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Issue 42 - The Clan Macneil

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 42
December 2008


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The Clan Macneil

James Irvine Robertson looks at the history of another of Scotland's great families.

Every evening the herald of the Chief of Clan Macneil would clamber to the battlements of Kisimul Castle, set on its island in the middle of Castlebay just off the island of Barra, toot his horn and bellow, ‘Hear, O ye people, and listen, O ye nations!

The great Macneil of Barra having finished his meal, the princes of the earth may dine!’ And one can be sure that all the princes uttered a sigh of relief and tucked in.

More than most clan chiefs, Macneil was a little king. Impregnable in his sea-girt castle, all he could see was his. His ancestry was as ancient and distinguished as any in Scotland, descending from the Irish Prince Anrothan who married a daughter of the local king of Cowal in south west Scotland in the 11th century, and his line stretched back to Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland, living in 400 AD.

The Macneils possessed the island of Gigha; another distinguished branch held Colonsay and, in the 15th and 16th centuries they were hereditary keepers of Castle Sween, one of the oldest castles in Scotland, which guards the entrance to Loch Sween at the north of Kintyre.

At this stage, the Macneils of Gigha were still the principal branch of the family, but their power declined with the rise of Clan Campbell and the Macneils of Barra became acknowledged as chiefs of the Clan and name. They played a canny game in politics of the lordship, at one time on the Council of the Isles and at others allied to the rising Macleans of Duart. James IV forfeited the title of Lord of the Isles in 1493. Two years later Macneil received a crown charter of Barra and the surrounding islands. And, far out in the Atlantic, the clan chiefs lived as they pleased.

Mainland Highland clans had cattle rustling as their favoured pastime. Piracy was the passion of the Macneils. Ruari Og Macneil was described as ‘a Scot that usually maketh his summer’s course to steal what he can.’ He created chaos in a raid into Ireland in 1591 and later captured a passing English ship.

Queen Elizabeth I complained to King James VI. Ruari ignored the summons to Edinburgh, so the Tutor (the leader of a clan during the minority of the Chief. In this case Clan Mackenzie) of Kintail paid him a friendly visit and asked him on board his ship for a drink, or two, or three. Once nature had taken its course, the Chief’s henchmen were bundled ashore and Ruari Og transported to the capital for trial. Ruari’s defence – that he was doing his duty to the King by trying to avenge the English insult at decapitating James’s mother Queen Mary – earned him a pardon but he was made a vassal of the Tutor of Kintail in place of the King.

The next chief Ruari the Tatar continued in his father’s buccaneering spirit. He had two wives. He disowned the first, a sister of Maclean of Duart, and then married a sister of Clanranald. He had sons by each, and the two families fought each other for the succession. The Maclean faction surprised Kisimul Castle with 20 men armed with ‘swords, gauntlets, plate-sleeves, bows, darlochs, dirks, targes, Lochaber axes, twohanded swords and other weapons invasive.’ They put Ruari the Tatar and their half-brothers in chains and garrisoned the castle.

With his father’s power at an end, Neil Og Macneil of Barra became Chief. He reintroduced Roman Catholicism to the southern Hebrides; roadside Marian shrines add a touch of Mediterranean exoticism to the isles today. The first Vicar Apostolic to Scotland visited Barra at the close of the 17th century and proscribed spiritual remedies to cure the islanders of their unsettling aptitude for Second Sight, which was then prevalent.

In 1675 a Glasgow coal merchant issued Macneil with a writ for debt, forcing the King’s Messenger to voyage from Glasgow only to find that he was refused entry to the castle and welcomed with shots from the ramparts and boulders being dropped on them from the ‘murder hole’ above the doorway so that they were ‘in hazard of being brained.’ The writ was left on the rocks whereupon a sally from the castle caught the messenger, and his writ was ripped up in front of his eyes.

The incoming Catholic King James VII regranted the Crown Charter, and birlinns sailed from Barra in support of Viscount Dundee’s Rising in his favour when William of Orange took the British throne in 1689. The clan sailed again in 1715. They played a small part in the ’45 Rising and in 1750, a spy reported to Prince Charles Edward Stuart that Macneil would bring 150 in his support in a fresh Rising.

But chill economic winds were blowing across Barra as they were across the entire Highland region. The collapse of the kelp industry after the end of the Napoleonic Wars bankrupted General Roderick Macneil of Barra, and the islands were sold. The next Chief was a cousin whose father had emigrated to the New World at the head of 800 of his clansfolk in 1802.

For many clans that would have been the severing of the final link with the homelands but, in 1937, Robert Lister Macneil, the 45th Clan Chief, succeeded in buying back the island of Barra and he restored the castle.

His successor, Ian Roderick Macneil of Barra, gave his lands to the people of the island in 2001 and leased Kisimul Castle to Historic Scotland for 1,000 years. The rent is a bottle of whisky a year of the Chief’s choice.

His favoured tipple at the moment is Talisker, from the neighbouring Isle of Skye.