Revealing Islay's Past

A chance find reveals and integral part of the whisky island's history
By Rob Allanson
A chance find by a university undergraduate has been the crowning glory of an initial archaeological dig at Dunyvaig Castle, near the Lagavulin Distillery on Islay.

Zoë Wiacek, from the University of Reading, said she moved some rubble and there lay the seal of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor (c. 1576-1642), who had taken ownership of Islay in 1615.

She said: “I immediately knew it was an important find, but had no idea what it was. I called over my trench supervisor, and when it was lifted, the soil fell away to show the inscription. Then everyone became excited. I am so proud to have found something so important for the project and for Islay.”

Once used to sign and seal charters and legal documents, it is a circular disc of lead, carrying the inscription IOANNIS CAMPBELL DE CALDER (Calder was the original spelling of Cawdor).

The seal carries the Cawdor coat of arms with a galley-ship and a stag. On its reverse, is the date of 1593 and the initials DM.

The dig was being undertaken by Scottish charity Islay Heritage, following a donation as part of the Lagavulin 200th Legacy fund.

Professor Steven Mithen, chairperson of Islay Heritage and director of the Dunyvaig Project added: “Coming towards the end of the dig, after the team had worked so hard to move huge amounts of turf and rubble, this has been a thrilling discovery. We have found a piece of Islay’s past and Scottish history. We can’t wait to start digging again in 2019.

“The discovery indicates that the house in which it was found belonged to the Campbell Clan, and hence dates back to the early 17th century. The seal appears to have been either lost or had been hidden within a niche in the wall, and then forgotten when the building was abandoned. We have found turf walls built over the stone rubble that had covered the floor where the seal was found, and blocking off the sea-gate of the castle.

“I am hopeful that a Medieval whisky still will be found within the castle. Distilling and brewing are likely to have been important activities. So Lagavulin might end up as the oldest distillery of them all!”

The archaeology team suspects that Alasdair MacColla, a descendent of the MacDonalds, built these rudimentary turf defences when he re-took the castle from the Campbells in 1646 and installed his elderly father, Colla Ciotach.

We hope to return next year... we also need to secure sufficient funding. The plan is to excavate for the next four years

Professor Mithen continues: “Perhaps the seal had been lost when the Campbell garrison fled when under attack from MacColla. Campbell-backed forces immediately besieged the castle in 1647.  Colla Ciotach was staved into surrender and then executed - hung from the castle walls – as the Campbell’s retook Dunyvaig for the final time.”

Dunyvaig Castle, which at one time was the main naval fortress of the Lordship of the Isles, was also the centre of intense rivalry between the Campbells and the MacDondals during the 14th and 17th centuries.

Professor Mithen explained that the finds would help give more background to this period of the castle, and
Islay’s, history. He said: “Dunyvaig is likely to have been more than a fortress. It may have been a centre for commerce and trade, for craft activities, for feasting and entertaining. At the present time, we know hardly anything about the life and times of the castle and the people who occupied it.

“The 2018 excavation has made a good start by discovering a range of buildings outside of the castle walls, possibly belonging to artisans, and beginning to uncover those within the courtyard. It has also begun to recover a range of finds such as pottery, glass, animal bones, metal work — along with musket balls and cannon balls.  

“Just as today, there would have been rich and poor, the strong and weak, and so forth.  And a range of persons: Lords and ladies, craftsmen, soldiers, farmers and so forth. The Lords of the Isles developed the arts and so there is likely to have been poets, singers and musicians at Dunyvaig.  Sea travel would have been really important, and this may have often been dangerous.

This was also a time when the Black Death was ravaging Europe – we do not know whether that reached Scotland.”
The main aim of the project is to reconstruct the environment and settlement around Dunyvaig. The archaeologists will do this by surveying and analysing sediments that have trapped the pollen from past vegetation.

The 14th-17th centuries were a period of considerable climate change, and Professor Mithen explained that
the population density is likely to have varied.

He added: “It is likely to have reduced during periods of relative cold and storminess when the pastures were unable to support cattle and the arable crops failed. That may have been a time of increased raiding and warfare — but that is what we are trying to find out.

“We hope to return next year. We need permission from Diageo/Lagavulin who own the castle and from Historic Environment Scotland, because the castle is a scheduled monument. We also need to secure sufficient funding. The plan is to excavate for the next four years.”

The project saw the 40 strong team spend three weeks on the island, led by some of the best field archaeologists in the UK and with experts including geophysicists, archaeological scientists and palaeo-environmentalists to reconstruct the medieval landscape. The excavation helped to train 30 university students in survey and excavation methods and Islay Heritage are hoping to secure additional funding to hold at least four more seasons of excavation up until 2023.

Dr Nick Morgan, Diageo head of whisky outreach, who led the Lagavulin 200 Legacy project, said: “Islay is famous as the world’s greatest whisky island, but it is also one of Scotland’s most important historical locations and we are thrilled that the Lagavulin Legacy project has been able to support Islay Heritage in its mission to raise the island’s archaeological profile for both the local community and visitors to the island.”
Councillor Alastair Redman from Argyll & Bute Council with Professor Steve Mithen, Trustee of Islay Heritage
Councillor Alastair Redman from Argyll & Bute Council with Professor Steve Mithen, Trustee of Islay Heritage
Dr Nick Morgan, Diageo Head of Whisky Outreach and Georgie Crawford, former Lagavulin Distillery Manager
Dr Nick Morgan, Diageo Head of Whisky Outreach and Georgie Crawford, former Lagavulin Distillery Manager
Dunyvaig Castle
Dunyvaig Castle
Excavation at Dunyvaig Castle
Excavation at Dunyvaig Castle