Dr. David Caldwell
I remember when I was a child there was a popular nursery rhyme which went:
There was a crooked man, and he went a crooked mile, He found a crooked sixpence beside a crooked stile; He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse, And they all lived together in a little crooked house.
When we were excavating on Eilean Mor at Finlaggan in the 1990s we found a silver coin that had been bent over on itself (see right), a crooked coin I supposed, and I have been intrigued ever since as to why the coin was bent. The crooked man of the nursery rhyme, in the sense of one who was physically bent or twisted, is now believed to have been the great Scottish general, Sir Alexander Leslie, Earl of Leven, and the nursery rhyme is a wry comment on his role in bringing the parliaments of Scotland and England together in the 1630s and 1640s in their struggle against King Charles I.
The Finlaggan coin is nothing to do with Alexander Leslie as it is much earlier in date, and while a political message may have been intended by its selection and deposition we can understand that there was much more to it than that. The coin in question is a silver half-groat of King Robert II (1371–1390), minted in Edinburgh. A groat was valued at four pence and a half-groat, therefore, was worth two pence, quite a substantial sum of money at that time. The coin would appear to have been deliberately bent, an action that required a reasonable amount of force, more than could have been applied by most of us with our bare hands, and it was then incorporated in the mortar of the chapel on Eilean Mor (see below). The chapel is one of only two medieval structures on that island still with substantially upstanding walls.
There is evidence from England that coins were deposited by pilgrims and worshippers at churches and shrines, the coins being bent as a sign that they were being dedicated for the use of the local saint. In the case of the Eilean Mor chapel that was St Findlugan, a sixth-century follower of St Columba. Perhaps one of the builders was a devotee of Findlugan, or a visiting pilgrim was able to deposit the coin in the fresh mortar of the unfinished chapel when nobody was looking.
These are possible explanations but not, to my mind, the most likely ones. A late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century clan history of the MacDonalds records how John I Lord of the Isles roofed or built this chapel. Since John probably died in 1387 the coin appears to be useful confirmation that he was indeed responsible for erecting this church. Might John himself have required the coin to be bent and deposited, or else his wife, the Princess Margaret? Is it a symbol of their devotion to the Church and St Findluggan? Well, possibly so, but there are other factors to be taken into account.
One of those is the fact that King Robert, represented on the coin by a crowned bust with a sceptre, was Margaret’s father. It is possible that that link would be seen to be strengthened by the deposition of the coin, and not necessarily just in a religious context. One of the main reasons why the Lords of the Isles needed a chapel at Finlaggan was to allow the churchmen in their entourage, the clerks who undertook administrative work, to carry out their religious duties. The chapel, or the adjacent burial ground, may have been the place where important pronouncements were made and documents witnessed, their integrity protected by God and his local saint, Findlugan. Some of those proclamations and documents would have related to dealings with the king, whose authority was represented by the coin.
However, the Finlaggan tuppence is explained I am sure that neither its deformation nor deposition were unintentional. In the course of our excavations on Eilean Mor we discovered several other artefacts incorporated within medieval and sixteenth-century walls, foundation trenches, the pits excavated for upright posts and so on. It is probable that much of this was accidental, and of no significance to our ancestors. Sherds of pottery, broken roof slates, small metal artefacts, etc, lost or discarded during the occupancy of one building very readily got incorporated in earth moving operations or wall building of later structures.
Some do seem to have been placed with some thought. An obvious case is a full-scale sandstone head of a man, now in the National Museum of Scotland’s storage facility in Edinburgh, positioned within the thickness of the wall of a sixteenth-century house. The carving was probably made to decorate the nearby medieval great hall, in ruins when the house was erected. What message might have been drawn from it is harder to say. Other possible examples of deliberately deposited items include a piece of roof slate with graffiti, including lions, and knives.
Other examples of such deposits can be found in the Medieval World. A question the writer would like answered is, are other examples known in Islay, perhaps of much more recent times?