Clan Donald Magazine No13 (1995) Online
The Finlaggan Dig
by David H Caldwell Assistant Keeper, National
Museums of Scotland
excavations at Finlaggan were reported in No 12 of the Clan Donald
Magazine. Here Dr Caldwell, Director on behalf of the National
Museums of Scotland, brings us up to date on five years of work at
the cradle of Clan Donald. The excavations have been funded by the
National Museums of Scotland, with generous support from others,
including the Clan Donald Lands Trust and the Glencoe Foundation
we started digging on Islay in 1990 we had great expectations that
we would uncover evidence of Finlaggan's role as the centre of the
Lordship of the Isles. We have not been disappointed in this.
Although it will take a further three years to fully assess the work
we have done, some of the conclusions to be drawn are already clear.
the time of the Lordship, in the 14th and 15th centuries the two
islands in Loch Finlaggan were covered with buildings. The main
island, Eilean Mor, is connected to the loch side by a stone
causeway but the main access was by boat to a jetty. At any time
there may have been as many as twenty buildings on the island, at
first surrounded by timberwork fortifications and all connected by
paved roads and alleys. They included a chapel, two halls and
kitchens, and other houses used as residences, stores and workshops.
Some of these structures like the great hall and the chapel, had
walls of lime mortared masonry and slate covered roofs, but many had
walls of clay and stone or timber. None of the wood had survived but
in places the slots and post-holes for it could be traced.
smaller island, known as Eilean na Comhairle or the Council Island,
was reached from Eilean Mor by a stone causeway. There were three
buildings on it. A small one near the water was probably for
storage. The other two on the level summit of the island are
interpreted as a hall and a private chamber. The hall would have
been the meeting place of the Council of the Isles, said to have
been convened on this island by Dean Munro in his description of the
Isles written in 1549.
have also identified the remains
of several other
around the edge of the
loch which may date to the medieval period. These include a mill on
the Finlaggan Burn and other houses which may have been for the
lords' guards. There is also a prominent rounded mound with a
standing stone nearby which we
as the possible site of the inauguration ceremonies of the Lords of
ceremonies are first described in a 17th-century MacDonald history.
They involved a stone with a foot-print in which the new lord stood
when he received the symbols of his authority, a sword and a staff.
The proceedings were no doubt witnessed by vast numbers of his
subjects as well as the main dignitaries of the Isles, and were
accompanied by feasting and merry-making.
Hitherto it has been assumed that the ceremonies took place on one
or other of the islands, but we were struck by the fact that mounds
and standing stones are associated with some inauguration sites of
Irish kings. Limited excavation on top of the mound in the summer of
1994 with Channel 4's Time Team failed to reveal the foot-stone. We
did, however, partially uncover a stone lined chamber, about one by
four metres and of unknown depth. Its function also eludes us but
must be the subject of further excavation in 1995.
possible explanation is that this chamber will turn out to be a
prehistoric grave - a tomb of the ancestors? Geophysical survey work
suggests there may have been other standing stones. Perhaps we will
be able to show that Finlaggan has a very long tradition of use as a
the 14th and 15th centuries it certainly appears Finlaggan was a
place of considerable importance. Like other lordly centres it was
probably not occupied all the time, but it was not merely a castle
or a manor house. Neither was it a town or a city like those which
acted as the administrative centres of other lordships. In Finlaggan
we may be seeing a peculiarly Celtic alternative to the towns and
castles of the rest of medieval Europe.
was a castle at Finlaggan which may have been destroyed during the
Wars of Independence in the early 14th century. Enigmatic remains of
lime mortared walls some five feet thick were discovered under the
supposed Council Chamber on Eilean na Comhairle. In the summer of
1994 when we attempted to find out more about it we instead
discovered that the island consisted of the ruins of an Iron Age
broch or dun, an earlier centre of power and status. When we do more
work to elucidate the development of the Council Island perhaps it
will be possible to show that there is continuity of use from
prehistoric times to the days of the Lords of the Isles.
Elsewhere on the main island prehistoric activity has been detected
in the form of flint tools, sherds of pottery and some pits. All of
this will require further research.
During the course of the excavations several finds were collected,
many of which have been displayed in the summer months in the
Visitor Centre maintained at the site by the Finlaggan Trust. These
finds, when fully studied, will give many fascinating insights into
life at Finlaggan, particularly in the time of the Lords of the
Isles. They include sherds of pottery, harp pins, playing pieces, a
Jew's harp and coins. An enamelled harness pendant with the French
royal arms suggests a visit in the 14th century by a French noble or
dignitary. In contrast a 14th-century pilgrim's badge from Rome is
presumably a memento of a pilgrimage to the Eternal City. This
person's identity will never be known but the badge is a fascinating
reminder of medieval devotion.
demise of Finlaggan as the centre of the Lordship of the Isles
appears to be tied up with the final forfeiture of John II Lord in
1493. The archaeology indicates that things changed dramatically at
Finlaggan about the end of the 15th century with buildings going out
of use and/or being dismantled or destroyed. It is thought that this
may reflect royal wrath against the MacDonalds. Perhaps when Maclan
of Ardnamurchan treacherously captured the MacDonalds of Dunyvaig at
Finlaggan in 1494 he was under instructions to destroy the place as
well, to prevent it ever again witnessing the rise to power of a
inimical to Stewart
Certainly in the 16th century Eilean Mor provided shelter to the
houses and barns of a farming township. Although no less worthy of
study than the earlier remains this was not a settlement of any
status. It will provide us with badly needed information on the way
of life of the ordinary people of Islay at this time. We also hope
that we will be able to extend this story of the people who occupied
the land around Finlaggan down to the present day - but that is
The remains of
the Dun (black) superceded by the castle (hatched), with the
Council Chamber (a) and other buildings (b,c) on the
excavation to date has shown the Council Island is mostly
artificial, an accumulation of ruined buildings from
of three buildings now traceable on the surface of the
Council Island appear to belong to the 15th century. The
largest one, at the back of the island, may be the actual
hall or chamber where the Council of the Isles met, with
next to it a private residence for the Lords themselves.
Much of the bulk
of the island may consist of the collapsed remains of an
Iron Age fort - a broch or a dun. Some of its walls have
already been traced, and the walls of the medieval castle
seem to be founded directly on its stone work. A fort of
this type would have been the home of an important chief.
The discovery of a polished stone axe in the 1994
excavations suggest that their may be yet earlier evidence
of occupation on Eilean na Comhairle.
In the 13th
century a castle, with
thick masonry walls held together with lime mortar, was
built on the island. It was probably destroyed,
systematically dismantled in the 14th century, perhaps in
the Wars of Independence when the support offered to Robert
Bruce by Angus Og made the MacDonalds unpopular with
other factions in the country.
Eilean Mor: Buildings P,N,C,H,J and V
along with the Hall and the Chapel are of medieval date. Buildings
M, L, K, Y ,F, S, T and U all probably date from the 16th Century.
The 3 buildings on Eilean na Comhairle
are meidieval, the largest possibly the Council Chamber of the Lords
of the Isles.
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