Book Review: Islay The Land of the Lordship

"Caldwell’s new book takes a hard look at the loyalties of the MacDonald ‘Lords of the Isles’". David Caldwell, ‘Keeper of Scotland and Europe’ in the National Museums of Scotland, has a long association with Islay, and particularly Finlaggan and the Finlaggan Trust, stretching back to 1988. He is also Curatorial Advisor to the Museum of Islay Life. His latest book 'Islay: the land of the Lordship' is a scholarly tome. It is not, therefore, an easy read, but the story, woven tightly through the 260 pages plus another 140 pages of appendices, bibliography and indexes, is nevertheless absolutely fascinating. Caldwell is an academic of international standing. He does not write sensationalist guff, but this reader found it impossible to avoid coming to the conclusion that the author is arguing that medieval Islay, and the island Lordship that centred on Finlaggan, was about as Scottish as England. This is not a new claim of course, but it is one that has tended to become buried under the weight of modern nationalist politics, and it is fascinating to have Caldwell carefully illustrate the thesis by setting out the historical and archaeological evidence.

He starts his history (as opposed to his pre-history) by referring to Roman references to a rather opaque and very little known (Pictish?) people who lived in this area around two thousand years ago called the Epidii, or 'Horse People'. It is likely that these people did not speak Gaelic, but a ‘Brythonic’ version of a Celtic tongue that was perhaps associated with modern Breton or Welsh. The Epidii were a sophisticated and successful people, for although they have left no written history, the Islay landscape is littered with their archaeology. Theirs was an Iron Age culture, and there are numbers of their hilltop ‘duns’ here, which might (or might not) have been fortified farms. There are also at least three serious hillforts including the spectacular Dun Nosebridge (near Mulindry) , Dun Ghuaidhre (near Ballygrant), and another which has all but disappeared near Kilchoman. All probably originated with these folk.

This landscape and the Epidii were conquered in the middle of the first millennium AD by a presumably warlike tribe with the extremely confusing name of ‘Scotti’, which actually means ‘Irish in Britain’. The Scotti were definitely not Scottish. These invaders brought with them a new language (Gaelic) and a new religion (Christianity). The most famous of these invaders was of course Columba, the Irish religious leader who was destined for sainthood. Columba and his followers pushed out the native (?) people, or at least came to dominate them politically, culturally and spiritually, and established the (now mostly roofless) chapels that are still a familiar sight on Islay. It was they who built the great crosses at Kilnave (which has similarities to work in Tipperarary) and Kildalton (which is likely to have been carved by Columba’s stonemasons from Iona). It was the Scotti who established the kingdom of Dal Riata (Dalraida) whose kings were crowned at Dunadd near Kilmartin. For the first time, a separate political entity became apparent, one that was roughly equivalent to modern Argyll - and separate to Pictish and Anglo Saxon Scotland. Continue reading.....Into this situation came the Vikings, not it would appear simply to rape and pillage (although they certainly had their moments), but primarily to colonise. These fierce warriors were essentially economic migrants who ventured overseas in their longships to escape population pressures at home. Caldwell claims that the evidence from place names suggests a successful programme of 'ethnic cleansing' by the victorious Norse which suddenly all but eradicated the native Gaelic language and culture, with young Ilich carted off to fight in Ireland or sold as slaves in Dublin markets. Steadily however, as the generations passed, the Gaels were to reassert their identity - the Vikings were converted to Columban Christianity and eventually a new dynasty of heroic Norse-Gaels was established from the progeny of the great naval warrior leader Somerled whose galleys had bludgeoned their way to supremacy on the west coast.

Clan MacDonald had been born, and despite a short dalliance with the Scottish Crown when Angus Og and his Islaymen fought with the Bruce at Bannockburn - a truly independent Lordship came into fully fledged being. Accorded a 'kingly nature' by Caldwell, the Lords of the Isles were inaugurated at Finlaggan complete with their own version of the Stone of Destiny, a white rod and ceremonial sword. This Lordship exhibited considerable administrative power and a great vitality of culture, and Caldwell says: 'links which could reasonably have been viewed as treasonable by the Scottish government were maintained with the English court'. There is the fascinating story, which might even be true, that the Lords of the Isles gave shelter to the deposed English King Richard II - who it is alleged spent time serving in the kitchens at Finlaggan after escaping the clutches of Henry IV.

The early 15th century saw a series of direct conflicts between the ambitious and aggressive Lordship and the Scottish crown that kicked off with the battle of Inverurie in 1411 which was inconclusively won by 'The MacDonald', as John was now signing himself. They had a military setback at Lochaber in 1429, but were victorious again against the Scots at Inverlochy in 1431. Cracks started to appear however with the accession to the Lordship of John II, described by Caldwell as a 'meek, modest man - a scholar more fit to be a churchman than to lead Clan Donald.' In 1461 John was to sign a document that perfectly illustrates where the Lordship’s sympathies lay. Called the Treaty of Westminster-Ardtornish, it promised MacDonald support to the English King Edward IV in an attempt to overthrow the Scottish King James III. The English failed to invade however - and the existence of the treaty was discovered by James - who moved sentence of forfeiture against John. It was all downhill from there, and after all sorts of treacherous murders, kidnappings, executions and battles between father and son, the Lordship was finally ended as a serious political entity in 1493.

This is a great story and weighty though Caldwell’s book is, there is a real sense that it is actually too short. The more stuff the author packs into the pages, the more you want to read. I guess the exciting conclusion must be, that excellent though this book is - a great deal remains to be written. Carl Reavey, editor of the Ileach. Available from C & E Roy and Amazon, price around £30.

Tag: book review caldwell finlaggan clan donald lords of the isles

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