"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Loch Finlaggan and the Council of the Isles

When Barnard visited Lagavulin he identified Dun-naomhaig (Dunyvaig) Castle as a stronghold of the Lords of the Isles and he briefly mentions Loch Finlaggan where the Council of the Isles met and the King was crowned:
“The picturesque ruins of the principal castle and chapel where the Lords of the Isles resided in royal pomp are on an islet in Loch Finlaggan, a lake three miles in circumference, and several traces are still to be seen on its shore of a pier and habitations used by their guards and men-at-arms. In former times a large stone was to be seen on which the MacDonalds stood when crowned King of the Isles by the Bishop of Argyle.”
Loch Finlaggan
It is not clear if Barnard ever visited Finlaggan himself and he doesn’t mention either it or the MacDonalds in any other Islay report.  He doesn’t attribute a source for his description above but it is almost certainly taken and adapted from Anderson's Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, first published in 1834, and I can imagine that Barnard carried a copy of this with him on his travels, to help guide him and open his eyes to Scottish history and culture.

However, he is prone to embellishment at times and the words “resided in royal pomp” above are his addition, presumably because the book actually states “principal castle or palace and chapel”.  Celebrations and feasting were then part of the Gaelic culture, however the royal nature of the Lordship was not akin to that in Medieval England, and the clan structure was certainly less pompous that the royal lineage in England, France or even mainland Scotland.  We have seen Barnard’s revisionist style before at Dalaruan Distillery in Campbeltown and it seems like an editorial decision, perhaps to help the London readers of Harpers to identify with the story?

Some of his revisions are done for effect though, or to help narrate a story, and of one particularly violent tale about the Lord’s bodyguard he embellishes the story a little and introduces it’s gory details with relish and wry anticipation - “The last gang was destroyed in so ludicrous a manner, yet withal so sanguinary, that we cannot forbear relating the tale to our readers”.

The full historical description of Islay from 180 years ago is an interesting snapshot of island life at the time, following Martin Martin and Boswell and Johnston’s descriptive journeys in preceding centuries, and it can be viewed in an online book, p570 onward; the bloodthirsty amongst you can skip to p578-9 for the short tale that Barnard recorded.

The approach to Eilean Mor
The first Lord of the Isles was Somerled, son of Gille Bride, who, in the 12th century, fought and vanquished the Norsemen from the Hebridean islands that his ancestors had once ruled.  Two generations later his grandson Donald was the head of Clan Donald as it claimed its position as ‘Ceannas nan Gaidheal’ – the Headship of the Gael.  For over two hundred years Gaelic culture spread and flourished on the west coast of Scotland, overseen from the small island of Eilean Mor in Loch Finlaggan and the ‘Council Isle’ beside it.  The loch played a very important role in the development of Scotland as a nation and in the survival of Gaelic culture.

The MacDonalds were renowned for their poetry, music and craftsmanship.  The history and culture of the people survived through oral traditions – instruction, history and morals passed on in song and verse rather than writing.  At a time when it was easier to travel long distances by sea than by land, the Lords of the Isles were skilled seafarers and this enabled them to rule the entire western seaboard, from Kintyre to Lewis, from their base on Islay.

Ruined chapel and view to the Paps of Jura
Finlaggan had been occupied by earlier peoples and there is evidence of settlement from the Neolithic through to the Iron Age and beyond, both on the shore and on ‘crannogs’, or artificial islands in the loch.  These earlier communities introduced and relied on agriculture and so aspects of the landscape would play an important part in their celebrations and rituals.  The importance of Finlaggan as a location for settlement is enhanced by the view north-east to where the Paps of Jura, considered symbols of fertility and perhaps worshiped in the name of a mother goddess, stand bold on the horizon.  A sense of place and belonging were also important and the continuity of settlement through to the medieval period conferred authority to the Lord to rule these lands in the name of his ancestors.

Council Isle beyond the ruins of the Great Hall
The Council Isle, Eilean Na Comhairle, lies just off Eilean Mor and would have been reached by a causeway.  This was where the Nobles and Clan Elders would meet to discuss matters of land, to dispense justice and to inaugurate each new Lord.  Here lay a large stone with the carved outline of a footstep wherein the new Lord would stand when crowned to show the continuity of the right to govern these lands.  A similar footprint can be seen at Fort Dunadd near Kilmartin, once the capital of the Kingdom of Dalriada in the 6-8th centuries and a precursor to the Lordship of the Isles.

