Look at a map of Scotland. Notice the position of the Isle of Islay. It lies near the Isle of Jura, off the coast of Argyll. From this fairly central base, independent of the Kings of Scotland, the Lords of the Isles ruled over a vast territory. This included the Outer Hebrides to the north and the Isle of Man to the south as well as much of the northwest coast of the Scottish mainland.
Cutting into the Isle of Islay in the south, Loch Indall runs far inland. Similarly, Loch Gruinart on the north coast would have provided shelter for galleys seeking a safe harbour from that direction. It is likely that a retinue with horses would have met returning warriors, the nobility at least, to transport them the last few miles to the security of their island home on Finlaggan Loch.
Nowadays most people sail to Islay on a big, comfortable ferry. They leave the mainland from Kennacraig, at the top of the Kintyre peninsula, and disembark either at Port Ellen or Port Askaig. From Port Ellen the two lane road runs north, roughly following the shoreline of Loch Indall to Bowmore, the ‘capital’ of the island. A few miles on at Bridgend, one fork of the road turns south and heads down the west side of Loch Indall while the other branch leads to Port Askaig in the northeast corner of Islay.
Nearing Port Askaig, most drivers probably speed past the sign to Finlaggan. It points down a narrow farm road with a few widened places that allow traffic to overtake. The road ends at an old cottage, now refurbished as the Visitor Centre of the Finlaggan Trust, a voluntary organisation set up in 1984. The Trust works to combat the deterioration of this valuable site, encourages research relating to it, and assists in its preservation.
Behind the Visitor Centre, Finlaggan Loch is not especially beautiful or set in dramatic scenery. The surrounding hills are not overly steep or high. But it’s easy to imagine soldiers guarding the approaches to the islands in the loch. For it was here, on Eilean Mor (Gaelic: large island) that the Lords of the Isles had their headquarters. It is assumed they built on the site of an earlier Christian monastery established by Irish monks led by Findlugan, a contemporary of St Columba (born 521).
Today, from the Finlaggan Trust Visitor Centre, you can walk along a grass path to the loch side then cross by a wooden walkway onto Eilean Mor. The first noticeable ruins are the remains of the church. Inside the crumbling walls, gravestones found nearby have been laid horizontally. According to ancient tradition, Eilean Mor was the burial place for the wives and children of the Lords of the Isles while the Lords themselves were interred on the Island of Iona. The stones are now protected from the worst of the weather by sheets of glass. One carved stone shows an effigy of a man in armour clutching a sword with an image of his galley beneath his feet. He is wearing an aketon, a quilted garment that would have been worn over his armour. In one hand he is clutching a sword.
From the church, it’s only a few steps to the remains of the grand hall. Now a mere overgrown outline, it was once used by the Lords of the Isles as a place for feasting and social entertainment.
The next ruin, with gable ends still standing, is assumed to have been the residential quarters of the Lords of the Isles. Like the other structures, it appears to present - day eyes at least, to have been somewhat less than grand.
Lying further out in the loch is another smaller island linked to Eilean Mor by an underwater causeway. This is Eilean na Comhairle (Gaelic: Council Island), where the Lords of the Isles and their Council of fourteen members deliberated at a stone table. They issued edicts, instructions, and rulings affecting their territories, as well as administering justice.
The Isle of Islay had attracted settlers from the northern shores of Ireland from at least the 3rd century. They were known as Scots by the Romans but called themselves Gaidheil or Gaels.
From Norway came Viking raiders who sailed across the North Sea bringing terror and destruction. After them, in the late 8th century, came more peaceable Norse settlers to colonise the Sudreys, or Southern Islands, which included the Isle of Man. Islay was central in this island kingdom.
Where large scale Norse settlement took place, the intermingled population was given a new name by Gaels in neighbouring parts of Argyll free from Norse settlers – the Gall-Gael or foreign Gaels. Their allegiance, which included their military and social organisation, was to prove crucial as the Scottish and Norwegian Kings competed for territory in the Western Isles.
It was the offspring of a mixed marriage, the son of a Gaelic father and a Norse mother, who ‘turned the tide’ of Norse political and military influence and reasserted Gaelic control in the Western Isles. This was Somerled, universally acclaimed by Gaelic tradition as the founder of the Lordship of the isles.
According to tradition, Somerled’s father was Gille-Bhride, a descendent of Angus of Islay, the son of Fergus of Dalriada. Gille-Bhride took a Norse wife and their son was named Sumarlidi, the Summer Traveller – a common name amongst Vikings who used the summer months for their voyages. When Somerled reached maturity, so the story goes, he exhorted his father and supporters to action. They outmanoeuvred Norse garrisons in Morvern, and by AD 1156 had driven the Norse men out of mainland Argyll and defeated the galleys of Olaf, the ruler of the Isle of Man.
Marine historians have pointed out that the Hebridean galley, or ‘biorlinn’ (Gaelic: short blade), was eminently suited to coastal trading in the Western Isles and Irish Sea but could not hope to match the Viking longship as a fighting machine. Somerled seems to have built a fleet of newly designed ships incorporating features that made it possible to outmanoeuvre the Norse longships at close quarters. These new ships had a hinged rudder and a fighting top at the masthead, and were known as Nyvaig (Gaelic: Naibheag: little ship). The new design can be seen on Somerled’s seal on a charter given by his son Ragnall (Reginald - sometimes Ranald) to Paisley Abbey in1175.
