Finlaggan Castle, Isle of Islay

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Northwest of Ballygrant, Islay


Off A846


PA45 7QT

Finlaggan is the seat of the Lords of the Isles, whose kingdom included the Hebrides, part of north- east Scotland and north Ireland.

The Lords had their residence on Eilean Mor, the largest of the three Islands on Loch Finlaggan.

The smaller Eilean na Comhairle being the important council island, or where the parliament of the Isles would meet.

In terms of importance to Scottish Gaelic history, Finlaggan his no equal. Although now very ruinous, there are few locations that capture the imagination and significance when exploring the islands.

~ History ~

1066 ~ The Norse leader Godred Crovan, ruler of the Isle of Man and Dublin, joins forces with King Harald Hardrada of Norway in his invasion of England to sieze the crown from the Saxon Harald Godwinson. The combined Norse fleet of some 200 fighting longships land 8,000 men on the coast of Yorkshire. They are strengthened by a Saxon Army led by the exiled Earl Tostig, brother to Harald Godwinson, King of England. However, the combined army is routed by the Saxon's at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, with Harald Hardrada fleeing with what remains of his army in just 24 longships. Godred Crovan flees back to the Isle of Man before heading to his base at Finlaggan on the isle of Islay.

1156 ~ Somerled, Lord of Argyll, is approached by some key Lords of the Isle of Man to take the throne of Man from the tyranical Godred II, great-grandson of Godred Crovan. Somerled having recently expelled the Norse Vikings from Argyll to recover his fathers lands, and having married Godred's half sister Ragnhildis, is the only powerful warlord capable of taking on Godred. Their war galley's meet at the Battle of Caolila, north of the Isle of Islay, resulting in a stalemate. They are forced to agree to divide the Isles and Man between them.

1158 ~ Following an uneasy truce between the two most powerful warlords in the Irish Sea and Hebrides, Somerled sails his fleet to the Isle of Man forcing Godred to flee. King Inge of Norway proclaims Somerled as King of Man and the Isles. He establishes his fleet at Dunyvaig, a protected bay on Islay, and his main seat at Finlaggan

1164 ~ Somerled's relationship with the Scottish Crown under King David had been a strong one, extended to him leading his men into battle for the Scottish Crown against the English at the Battle of Standard. However, following King Malcolm coming to the throne this relationship is utterly broken following growing pressure from the Scottish Crown, supported by their Norman Knights, to bring the Isles under royal influence and eventual control. Somerled leads a pre emptive strike against the King but is defeated and killed at the Battle of Renfrew. His island kingdom is divided up by his remaining sons and Godred II, recovering the Isle of Man. Finlaggan on Islay is taken by Somerled's second eldest son, Ranald.

Ranald rules his kingdom from Finlaggan, establishing new laws and parliament. The timber defences of Finlaggan are strengthened and the beginings of a stone tower on the council island are built.

1207 ~ Following Ranald's death, his eldest son Donald significantly expands the already growing influence over his brother's Ruairi's territory and also sets him in conflict with his MacDougal cousins and Irish rulers, whilst balancing duel fealty to both the King's of Norway and Scotland.

1247 ~ Donald's involvement in Irish affairs leads to his death whilst on campaign in Ireland in support of the O'Donnells.

1256 ~ From his seat at Finlaggan, Donald's son Angus, follows his fathers policy to involve himself in Irish affairs, supporting Brian O'Neill, King of Ulster's rebellion against the English.

1263 ~ With the growing influence and threat of the Scottish Crown over the Western Isle kingdom, at the expense of Norse allegiance, King Hakon IV of Norway decides to reinforce Norse control. Angus MacDonald can see for himself how significant this growing threat from the Scottish Crown is on his own kingdom, and not wanting to take sides between the two rival Kings, is eventually forced to send men and ships to support King Hakon's campaign against the Scots, which culminates in the Battle of Largs. The Norse fleet are forced to withdraw, leaving the western isle kingdom's open to the growing threat of the Scottish Crown. Hakon dies on return to Norway whilst in anchorage in Orkney, leaving his successor Magnus VI to later cede the Western Isles back to Scotland under the Treaty of Perth.

1286 ~ Angus MacDonald's growing interests and influence in Scottish affairs see's him present at Parliament with his son, Angus Og, approving Margaret, Maid of Norway, as heir to the vacant Scottish throne.

