The Lords of the Isles - where did their allegiances lie

Following is a fascinating story published in the Ileach, which gives an interesting view of Islay's most important part in history and tells about an alleged Royal visitor to Finlaggan:

Many of us have but the vaguest notion of medieval history - even though we have one of the great centres of medieval political life on our doorsteps. The same could not be said of the dedicated members of the Finlaggan Trust who care for one of the most important sites in 'Scottish' history - a site which for many years was the pumping heart of this north-western world. Is it really appropriate however to associate Finlaggan with 'Scottish' history' Just how independent of Scotland were the self-styled 'Lords of the Isles', descendants of Viking and Gael, who ruled the western seabord from the Isle of Man through Argyll and the islands north to Ardnamurchan and Sutherland, taking in parts of Ireland on the way' Marion Campbell in her book 'Argyll, The Enduring Heartland' is unequivocal: 'The Lord of the Isles in that day was called Donald. Cousin of the King of Scots, he was far stronger in his island realm than his enfeebled kinsman was in Scotland'. Campbell considers Scotland to be an entirely separate country and although Scotland was ruled by a kinsman to the Lord of the Isles, there was nothing unusual in the rulers of different countries being drawn from the same royal family. A glance at the histories of England and Germany tells us that. During the Feis Ile open day Rona MacKenzie of the Finlaggan Trust was standing among the ruins next to the Great Hall and bursting with stories about the old place when suddenly she was away on a fascinating tale that focusses a different light on the real relationship between the Lords of the Isles and their Scottish and English neighbours. Continue reading....


Rona told a story that had Richard II of England, mad and penniless, turning up on a Welsh merchant ship at Finlaggan and begging shelter without letting on as to who he really was. The story was originally told by an Irish lady who was staying at Finlaggan called Margery Bisset and who had met Richard during his last disastrous campaign in Ireland. Richard II, son of the Black Prince, had succeeded to the throne of England aged 10 and led an exciting life, which was par for the course in those exciting times. Having sorted out the Peasants Revolt and Wat Tyler aged just 14, the young king became one of the greatest royal patrons of the arts. He supported Chaucer and built Westminster Hall, one of London's most iconic buildings. His authoritarian approach upset vested interests however and in 1388 the 'Merciless Parliament', led by a group of lords hostile to Richard, sentenced many of the king's favourites to death.

Richard took his revenge in 1397, arresting or banishing many of his opponents including his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke - a decision that was later to backfire. Richard had a lively foreign policy and pursued peace with France. His reign was concurrent with a 28 year truce in the Hundred Years War. He also conducted various expeditions to Ireland but failed to reconcile the Anglo-Irish lords with the Gaels. It was on the last of these Irish adventures that he had met Margery Bisset. Back in London, a regular attender at the court of the English king was Donald, the son of 'Good John', who had been the first to call himself Lord of the Isles. Ostentatiously snubbing the court of neighboring King Robert III of Scotland, Donald drew up treaties of friendship and cooperation with his English friends. All this in the context of centuries of warfare between Scotland and England. Grandfather, even fathers, could have fought at Bannockburn. But in 1399, whilst Richard II was on that last fateful trip to Ireland, Henry of Bolingbroke returned to claim the English throne. Supported by some of the leading baronial families, Henry captured and deposed Richard. Bolingbroke was crowned King as Henry IV and although there were risings in support of Richard he was eventually murdered in Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire. Or was he'

Henry IV subsequently had the body 'buried' in Westminster Abbey, but it is well known that body doubles were used on all sorts of occasions at the time, and it's perfectly possible that the body in the coffin was not that of an English King. Donald, Lord of the Isles, being a pragmatic sort of chap, lost no time building friendships and negotiating treaties with the new King Henry IV. He was one of the first to visit Henry and may even have been present at Richard's 'funeral'. Richard had a long history of mental instability and so you can imagine the thoughts that coursed through Donald's mind when on returning to Finlaggan he found the place 'buzzing with strange speculations'. Was the 'Mammet' (meaning idol or puppet) that was weeping incoherently by his fireside actually Richard II of England' He had suffered a total breakdown and was 'a poor crazed creature' but Margery Bisset who was staying at Finlaggan as a guest of Donald became convinced that it was indeed he. Donald was of course then faced with a terrible dilemma - how could he remain true to the traditions of Island hospitality and yet retain the trust of his new friend Henry IV of England'

Our story suggests that the solution Donald came up with was to give the 'Mammet' Richard up to the Scottish King Robert III, who set him up as the Pretender to the English throne. He was to spend the next 20 years in semi-obscure exile in Stirling Castle where he is said to have died in 1419. It is on these turns of historical fate that the destiny of nations is set. The usurper Henry Bolingbroke, who many argued had stolen the throne, had begat a son who on his fathers death was crowned Henry V - perhaps the greatest English warrior king of the Middle Ages. His crushing victory over the French knights at Agincourt would set his country on an imperial path towards the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Donald, Lord of the Isles, had not chosen his friends well however because it was all eventually to go wrong for the Lordship. They misjudged the extent of their power and influence and eventually overstepped the mark with their Scottish neighbours. There was no helping hand from England when the wrath of Alba finally bore down upon their heads.

This story was published with kind permission from The Ileach - Community Newspaper of the year. Written by Carl Reavey (with thanks to Rona Mackenzie - picture left).

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