The mist hung low on the hills and a light breeze rippled the dark waters of the loch as we wandered down the grassy slopes to ancient Finlaggan. The beautiful Isle of Islay (Eilean Ìle) may be more famous for its whiskies, such as Laphroaig, Bowmore and Lagavullin, than for its scenery or its history, but few of the Scottish islands can boast the diversity of this the garden of the Hebrides. Today Islay is a tranquil, settled place, whether you are relaxing amid the golden sands of the western beaches, or simply enjoying a wee dram; but this was once a busy and important place.
Whenever I come to Islay, with or without a tour group, no visit is complete for me without coming to Finlaggan. It’s a special place, full of ghosts and voices ringing from a long lost past, and this day with the mist cloaking the heather hills that past seemed closer than ever. Islay takes its name from the Norse, and translates as Yula’s Isle (Yula is a personal name), and over 900 years ago the island, along with rest of the Hebrides, was under Viking rule; but all this was about to change.
In the 12th century there rose in the west a powerful Gaelic warlord, with both Celtic and Norse ancestry, who would change the political landscape of the Isles and the Highlands more than any man before or since: his name was Somerled. Until this time the Hebrides and Northern Isles were loosely held in a confederation loyal firstly to the Jarl of Orkney and ultimately the King of Norway, but in reality controlled by robber-barons and petty chiefs – each of them ripe for the picking. Somerled, a genuine military genius and a man on a mission beat the Viking overlords at their own game, and by the middle of the century he had taken control over all of the Inner Hebrides from Skye all the way to Islay, and on south to the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. He styled himself as the Rex Insularum meaning ‘king of the isles’, but it was another king, one in the east that would cement Somerled’s power.
David I was the greatest and most influential of Scotland’s medieval monarchs and Somerled pinned his colours to this most charismatic of Canmore kings. The western warrior became an increasingly important adviser to the king, which earned him many enemies at court. When David died and was succeeded by his young grandson, those elements conspired against him and he was killed in battle near Glasgow. The power passed ultimately to Somerled’s grandson Donald, and then through his lineage – the mighty Clan MacDonald.
These Sons of Donald would rule the west as the all powerful Lords of the Isles, free princes with only a nominal allegiance to the king of Scots. The Lordship was a fairly benign affair, and peace was guaranteed by a strict moral code and by the carrot and stick approach adopted by the MacDonalds towards their lands and their people. And indeed peace did rule in the Highlands, and this was very much the halcyon days in the west. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and two high speed trains were on a collision course that would plunge the Highlands and Islands into a new dark age.
The Royal House of Stewart assumed the throne in 1371 and over the next 40 years they spent every waking hour consolidating earldoms and lordships across the country, building up a monopoly of power. The critical moment came with the death of the Earl of Ross in the early 15th century, and his title was contested both by the Stewart Regent the Duke of Albany and by the Lord of the Isles. Pre-empting the duke’s actions, John MacDonald of the Isles launched an attack on the Scottish heartlands, taking control of Inverness and marching on Aberdeen. The two armies met 15 miles from the Granite City at Harlaw on the 24th of July 1411; it would prove a bloody affair.
The Battle of Harlaw, the bloodiest in Scottish history, was a seminal moment for the north. The fight was a stalemate, but in reality it was a defeat for the MacDonald, and it saw the beginning of the end of the position, title and power of the Lord of the Isles. To a certain extent the Lordship had become an anachronism, a throwback to Viking warlords at a time when European kingdoms were consolidating and entering the Renaissance. With its open and continued defiance of the Stewarts over the following decades, it became increasing isolated and finally with internal strife ripping at its heart the Lordship of the Isles was forfeited to the Scottish Crown, where it remains.
There is an old Highland saying – “Great is my sorrow, for there is no joy without Clan Donald”. The fall of the Lordship saw the Highlands and Islands descend into internecine warfare, and every square inch up for grabs by some opportunistic warlord. This was the day of the clan, a system designed solely to provide enough swords to defend that square inch from your neighbour. A system that would dominate, stifle and control the Highlands until Wednesday 16th April 1746.
Today Finlaggan is a remote, hidden place, but a real gem – a truly eerie place, where you can still feel those old lords, and a time now long lost. Enjoy your dram on Islay, but appreciate its past just as much.
As well as eight great distilleries of distinction there is plenty more to see and do on Islay – fantastic walking out to places like the Mull of Oa, chilling out watching the Atlantic breakers at Machrie or Saligo Bay; perhaps do some wildlife spotting or maybe dig deeper into the history of this great island – including the wonderful Kildalton Cross. Any tour package we arrange involves all of this and more to really bring Islay to life, and to understand the whisky you need to know the island.