The Queens of Finlaggan

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Standing stone at Loch Finlaggan, with Eilean Mor on the right.

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy free of essays and assignments and overseas visitors, I promised a blog post devoted entirely to an afternoon of shenanigans I spent on Loch Finlaggan in Islay. Now, belatedly, I would like to follow through on that promise—mostly because the pictures are just too good to miss. On a free afternoon near the end of our February visit to Islay with the Highland Society, Anna, Ella, Róisín and I were determined to get to Loch Finlaggan, a historic site that was the seat of the Lordship of the Isles from the 13th to 15th centuries. During that time the Highlands and Hebrides were ruled by Clan Donald from Eilean Mor (Big Island) and Eilean na Comhairle (Council Island) in Loch Finlaggan, and ruins of the village still remain on Eilean Mor.

Eilean Mor, with Eilean na Comhairle beyond.
Eilean Mor with Eilean na Comhairle beyond.

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However, this goal was easier set than accomplished on an island where buses are few and far between. We were debating whether or not to attempt to hitchhike to Finlaggan when our lovely Gaelic instructor offered to give us a lift. She drove us a few miles inland and down a bumpy dirt road crowded with sheep who were reluctant to let us pass. We thanked her and headed straight for the visitor’s center on the shore of the Loch, which, to our surprise, was locked up and completely dark inside. A sign on the door informed us that it was shut until April.

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But we hadn’t come all that way to be thwarted by a mere locked door, and a mere fence! And we quickly discovered an added bonus to visiting during off-season—no admission fees. We skirted the fence and followed a stream down to the shore where we encountered a pair of dog-walkers who told us that the bridge to the island was flooded over at this time of year. Indeed, we saw for ourselves that the long, wooden bridge that connected the shore to Eilean Mor was submerged by several inches of water for the first few feet of its length. After considering this obstacle for a minute, we did the only thing that a pack of intrepid explorers could do: we took off our shoes and socks and waded in (except that I kept my trusty Docs on and lived to regret it). After all, it was only water, and it was only February, and the temperature was (probably) above freezing.

I’m a bit more worried about the cold than Anna is.
Believe it or not, they both still have all of their toes.
Believe it or not, they still have all of their toes.

We crossed the bridge as quickly as we could, and once we reached dry land we dashed to and fro across the deserted island, shrieking at the tops of our lungs from cold and excitement. We had the island to ourselves! We explored the ruined houses and the chapel, and we didn’t learn much about any of the structures because many of the information placards were underwater. The stunning views, the isolation of the place and the feeling of doing something forbidden made me feel that I had conquered Finlaggan.

This is maybe one of the reasons that Finlaggan is closed for the winter.
This is maybe one of the reasons that Finlaggan is closed for the winter.
I can't really explain this.
I can’t really explain this.
Shenanigans in the Chapel.

I was a Scottish princess, returning to my rightful home and kingdom. Róisín and I decided that when we get rich, we will buy up the island and reestablish the LADYship of the Isles. We will breed Scottish Wildcats, Hairy Cows and Blackface sheep. We will patrol the Hebrides in longboats and keep Scotland safe from invaders, grow our hair down to our feet, have dozens of red-haired children and master archery, fencing and riding in our spare time.

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The Conquerors.
The Conquerors.

After we could no longer feel our feet, we sadly said goodbye to our future kingdom and waded back across the flooded bridge. Only a short time after we began squelching down the road and chasing sheep out of our way, it began to pour. The nearest bus stop, at Ballygrant, was nearly two kilometers away. We distracted ourselves from the cold and the rain by singing Scottish folk songs, Les Miserables, Wicked, and various national anthems at the tops of our lungs. The rain came down so hard it stung, and although we stared pathetically at the one or two vehicles that passed us on the country road, no one offered us a lift. Finally we arrived at Ballygrant and took the bus back to Bowmore, from which Róisín and I had another mile to walk back to our house. The returning conquerors made cup after cup of hot tea, and I have never in my life been so grateful for warm, dry socks.

I know that someday I will return and rule all of Gaeldom from Finlaggan, observing my kingdom from the tower of my castle with my wild hair blowing in the wind and my wildcats beside me. I can only hope that day will come soon.1553371_10202443563363166_814010790_o