Eilean Mor appears in surviving documents as the Isle of St Finlagan (alternative spellings of the name being Findlugan or Fionn Lugain). A charter of 1427, for example, was witnessed as being granted “apud insula sancti Finlagani in Yle” (on the island of St Finlagan in Islay).
Findlugan was a contemporary of St Columba (who was born in 521). St Columba established an Abbey in Tamlaght near Lough Foyle in 585 and installed Findlugan as its first Abbot.
The monk made Scotland his missionary Field. Early monastic accounts tell how Findlugan saved the life of Columba when he interposed his body between the saint and a would-be assassin. This happened at Hinba, believed by some to have been Eileach an Naoimh, one of the Garvellochs, rocky islets north of Jura, or to have been Jura itself. It is possible Findlugan established an early monastic community on the island bearing his name. The Chapel built much later was certainly dedicated to him.
Over the years the spelling changed -the loch became known as Finlaggan and the island as Eilean Mor.
The Norse Connection
Plundering raids by the Norsemen, coming in their longships, began in the late eighth century, and led to the occupation of the lands they had at first only raided. The Sudreys, or southern islands which included Man, were colonised, and Islay was central in this island kingdom, the rulers of which, from about 850-1100 were largely independent of both the Norwegian and Scottish kings.
A key factor to life in those days was the existence of the Norse longs hip clinker built, with keel and sail, and steering oar. These ships had successfully brought the Norse many, many miles to the islands.
The local people learned a great deal about their construction, and in due course adapted the design to make the smaller and more manoeuvrable “nyvaigs” which enabled Somerled to defeat the Norse.
The Norse ruled over Man and the Isles for many years. From around 962-1195 Islay had strong connections with the royal family of the Sudreys. The most closely linked with Islay, and the most famous, was Godred Crovan, and it is almost certain that he was partly brought up in Islay.
He was married to Ragnhild, daughter of Harald, King of Norway. Godred supported Harald in his war against the English King Harold. At the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, Harald was killed, but Godred escaped and made his way back to Islay.
After winning the battle of Sky Hill on the Isle of Man, he became king of Man and the Isles in 1079, and ruled the Sudreys till his death in 1095. Tradition has it that he is buried in Islay, close to Carragh Bhan, a standing stone near Kintra Farm.
His descendants continued to rule till 1153. One of his grand-daughters married Somerled, Lord of Argyll, who was the predecessor of the Lords of the Isles.
Somerled, a nobleman of Irish descent, Lord of Arygll, was asked for help by the chiefs of the Isles to free them from the tyrant Godred IV. They offered to make his eldest son Dugall king over the Isles.
On January 6th 1156 Somerled, using 80 galleys of his own design, defeated the Norse in a fierce sea battle off the north coast of Islay, and eventually ruled over Mull, Call, Tiree, Colonsay, Islay, Gigha, Kintyre, Knapdale, Lorne and Argyll.
In 1164 he was killed while fighting against Malcolm IV of Scotland, and it is thought he was buried at Saddell Abbey in Kintyre.
On the death of Somerled his inheritance was divided among his son Dugall and his two grandsons Ruari and Donald, sons of Somerled’s son Reginald (Ranald). The descendants of Donald were given Islay, and by the 14th century, as a result of wise policy decisions and marriage alliances, they had become the dominant lineage.
The support given to Robert Bruce by Angus Og of Islay, who was one of his commanders at Bannockburn, is an example of these policy decisions. This connection with the Stewart dynasty was continued during the long reign of John, first Lord of the Isles.
John, First Lord of the Isles
John, who was known as Good John of Islay, largely because of his benefaction to religious communities, took the title Lord of the Isles Dominus Insularum, a Latin version of Ri Innse Gall -and ruled from circa 1329 to 1387. By paying lip-service to the kings of the mainland he kept his lands safe, and by clever changes of support of various factions he expanded his territories by treaties, as well as by marriage alliances.
His first wife was Arnie MacRuari, a cousin, and through her he extended his territory to the northward, but he divorced her later in order to marry Margaret, daughter of Robert Stewart, Regent of Scotland, in 1350. Robert became king in 1371.
The sons of John’s first marriage were given lands from the MacRuari side of the family, but the line of the Lordship was to continue through the family of the second marriage with its royal connection.
John re-roofed the chapel on Eilean Mar, and is believed to have founded the churches at Kildalton, and Kilnave as well as encouraging the carving of stone crosses. He founded Oronsay Priory, probably at about 1350.
He died at Ardtornish Castle on the Sound of Mull, at the age of at least eighty years, in 1387, leaving a large and scattered Lordship, linked by the sea. Peace reigned within its borders, and continued for the next hundred years although increasingly there were wars on the mainland.
John Mor Tanaisdear (Tanister)
The word ‘Tanister’ comes from ‘an tanaise’ meaning ‘heir designate’.
John Mar, a son of Good John and a younger brother of Donald, Lord of the Isles from 1387 to 1422, although designated, never did succeed to the title.
At this time the English kings were aspiring to be Lords of Ireland, and John did homage to Richard II in Gaelic at Drogheda in 1395. At about this time he made an advantageous marriage with the heiress to the Glens of Antrim, Margery Bisset, becoming known as John Mar of Dunivaig and the Glens. From him are descended the MacDonnells, Earls of Antrim.
John Mar Tanister was killed on Islay in 1427 and probably buried at Finlaggan.
The Earldom of Ross
In the 15th century the Lords of the Isles claimed the Earldom of Ross through marriage. At first the Scottish Crown was reluctant to grant it to them. The famous Battle of Harlaw in 1411 between a royal army and the forces of Donald Lord of the Isles, though it did not lead immediately to his acquisition of the title, did so eventually.
Later Years of the Lord of the Isles
The ruling line continued through various vicissitudes, becoming more embroiled in warfare on the mainland as the years passed.
John II (Fourth Lord of the Isles, 1449-1493 as Lord), became very involved in wars against the Scottish crown, and was eventually overcome. The lands of the Lordship were forfeited in August 1493. By courtesy of the King of Scotland, James IV, he was allowed to live but in exile from the Isles. He spent the last two years of his life in the monastery at Paisley, a place which he and his forebears had endowed generously, and where he died in 1503.
The title Lord of the Isles was inalienably annexed to the Crown in 1542, and is now one of the titles of the present Prince of Wales.