Following Margaret's unexpected death, Angus and his son are both signaturies to the Turnberry Bond, supporting the Bruce's claim to the Scottish throne.

1306 ~ Following Robert the Bruce being crowned King of Scotland and then his defeat soon after to the English and then to the MacDougall's, whilst on the run fleeing into the Western Highlands, Angus Og, now chief of clan MacDonald, is sought out by the Bruce who agrees to support his cause and give sanctuary within his kingdom, and then off the coast of Ireland. 

As a direct result of Angus Og's support, Robert the Bruce is able to raise and army and return to Scotland to reclaim his kingdom from the English. The MacDougall's part in supporting the English is not forgotten, with Robert the Bruce taking vegence out against the MacDonald's clan cousins and bitter rivals. The extensive MacDougall petty kingdom of Lorne and its islands are granted to the MacDonalds as well as other key supporters of the Bruce, including the Campbells.

1318 ~ The MacDonalds and MacRuairi's are heavily involved in the Bruce's attempts to counter the growing threat of the English in Ireland, with the provision of war galley's, men and supplies. As the English gain the upper hand within the constant in-fighting between warring Irish rulers and kings. Edward Bruce and the leaders of Clan Donald and Ruairi are killed at the Battle of Faughart in County Louth, Ireland. In order to secure Scotland against the English, Robert the Bruce brings the Western Isles under tighter Crown control, making Argyll a sheriffdom and building a castle at Tarbert. These moves prove unpopular with Island clans, suspicious of Scottish Crown ambitions over the semi-independant Kingdom.

1329 ~ With the death of King Robert I of Scotland, John MacDonald of Islay,  rises to prominence amongst all the clans of the Western isles. Having control of the Western Seaboard is recognised as being critical to both the English and Scottish Crown's as war again breaks out, with the English attempting to return the Balliol's to the throne as their puppet King.

1335 ~ Edward Balliol gives John an indenture, ratified by King Edward III of England, promising him Islay, half of Jura, Colonsay, Gigha, Mull, Skye, Lewis, Kintyre, Knapdale, Morvern and Ardnamurchan, as Lord of the Isles, in return for his support.

1341 ~ David II returns from France, where he had fled for safety, retaiking his throne as King of Scotland. He revokes Edward Balliol's grant bought for the support of the MacDonalds. However, two years later he reconfirms John of Islay to his original ancestral territories. The chapel at Finlaggen, among many others with his kingdom, are restored.

1387 ~ Donald, son of John's second wife, Princess Margaret Stewart of Scotland, sister to King David II, is inaugurated as Lord of the Isles over his elder brother, from his father's first marriage who instead inherits his mother's lands in the Outer Hebrides. However, Donald's younger brother John, had previously been the chosen successor and so rebels. He is defeated and so flees to Ulster where, through marriage, his becomes head of the McDonnell Earls of Antrim. Soon after this the brothers quarrel is resolved, with John inheriting Dunyvaig Castle on Islay, near the ancient MacDonald seat of Finlaggan.

1411 ~ Donald significantly  increases the MacDonald lands through marriage to claim the Earldom of Ross. This however brings the MacDonald's in direct conflict with Robert Stewart, the Regent of Scotland, who had taken control of the Earldom. Donald decides to press home his claim by force of arms and invades Ross. He defeats a large force of MacKay's at the Battle of Dingwall, before capturing the castle. He then marches on Aberdeen with 10,000 clansmen. He is met by 2,000 armoured soldiers led by the Earl of Mar. After the Battle of Harlaw and losing 900 of his clansmen, Donald decides to withdraw to his Isle Kingdom.

1423 ~ Donald dies at Ardtornish Castle, passing the Lordship and claim to Ross to his son Alexander.

1428 ~ King James I has been ransomed from the English to take the vacant Scottish Crown. He immediately sets about establishing his authority amongst his nobles, including Alexander MacDonald, now Master of the Earldom of Ross.

He invites Alexander and his mother, together with fifty other important lords whose power he wishes to curb, to a Parliament in Inverness. There he has them all arrested and imprisoned, later releasing them all, except Alexander MacDonald, on promises of loyalty and good behaviour. King James attempst to negotiate with John MacDonald of Islay, but he refuses all the time Alexander is held prisoner. The King despatches James Campbell, a bitter rival to the MacDonalds, to arrest John, who instead has him murdered. King James is therefore forced to release Alexander as a result, although refuses to release his mother as insurance for his loyalty and good behaviour.

