Sunday, 19 February 2017

Stones, bones and clear tones on the island of Finan the Leper

We were up and about early at our camp on the shore of Loch Shiel, the cool air of post dawn a reminder that the season was turning.  It was cool rather than cold though and there was no sense of needing to get moving to warm up.

 The morning sun was beginning to rise above the hills on the east shore of the loch as we finished packing, though our beach remained in deep shade. 

 By the time we were about ready the morning clouds were beginning to burn off....

 ....and it looked set to be a fine autumn day. 

 After a short distance we came to the narrow twist which marks the end of Loch Shiel proper, and a distinct change in scenery.  We'd been journeying through rugged and wild mountain scenery, ahead lay lower ground with wider views towards the sea.  The narrow bend as the loch finds its way from the mountains is almost blocked by a small island - the terminal moraine of the glacier which ground out Loch Shiel.

Eilean Fhianain (Finan's Island) may be small and unspectacular from a distance, but it has a wealth of interest and history and there was no way we were going to pass by without exploring a little of it.  Finan was an early Celtic saint who is believed to have lived from around 520 to 600AD.  Details of his life are uncertain but he seems to have followed Columba from Ireland and became Abbot of a small monastery on the island now named after him.  He is believed to have evangelised much of Argyllshire, but considering that his name crops up all over Scotland - as well as the obvious Glenfinnan and Kilfinnan, there is a St Finzean's Fair in Perth and a Finzean as far away as Aberdeenshire, he must have travelled extensively

Known as "Finan the Leper" from the disease which afflicted him, he seems to have favoured small islands on lochs; he is also recorded as the founder of at Inisfallen on Lough Leane in Ireland's County Kerry.  Finan died, it is thought, at Clonmore in his native Ireland.

 We'd visited Eilean Fhianain on our winter trip in 2014 and found it to be a gem of a place.  That visit had been made in brilliant sunshine, this one in quite different lighting, but the place still had an air of peace.  We passed the gravestones which appear very old but in fact are probably 18th century......

 ....and stopped to admire the cross commemorating Rev Charles McDonald, priest of the diocese of Argyll and the Isles.  I hadn't noticed on our previous visit, but many of the trees on the island are Rowans, the tree of protection. 

 The sides of the column bear fine sculptures in the distinctive Celtic style, and there's a clear difference between the weathering on the western side of the cross which faces the prevailing weather.....

 ....and those on the more sheltered eastern face, these tail-chasing beasts and intertwined snakes are still in sharp relief. 

Note: Our friend Leif  has pointed out that the bodies of the snakes seem to form the letters "V" and "M" - it would be fascinating to know whether this was deliberate or a coincidence of pattern; and if deliberate what the letters represent.

 The ruined chapel near to the highest point of the island has an intact altar slab, behind which a very old stone cross occupies the niche, and a wooden boat-shaped object upon which small offerings of coins had been left.  A rummage in our pockets produced some coins to add to the amount.

But it is the bell which captures the imagination -  seamlessly cast in bronze, it has lain here for almost eleven centuries.  It takes a moment for that to sink in....produced in the 10th century, it has survived all the long tumult of history intact.  Nowadays secured by a small chain, one can clearly see the marks on the altar slab where the bell has rested.

Not only is the bell still intact, it remains fully functional -  Douglas' video of it being rung catches the clear tone.

 If St Finan's bell is the jewel of the island, nature has provided a few of her own.  It's amazing how often the walls of ruined churches are studded with the blue flowers of Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis), here growing intertwined with a fern.

We continued over the island from the ruined chapel and Lorna found a remarkable grave-slab half concealed below the grass.   We cleared the grass a little to find......

 ...a very definite image of mortality carved in stone.  It seems that our predecessors were altogether less reticent about portraying death in this way - it's a fascinating grave if a little startling to the modern eye.

 As we made our way back to the boats we passed a much more recent grave, well tended and laid with flowers, backed with a bush fired with intense autumn colour.

This small island had proved well worth a second exploration - and on future visits we'll stop here again without doubt.

We got back on the water as a breeze sprang up, clearing the cloud quickly.  The mountains lay behind us, and ahead lay a river and the sea.....


  1. A very interesting visit again to this island. Great to discover new things!
    On the tall gravestone's eastern side with the tailchasing snakes I discovered two letters when following the bodies of the snakes. It's the letters 'V' and a more stylistic 'M', or it's just a coincident. Any idea of their meaning? The side heading westwards has also a 'V'-shaped drawing.
    Safe paddling!

  2. PS! The snakes are not chasing each others tail or their own. ;-)

    1. Hi Leif, that's very well spotted - I hadn't noticed that the snakes form a "V" and an "M", but once you'd pointed it out, they clearly do. I have no idea whether it's deliberate or a coincidence - more research for me to do! :o)

      Kind Regards

  3. I'm also doing some more research and have asked Duncan B if the letters 'V' and 'M' have any religious meaning he's aware of, but that was not the case...
    Neither the 'V' nor the 'M' is a part of the snakes, when I follow their bodies.
    A wild guess: Can the reverend´s name McDonald have anuthing to do with the letter 'M'? Must be more examples of this on other stone crosses. The search goes on...

    1. The "M" might well represent McDonald Lief - it does look like the letters are a distinct part of the design......

  4. Just catching up, Ian, wonderful posts. Joan and I simply MUST find our way to Finan's Island one is the stuff of "pilgrimages". Is one lifetime sufficient? So much to do and see at Base Camp 2! :) Your narrative and images are tantalising. Leif has done great research and I'm stumped at the meaning of the letters. Clearly this "rev" has some studying to do! Looking forward to what comes next! Warm wishes to you.

    1. Thanks Duncan, Eilean Fhianain is a place I know you'd both find fascinating....plenty more of this trip to come son!

      Warm wishes

  5. Beautiful posts - this trip looks absolutely stunning. I've only tried sea kayaking a couple of times, but your blog has made me determined to take it up properly - when I get chance!

    1. Thanks Neil, and welcome! You certainly should consider taking up sea kayaking.....but be warned, it's very addictive! Glad you're enjoying this journey :o)

      Kind Regards