IT was once the seat of power for a dynasty which held much of western Scotland under its grip, before being swept away by the tides of history.

Ruined and forlorn, little remains today of the fortress where the Lord of the Isles held court and dispensed judgements over the lives of thousands of medieval Scots.

But now Finlaggan Castle, on the isle of Islay, has been restored to how it would have appeared in its glory days. In digital form, at least. 

Experts from the University of St Andrews have virtually reconstructed the 'lost' home of the Donald clan, whose scions the MacDonald family ruled over a kingdom stretching from the Hebrides the Kintyre peninsula on mainland Scotland.  

Major archaeological work by the National Museum of Scotland enabled the University's Open Virtual Worlds Team, and spin-out company Smart History, to recreate Finlaggan as it would have looked like in the 15th century when the Lordship was at the height of its power.

Built on an island on Loch Finlaggan, the castle was made up of a compound comprising several buildings, and was joined to the land through a causeway.


Finlaggan Castle today Pic: By Heikki Immonen/Wikipedia

At that time, Islay was the administrative and ceremonial centre of the realm, which maintained its independence from the Scottish throne, and served both as a base and the site of the Council of the isles, where the Lord would gather the leaders of the most powerful factions of the clan to hear disputes and thrash out policy. 

The computer simulation depicts the twin islands of Eilean Mor (or Large Isle) and Eilean na Comhairle (or Council Isle), and their surrounding environment on Loch Finlaggan. 

By the late Middle Ages, the Lords of the Isles’ residence had little in the way of defensive structures – possibly indicating how secure the MacDonalds felt in the heart of their powerbase on Islay.

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Finlaggan was also the place where new Lords would be crowned - Islay is often called the 'Cradle of Clan Donald' - in a ceremony which saw the Bishop of Argyle, the Bishop of the Isles, and as many as seven priests priests in attendance, along with the heads of all major clans.

A possibly apocryphal take has it that the new ruler would place his foot in a footprint carved into a rock, symbolising his links to the ancestors whose path he was bound to follow. 

In collaboration with the Finlaggan Trust, the reconstruction is based on discoveries made by the Finlaggan Archaeological Project, led by archaeologist Dr David Caldwell, who provided advice to the St Andrews team.


The Great Hall

Documentary research and comparison with other late medieval sites has been used to ensure the reconstruction is as accurate as possible.

It shows how the main hall of Finlaggan would have looked like from the outside, sitting among its cluster of out buildings.

The computer simulation also illustrate how the medieval Great hall would have looked like when the Lord was in attendance, complete with plaid tapestries, long tables and chairs.

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The digital research in St Andrews was led by Dr Alan Miller of the School of Computer Science, while digital modelling was undertaken by Sarah Kennedy of the School of Computer Science, with additional historical research by Dr Bess Rhodes of the School of History and the School of Computer Science. 

The reconstruction will be available as an interactive virtual reality experience at the Finlaggan Trust’s visitor centre on Islay. There is also an app and an online video.

Dr Bess Rhodes, of the University, said: “Finlaggan was an amazing place to recreate digitally. Even today the islands of Eilean Mor and Eilean na Comhairle are beautiful places, and in the Middle Ages they were the site of a remarkable complex of buildings which blended local traditions with wider European trends.


The Causeway

“The work by Dr David Caldwell and the Finlaggan Archaeological Project has transformed our understanding of this site – giving us a glimpse of the relative comfort in which the Lords of the Isles and their followers lived, pampering their dogs with decorative collars, and enjoying music, imported wine and board games.”

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The Lordship of the Isles persisted for around 150 years, until holder John of Islay made the fatal mistake of allying with England against the James IV in the hope of growing his power.
He was stripped of part of his lands and lost much prestige, eventually being deposed by his son Angus. The title later became reserved to the Crown.  

Dr Ray Lafferty, Secretary of the Finlaggan Trust, said: “Despite its impact on the shaping of Scottish culture, Finlaggan and the Lordship remains little known to many.

“With this virtual reality reconstruction, we hope to give some sense of the site at the zenith of its power, when MacDonald rule stretched from the Glens of Antrim in Ireland to Buchan in the northeast of Scotland.”