Skip to content


Medieval home of Lords of the Isles reconstructed

The lost medieval home of the Lords of the Isles has been reconstructed virtually by experts at the University of St Andrews.

Major archaeological work by the National Museum of Scotland has enabled the University of St Andrews’ Open Virtual Worlds Team, and spin-out company Smart History, to digitally recreate Finlaggan.

In collaboration with the Finlaggan Trust, the reconstruction is based on discoveries made by the Finlaggan Archaeological Project, led by archaeologist Dr David Caldwell (formerly of the National Museum of Scotland), who provided advice to the St Andrews team.

Documentary research and comparison with other late medieval sites has been used to ensure the reconstruction is as accurate as possible.

The digital research in St Andrews was led by Dr Alan Miller of the School of Computer Science, while digital modelling was undertaken by Sarah Kennedy of the School of Computer Science, with additional historical research by Dr Bess Rhodes of the School of History and the School of Computer Science.

The reconstruction represents Finlaggan in the early fifteenth century – a time when it was the administrative and ceremonial centre of the Lordship of the Isles.

During the Middle Ages the Lords of the Isles ruled the Hebrides and parts of mainland Scotland and Ulster. Traditionally the Lordship was held by the MacDonald family.

However, following disputes in the fifteenth century the Scottish kings sought to curtail the MacDonalds’ influence, and in the 1490s James IV sent a military expedition to sack Finlaggan. Many of the buildings at Finlaggan were destroyed at this time, and over the centuries that followed the site sank into relative obscurity.

The reconstruction shows what Finlaggan may have looked like in its glory days when it was the seat of the Council of the Lords of the Isles, and the scene of inauguration ceremonies for the Lords.

It depicts the twin islands of Eilean Mor (or Large Isle) and Eilean na Comhairle (or Council Isle), and their surroundings on Loch Finlaggan. Interestingly, by the late Middle Ages, the Lords of the Isles’ residence at Finlaggan had little in the way of defensive structures – possibly indicating how secure the MacDonalds felt in the heart of their powerbase on Islay.

The reconstruction will be available as an interactive virtual reality experience at the Finlaggan Trust’s visitor centre on Islay. There is also a virtual reality app and an online video.

Lords of the Isles – 15th Century Finlaggan from Smart History on Vimeo

Dr Bess Rhodes, of the University, said: “Finlaggan was an amazing place to recreate digitally. Even today the islands of Eilean Mor and Eilean na Comhairle are beautiful places, and in the Middle Ages they were the site of a remarkable complex of buildings which blended local traditions with wider European trends.

“The work by Dr David Caldwell and the Finlaggan Archaeological Project has transformed our understanding of this site – giving us a glimpse of the relative comfort in which the Lords of the Isles and their followers lived, pampering their dogs with decorative collars, and enjoying music, imported wine and board games.”

Dr Ray Lafferty, Secretary of the Finlaggan Trust, said: “Despite its impact on the shaping of Scottish culture, Finlaggan and the Lordship remains little known to many.

“With this virtual reality reconstruction, we hope to give some sense of the site at the zenith of its power, when MacDonald rule stretched from the Glens of Antrim in Ireland to Buchan in the northeast of Scotland.”


A video about the project can be viewed on Vimeo. Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.


Related topics

Share this story

6 thoughts on "Medieval home of Lords of the Isles reconstructed"

  1. Diana Wheeler says:

    Thanks for the wonderful work you are doing. We’re American “Donalds” who enjoy coming to Scotland periodically to find our roots.

  2. Dr David MUNRO Boles says:

    As a direct descendant through Margaret Macdonald of Drumnadrochit I am astounded by your achievement. Finlaggan has always had a special place in my heart.

  3. Anne Smith says:

    Wonderful work. Kudos to you all.

  4. ILA CURRIE says:

    Very interesting work on the Finlaggan reconstruction. I have a particular interest as my surname is Currie (MacMhuirich in gaelic). My research has indicated that the bards to the Lords of the Isles based at Finlaggan were MacMhuirichs. Originating in Ireland, the MacMhuirich line of bards appeared to play a significant role within the The Lordship. To this end whilst in power, land was given to the bardic family, (Kintyre…Knapdale), only to be lost with the disolution of The Lordship. Interestingly an inlet of Loch Sween is known as Linnhe Mhuirich together with a small fort known as Dun Mhuirich which has revealed some interesting archeological findings. Loch Sween and Castle Sween were also closely identified with Finlaggan. I would be very interested to find out more on the research leading up to the virtual reconstruction, and any plans for further research into the Lordship at Finlaggan.

    1. Malcolm McDonald, Esq, OAM, OStJ. says:

      Thank you for this complete and illustrated report on “the Medieval home of Lords of the Isles and to all involved in the total project.
      The detail from excavations with archaeological reports supported by the latest digital definition illustrations is most impressive and appreciated by all who have researched and visited Finlaggan – in fact astonishing what can be achieved with the various digital enhancing techniques.
      As Toiseach of Finlaggan Council, reporting to the High Council of Clan Donald, I was most impressed and informed by your complete paper on Finlaggan the Headhouse of the Lords of the Isles supported by the video Vimeo. I have advised my colleagues on the Council of your excellent Report.

  5. Thank you for helping us all envision how our ancestors lived (or at least how they partied!). I would love to see additional virtual interiors of what has been learned about the thatched buildings, chapel, etc. The dining hall is amazing. Truly depicts what a key role hospitality played in the governing of the 15th century Lords of the Isles and earlier Celtic culture.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *