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Issue 94 - The Castle in the Bay

Scotland Magazine Issue 94
September 2017


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The Castle in the Bay

Charles Douglas explores Kisimul Castle

On a rocky islet in Castlebay, just off the coast of the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, is a small medieval castle surrounded by seawater. It can only be accessed by boat and, despite its turbulent history, it remains picture perfect.

There is an old Hebridean saying that the reason there was no MacNeil on Noah's Ark is that the MacNeil of Barra had a boat of his own and God told him to make good use of it. Another apocryphal tradition has it that, when the MacNeil of Barra was in residence at Kisimul Castle, a clansman would daily be called upon to scale the tower and proclaim: 'The MacNeil has dined. Kings, Princes and others of the earth may now dine!'

That said, the early origins of these MacNeils of Barra is obscure. It has been claimed that they originate from the Irish King Niall of the Nine Hostages, who lived in the 4th Century. However, a recent DNA survey of MacNeil kinsmen around the world indicates that the bloodline is more closely aligned to the Vikings who savaged Scotland's coastline in the first millennium.

Whichever provenance turns out to be the most accurate, it can safely be assumed that the fortification of Kisimul, sometimes called 'Kissiemul', takes its name from the Gaelic 'Chiosmull', which translates as 'the rock on the bay'.

It seems that the fortress was begun in the 11th Century, possibly as a chapel dedicated to St Ciarán, one of the twelve apostles of Ireland. Neil, 5th Chief of Barra, sat on the Council of the Lord of the Isles when King Haakon of Norway's army was defeated at the Battle of Largs in 1263. His son Neil Og MacNeil fought for Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314 and was rewarded with land in North Kintyre to supplement his barony of Barra. This was followed with a charter for Barra and Boisdale from the Lord of the Isles in 1427.

Remotely located and largely beyond the reach of law and order, from his Barra stronghold the MacNeil operated as a prince. Supported by his clansfolk, with succeeding generations commanding the seas of the Outer Hebrides, the MacNeil and his followers allocated their allegiance only to the Lord of the Isles. All of this came to an end with the collapse of the Lordship of Clan Donald in 1493. A troublesome reputation thereafter surrounded Clan MacNeil during the 15th and 16th Centuries, before the 15th Chief, known as 'Ruiari the Tartar', was outlawed. When brought before James VI on a charge of piracy, he informed the bemused Scottish king that he should be pleased that ships belonging to the English Royal Navy were attacked, since it was Queen Elizabeth of England who had ordered the execution of the King's mother, Mary, Queen of Scots.

In 1610, Ruiari was seized by his nephews. They chained him up and left him to die in the Kisimul dungeon. Regardless of this, Ruairi's son, Neil Og, became the 16th Chief and fought for the Royalists at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. After the Commonwealth ended, his grandson Roderick Dhu received a Crown Charter for all of the lands of Barra.

As supporters of the exiled Royal House of Stewart, the MacNeils fought at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689 and welcomed the return of the Old Pretender in 1715. After this, Roderick Dhu's sons, another Roderick, and James MacNeil, went into exile in France; but this Roderick survived to see the Clan prosper again. Unfortunately, financial circumstances obliged his descendant, the childless 21st Chief, General Roderick MacNeil, to sell Barra to Colonel Gordon of Cluny, the owner of South Uist and Benbecula, in 1838. Sadly, it was the age of the notorious Highland Clearances and, by 1851, large numbers of Barra's residents had emigrated to North America.

After General MacNeil's death, the MacNeil Chiefship passed to a cousin whose line, along with the other islanders, had emigrated to Nova Scotia and America, and it was through descent from this branch of the family that Robert Lister MacNeil, a trained architect, succeeded to the Chiefship in 1915. Married to an heiress, Robert was successful in purchasing Barra and the, by then, ruined castle in 1937. Thereafter, he devoted his entire life to the restoration of Kisimul and transformed the ruined building back into a family home.

The original design of Kisimul Castle incorporated a massive three-storey tower house surrounded by a curtain wall shaped to fit the rock on which the building stands. Inside are a number of other structures, including the great hall and chapel. A kitchen and the Tanist's House were added in an adjoining range in the early 16th Century, when the curtain wall was raised to its current height. All of this was restored.

The castle's outer defenses were secured through the use of wooden hoardings, with walkways running the length of the top of the outside wall. At this stage in the 16th Century, the position of the sea entrance gate was changed, followed by the blocking up of a postern gate facing the shore.

Robert MacNeil's renovations took 31 years to complete and were so thorough that it is hard to differentiate the old originals from the repair work. Before entering through the narrow gateway, take time to reflect upon a time when the galleys of the Lords of the Isles were anchored nearby. All of today's interiors are accessible, although I noted on my last visit that some of the rooms above the hall were retained for private use. For safety reasons, access onto the top of the tower is restricted. In the 21st Century, Ian Roderick MacNeil, 26th Chief of Clan MacNeil, has leased Kisimul Castle to Historic Environment Scotland for 1000 years, with an annual rent of £1 and a bottle of Talisker Scotch whisky from Skye.

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