An interview with the Ileach and Dr David Caldwell

Ileach editor Carl Reavey talks to the archaeologist who excavated Finlaggan between 1989 and 1997

Dr David Caldwell, archaeologist, Keeper of Scotland & Europe in the National Museums of Scotland, Curatorial Advisor to the Museum of Islay Life and author of the new book “Islay, The Land of the Lordship”, was born in the Ayrshire town of Ardrossan where as a boy he grew up playing around the castle. He recalls an early fascination with digging holes in the ground to uncover the past and perhaps his young archaeologist’s mind was inspired by the various gruesome stories attached to the place - such as the time when in 1292, it was captured by the English army under Edward I “Hammer of the Scots”. Edward held it for four years until William “Braveheart” Wallace and his men arrived and set f ire to part of it. One by one the English ran out and were taken by Wallace who threw the bodies of the dead, and those still living, into the vaults below. Once this job was complete the garrison’s food supplies were thrown down on top of the bodies.

Caldwell’s boyhood interest in the castle led to his f irst public lecture at the age of 14 to the local museum society, and indeed his first publication, written as a student. It was not Scotland’s violent history that was to direct Caldwell’s early career however, but rather the work of an Englishman called Leonard Woolley who had become famous through the excavation of the city of Ur in Mesopotamia where he made some spectacular finds. The last book Woolley wrote before he died was called “The Young Archaeologist” on page one of which he states “it would be stupid of anyone to take up archaeology as a career unless he were so much in love with the subject as to be prepared to sacrif ice for it many of the things which other people think necessary for their happiness.” That settled it. Caldwell was determined to prove Woolley wrong and after studying archaeology at Edinburgh University under the tutelage of antiquarian heavy-hitter Stuart Piggott he set out in pursuit of a career researching the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia, (modern-day Iraq and Iran). Which meant he was unemployed. Undeterred, he volunteered for archaeological work at the neolithic site of Skara Brae in Orkney where a kindly soul suggested he apply for a job at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. This proved to be sound advice and he has been there since 1973. Caldwell now has a staff of nineteen and is responsible for the Scottish collections from around 1100AD to the present, not just in Edinburgh, but also the National Museum of Costume near Dumfries, the National Museum of Rural Life at Kittochside near East Kilbride and the National War Museum in Edinburgh Castle. He is also responsible for the Scottish collections of European Applied Arts which he engagingly describes as: “Lumpy things, any art that you cannot nail flat to a wall”. Continue reading.....The Ileach - What kind of presence does Islay have in the National Museum of Scotland?
DC - There are a number of important artifacts from Islay held in the national collections including the Viking grave excavated at Ballinaby in the 1930s, a splendid cross slab recovered from near Doide Mhairi, a cast of the Kildalton Cross, a beautiful gold brooch dating from the 13-14th century which was the time of the Lordship, and a small cross from Kilchoman.

Ileach - What initially generatedyour interest in Islay?
DC - In 1988 the Trustees of the National Museum were pressing for a more active involvement in research excavations in Scotland and a number of proposals were put forward, one of which was to excavate at Finlaggan. We made an initial visit to Islay and were met by members of the Finlaggan Trust at Port Askaig, including Donald Bell and Donald McFadyan, and were very encouraged by this keen local interest. A strong case was made for the site which was accepted. We conducted fieldwork in 1989 and were digging from 1990-1997 including large scale excavations in 1993/4.

Ileach - Why is Finlaggan so interesting?
DC - Our initial interest was of course the relationship of the site to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles for which there is documentary evidence, although excavation was to show that the site had been occupied since Mesolithic times. There are however large gaps in our knowledge of what really happened during the time of the Lordship. We know that the Vikings arrived around 800AD, were extremely influential, and were to colonise and develop a separate identity within the region, the focus of which was fundamentally towards the Norse kings of Scandinavia rather than with the Scottish crown. This early Norse-Gael Lordship, founded by Somerled and which was to develop through his descendants into Clan Donald, was very definitely not part of Scotland - indeed Angus Mor MacDonald of Islay, grandson of Somerled, was to fight for King Haakon of Norway against the Scots King Alexander III at the battle of Largs in 1263 - a battle which the Norse famously lost. Angus then switched alliegence and did a deal at the Treaty of Perth in 1266 when he basically became a baron of the Scots realm.

The Ileach - Finlaggan is such a peaceful place - it seems so far removed from the typical fortified medieval castle, yet it seems to have existed during a time of significant, almost continuous strife in a landscape littered with what appear to be fortified structures, the Duns, plus the very considerable fortification at Dunyweg. How could this be?
DC - The Lordship was very much a sea power - it projected its considerable military might through the deployment of a powerful fleet of birlinns, or galleys, and Dunyveg was a significant naval base. Finlaggan was not a permanently occupied fortification - but a place for the Lordship’s most important annual Council, a meeting place where anyone who mattered would come together on the Council Isle, pay tribute, debate the great strategic issues of the day and then disperse. These people were all powerful and fundamentally secure. There was no serious immediate external military threat. The significance of the Duns in the landscape is poorly understood, as is when they were actually occupied, but it is quite possible that the first were built before the time of Christ and indeed that some were still being lived in during the 17th century.

The Ileach - How were digs like Finlaggan funded?
DC - We received financial support from the national Museum of course, but Clan Donald and other bodies, including the Russell Trust and the Hunter Trust were also very supportive. Many of our costs were actually hidden - my salary and conservation costs were met by the Museum. Much of our work was done by students working on scheduled training courses. We were also very grateful for work done by local volunteers.

The Ileach - What are your plans for the future?
DC - Now that my book about Islay has been finished I see my primary aim as bringing the final report on the excavations at Finlaggan to publication by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, although the nature of the beast means that it is difficult to predict an actual date when that will happen. Looking back, I realise I knew so little about Islay when I first came here in 1988 - and I have developed such a great love of the place and its people over the past twenty years. So many have been so helpful, the late Mairi Macintyre, Rona Mackenzie John Cameron, Gina McAuslan, DJ MacPhee, Malcolm Ogilvie, Margot Perrons, Eleanor McNab and everyone at the Islay Family History Society, Jane Ferguson, Aonghus MacKechnie, Magnus Bell, Nigel Ruckley, Roger McWee - the list could be endless. I am very aware that I have enjoyed privileged access to so much, all of which has been greatly appreciated. I had thought that maybe the book would be the end of it - but I am becoming ever more aware that faced with the choice between spending time at my desk or spending time on your rain-washed hills, the latter wins every time...

The Ileach - Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Tag: finlaggan history excavation caldwell ardbeg

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