Finlaggan is the former home of Scotland’s ‘Lord of the Isles’ which is located a few miles south-west of Port Askaig on the Isle of Islay.
Access to Finlaggan is via a wooden walkway from the visitor centre and tourists will discover a number of standing stones, graves and ruined houses during their visit.
Review of Finlaggan
The Isle of Islay… Whisky. Coastlines. Bowmore. Wildlife. Those are the things most people think of when they plan a visit to this picturesque island off the west coast of Scotland – distillery tours, a quick jaunt around a village or two, maybe a walk on a beach and then home again. Mission accomplished.
But there’s so much more to Islay than whisky (although the single malts it produces are nothing short of spectacular), and I think it’s a real shame that so many people obsess over the spirit and completely forget about the history and scenery that the island has to offer.
I was lucky enough to spend a full week on Islay recently and after exhausting all the distillery options in the first 48 hours I started to explore some lesser-known attractions tucked away in the more remote areas. One of which is Finlaggan, the former stronghold of the Lord of the Isles.
You’ll find Loch Finlaggan a few miles south-west of Port Askaig at the northern end of the island. While you wouldn’t exactly call Port Askaig a bustling metropolis it’s definitely worth exploring the area surrounding it as it’s extremely pretty, with a wild and rugged coastline and expanses of thick woodland coupled with lots of walking trails that run deep into the heart of Islay’s wilderness.
There’s also a regular ferry that takes passengers to the nearby Isle of Jura (lovely place – check it out if you get the chance) and the three major distilleries of Bunnahabhain, Ardnahoe and Caol Ila are nearby which all offer interesting tours.
After you’ve finished with that lot I suggest you take a short detour south on the A846 and keep your eyes open for a brown tourist information sign pointing down a rather non-descript single-track road – it’s easy to miss so don’t let yourself get too distracted by the landscape in this part of the island.
Follow the road a couple of miles through open fields and you’ll eventually arrive at Loch Finlaggan which is easily identifiable thanks to the visitor centre at the entrance.
There’s a small car park at the centre which is free to use but you’ll have to pay a small admission charge to get to the main attraction where you’ll find a collection of ancient gravestones, relics and buildings on a small island on the loch, all of which are related to the Lords of the Isles.
If you’ve never heard of them you might be interested to know that the Lords descend from Somerled, a 12th-century prince with a Norse and Gaelic pedigree who was allied more with Norway than Scotland.
At that time the politics of Scotland’s west coast islands were so far removed from the mainland they were regarded as being in an entirely separate kingdom from the rest of Alba (the Gaelic word for ‘country of the Scots’), and Somerled sought to expand his power far beyond the confines of the Scottish west coast.
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In 1156 he successfully organised a coup against the ruling Godfrey the Black to become King of the Isles and shortly thereafter launched a bid to invade Renfrew on the mainland.
However, as was common in those days he was betrayed by his own family and was murdered by his nephew, after which the kingdom was divided up between his sons from which the powerful clans MacDougall, Donald, MacRory and MacAlister emerged.
Later years saw a lot up upheaval, clan in-fighting, and clashes with Norway and Scotland that I won’t go into in this post, but the two small islands on Loch Finlaggan were chosen as the seat of power for the west-coast islands for the next 400 years.
History lesson over and back to the modern-day tourist attraction… There are two small islands on the north shore of the loch – Eilean Mor and Eilean na Comhairle – but it’s the latter you’ll spend most of your time on during your visit as well as learning about the history of Finlaggan in the visitor centre.
If you would like to join a guided tour of Scotland’s lochs take a look at this selection from Get Your Guide.
Things to do at Finlaggan
It’s obvious a lot of attention has gone into creating the displays in the visitor centre and it’s really quite interesting, but be mindful that young children are going to find it a bit of a yawn-fest.
At least there are a couple of models of Viking longships to keep them entertained while you’re reading the information boards and there are a few relics recovered from the area to look at as well, but the main event is exploring the islands.
Unlike the visitor centre which is only open March-October, the islands are open all year round and can be accessed via a wooden walkway through boggy reed beds.
It won’t take long to walk there but there’s a surprising amount of insect-life to see in the summer which youngsters will no doubt find particularly fascinating.
Oh, and if you find the centre closed when you visit please leave a couple of quid in the honesty box – these guys rely on donations to maintain the site.
