Well worth its nickname of ‘Queen of the Hebrides’, Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides, lies in Argyll just south west of Jura at a distance of only 800 m and about 40 kilometres north of the Irish Coast. This lovely island is famous for its landscapes and wildlife, its ancient history and of course for its many distilleries… we’ve had a taste of everything as you may have guessed 😉
We arrived at Port Askaig and left from Port Ellen which is the island’s main port. We had booked a room at Port Charlotte’s Youth Hostel which is situated on the shore of the peaceful loch Indaal. The island’s capital is Bowmore, well known for its lovely white round church and distillery.
When planning our last trip to Scotland we had given priority to Islay. I had been dreaming for years to visit ‘The Queen of the Hebrides’ and I was very excited when we arrived there, at the end of a lovely day in June 2015, after sailing aboard the Hebridean Isles which operates from Kennacraig, Kintyre. It would be a 4-day trip and I remember how sad I was when we left the place, staying on the deck of the ferry up to the last minute, trying to impress on my mind the image of the beautiful island with its white houses and distilleries and of the mythical Paps of Jura. We promised to go back there for we had missed many places of interest. I had been waiting with much anticipation to climb up the Beinn Bheigier (491 m) to get a panoramic view of the island but we failed to do it and also to visit Oronsay and Colonsay…
We had had a very busy day before reaching the ferry terminus at Kennacraig. After a very good night of sleep, in a lovely and very comfortable room at Kilfinan View B&B, on the shore of Loch Fyne, and an delicious early Scottish breakfast prepared by Mandy, our charming hostess, we didn’t linger long there to get a chance to visit every place we had put on our planning. Mandy gave us very useful information about the road to follow and the best places to see and we would have liked to stay longer with her and her family of teddy bears who had quickly made friends with our own teddy bear mascots.
Below is the outline of our itinerary. I will come back later on the different places we visited that day which was full of adventures. The road proved to be difficult and we got lost several times. Had we lingered a little more here and there and we certainly would have missed our ferry.
- Crinan Canal
- Kilmory Knap Chapel
- Kennacraig-Port Askaig ferry
- Finlaggan home of the Lord of the Isles
But here we were, landing on the shore of our dream… remembering the enthusiasm of the young lady who had welcomed us at the abbey of Arbroath. She had just come back from a holiday on Islay and was already planning another trip there. She had given us much information about the place and we had left the abbey with her lovely pictures in mind…
We had planned to visit the historical site of Finlaggan and Bruichladdich distillery (don’t ask me to pronounce the name) before knocking at the door of our Youth Hostel at Port Charlotte but even with the distillery closing at 18:00 it was too late for us to go there on time and as the Visitor Centre of Finlaggan was also closed we contented ourselves with roaming freely the site, lingering there quite a long time with much pleasure.
To go to Finlaggan you must drive two miles south west of Port Askaig and then take a single track road which winds along for one mile to the site through a most solitary and wild landscape. You can park your car near the Visitor Centre and then walk along a track up to a wooden walkway which leads to Eilean Mor, the greatest island in Loch Finlaggan where you can see a number of ruined buildings. You’ll soon discover a much smaller island beyond Eilean Mor which is called the ‘Council island’, its name suggesting a great historical interest. It may be difficult to imagine that today but this islet was the place where the Council of the Isles met and the King was crowned in the olden times..
“The picturesque ruins of the principal castle and chapel where the Lords of the Isles resided in royal pomp are on an islet in Loch Finlaggan, a lake three miles in circumference, and several traces are still to be seen on its shore of a pier and habitations used by their guards and men-at-arms. In former times a large stone was to be seen on which the MacDonalds stood when crowned King of the Isles by the Bishop of Argyle.”
Alfred Barnard (1837-1918)
‘Finlaggan – The Heart of the Lordship Eilean Mor – The Large Island – was the home of the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles during the Middle Ages. Until the 14th century across. Until the 14th century access to the island was by a stone causeway some 80 metres long, and its remains can still be traced in the water. The island was protected by a timber palisade with a wooden walkway or “gallery” supported on the turf dyke behind you.
