finlaggan

When I considered the Islay walks I’d be capable of doing, the first place I thought of was Finlaggan. On the boat over from Kennacraig, I was longing to go, and we drove there as soon as we made landfall. During the Middle Ages, Western Scotland retained a strongly independent Gaelic culture whose political centre was Finlaggan – the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles. Here, on the tiny Eilean Na Comhairle (council island), under the governance of the MacDonalds, the representatives of the dispersed clans of the Hebrides and Kintyre retired for debate and decision making. Angus Og and his descendants developed well-respected methods of political administration, and under the Lordship, a distinctive West Highland culture flourished. The centrepieces of that culture – Finlaggan’s Great Hall and council chamber – were once impressive features of two islands that float above the water of a small inland loch, now connected to the mainland by a causeway. Lying under the shadow of the Paps of Jura, and sheltered by a low-rising wooded landscape, Finlaggan is a place that feels incredibly remote, both in space and time.

City-dwelling land-lubbers such as you or I might wonder why the Lords chose to situate their equivalent of a parliament here. Galleys are a feature of many of Islay’s medieval tombstones, as well as its great seal (shown left), and Finlaggan makes sense when you think like an islander of this period: someone who gets about on water rather than over land, and who regards the sea as something that connects rather than divides.

There are accessible harbours close to Finlaggan where boats from surrounding islands might be drawn ashore. After landing, the delegates would have had a short overland journey to their feast or council meeting, perhaps finding their way by the position of the Paps and the curious egg-shaped standing stone that sits above Finlaggan’s sloping shores.

(right, The Paps of Jura from Finlaggan)

Today, you make your way through the reeds to Eilean Mor (large island) over the path and wooden causeway maintained by the Finlaggan Trust. Wildflowers flourish along the shoreline: kingcup, shilasdair, and lady’s smock, also known as cuckoo flower, which is echoed by its namesake’s mocking call from the surrounding woods.

On Eilean Mor, one treads over centuries of archeological history from St. Findlugan’s chapel to the Lords’ Great Hall. In the remains of the chapel, some fine medieval tombstones are preserved under glass. (They are, because of this, impossible to photograph, but the Trust has kindly placed squeegees by the stones with which you can clear the glass in wet weather for a good view). MacGilleasbuig’s stone is particularly beautiful — the warrior’s features and the folds of his aketon are still clearly defined, and remind me of a Hanne Falkenberg design.

(picking my way over to the Great Hall)

For me, this was a wonderful walk. Since I put my Seven Hills plan on hold, I’ve not been getting about much on rough ground, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it manageable. I have found that however tired or stiff or unreliable my leg becomes, once one gets over one’s fear of falling over and strides forth with confidence, things are generally much easier. I happily limped about the island and the ruins with no trouble at all. And you simply cannot argue with the atmosphere of Finlaggan – the silent stones, the shivering reeds, the water plashing against the shoreline, and all under a spectacular Islay sky that can shift in seconds from bright to brooding. I am not really one for being spooked by places and their associations, but there is certainly something compelling about the council isle – an artificial mound (apparently) formed from the ruins of more ancient structures; its causeway long gone, and no longer accessible on foot. It is, effectively, an island within an island within an island: the political heart of the Hebrides and, as such, more impressive to me than any castle or throne.

(view from Eilean Mor to Eilean Na Comhairle)

If you are going for a walk to Finlaggan, I recommend making the trip twice: once during the day when the visitor centre is open, and once at dusk when there is no-one else around. If the latter, you can leave a donation in the box by the causeway to support the admirable but woefully underfunded work of the Finlaggan Trust.

It is a wonderful place.

32 responses

  1. That last photograph is stunning.

    Lovely too, to read a post from Islay – I love that part of the world. Last summer we stayed on Skye and it was a revelation to consider the inlets and waterways between the islands as a sort of ancient motorway system – sorry, not a very beautiful comparison, I know.

