Restoration of galley Aileach at Dunollie Castle recalls MacDougall Lords of the Isles

Aileach © Dee Rudiger
These days the replica highland galley, Aileach, is nestled under the trees in the grounds of Dunollie Castle of Clan MacDougall fame, standing on a promontory guarding the northern approaches to Oban Bay in Argyll. Soon she will be set free to sail the seas again. She has a story to tell…

Aileach is a beautiful replica of the Celtic galleys of old, the Bìrlinns.

She was born of the unhindered imaginations of two men whose own lives rowed together in friendship and who were never short of an idea for adventure – Clanranald, the 24th Captain and Chief of Clanranald and Irishman, Wallace Clark.

3 Aileach © Dee Rudiger

Back in 1991, Wallace Clark, already well known for a range of re-enactments of historical voyages, trumped himself when he and Clanranald asked the celebrated racing yacht designer, Colin Mudie, to design a full sized replica of a highland galley.

The project received some sponsorship from London’s Highland Society and went on to seize the public imagination in its voyaging. Through its expeditions, the Alieach, as it was named, is credited as being one of the key inspirations for the renewal of interest in coastal rowing, with increasing numbers of communities in Argyll and the Isle now building their St Ayles skiffs and taking to the water in recreation and competition.

The trouble at the start was that no one really knew what a highland galley was like. The only physical evidence is a stem post found on the Isle of Eigg.

After pretty exhaustive research on carvings representing such galleys, Clark told Mudie to use as a guide a carving on the gloriously ornate 1528 tombstone of Alexander Macleod in St Clement’s Church at Rodel in south east Harris.

The 40′ replica Mudie came up with got some criticism for being heavy and made more for cutting through big seas than tossing lightly on top of them. [Her decorative prow and the massive ball bearings for her rudder are seen below.]

Mudie countered the critics by making it clear that his primary concern was for the survival of the crew.

Aileach was built by James Macdonald and Sons [who else, with Clanranald involved?] in Moville on the north coast of Ireland in County Donegal – and was launched virtually from the shoulders of the villagers who, by tradition, carried her from the yard to the water.

4 Aileach © Dee Rudiger 2 Aileach © Dee Rudiger

The carvings on the Macleod tomb were so intricate that it was possible to reproduce the design in astonishing detail.

Aileach  was created to challenge modern seafarers. The skills required to sail such a vessel were all but lost, and were to be re-discovered. This method of sailing has not been used for over 500 years. Her maiden voyage took her in a roundabout sort of way from Ireland to Scotland to the Faroe Isles, retracing an ancient Scottish trading route.

Legend has it that Somerled [from whom Clanranald claims descent] conceived the idea that combines the stern rudder with the hull of the Viking longship. This enabled him to out sail and outfight the Viking invader, thereby establishing his domain as the first Lord of the Isles.

Once these ships were the lifeblood of the Isles. The Bìrlinns were the chieftains’ vessels, playing a vital role in keeping enemies at bay and also providing rapid communication between the islands. A chieftain of the stature of Somerled would typically gather a fleet of approximately 50 as a sign of his status, with a war party growing to as many as 150 galleys.

Aileach was named for a Scottish princess who, legend has it, about 1500 years ago, went to Ireland to marry an Irish King. A stone ringfort overlooking Loughs Swilly and Foyle in Ireland – the magnificent Grianan of Aileach – still bears the name. Historically, Aileach was the name of the kingdom of the  northern Ui Neill [O'Neills] whose Kings of Aileach took their name from the pre-existing fort.

When she was ready, the galley Aileach‘s voyage – which Wallace Clark, at the age of 64, skippered himself, took her crew from Galway on the west coast of Ireland to a meander through the Outer Hebrides and on to the Faroes. Clark wrote about  this experience in The Lord of the Isles Voyage.

After the voyage, the galley served the film and television industry well in historic recreations and documentaries. She was on show for a time at Dunstaffnage Marina. Then came the drive to restore her.

With the MacDougall Clan having Lords of the Isles in their ancestry, they hospitably invited The Lord of the Isles Galley Trust to use Dunollie as the place to renovate the Aileach prior to her voyage to South Uist, in the very near future, where she will become an integral part of future heritage projects.

There she will become part of another story….

5 Aileach © Dee Rudiger

Anyone with spare time, the will and/or any expertise to share in the job to get the Aileach back afloat will be hugely welcome and should contact Dunollie Castle to get involved – 01631 570550. Visitors are always welcome too.

Aileach is on Facebook here; and a new website is being developed for her here – Galley Aileach. Until it is ready, this is the email to use to make contact with the project: enquiries@galleyaileach.co.uk

Dee Rudiger

Photographs accompanying this article are © Dee Rudiger.

Dee Rudiger is an Oban-based graphic designer working through her two service companies, DeeVA, a design company and Diamond Acre, a wellbeing and lifestyle service.

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