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Clan MacNeil

Clan MacNeil

One of the few purely island clans, with no possessions on the mainland, the Mac Neils of Barra have a stirring history which has to be pieced together, in the absence of their own charters and with the disappearance of their Gaelic chronicle, from scattered references in the public records, the history of other families, and local tradition and archaeological evidence. Claiming to derive their name and descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages, an early High King of Ireland, they first appear in the records of the Hebrides at the beginning of the 15th century. From a later royal confirmation, we know that Gilleonan, son of Roderick son of Murdo son of Neil had a charter of Barra from Alexander, Lord of the Isles in 1427. Mac Neil was one of the lesser barons or "thanes" who sat on the Council of the Isles, and whether or not he was one of the "oldest surnames" in that company of magnates, the clan boast of their chief's sea-girt castle of Kisimul as "our ancient glory". After the fall of the lordship in 1493 Mac Neil made his submission to James IV and had his lands confirmed to him. In the disordered period which ensued he followed Mac Lean of Duart; they may have share a hankering after the old ways, for they were both members of the rebel council which supported Donald Dubh's attempt to restore the lordship in 1545. In James VI's reign, Mac Neil of Barra was made responsible for the good behaviour of "Calnneil" by order of parliament, but while it could be troublesome to the authorities the clan was not large in numbers (a later estimate put its military strength at 120). When Rory the turbulent, whose raids extended as far as the Irish coast, was brought to account and accused of harassing Queen Elizabeth's subjects, the chief craftily replied that he thought to do his Majesty a service by annoying the woman who had killed his mother. Going well with this chief's reputation is the story that a herald used to be sent each evening to the battlements of Kisimul, with a trumpeter, to proclaim at each point of the compass: "Hear, oh ye people, and listen, oh ye nations! The great Mac Neil of Barra having finished his meal, the princes of the earth may din". Once when a Spanish ship went ashore at Barra, and there was some talk of the consequences if she were plundered, a clansman is said to have reassured his fellows with the remark that "Mac Neil and the king of Spain will adjust that between themselves". Martin tells us that Mac Neil used to find wives for widowers and husbands for widows among his tenants, take into his own household those who became too old to support themselves, and replace milkcows which any of his tenants lost by misfortune. As Buchanan of Auchmar says, of all the Highland chiefs of clans, Mac Neil must have retained "most of the magnificence and customs of the ancient Phylarchae". Mac Neil was "out" in Dundee's rising, when we catch a glimpse of him helmeted and panting under the weight of a huge battle-axe, and leading "a great company of youth of his name". The clan were less prominent in 1715 and 1745, but in the last rising a Spanish ship landed arms and money on Barra for the Prince's army, and Mac Neil came near to forfeiting his estate. His son was killed at the taking of Quebec in 1759; the next chief, Colonel Roderick, moved from Kisimul to a house on the Barra "mainland"; and his son, a Peninsula and Waterloo officer who became a full general, sold the island in 1838 after a brief heyday of prosperity based on the kelp industry. Kisimul was left to the mercy of the elements "after 700 years of usefulness", until the estate was brought back and the castle restored by Robert Lister Mac Neil of Barra, whose fulfillment of a youthful dream by making a home in the castle of his ancestors is one of the romances of clan history in the 20th century.

A rock.

Vincere vel mori.

To conquer or die

Dryas, Seaware

Mac Neill

Son of Neill, champion

Buaidh no bas
(Victory or death)

Mac Neill of Barra's March

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