Finlaggan Footprint Stone as found by Domhnall Gruamach

The Ileach Newspaper reprinted the following article by the late Captain Donald of Port Charlotte, originally published under his Gaelic name in the Clan Donald magazine (no 3) 1965

Captain Graham Donald D.F.C., H.W.C., Hon F.S.A. (Scot) was a pilot in the Great War of 1914 – 1918, serving with the Royal Flying Corps. He had a lifetime love affair with the Island, its culture, people, language and history. A long and successful collaboration with Frank Newell gained for both of them Honorary Fellowships of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He was instrumental in obtaining the listing of Finlaggan as a historical monument following a survey done by a party from London Museum aided by a small grant from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1961. As well as being a member of the original Finlaggan Committee, actively campaigning to have the carved stones protected from further deterioration at the hands of the weather, he was also a founder member of the Islay Museums Trust. He died on 30th October 1978.

The Clan Donald 'Stone of Destiny' has been found, after 350 years. The Stone of Inauguration of the Clan Donald, King and Lords of the Isles, the stone bearing the carved imprint of a human foot, in which every true Chief of the Clan has placed his left foot at the time of in inauguration, was kept in the sanctuary of one of the islets in Loch Finlaggan in Islay. Used as the sacred stone of the island Lordship since the time of Somerled (King of Argyll and the Isles in 1164 AD), the stone was broken by the order of the Earl of Argyll in 1615 and cast away, a deed of senseless spite that has never been forgotten. By tradition the stone was kept on the smaller islet (The Council Isle) in Loch Finlaggan but no trace of the stone, or even of its fragments, has ever been found either on or near the islet. Continue reading....

In 1962-63 Captain Donald (son of the Dunyvaig Line of the House of Islay, who lives in Islay) formed the opinion that the Stone would have been more likely to have been used and kept on the larger islet (Eilean Mor), if only because the tiny Isle of the Council could not possibly have accommodated the vast concourse of clansmen who attended the ceremony of Inauguration of their Chief. Accordingly he had several discussions with a trusty colleague, Robert Hodkinson of Bowmore, who is a MacMhuirich of the Clan Donald on his mother’s side. It was suggested to the latter that, after being broken under the eye of Argyll, the portions of the stone would then have been dropped into the Loch close beside Eilean Mor, almost certainly at a spot known to some of the remaining loyal clansman. The question of the possibility of obtaining the services of a 'frogman' to explore the water round the edge of Eilean Mor was then discussed, but there were certain difficulties involved at the time.

As the memory of the Islaymen is long, and as the true folk of Islay are well able to keep a secret, Robert Hodkinson then began to initiate a little quiet gossip here and there to find out if any of the older folk had heard any rumour of a stone at Finlaggan with a correct footprint upon it. Several had indeed heard such a tale, but only vaguely. After some time and a great deal of patient enquiry, one piece of definite evidence emerged. This was the fact that the late Alec McKinnon of Bowmore had hinted that he had seen such a stone, when engaged 70 years ago in cutting the very long grass on Eilean Mor. He had found it lying on the extreme northeast edge of the islet in very shallow water, as if dropped by those carrying it on their way to the Stone causeway (now sunken), which unites Eilean Mòr to the north shore of the Loch.

Alec MacKinnon, who died several years ago, claimed that he had seen a carved footprint on this stone, that the stone had been cracked clean across, but that it had been mended with great skill and care. He decided to say nothing about it at the time, as he felt that too many 'foreigners' might have taken too keen an interest; but being a notably strong man, he had dragged the heavy slab single-handed to place of safety and hidden it there. As there was faint trace of carving on the reverse side (as we now know) he laid it down with the footprint downwards, and with the carved side plainly visible so that to any inquisitive eye it would seem to be just one more ordinary gravestone. He was a wise man, and well able to keep his own counsel.

So far, this was only hearsay, but well worth investigation, so Captain Donald asked Robert Hodkinson to check if there was indeed a faintly carved gravestone at or near the spot said to have been chosen by MacKinnon. Hodkinson did so and reported that there was such a gravestone, but that it was too heavy for him to raise up in order to look for the footprint. He could see, however, that the stone had at one time been cracked across and beautifully mended.

A few weeks later Mrs R MacKinnon of Portnahaven, who teaches in Bowmore School and is one of Islay’s keenest archaeologists, was taking some of her senior pupils on a visit of exploration to Eilean Mor, so Robert Hodkinson took her into his confidence, told her where the stone lies and asked her to see if some of her strong lads could turn the slab gently over to see what was on the other side. This they did and she informed us that on the underside of the slab (5’6' X 14') there is but one carving – a roughly carved but completely distinct footprint.

Accordingly on the 17th June a party set out for Finlaggan to make full study of the footprint-stone. The party consisted of Robert Hodkinson, Mrs MacKinnon, Captain Donald, and John M. Paterson (of the Gaelic League of Scotland), John Kennedy of Bowmore (who is well versed in Islay history), and Ian Johnson (son of the late Duncan Johnson, the Islay Bard), as well as some of Mrs Mackinnon’s pupils. After a most careful examination of the stone, not one of the parties had the slightest doubt as to its authenticity and identity as being the footprint stone of the Lord of the Isles.

The following facts were observed:
a) the Footprint itself: while this at first sight is the very rudely carved imprint of a bare left foot of apparently large size, the separate hollows for the five toes are most distinct, and provision is made for the 'ball' and 'arch' of an average human foot. The bare left foot (size 8) of one of the party was reverently placed in the imprint, and it fitted like a glove.
b) the Crack: this is clean across the slab, across the footprint itself and appeared to have been mended
c) the Carvings on the reverse side of the slab: while these are less distinct that those on the normal gravestones of Finlaggan, Mrs MacKinnon was able to detect that the outlines of the two main carvings on it were 1) the clear outline of the Great Sword (symbol of Clan Donald sovereignty on land; 2) the Little Ship of Naibheag (symbol of sovereignty on sea); the twin symbols of the Lordship ever since 1164.

Domhnall Gruamach,
Islay, 20th June 1965

NB After receiving the above report from Islay, Dr K. A. Steer of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, visited the site and came to the following conclusions.
That the stone is a gravestone of the late 14th or 15th centuries,
That the crack is not a break subsequently mended, but a hair crack caused by frost and filled with a reddish substance.
That the 'footprint' is 18 ½' by 5' and rather large for a normal foot.
In view of this opinion it was agreed that this cannot be the original stone used by Somerled’s successors down the early 15th century, but may be one used by the Chiefs of Clann Iain Mhoir Ile (Dunyveg) when they claimed the representation of the line of the Lords of the Isle in 1545, on the death of Donald Dubh, last male of the main line.

The Ileach Newspaper is grateful to Captain Donald’s wife, the late Mary Donald and his daughter Anne Donald Wylie for permission to reprint this article.

Tag: finlaggan clan donald

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