1429 ~ Alexander now back among his clansmen, together with his cousin Donald Ballach, John of Islay's son, raise an army and burns Inverness to the ground, before being defeated by the King's army at Lochabar. Alexander escapes but is later forced to submit to the King. His cousin Donald Ballach remains at large, later leading clansmen to victory over the Kings's forces at Inverlochy Castle. This action persuades the King to release Alexander once more in order to secure some control over the rebellious clans.

Back at Finlaggan Alexander remodells the great hall and kitchens. Now as Earl of Ross & Lord of the Isles, his position and influence increases further as Justiciar of the North of Scotland on behalf of the Crown.

1450 ~ Alexader's son John marries Elizabeth Livingston, a year after inheriting the Lordship following the death of his father. The marriage is based on promises from the under aged King James II, which later does not only  not materialise upon him coming of age and taking personal rule, but he forfeits John's father-in-law. As a result John rebels, attacking the castles of Urquhart, Inverness and Ruthven, allying himself with the powerful Black Douglases of Galloway.

1455 ~ King James II forfeits the powerful Black Douglases to counter their threat.

1448 ~ King James raises the MacDonald arch rivals Campbells to Earls of Argyll to counter the MacDonald threat.

1460 ~ Before the King can conclude his plans to deal with the MacDonald's, he is accidently killed, leaving an 8 year old James III to become King of Scotland.

1461 ~ John attends Parliament, but his position is undermined by his warring cousin Donald Ballach's attack on Arran, laying siege to Rothesay Castle. John is unable to control Donald's actions and growing influence within clan MacDonald.

1462 ~ John enters into a secret treaty with the English Crown that upon their successful invasion of Scotland, in payment for the MacDonald's support, they would be granted control of Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde line, and the Black Douglases would get their lands back.

1474 ~ England is again preparing for another war with France and needs to be on good terms with Scotland to avoid having to fight on two fronts. In doing so the English crown decide to reveal their secret treaty with John, Lord of the Isles.

The following year he is summoned to Parliament to answer the charge of treason, without his exiled Douglas & English allies.

He submits to the Scottish Crown his crime and is stripped of the Earldom of Ross, Skye and Kintyre as well as his title as Lord of the Isles, but is lucky to retain control of the Hebrides. Two years later John's humiliated wife ends their marriage.

1480 ~ John's son Angus Og has supplanted his father as head of clan MacDonald, tearing clan loyalty apart, culminating in the sea Battle of Bloody Bay, which Angus is victorious. Angus control over the clan is now absolute and he plots recovery of his clans former power.

1490 ~ Angus is murdered, John's nephew Alexander MacDonald rebels against the King, resulting in defeat at the Battle of Park.

1493 ~ King James IV forfeits the Lordship from John, collecting submissions with clan chief's at Dunstaffnage Castle, who have previously been loyal to clan MacDonald. John retires to a life in Paisley Abbey as a pensioner of the King.

1501 ~ King James is now in a position to extend the Crown's influence into the West and North of Scotland, bringing the Crown into conflict with other powerful families and clans. Torcuil MacLeod of Lewis manages to free Domhnall Dubh, son of Angus Og, imprisoned by the Campbell's since childhood in Innis Chonnel castle on Loch Awe. Earl Huntly is ordered by the King to move against Torcuil to counter this rebellion to restore the Lordship of the Isles. The King orders John MacDonald to order his clan and their allies submission to the Crown without success, with John dying the following year.

1504 ~ The Scottish Parliament agrees to move against the rebellious Isles, despatching a fleet with mounted artillery to crush the rebellion, which it eventually achieves two years later after the fall of Stornoway.

Domhnall Dubh is captured and once again imprisoned, this time in Edinburgh castle.

1542 ~ Following Scotland's resounding defeat against the English at the Battle of Flodden, the elderly Domhnall Dubh escapes from prison. He manages to make his way back to the Hebrides and is hailed as Lord of the Isles by both clan MacDonald and most of the clans that have remained loyal despite pressure from the Scottish Crown. By this time Finlaggan had been badly damaged on the orders of the Crown following John's forfeiture. Domhnall re-creates the Council of Isles, meeting once more at Finlaggan, with efforts made to restore and repair the buildings. Within three years Domhnall is dead from fever, leaving no heir. As a result the Lordship is lost forever and with it Finlaggan left to ruin.