In front of you is an area cultivated during the 1500’s. The path crosses rigs or “lazy-beds” separated by drainage ditches. The rest of the island is covered with the ruins of houses, many built on top of each other, dating from between the 13th and 16th centuries.’
Where are thy pristine glories, Finlaggan!
The voice of mirth has ceased to ring thy walls,
Where Celtic lords and their fair ladies sang
Their songs of joy in great Macdonald’s halls.
And where true knights, the flower of chivalry,
Oft met their chiefs in scenes of revelry-
All, all are gone and left thee to repose,
Since a new race and measures new arose.
(Guide to the Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland, including Orkney and Zetland;
George Anderson and Peter Anderson 1863)
Though the Visitor Centre was closed we learned a lot of things about the ruined buildings and the history of the place for there are a number of information panels on the site. They are more than welcome to help us imagine life here in medieval times.
Here is what remains of the Great Hall…
And here of the chapel! Not much as you can see but there are treasures inside this old ruined building:
several grave slabs protected under glass which were originally situated outside the chapel…
‘An Caibeal – The ChapelStraight ahead of you is the ruin of the 14th century chapel built by John I, Lord of the Isles. A carved stone commemorative cros (top left) was discovered in the graveyard next to the chapel. The graveslabs found here include one with an anvil (probably from the grave of a smith), a child’s slab (below left) and a fine effigy of a man in Highland armour (far left) with an image of his galley beneath his feet.
This was Donald MacGill-uisbeag (MacIllaspy) who held Finlaggan in the mid-1500’s.
The chapel was dedicated to St Findluga, a monk who came to Scotland during the 6th century when St Columba was also alive. Recent excavations show that some of the burials in the graveyard are of an earlier date than the chapel.’
‘In front of you are the ruins of the main public building on the island, the Great Hall, which was used for feasting by the Lords of the Isles. It had a service area next to the kitchens, a timber floor, a slate roof and a large fireplace in the wall at the far end. Evidence of carved stonework has been found here, including a “corbel” or bracket in the shape of a human head.
In Medieval times there were more than twenty buildings here on this island, and they were not all made of stone. There were dwellings, store-houses and workshops, and many had walls of wood, turf and clay. At the tip of the island beyond the Great Hall is a separate area including a smaller hall, perhaps the private quarters of the Lords of the Isles.’
The name of the yellow wild flowers shown above (right side picture) is Caltha palustris, aka ‘marsh-marigold’ and ‘kingcup’ (‘populage des marais’ in French)
The first hours we spent on Islay made us feel that this lovely island had more than history to offer us. Wildlife is particularly rich and preserved here. Let us open our eyes.
Here’s the keeper of the place 😉 It didn’t seem at all afraid by our comings and goings about its territory and went on with its fishing !
20 h… we arrive at Port Charlotte Youth Hostel and before entering I take a picture of this lovely little beach with its view on the Jura Paps in the background… the clouds make them look as if they were snow-covered.
What a day!
It’s late but Carl is waiting for us at the entrance of this ancient distillery turned into a Youth Hostel. We make friends at once with our kind and cheerful host. In the morning we’ll meet Lorna, our delightful hostess and Carl’s wife. We are quickly introduced to the place and given the key to our bedroom. We’re going to spend four nights here but we would have liked to stay much longer…
We had planned to go to Jura on our second day on Islay. So, I give you RV there in my next post.
Bonne lecture ! A bientôt.
Below is a beautiful and very inspiring video. The music of the violins perfectly reflects the melancholy and solitude of the place. It was more cheerful when we went there though it was 18:30 when we visited it. As the visitor centre was closed there were only a few people lingering there in the ruins and a gardener which was mowing the lawn around the centre… the sky was blue with the song of birds echoing in the air and the white swan was gliding on the peaceful waters of Loch Finlaggan…
And last but not least I invite you to visit the wonderful page written and illustrated by Kate Davies, our favourite Scottish knitter and designer (click on her picture to see the page) It will tell you about one of the most romantic weddings I ever heard of !
Tous nos vœux de bonheur à Kate, Tom !
sans oublier Bruce 😉