Page last updated at 00:12 GMT, Saturday, 16 May 2009 01:12 UK

Centre sheds light on sea kingdom

By Craig Anderson
BBC Scotland news


New access to Lord of the Isles

They ruled a vast swathe of Scotland for almost two centuries but their role in helping to forge the nation has been largely forgotten - until now.

On Saturday a new visitor centre celebrating the Lords of the Isles opens on Islay, which also allows people access to the island in Finlaggan Loch which was the seat of their power.

You're taught about Louis XIV, Cleopatra and the Napoleonic Wars but you're not taught the importance of the Lords of the Isles
Donald Bell
Finlaggan Trust

The Ri Innse Gall - Lord of the Isles - held sway over a sea kingdom which encompassed all of the Hebrides and much of the northern mainland.

The Clan Donald Lords also had strong links with the Isle of Man, Ireland and the Northern Isles.

Their hold on power during most of the 14th and 15th centuries was based on their seagoing prowess. With both Gaelic and Norse roots, their boats were an adaptation of Viking galleys and allowed easy transport and communications throughout their domain.

The islands of Finlaggan Loch were the centre of administration, where both justice and hospitality were dispensed. The ruins of many of the buildings can still be seen today.

Finlaggan ruins
Ruins of the old kingdom can still be seen

Built from stone and slate the Great Hall would have been an impressive building for its time.

It would have hosted lavish banquets for visiting chiefs, tables groaning with venison and beef and cups overflowing with uisge beatha - whisky - or even claret from France.

"They had banquets, feasting, buxom wenches and enjoyed themselves," said Donald Bell of the Finlaggan Trust.

On the nearby Council Island, the Lord and his chieftains would deliberate on the great issues facing their empire. The ruined 14th Century chapel still contains intricately-carved Celtic grave slabs.

The newly refurbished and extended visitors centre displays an array of ancient artefacts discovered during years of archaeological investigations at the site. They include clasps, combs and arrow heads as well as a beautifully-carved stone crucifix.

Son of the monarch

There was no castle at Finlaggan, partly because the site is naturally defensive - an island in a loch on an island. But much of the reign of the Lords of the Isles was largely peaceful.

"It was very powerful and well-run," according to trust member Rona MacKenzie. "It was the centre of this part of the world."

Donald Bell hopes the Finlaggan centre will begin to address the lack of recognition of the place occupied by the Lords of the Isles in Scottish history.

"It has never been told in the history books," he said. "You go to school and it's not taught to you. You're taught about Louis XIV, Cleopatra and the Napoleonic Wars but you're not taught the importance of the Lords of the Isles."

The title "Lord of the Isles" is now traditionally reserved for the eldest son of the reigning UK monarch. Prince Charles is the current Lord of the Isles.

The new Islay centre offers visitors the chance to learn much more about those who held the title almost eight centuries before him.

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