The Finlaggan Dig by David H Caldwell Assistant Keeper, National Museums of Scotland

The 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 Inc.

When 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.

In 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.

The 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.

We have also identified the remains of several other buildings 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 have identified as the possible site of the inauguration ceremonies of the Lords of the Isles.

These 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.

One 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 ritual centre.

In 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.

There 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.

The 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 local dynasty inimical to Stewart interests.

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 another story!

The Council Island

The remains of the Dun (black) superceded by the castle (hatched), with the Council Chamber (a) and other buildings (b,c) on the surface.

Limited excavation to date has shown the Council Island is mostly artificial, an accumulation of ruined buildings from different eras.

The Council Chamber

The foundations 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.

The Dun

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.


The Castle

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.