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Historical Lord of the Isles castle excavated in archealogical first

One of Scotland’s earliest historical sites is to be explored for the very first time this month with an excavation of Dunyvaig Castle on Islay.

Excavation at Dunyvaig Castle-min

Archaeologists from across the UK have converged on Lagavulin Bay to take part in the ground-breaking project to uncover the history of the castle which was once a strong-hold of the Lords of the Isles, the chiefs of the Clan MacDonald, and is considered the most majestic archaeological monument on Islay.

The castle sits on a peninsula adjacent to Lagavulin Distillery and the excavation is being undertaken by Scottish charity Islay Heritage following a donation as part of the Lagavulin 200th Legacy fund.

After a year of planning, the excavation, which began yesterday (12 August) will assess the preservation and potential of underground structures and deposits and explore the surrounding landscape. This is the first step in what will be a long-term project to establish what life was like when Dunyvaig Castle was an operational fortress in the middle ages and the scene of renowned battles between the MacDonalds and the Campbells before being demolished in 1677.   

An open evening for local residents around Lagavulin Bay and members of Islay Heritage was held on Friday (10 August) at Lagavulin Distillery providing an opportunity to meet the archaeologists and learn more about the plans for the excavation. This was followed by a public lecture about the project for the whole Islay community on the Saturday evening. A further event is planned for Thursday 30 August at Ramsay Halls, Port Ellen, where the archaeology team will share findings and results of the dig. 

The project will see a team of 40 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 will help 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.  

L-R Georgie Crawford, Professor Steve Mithen and Dr Nick Morgan at the excavation of Dunyvaig Castle-min

L-R Georgie Crawford, Professor Steve Mithen and Dr Nick Morgan at the excavation of Dunyvaig Castle.

Professor Steve Mithen, Trustee of Islay Heritage, said: “The Dunyvaig excavation will be the flagship project of Islay Heritage, addressing key research questions, training the next generation of archaeologists for Scotland and making many contributions to the Islay Community. We are excited about finding what secrets remain hidden underground about this iconic monument.”

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.

“This excavation at Dunyvaig Castle is the culmination of hard work and commitment from Islay Heritage, Lagavulin Distillery and the wider community. We’re looking forward to seeing what interesting discoveries will be uncovered over the next few weeks.” 

Georgie Crawford, former Lagavulin Distillery Manager, who led the Lagavulin 200th anniversary project, added: “We have worked closely with Islay Heritage and the local community for a number of years to reach this point so it’s very exciting to see work officially start at Dunyvaig Castle. We’re very proud to see the legacy of Lagavulin’s 200th anniversary celebrations being realised just a short distance from the distillery.”  

John Raven, Deputy Head of Casework at Historic Environment Scotland (HES), said: “We warmly welcome this innovative project to raise money to support Islay Heritage and its aims of raising the profile and condition of, and increasing access to, Islay’s spectacular and unique archaeology, history and culture.  It is a fantastic opportunity for heritage to make a greater contribution to the island’s economy.

“Dunyvaig Castle holds a deeply important place in Gaelic culture, and the excavations should help us better understand Medieval Gaelic culture and inform the castle’s conservation, so that it can be preserved and access opened up in the future.  We can’t wait to see the results.”

The Lagavulin 200th anniversary legacy funds were raised through the sale of a special bottling of a Lagavulin 1991 Single Malt Scotch Whisky cask which was carefully selected by the distillery team and Diageo Chief Executive Ivan Menezes. Just 522 bottles were put on sale, 521 of the bottles via a special ballot on The Whisky Exchange at a price of £1,494 – a price set to acknowledge the historic year of the first recorded distillation of Scotch Whisky – with bottle no.1 then auctioned by The Whisky Exchange, raising a further £8,395.

The Lagavulin Legacy project raised a total of £588,395 for local community causes on Islay. As well as Islay Heritage, these included the RSPB, Islay Festival Association, Islay Arts, Finlaggan Trust, McTaggart Cyber Café and Islay & Jura Community Enterprises Limited for McTaggart Leisure Centre.

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