  2. How interesting- you had me spellbound. There’s something very special about these calm, empty (of 21st century civilization) places, that can also be found on top of some of the Lakeland fells, especially around a high tarn, or in some of the remote Celtic sites in Ireland. A sense of well-being seems to emanate from them that can be very sustaining. Thanks for transporting me back to those feelings.

  3. Thank you for your lovely photos and word pictures. The combination of water and hills always takes my breath away. There is plenty of water in the Netherlands, picturesque even, but no where near the effect of these Scottish views. On a day when my (too) far off family is causing me worry, you provided some peace.

    Thanks,
    Dawn

  4. Kate once again you have managed to transport me to your exotic location. the pictures you and Tom take are so stunningly beautiful. I find your pictures mythical and misty- soft and mossy green yet harsh with rocky terrain- your prose lyrical and thought provoking. I often wonder if you find your location as exotic as I do. I wish I could travel to see your countryside in person. I am glad that you are getting out more and more and taking all of us on your walks.
    good luck with thurs appointment. I will think good thoughts for you and hope for good results

  5. How stunning, I’ve never been to Islay but I’d love to one day. I am going up to the North of Scotland at the end of the month to my beloved Achnahaird – I can’t wait.

  6. This is so evocative. Somewhere that has interested me since writing an undergrad long essay on the Lordship – being a history student and a Macdonald – umpteen years ago. I wonder if you have read Alastair Moffat’s ‘The Sea Kingdoms’, a brilliantly scholarly and readable history of ‘Celtic’ Britain that turns received perceptions of power and influence in the British Isles on their heads. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the non-Saxon history of Britain (and frequently do).

  7. It’s so nice to hear about you having a good time! I’m on a family holiday on Scotland at the moment – it’s only my second visit, so I haven’t got much past tartan and whisky yet, but the Highland Folk Museum was very interesting today. The turf-roofed township and some of the other buildings reminded me a lot of the kind of buildings I saw in Iceland. And Finlaggan sounds a bit like Thingvellir, the old site of the outdoor Icelandic parliament too – there aren’t any ruins, really, but it’s still very atmospheric and evocative.

  8. What a happy post ! As you wrote in the previous one, you do sound enlivened, and it was lovely to hear again your voice (figuratively, of course, but your writing is so personal that I really do hear a distinctive voice when I read you) with such an enthusiastic ring to it. Finding different ways of doing your favourite things so you may continue being you is wonderful. Thank you for the beautiful pictures, they open a lovely window in my parisian life.

  9. Fabulous stuff – as always….so glad it was a good trip….I have a soft spot for vans too…we had one when I was wee thing and we lived in Edinburgh for a second…I have fond memories of our VW campervan which I used to call the Daddycar….how very politically incorrect of me. I haven’t been in one since but often fantasise about a camping van holiday in NZ which also has beautiful landscapes. Keep shovelling down that cereal – you never know your luck !!

  10. I loved your comment about getting over your fear of falling over while walking with your leg. I found that getting over my fear of falling over was the key to enjoying my first backpacking trip recently, on a trail that seemed to be more leaping from stone to stone with a heavy borrowed pack rather than a walk on any defined trail. Getting past the fear – that’s the key.

  11. When my kids were smaller they went through a phase of requesting Celtic stories. We had quite a stack of picture books about Irish legends – they particularly enjoyed one about the Giant’s Causeway. As they got bigger they liked Kate Thompson’s book ‘The New Policeman’. Thompson is E.P. Thompson’s daughter and writes some wonderful whimsy. You might enjoy.

    When my middle child was a baby (as opposed to the tall 10 year old he is now) he was under the cardiologists at the Edinburgh sick kids hospital. I was reassured by medical friends in the know that if you had a heart problem Edinburgh was a good place to be. But I’m sure you know that. Best of luck with the appointment, Joan

  12. Dear Kate, hope that your appoinmtent with the cardiologist goes well today and that you do have ‘the right sort of hole in your heart’!

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