A Dynastic Footprint By Eleanor MacDougall Fraser

Footprints in the sands of time are ephemeral, but footprints in the stones of time are enduring. So today it is possible for you to see that historical footprint which was used for the inauguration of the Lords of the Isles and the Chiefs of Clan Donald. This stone is to be found on an island on Loch Finlaggan in the island of Islay, known as the Queen of the Hebrides. The loch takes its name from St. Finlaggan, who it was said was a contemporary of St. Columba.

There are two natural islands in this fresh water loch. One is known as Eilean Mor, on which Somerled, the progenitor of the Lords of the Isles and of Clan Donald, built his luxury home in 1138. This was not a fort, he had plenty of them throughout Scotland, but a place of respite from the many battles in which he took part.

On this island of Eilean Mor there was also a chapel. These buildings had the distinction of having slated roofs – not of turf -as was usual. Some of these slates are to be seen in the Museum of Islay Life at Port Charlotte, Islay. Also, on Eilean Mor, there are ancient stones commemorating the lives of the wives and children of the Lords of the Isles who were buried in the chapel grounds. The Lords themselves were buried in lona, but not Somerled. He was killed in a battle at Renfrew in 1164, and was buried at Saddell Abbey, an abbey which he built near Southend, Kintyre.

The other island, Eilean a Comhairle, Isle of the Council was connected to Eilean Mor by a causeway. It was on this island that the clan chiefs met to discuss their business, especially their anti-feudal activities, and to make their laws. But, of the utmost importance on this island was the Sacred Footprint Stone. This was the Lia Fail -the Stone of Destiny – of the Kings and of the Lords of the Isles, on which they were inaugurated.

As solemn and full of ritual as any crowning of royalty today was that of Donald, grandson of Somerled, and founder of Clan Donald. Donald was inaugurated Lord of the Isles in 1207. During the ceremony, he stood with his foot in the Sacred Footprint, to denote that the qualities of the old chief were being transferred to him.

He was dressed in a white robe to indicate purity. A bishop handed him a white sceptre as an emblem signifying that he would rule with justice. Another bishop offered him a sword, probably the Great Sword of Somerled, which symbolised his power on land, and as Guardian of the Isles. This was very fitting as the motto of Clan Donald is “AIR MUIR’S AIR TIR” “BY SEA AND LAND”.

The foregoing ceremony was completed when Donald, the new chief, turned three times to the right as a sign of the Trinity. Then all those who were present, the bishops, the clan chiefs, the members of the clan, the blacksmiths, the sword makers, the gardeners, the musicians, the bards, and all the members of the household staff, shouted with a loud voice, MACDHOMNUILL! MACDHOMNUILL! MACDHOMNUILL!

It is more than likely that the celebrations which followed lasted more than a week. This was a grand opportunity for the bard to come into his own. He could express the excellent qualities of the new ruler to which the harpist would make suitable music. The dancing to the music of the pipes and of the fiddle let off some exuberance, and showed to advantage the beautiful dresses of the ladies. The occasion was also celebrated in the enjoyment of eating the grouse, the venison, the cheese, the fish from the loch and sea, and all washed with the uisge-beatha of the island.

The title of The Lord of the Isles, though used by the chiefs was not made official until the reign of John the First of Islay (1329-1380). This was an arrangement made by King Robert the Second. Then in 1493, during the Lordship of John the Second of Islay this title was forfeited by King James the Fourth.

But, in spite of that, until 1615, three more ‘High Chiefs of the Yillis’ ruled in Islay. They were James MacDonald of Islay, Angus MacDonald of Islay, and Sir James MacDonald of Islay. This last chief was compelled to go into exile when King James the Sixth gave Islay to the Clan Campbell.

In 1615 when the Clan Campbell arrived in Islay, oral tradition has it that some of the trusted clansmen hid the Footprint Stone under Eilean Mor. They were protective of its care because it was the crowning stone of the MacDonalds. There it lay for 350 years, and was brought to the surface after a party of school children had been on the island in 1965.

The secret of the Stone’s hiding place was well kept The knowledge of its whereabouts was passed on from father to son who fiercely guarded the secret because they claimed that stones had been removed from the island. These included a huge stone table which, I understand, may be seen in the hall of Inveraray Castle. Such are the fortunes of war. Inveraray Castle is the home of the Campbells of Argyll who were not welcome in Islay at that time.

The Footprint Stone had carvings on one side to disguise its true purpose from the Campbells that of the inauguration of the Lords of the Isles. The other side clearly shows the footprint, now split in two, as can be seen in the accompanying photograph.

After being raised, the Stone lay in a precarious position along with other precious and historic slabs among the ruins of the chapel on Eilean Mor until Monday August 17th 1987. On that day, the stones were removed for safer keeping, and now lie flat on level ground near the old chapel.

This work was carried out under the direction of Rob McDonald Parker, one of the trustees of The Finlaggan Trust and International Director of the Clan Donald Lands Trust, Skye. He was assisted by two of his countryside rangers, and members of the Finlaggan Trust. This was only a temporary move as they lay unprotected. While it is pleasing that pennission was given for the removal of the stones, much still has to be done before the remaining walls on the island collapse. This is of great importance to MacDonalds everywhere because it is the cradle of their clan, and the seat of the Lords of the Isles, a title which today is held by the Prince of Wales.

An effort led by Arra Fletcher, Persabus farm, Islay, in 1983 prevented these stones being moved from their environs at Finlaggan to the safety of the Museum of Islay Life at Port Charlotte.

The island of Finlaggan is a Scheduled Monument and is under the protection of the Secretary of State for Scotland.

History lies deep in the heart of island people, so at Finlaggan a trust was formed to ‘combat the deterioration of this valuable site, to assist in its preservation, and to encourage research relating to it.’

The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland have made a study of Finlaggan, and grant that it is a place of some importance.

No ephemeral footprint this one, but a permanent and tangible reminder that here the Clan MacDonald had its birth. And, who knows, some of us in searching for our ancestry may find that we also have our roots in Somerled and Finlaggan.

(The foregoing article refers to the period prior to the excavation work carried out in 1990 by the National Museums of Scotland under the direction of Dr David Caldwell. – Ed.)