The Firth of Lorne is a place of great history. Early Christians, Saint Brendan and Saint Columba, founded a monastery on Iona and on Holy Isle in the Garvellachs. It has been a place of Viking invasions and the lands of Lords of the Isles.
The Irish Invasion
Over the choppy waters came Fergus, standing in the centre of his long, 20-oared curragh, bedecked in his sea-cape of grey wool, his warrior’s band of gold about his forehead like a thin crown. To starboard a cable length off is the curragh of his brother Loarn and to the port side, the curragh of his brother Angus. He glances behind his own boat to a dozen more, manned by strong, seamen warriors, both eager and young, older and experienced Irish soldiers. He looks again to the Alban shores ahead. “This will be my colony, my new land, my own land. My fame will go down in the Annals. The Seanachaidhean will tell my story and sing poetry of me. Pull those oars! Pull men, pull!” (Extract from the Firth of Lorne SAC Guide).
A Curragh is a 20-foot long, low boat made of a light, basket-like frame, covered with leather skins and weighted with stones. It has a single square sail and many oars. The Irish came to Alba, as Scotland was known then, in about 500 AD, with colonisation in mind. They met and overcame “The Horse Tribe”, who lived in modern Kintyre. They renamed the land Dalriada, “Portion of land of Riada”, after their Irish homeland. Nowadays, we call this land Earra Ghàidheal, Argyll, the “Coastland of the Irish”.
From their new capital city of Dún Add, in Kilmartin Glen, they established out posts to hold back the native tribes, now termed Picts. Out posts such as Dunollie Castle, Òban and Dún Chonnuill in the Garvellach chain.
The Christian Irish of the 6th century viewed spirituality and religion as far more integral to life than we in Britain tend to do nowadays, building it into their politics, daily routine and laws. It was thus natural that while the people were building their houses and forts, they were building their seats of learning and prayer also.
The southern island of the Garvellach chain was one of their first monasteries: Eileach an Naoimh (“aylach a- nooyv” – The Rocky place of the Saints), also known as Holy Isle. It was probably established by Saint Bridget and Saint Brendan “the navigator”, an Irish explorer and Brother, known for his great voyages to Iceland, America and his battle with a whale.
Back in Éireann (Ireland), a grandson of the first Irish settlers in Scotland, a hotheaded monk, of noble birth, Colum Cille was dividing the community through religion.
He had been convicted of theft of his mentor’s book, The Psalter of Saint Jerome, by copying it. This was when a book was worth as much as a Kingdom and followed into battle as a Holy Relic. Pagan King Diarmuid passed judgment: “To the cow, her calf; to the book, her little book”, meaning Colum Cille must give the copy to his mentor. He would not let it rest at this though.
Through his influence, Colum Cille brought about a battle, pitching cousins against one another. It is said that 10,000 souls were lost in the Battle of Cuil Dremhne.
His punishment was exile from Éireann to pagan Alba (now Scotland) to convert as many Pagans to Christians as had died in the battle. Colum Cille had many skills that his punishers could benefit from: his physical might, his religious knowledge and his gift of politics. These they could apply these to the problematic new Pictish neighbours, who were hostile and pagan.
In 563 he and 12 students landed on a small, beautiful island in the west of the Dalriadan colony and founded a seat of Christian learning. This island is now called Iona. Colum Cille is now known worldwide by the name Saint Columba.
But, a generation before this, Saint Brendan had established a monastery on the southern-most Garvellach, Eileach an Naoimh. A place where in the 500s you might have met a handful of saints, sitting in the “stone igloos”, debating Celtic Christian doctrine.
It is thought Saint Columba himself came here on retreat and that this is the legendary isle he called Hinba. Landing trips here are a regular part of our boat trip schedule.
Within 300 years of the Irish, the Danes and Danes and Norwegians invaded – otherwise known Vikings. They settled and farmed western Scotland for 400 years, but were driven out by the descendents of the Irish, leaving behind place names, boat burials and a Gold Arm Torque in the local Corryvreckan whirlpool.
The name of the whirlpool Coire Bhreacan translates from Gáidhlig as “Speckled Cauldron”, but there is a Tale that the name comes from a Viking called Breacan. For the love of a woman he accepted the challenge from her father to anchor his boat in the Cauldron for three nights, the prize being marriage. One night would be impossible in this third-largest whirlpool in the world. Upon the advice of a wise-one, he made three anchor ropes, one from wool, one from hemp and the third from the hair of a pure woman (a maiden).
On the first night, the wool parted, but he escaped. On the second night, the hemp snapped. Again he escaped. On the third night, much to his surprise, the rope of maiden’s hair failed consigning him to a most horrible drowning. Evidently the maiden was not as pure as he thought.
Lords of the Isles
When the Vikings left in the 1200s, the area became part of the kingdom of The Isles, ruled over by the MacDonalds. The Isles was an independent Kingdom for about 200 years, occupying Scotland’s entire western seaboard.
It is from this Norse / Gáidhlig mixed culture that we get the Clan System and much of Highland Scots Culture: the Mac surnames, Piping, Clan Chiefs, Clan lands, gáidhlig poetic style.
In all this time, Dún Chonnuill, Northern-most Island of the Garvellachs, was still an out post. In about 1350, it was the brief ‘prison’ of Good John, Lord of the Isles. Two brothers of the small Clann MacLean ‘helped’ Good John ‘reorganise’ his household by assassinating his Master of House and other notable figures.
During this ‘reorganisation’, they held Good John “for his own safety” in the precipitous, almost inaccessible Dún Chonnuill, while they outlined the suggested changes he’d be needing in his government. Lachlann MacLean would be the beneficiary of most of these. “Oh, and I’ll be needing your daughter’s hand in marriage too”. This marked the rise of the MacLean’s.
The current chief still lives in Duart Castle, Mull.