Case Study 12: Finlaggan

David Caldwell

At the heart of the historic medieval centre of Finlaggan in Islay are two adjacent islands in a freshwater loch, Eilean Mor (the large island) and Eilean na Comhairle) (the council island). Excavations in the 1990s by DH Caldwell on behalf of National Museums Scotland demonstrated that this was a high status site, thus backing up the relatively good documentary evidence. There were good stratified sequences and waterlogged midden deposits providing quality environmental data and organic artefacts. Although final publication of the excavations has not yet been released general information is available in recent publications, especially Caldwell 2011, and detailed, near final, fascicles on different areas of the excavations are available, currently on request from the excavator (please get in touch via the ScARF contact form). There is also easy physical access to the site thanks to the work of the Finlaggan Trust which maintains a Visitor Centre with displays of finds and findings from the excavations.

Oblique aerial view of Eilean Mor, Eilean Na Comhairle and Finlaggan Castle, looking SSW. ©HES

The medieval archaeology of Finlaggan covers the whole Medieval Period. In the 12th and 13th centuries it was a large castle of the kingdom of the Isles, with a stone keep on Eilean na Comhairle and various buildings, including a great hall, enclosed in a timberwork defence around Eilean Mor. The two islands were connected by a causeway and another provided access from the side of the loch. In the 14th and 15th centuries, as the main administrative and ritual centre for the Lordship of the Isles, the islands were no longer fortified. A council chamber replaced the keep on Eilean na Comhairle and there were halls, vast kitchens, a chapel, workshops, stores, etc on Eilean Mor. The medieval occupation at Finlaggan spans the whole Medieval Period and there is good evidence for the transition from earlier times and particularly of the dismantling of the lordship buildings soon after the forfeiture of the Lord of the Isles in 1493 and the establishment of a farming township in and over the medieval ruins.

Thanks to a survey of the area around Loch Finlaggan by RCAHMS the medieval field systems, remains of lead mining activity and other structures can be identified. In the ruins of the chapel are a significant group of medieval grave-slabs and a cross-head was recovered from the excavations. Although in many ways Finlaggan is a unique site all these remains help relate Finlaggan to the wider world of the Kingdom and later Lordship of the Isles.


  • Caldwell, DH 2011 Islay, Jura and Colonsay: a historical guide – 2nd edition (Birlinn, Edinburgh).

Return to Section 9.7 Summary of main research questions identified above

Return to Section 9.3: Secular Seignioral Buildings