In a subsequent settlement, Somerled made peace with Olaf, gaining control of the southern Hebrides, including Islay. He married Olaf’s daughter, Ragnild (Ragnhilda) to consummate the bargain. From this union are descended the MacDonalds and the MacDougalls.
Somerled was killed at Renfrew, near Glasgow, in 1164, on what is now the site of Glasgow Airport. He was assassinated in his tent during the night while preparing to negotiate with and, if necessary do battle with the Scottish King Malcolm 4th. Their argument was over policies of the Scottish court which had been put in place years earlier.
On Somerled’s death, his lands were divided amongst his sons. Dugall got the islands except for Islay, and the mainland district of Lorn - from him was descended the Clan MacDougall. Reginald (Ranald) ruled in Islay and Kintyre and inherited Somerled’s navy. The third son, Angus held Arran and Bute.
To protect the fleet, Somerled’s grandson Donald, (son of Ranald), from whom the MacDonalds claim descent, built a castle on Lagavulin Bay on the south coast of Islay. Nothing can be seen of this stronghold today but there are visible remains of Dunivaig Castle built later on the site, probably in the 16th and early 17th centuries.
The ruling line continued down the years. The 17th century historian, Hugh MacDonald in a much - quoted passage has given a valuable description of the ceremony of installation of the Lords of the Isles.
‘Sometimes seven priests were present but a bishop was always present along with the chieftains of all the principal families, and a Ruler of the Isles. There was a square stone seven or eight feet long with the shape of a man’s foot cut into the stone where the Ruler of the Isles stood, denoting that he should walk in the footsteps and uprightness of his predecessors and that he was installed by right in his possessions.
He was clothed in a white habit, to show his innocence and integrity of heart; that he would be a light to his people and maintain the true religion. The white apparel did afterwards belong to the poet by right. Then he was to receive a white rod in his hand, intimating that he had power to rule, not with tyranny and partiality, but with discretion and sincerity. Then he received his forefather’s sword, signifying that he was obliged to protect his people and defend them from the incursions of their enemies in peace as in war.
After this ceremony there was a Mass. After being blessed by the bishop and seven priests the people prayed for the success and prosperity of their new - created Lord.
When they were dismissed, the Lord of the Isles feasted them for a week thereafter; gave liberally to the monks, poets, bards and musicians. You may judge that they spent liberally without any exceptions of persons.’
John, First Lord of the Isles, known as Good John of Islay, largely because of his beneficence to religious communities, assumed the title Lord of the Isles from circa 1354 -1380. By paying lip service to the kings of the mainland, he kept his lands safe and by clever changes of support of various factions he expanded his territories by treaties as well as by marriage alliances.
John reroofed the chapel on Eilean Mor and is believed to have founded the churches at Kildalton and Kilnave on Islay, as well as encouraging the carving of stone crosses. He died aged at least eighty years old, at Ardtornish Castle on the Sound of Mull. He left behind a large and scattered Lordship linked by the sea. Peace reigned within its borders and continued for the next hundred years though increasingly there were wars on the mainland.
In the 15th century the Lords of the Isles claimed the earldom of Ross through marriage. The earldom consisted of the Isle of Skye and much of the north of Scotland. The claim was disputed which led to the Battle of Harlaw, a few miles from Aberdeen, in 1411. Donald, Lord of the Isles headed an army against the royal forces under the Earl of Mar. Though both sides claimed victory there seems to have been no definite outcome. The earldom was eventually acquired by Alexander, (son of Donald), in 1433.
John 2nd (Fourth Lord of the Isles 1449 – 1493) also became very involved in wars against the Scottish crown and was eventually overcome. The lands of the Lordship were forfeited in August 1493 and this time it became permanent.
Determined to put an end to a challenge that had been a thorn in the side of Scottish kings for two hundred years, James 4th of Scotland undertook a series of campaigns in the west after 1493. Unfortunately, but with the best of intentions, he distributed the forfeited lands amongst lesser lairds and chiefs who immediately set in motion a couple of centuries of unrest in their efforts to establish themselves in the struggle for power.
It was left to James 6th ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’ to sort out the bloody mess. In 1603, after the Union of the Crowns, James sent Lord Ochiltree to the Island of Mull to secure the castles and provide a safe base for further action against his fractious, unwilling subjects. Ochiltree then invited all the Hebridean chiefs to a conference at Aros Castle to discuss ways and means of bringing Hebridean violence to an end. When the chiefs duly arrived, being eager to air their grievances, Ochiltree slammed them into the hold of HMS Moon which had been anchored conveniently for that purpose. The chiefs were then taken to Edinburgh and imprisoned in the castle until they came to their senses. Eventually, reluctantly, they signed an agreement that would ensure peace in the Isles.
The title Lord of the Isles was inalienably annexed to the Crown in 1542 and is now one of the titles of the present Prince of Wales.
First published in The Highlander Magazine
The Magazine of Scottish Heritage