All around you at Lagavulin, there are stories from the past, and while you’ll certainly hear some good ones in the bar, they can be told in other ways, just as convincingly. Here on Islay, if you want to know the story of a place, you don’t always need to ask a man or a woman. You can just ask the stones.
Ask the ruined, gaunt remains of Dunyvaig Castle, the guardian of Lagavulin Bay, for example. It looks as though it was once the sort of place that might have housed a few ghosts and even if it didn’t, what stories it has to tell.
The principal coastal castle of the Norse-Gael Kingdom of the Isles, Dunyvaig enjoyed a long, rich history that reached its zenith in 1314, a hundred and fifty years after the sudden death during an ill-advised invasion of the mainland of the most famous King of the Isles, Somerled.
In that year an armada of ships carrying the Sons of Somerled gathered beneath its watchful walls in Lagavulin Bay, then set sail in aid of the soon to be victorious Robert the Bruce, who duly defeated the English at Bannockburn in a battle that heralded the birth of modern Scotland.
Later building gave us the castle whose ruins we see today, but even its might was unable to resist two onslaughts in the early 17th century. The first took place during 1615, when after a long siege by royal forces under Sir Oliver Lambert the last remaining power of the Clan Donald Lords of the Isles was finally broken as the Campbells were given control over Islay.
Even then, peace was a while in coming. Later that same century, when garrisoned by Royalists during the Civil War, Dunyvaig fell victim to a second long siege in 1647 and was slighted by Sir David Leslie’s Covenanter army. By the time the Campbells reasserted their control in 1677, its ruins were of no further use, though the stones that remain still have a brooding presence at the entrance to the rocky bay.
The walls of Dunyvaig were not the first stones to rise here, or nearby. That honour most probably belongs to two standing stones that can still be seen half a mile to the northwest of the distillery, on the land that was once Lagavulin Farm.
One, still erect though leaning, now forms part of a long wall that runs from near the ruins of Ballynaughton More towards Druim Mor. Beyond it, lies another of similar size lying prone. The erect stone measures 3.50m in height. What was almost certainly the base of the fallen stone is buried under the wall of a small rectangular enclosure, and its length is 3.65m. When erect it probably stood with its longer axis aligned, like that of its partner, almost E and W.
We cannot know its precise age, but there are many such standing stones on Islay, most of them near Lagavulin, which, with Killarow, was one of only two principal villages on the island in the early eighteenth century.
We can be more certain of the age of the famous cross at nearby Kildalton, which experts say is likely to date from the second half of the 8th century. It is held to be one of the finest early Christian crosses in Britain and the close relative of a group of three crosses on Iona.
Nine feet tall, this impressive piece is painstakingly carved from a single block of local stone, quite possibly by Iona craftsmen. On it you’ll find intricately interlaced carved reliefs and can still make out creatures such as fierce serpents, lions and birds. Biblical scenes appear in profusion on the reverse, where with care you can discern the Virgin and Child with angels, Cain murdering his brother Abel, Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, and David killing the Lion.
Aside from its own meaning, what this stone also tells us is that Islay was a place of significance in early Christian times. The Irish missionary St. Columba most likely passed through on his way to Iona, as did his contemporary St. Moluag, who founded communities at Lismore, Rosemarkie and Mortlach. It is thought that distilling itself arrived on Islay with these Irish missionaries and survived in such communities here, as it did around the world, for many centuries.
Impressive, indeed, but at Lagavulin itself, there is a stone with a story more curious than all of these. It’s an early 19th century tombstone and by itself, it would be unremarkable. However, the really unusual thing about it is that it’s mounted on the gable of the filling-store. The story of how it got there starts with the passing of one Angus Johnston of Lagavulin.
Angus, who could possibly have been the father of Lagavulin’s founder John Johnston, lived in the village. His death was supposed to be followed by burial on the island of Texa, which lies just outside Lagavulin Bay. A tombstone was prepared and loaded into a boat to begin its short journey. However, so the story goes, it was too heavy, and when it broke the mooring chain of the boat for a second time the men entrusted with carrying it across thought better of it.
Angus was duly laid to rest on Texa, but his tombstone remained at Lagavulin, to be preserved in an unique way for posterity by being affixed to the gable end of the filling store. “Here lie the remains of Angus Johnston, late of Lagavulin, who died 1830 aged 86 years”, it proclaims. Well, they don’t quite lie here...
From a castle, to a gravestone. From the mystery of a standing stone, to the certainty of a cross. The stones of Lagavulin tell their stories with clarity, and tell us of many characters, though none of those stories turns out to be the ghost story we anticipated. In fact, it seems that the only lost spirit around here is Malt Mill. Ah, but that’s another story...