Once at the island you’ll be able to walk amongst the ruins of several old stone-walled buildings (not from the time of the Lords of the Isles unfortunately) and view an interesting collection of engraved medieval gravestones.
The island isn’t that big and the landscape is a bit uninspiring in the harsh light of the day but I was lucky enough to arrive as the sun was disappearing and I’m happy to report the view really came alive in the golden hue of the setting sun.
There’s a certain goose-bumpy (is that a real word?) atmosphere to Eilean Mor which might go some way to explaining why the Lords of the Isles made it their seat of power, miles inland and far from the sea where their boats were moored.
But as atmospheric as it is, it really won’t take you long to see everything on the island, even if there are information boards dotted about at each point of interest.
To be honest, I’d plan no more than 30 minutes to an hour to see the lot, and as you’re on a wee island on a loch you can’t exactly go anywhere else other than head back to the car park once you’ve had your fill of grave slabs and cobbled-together stone walls.
But even so, I guarantee you’ll walk away having learned a few new snippets of information about Scotland’s history at Finlaggan, and to my mind it’s a fascinating glimpse into the heart of Islay that you’d otherwise miss if you just concentrated on the whisky.
If you want to learn more about this island read: The Complete Guide to Visiting The Isle of Islay
- The museum is great and has very knowledgeable (and enthusiastic) staff.
- This historic attraction makes a nice change from Islay’s whisky distillery tours.
- A visit to Finlaggan is a good way to explore parts of Islay that you’d probably otherwise miss.
- The facilities are limited so take a packed lunch or head to Port Askaig’s restaurants.
- Don’t forget to bring your spare change for the museum donation box – they rely on charity to run the place.
- There are three whisky distilleries nearby (Bunnahabhain, Ardnahoe and Caol Ila) that are well worth a visit.
Eilean Mòr in Loch Finlaggan,
Isle of Islay,
Click the map for directions
Photo gallery and video
Things to do near Finlaggan
- Caol Ila Distillery. Port Askaig, Isle of Islay PA46 7RL. 10-minute drive. One of Islay’s smallest distilleries but also one of its most popular thanks to the setting which overlooks the Isle of Jura. The distillery is open for summer tours and offers whisky tasting experiences.
- Port Askaig. Isle of Islay PA46 7RU. 8-minute drive. Small village on the eastern coast of Islay which has a small ferry terminal that serves Jura, Colonsay and the Campbeltown Peninsula.
- Ardnahoe Distillery. Ardnahoe, Port Askaig, Isle of Islay PA46 7RU. 11-minute drive. One of the more recent distilleries on Islay. Offers guided tours, whisky tasting experiences and a gift shop.
- Bunnahabhain Distillery. Bunnahabhain, Isle of Islay PA46 7RP. 14-minute drive. Whisky distillery located on the north-east coast of the island, accessed by a single-track road. Guided tours available.
- Dunlossit Estate. Isle of Islay PA46 7RF. 10-minute drive to Port Askaig then 1 1/2 hour walk. A popular walking area on Islay that is accessed via winding paths that run through gorse, woodland, a couple of lochs and grazing fields. From Port Askaig car park look for the gate that says ‘Footpath to Lily Loch’.
More places to visit in Scotland’s islands
- The Isle of Tiree: Complete Visitor GuideThe Isle of Tiree is the most westerly island of the Inner Hebrides and although small at only 20 square miles it has become increasingly popular with tourists thanks to its golden sandy beaches and shallow bays of crystal clear water.
- The Isle of Islay: Complete Visitor GuideThe Isle of Islay is one of the largest west-coast Scottish islands and has the nickname ‘The Queen of the Hebrides’ – a title that’s been passed down the generations for hundreds of years by the proud people who live there.
- The Old Man of Storr – Isle of Skye: Complete Visitor GuideLocated in Trotternish, around 6 miles north of the main town of Portree, The Storr is the remnant of an ancient landslide which resulted in a dramatic cliff-face backdrop with the ‘Old Man’ sitting in a prominent position on its own looking out across the stunning landscape of Loch Leathan and the Sound of Raasay.
- The Fairy Pools – Isle of Skye: Complete Visitor GuideIf you visit the Isle of Skye then you have to visit the Fairy Pools, the beautifully clear crystal-blue pools of water that lie at the foot of the Black Cuillin hills.