It’s the summer of 2018, and Zoë Wiacek, a student at England’s University of Reading, is spending part of her vacation on an archaeological dig in Scotland. Specifically, she’s hunkered down in a trench that’s been dug at the site of historic Dunyvaig Castle on the island of Islay. Then, after turning over a fragment of masonry, Wiacek makes an incredible discovery: a piece of Scottish antiquity from over four centuries ago.
Before we find out more about Wiacek’s extraordinary find, though, let’s delve a little into the history of Dunyvaig Castle. While Dunyvaig may be a ruin today, the structure nevertheless once played an important part in one of Scotland’s legendary clan feuds: the centuries-long bitter rivalry between the MacDonalds and the Campbells.
And Dunyvaig Castle sits on the southern shores of Islay, located just off the west coast of mainland Scotland. Yet although the monument itself originated from the 16th century, the site’s original substructure is certainly much older than that – it possibly dates back to prehistoric times.
Furthermore, while Islay is best known today for its spectacular scenery, its salmon fishing and its whisky distilleries, the island has a rather dark past. Back in the 16th century, for example, it was the location of one blood-soaked episode in the long-running dispute between the MacDonald and Campbell clans.
The MacDonalds trace their origins back to the 12th-century warrior Somerled, who was part Norse and part Celtic. And Somerled’s descendants would hold sway over Scotland’s western Highlands and Islands for some 400 years. In fact, the MacDonalds became renowned as the “Lords of the Isles” – with one of their strongholds being Dunyvaig.
Meanwhile, the first record of the Campbell clan is from 1263, although it’s believed that the Campbells were descended from ancient Britons living in Scotland. And their feud with the MacDonalds may have started in the late 13th century, when the MacDougalls – relatives of the MacDonalds – met a Campbell contingent at the Battle of Red Ford.
Whatever the first cause of the murderous ill-will between the two clans, however, it resulted in generations of bloodshed. And it’s thought that the underlying source of the conflicts may have been Scottish politics. Towards the end of the 15th century, the dominance of the MacDonalds was waning; the Campbells’ star, on the other hand, was rising.
But back to Dunyvaig Castle, which, as we’ll see, was a much-contested piece of real estate. In their pomp as the Lords of the Isles, the MacDonalds were in possession of the castle until 1493. However, that year they were stripped of much of their lands and property by the Scottish crown – including Dunyvaig.
The MacIans of Ardnamurchan then took ownership of the castle. And the structure proved to be in an important strategic location, since it guarded the entrance to Lagavulin Bay, which offered a safe anchorage for ships. Ultimately, Dunyvaig was leased again to the MacDonalds in 1519.
Then the Campbells somehow wrested control of the fortification from the MacDonalds in 1543, only for the MacDonalds to take it back again two years later. And this confusing back-and-forth between the MacDonalds and the Campbells continued on into the 17th century.
First, the Campbells would besiege and eventually take the castle. Then the MacDonalds would return the favor, regaining their stronghold in the process. But things would finally come to a head in 1647. The year before, the MacDonalds had again seized Dunyvaig from the Campbells. The elderly Coll Ciotach Mac Domhnaill, a MacDonald kinsman, then held the castle.
But the Campbells returned in 1647 to lay siege to Dunyvaig. And although Coll quickly built walls of turf in an attempt to defeat the Campbell attack, he was soon overwhelmed. The Campbells put a definitive stop to the long story of the castle changing hands, then, by hanging Coll from the structure’s ramparts.
The Campbells of Cawdor now enjoyed undisputed ownership of Dunyvaig. This lasted until around 1677, when Sir Hugh Campbell decided that the castle no longer met his needs. So, he razed the fortification and relocated to the much more pleasant environs of Islay House – now a luxury hotel.
Fast-forward to 2018, and a group of 40 were investigating the ruins of Dunyvaig Castle as part of a three-week excavation. The team were at the site thanks to a collaborative effort between Islay Heritage and the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology.
And there was no doubt about the star find of the 2018 season’s dig. Here’s how Wiacek described the moment she made the discovery in a press release from the University of Reading. “I removed a piece of rubble, and it was just sitting there on the ground. I immediately knew it was an important find, but [I] had no idea what it was,” she said.
Wiacek continued, “[Then] I called over my trench supervisor. And when [the object] 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.” What she’d unearthed was a seal from over 400 years ago.
The item in question had belonged to Sir John Campbell of Cawdor. Sir John lived from around 1576 to 1642 and had come into possession of Dunyvaig Castle in 1615. He would have used the seal – which carries a date of 1593 – to sign and fasten important legal papers and other significant documents.
Wiacek had uncovered the lead seal, meanwhile, beneath a pile of stones left when an old defensive wall had collapsed. The leader of the dig, Dr. Darko Mari?evi?, was in no doubt about the significance of the discovery, either.
“This is a remarkable find,” Dr. Mari?evi? said in the University of Reading press release. “Not only is it a beautiful and well-preserved object, but it [also] comes from the floor of a building that we can now confidently date to the Campbell occupation.” He added, “So, buried below this floor, we will have the story of the MacDonalds – the Lords of the Isles – to reveal.”
The University of Reading’s Professor Steven Mithen 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.” Perhaps understandably, he concluded, “We can’t wait to start digging again in 2019.”