off. Ducks and moorhens scurried in and out of the water lilies and rushes forming a broad apron to the big island - Eilean Mor - and one had to fight one's way through the uncropped herbs and flowers, mindful of breaking a leg on the tumble of stonework well hidden below. I have also spent an idyllic two weeks in November with just one colleague when the bare bones of the past seemed exposed, tell-tale humps and bumps accentuated by the shadows cast by a low sun. Sometimes there was ice on the loch and we crunched along on a rind of frost but even then there seemed to be warmth from the sun and an overpowering silence, made noisy at frequent intervals by vast flights of geese.

My involvement with Finlaggan began some three years ago. I look after the Scottish medieval collections in the National Museums of Scotland and had over the years undertaken several archaeological projects, mostly on a small scale. Then with encouragement from the Museums' trustees the hunt was on for sites of major importance where the Museums might be able to make an important contribution to elucidating Scotland's past At about that time the Finlaggan Trust put out a press release welcoming cooperation from archaeologists and Finlaggan soon emerged as a clear winner. A visit to Islay and meetings with the Finlaggan Trust's committee there soon established that we would have enthusiastic support and cooperation. Islay Estates were most helpful in giving us access.

All, however, did not run smoothly and the start we proposed to make to excavations in the summer of 1989 had to be postponed for reasons beyond our control. This decision was forced upon us only after arriving on Islay with a full team. Then in the gales of the following February the very substantial hut generously gifted to us by Millers Construction was flattened by an even more substantial wind despite the wires we had stretched over its roof and lashed securely to large stobs driven into the ground. If anything these setbacks made us even more determined to carry on, and as things turned out, the delay in digging was a blessing in disguise. We were able to use our time in 1989 to do detailed survey work which gave us a much greater understanding of the site and how to tackle it, and which provided the facts and figures to produce computerised maps of Eilean Mor. We were able to construct a simple bridge to the island as a welcome alternative to a wobbly oarless boat strung on a wire. Even the hut turned out to be rescuable and was re-erected better than before in time for the start of the excavations in June 1990.

We have only done four weeks digging so far in three smallish trenches designed to test the extent and quality of the archaeological deposits. We were not disappointed! Already it is clear that there are substantial remains of the period of the Lordship of the Isles plus some later occupation extending into the 17th century. Totally missing are the potato crisp packets, old cookers and dead dogs that so often greet the archaeologist's spade. Instead, next to the ruined chapel, we uncovered a graveyard with a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century crosshead lying at the base of its plinth. It is a fine example of West Highland sculpture from the lona workshops. Incidentally, having proved the presence of this burial ground we intend leaving the bodies in peace.

In another area of the site we traced the remains of a late sixteenth - or seventeenth - century barn or byre, next to a dwelling house, and discovered it was overlying the remains of medieval ovens or kilns. Already some of our work is challenging the preconceptions about the place. You will have read how the lords had no need of defences at Finlaggan, such were the peaceful conditions of the times, but we have evidence for a stout timber rampart with a wall-walk behind it.

As we archaeologists always expect there were no hidden caches of gold and jewels or arms and armour. Instead there were bits and pieces of rubbish and small personal losses which with patient work will tell us much about the occupants and their life style. Take for instance the sherds of medieval pottery. They include a thumbnail sized piece of a painted jug of the thirteenth century from Southwest France. Did it come with the wine? Also other sherds from elsewhere in Scotland - we know not where as yet; and, intriguingly, part of a local handmade vessel obviously copying an imported medieval jug. Otherwise we might have thought it dated to prehistoric times. Most evocative of all the finds is a small musical instrument pin. from an instrument last played in the presence of one of the Lords of the Isles.

We also have a diving team who traced the jetties and causeways round and connecting the two islands and colleagues from Edinburgh University are embarking on a project to tell us about the past environment of Finlaggan - about the vegetation and the crops which were grown. Conservators from the Museums' Laboratories cleaned the fine collection of medieval graveslabs and fibre-glass copies of all of them have been made for display in Edinburgh. The originals belong at Finlaggan.

On the strength of all this work we will now plan a series of excavations over several years which I hope will greatly increase our knowledge about the place and enrich our experience of it. It would be disappointing, however, if that were all that were intended. What we really hope is that we will be able to work hand in hand with the Finlaggan Trust's scheme to preserve the site and present it in a better way for the enjoyment of the public.

Finlaggan's time has come. If we do not all grasp at the opportunities before us, building on the undoubted interest and enthusiasm for it, the next time may be long in coming and too late. The remaining walls will not stand much longer and with a slackening of interest who knows what less enlightened future generations may wish to inflict on a beautiful patch of countryside. We have been fortunate in attracting generous financial support from the Russell Trust and the Hunter Archaeological Trust. The Clan Donald Lands Trust, through its Sir John McDonald Study Fund, has made a handsome contribution to our work. Over the next few years the successful realisation of all our hopes for Finlaggan will require Scots worldwide, not just MacDonalds but all clansmen, including Campbells, and Lowlanders as well as Highlanders, to put their hands in their pockets to support the excavations and the Finlaggan Trust. We look forward to your cooperation.

We expect to be at Finlaggan for the next season of excavations in June 1991. All visitors will be welcome. By then too, the Finlaggan Trust hopes to have available an introductory book about our work.

You cannot afford to be without it!

Illustration: Finlaggan Cross Front and Back. Drawings by Marion O Neil.

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