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.
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.
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.