Saturday, 12 October 2013

Finlaggan: Seat of Power in Islay

How is it that everything not dealing with whisky on Islay feels somehow remote? Is it the roads that- more often than not- are single-track, lonely and bumpy- that give the impression of a place far away from any human inhabitation? Finlaggan is such a place and despite the awesome and modern visitor centre, once you are out and about it feels like you are surrounded by nature and miles of it all around.

That feeling makes it difficult to appreciate Finlaggan for what it once was: the seat of government of the Lords of the Isles in the 13th till the 15th century. Except for two islets in Loch Finlaggan (Eilean Mòr “Big Island” and the artificial Eilean na Comhairle (Island of the Council), some ruins there is not much to see, and it is quite difficult to build an image of what life was supposed to look like when this place was bustling with life.

The visitor centre, operated by the Finlaggan Trust, does an awesome job in explaining all there is to know about this place and one is left with a sense of awe after visiting the exhibition. The walk from the visitor centre to the causeway leading into the loch to Eilean Mòr is very pleasant indeed. But when I step onto the causeway itself and slowly walk over it into the lake, a strange feeling comes over me. It seems like I am entering into another world, an older world that is no longer there. I step onto the soil of Eilean Mòr and I receive a welcoming greeting, as if from the island itself.

And then I know: this is an ancient sacred place. Much more ancient in fact than the MacDonalds of the Isles, as witnessed by the silent standing stone overlooking the loch. Fragments of myths run through my mind: Celtic stories about sacred salmons and weird creatures residing in lochs such as these, stories about the marriage of the Celtic kings to the Land, and  parts from the Arthurian myth cycle regarding the Lady of the Lake and her mysteries. And a small mystery that has been bugging me since coming here resolves itself: why did the Lords of the Isles, of all places, pick this one for their seat of government? Not because of its accessibility or its central location, not because there was plenty of space here to build a powerful stronghold, but because this was already a significant place of a sacred power; who ruled Finlaggan ruled the realm!

I roam around the small island with all that going on in my mind and I notice how the area around me starts coming to life. I sit down in the ruined church for a brief meditation and then I am briefly immersed in life as it was in the old days. The power that once was at Finlaggan apparently is still here, for those who know where to look. I receive an insight: this is the ancient heart of this island, this is where its charms and beauty are coming from and this is what draws people here and sometimes keeps them here. 

It is difficult to leave this sacred place as with all sacred places, but when I finally step onto the causeway to go back to the car –and on our way to Bunnahabhain Distillery, I turn around and bow to the ancient Spirits of the Land that welcomed me into their realm for one brief moment.