Footprint of the King at Fort Dunadd near Kilmartin
By the 15th century Scotland was in political upheaval and the Lords of the Isles were not to survive through it.  After numerous battles their lands were forfeited in 1493 and the title eventually passed to the crown in 1542.  In Barnard’s Lagavulin report he includes a verse that is also in the guide book but unattributed.  I haven’t been able to trace its origins although it sounds like it may be from Sir Walter Scott who died just before the guide was first published:

"Where are thy pristine glories, Finlaggan!
The voice of mirth has ceased to ring thy walls,
Where Celtic lords and their fair ladies sang
Their songs of joy in Great MacDonald's halls.
And where true knights, the flower of chivalry,
Oft met their chiefs in revelry -
All, all are gone and left thee to repose,
Since a new race and measures new arose."

Another poem in the 16th century book of the Dean of Lismore carries the mournful lament “It is no joy without Clan Donald” in longing for the days when music and laughter, kinship and valour were the bonds for a people spread throughout this littoral realm.

The buildings on Eilean Mor and Council Isle now lie ruined, some built over by later farm steadings themselves now gone, but the history is not forgotten.  The Finlaggan Trust oversees these two small but influential islands and there is a visitor centre on the shore where the history is told.  A wooden causeway crosses the marsh to Eilean Mor where information boards tell the story and the landscape provides atmosphere and inspiration.  The old chapel contains graves that are covered by historic carved grave slabs, one carrying the motif of a galley ship, symbolic of the Lordship of the Isles.
Buzzard? at Loch Finlaggan
I came this way twice during my stay on Islay, once in daylight to take photographs and get a sense of the location, and once at dusk to scare the hell out of myself.  Actually that wasn’t my objective but the ghosts decided otherwise.  In daylight there is a quiet sadness to the place, a sense of loss and it is hard to imagine the scenes of celebration that once gave life to a community here.  We fleeting visitors are the only life now, and a recent wedding party who held a torch lit procession here at midnight in a brief reflection of the past, and the birds that nest by the shore.
Loch Finlaggan at dusk
At dusk, wisps of mist floated on the calm water and the moon glimmered through the menacing clouds that had gathered to dampen the end of the week, all adding to an atmosphere of foreboding.  My heart pounded as I crossed the causeway in the gloom and my torch was a blessing when reaching the isle in near darkness.  I had hoped to watch the sun set at the far end of the loch but the clouds conspired against me and left me there with both types of chill running down my back.  When I reached the far end of Eilean Mor my camera flash wouldn’t carry to light up the Council Isle so I turned for home, a little dejected and also a little happy to soon be free of the darkness.

A splash in the loch just off shore stopped me for a moment, the next splash got me moving a little quicker than I had before.  By the time I had reached my car I had convinced myself that it was probably a fish catching twilight flies on the surface of the loch and my nerves eased a little.  Not for long.  Sitting in my car writing up some thoughts I began to hear an intermittent tap from the back of my car.  Keen to reassure myself I quickly guessed that it was just my exhaust cooling, until I remembered that I had parked about an hour ago and by the time the tapping got louder I was heating up that exhaust again as I hightailed it up the track.

Ruins of the Great Hall and Chapel with the Paps of Jura
I later reflected on the timeless nature of this landscape, ultimately claimed only by the elements, and our ancestors, those who lived, ruled and were buried here in centuries passed, were but temporary guardians of a place for their people and their beliefs.  Yet we remember them, as they too both celebrated and offered continuity to their predecessors, their footsteps on the landscape now just shadows in our memory.  Tread there not with fear or foreboding, but with rejoicing for the legacy that they brought us.

Right through to today those traditions are still strong in the Western Isles where many are born blessed with the gift of music and song.  These traditions are celebrated at the Royal National Mòd, a festival of Gaelic culture that is held at a different location each year.  This year the Mòd will be based around Stornoway and the first spirit distilled at the Abhainn Dearg Distillery on Lewis will have aged three years just in time to be poured there as whisky for the first time.

The Mòd, sometimes less formally known as the Whisky Olympics, has its roots in traditions that were once held dear at Loch Finlaggan.  There is still joy with Clan Donald and it survives and flourishes, along with many other clans, through the interest and involvement of the Scots Diaspora, whose ancestors may once also have found joy at Finlaggan.