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The Macneills consisted of two independent branches, the Macneills of Barra and the Macneills of Gigha, said to be descended from brothers. Their badge was the sea ware, but they had different armorial bearings, and from their circumstances, joined to the fact that they were often opposed to each other in the clan fights of the period, and that the Christian names of the one, with the exception of Neill, were not used by the other, Mr Gregory thinks the tradition of their common descent erroneous. Part of their possessions were completely separated, and situated at a considerable distance from the rest.

The clan Neill were among the secondary vassal tribes of the lords of the Isles, and its heads appear to have been of Norse or Danish origin. Mr Smibert thinks this probable from the fact that the Macneills were lords of Castle Swen, plainly a Norse term. "The clan", he says, "was in any case largely Gaelic, to a certainty. We speak of the fundamental line of the chiefs mainly, when we say that the Macneills appear to have at least shared the blood of the old Scandinavian inhabitants of the westerm islands. The names of those of the race first found in history are partly indicative of such a lineage. The isle of Barra and certain lands of Uist were chartered to a Macneill in 1427; and in 1472, a charter of the Macdonald family is witnessed by Hector Mactorquil Macneill, keeper of Castle Swen. The appellation 'Mac-Torquil', half Gaelic, half Norse, speaks strongly in favour of the supposition that the two races were at this very time in the act of blending with one people. After all, we proceed not beyond the conclusion, that, by heirs male or heirs female, the founders of the house possessed a sprinkling of the blood of the ancient Norwegian occupants of the western isles and coasts, interfused with that of the native Gael of Albyn, and also of the Celtic blood, beyonf doubt, is far the largest in the veins of the clan generally".

About the beginning of the 15th century, the Macneills were a considerable clan in Knapdale, Argyleshire. As this district was not then included in the sheriffdom of Argyle, it is probable that their ancestor had consented to hold his lands of the crown.

The first of the family on record is Nigellus Og, who obtained from Robert Bruce a charter of Barra and some lands in KIntyre. His great-grandson, Gilleonan Roderick Muchard Macneill, in 1427, received from Alexander, Lord of the Isles, a charter of that island. In the same charter were included the lands of Boisdale in South Uist, which lies about eight miles distant from Barra. With John Garve Maclean he disputed the possession of that island, and was killed by him in Coll. His grandson, Gilleonan, took part with John, the old Lord of the Isles, against his turbulent son, Angus, and fought on his side at the battle of Bloody Bay. He was chief of this sept or division of the Macneills in 1493, at the forfeiture of the lordship of the Isles.

The Gigha Macneills are supposed to have sprung from Torquil Macneill, designated in his charter, "filius Nigelli", who, in the early part of the 15th century, received from the Lord of the Isles a charter of the lands of Gigha and Taynish, with the constabulary of Castle Sweyn, in Knapdale. He had two sons, Neill his heir, and Hector, ancestor of the family of Taynish. Malcolm Macneill of Gigha, the son of Neill, who is first mentioned in 1478, was chief of this sept of the Macneills in 1493. After that period the Gigha branch followed the banner of Macdonald of Isla and Kintyre, while the Barra Macneills ranged themselves under that of Maclean of Dowart.

In 1545 Gilliganan Macneill of Barra was one of the barons and council of the Isles who accompanied Donald Dubh, styling himself Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross, to Ireland, to swear allegiance to the king of England. His elder son, Roderick or Ruari Macnell, was killed at the battle of Glenlivet, by a shot from a fieldpiece, on 3rd Oct. 1594. He left three sons - Roderick, his heir, called Ruari the turbulent, John and Murdo. During the memorable and most disastrous feud which happened between the Macleans and the Macdonalds at this period, the Barra Macneills and the Gigha branch of the same clan fought on different sides.

The Macneills of Barra were expert seamen, and did not scruple to act as pirates upon occasion. An English ship having been seized off the island of Barra by Ruari the turbulent, Queen Elizabeth complained of this act of piracy. The laird of Barra was in consequence summoned to appear at Edinburgh, to answer for his conduct, but he treated the summons with contempt. All the attempts made to apprehend him proved unsuccessful, Mackenzie, tutor of Kintail, undertook to effect his capture by a stratagem frequently put in practice against the island chiefs when suspecting no hostile design. Under the pretence of a friendly visit, he arrived at Macneill's castle of Chisamul (pronounced Kisimul), the ruins of which stand on an insulated rock in Castlebay, on the south-east end of Barra, and invited him and all his attendants on board his vessel. There they were well plied with liquor, until they were all overpowered with it. The chief's followers were then sent on shore, while he himself was carried a prisoner to Edinburgh. Being put upon trial, he confessed his seizure of the English ship, but pleaded in excuse that he thought himself bound by his loyalty to avenge, by every means in his power, the fate of his majesty's mother, so cruelly put to death by the queen of England. This polite answer procurred his pardon, but his estate was forfeited, and given to the tutor of Kintail. The latter restored it to its owner, on condition of his holiding it for him, and paying him sixty merks Scots, as a yearly feu duty. It had previously been held of the crown. Some time thereafter Sir James Macdonald of Sleat married a daughter of the tutor of Kintail, who made over the superiority to his son-in-law, and it is now possessed by Lord Macdonald, the representative of the house of Sleat.

The old chief of Barra, Ruaru the turbulent, had several sons by a lady of the family of Maclean, with whom, according to an ancient practice in the Highlands, he had handfasted, instead of marrying her. He afterwards married a sister of the captain of the Clanranald, and by her also he had sons. To exclude the senior family from the succession, the captain of the Clanranald took the part of his nephews, whom he declared to be the only legitimate sons of the Barra chief. Having apprehended the eldest son of the first family for having been concerned in the piratical seizure of a ship of Bourdeaux, he conveyed him to Edinburgh for trial, but he died there soon after. His brothers-german, in revenge, assisted by Maclean of Dowart, seized Neill Macneillm the eldest son of the second family, and sent him to Edinburgh, to be tried as an actor in the piracy of the same Bourdeaux ship; and, thinking that their father was too partial to their half brothers, they also seized the old chief, and placed him in irons. Neill Macneill, called Weyislache, was found innocent, and liberated through the influence of his uncle. Barra's elder sons, on being charged to exhibit their father before the privy council, refused, on which they were proclaimed rebets, and commission was given to the captain of the Clanranald against them. In consequence of these proceedings, which occured about 1613, Clanranald was enabled to secure the peaceable succession of his nephew to the estate of Barra, on the death of his father, which happened soon after.

The island of Barra and adjacent isles are still possessed by the descendant and representative of the family of Macneill. Their feudal castle of Chismul has been already mentioned. It is a building of hexagonal form, strongly built, with a wall above thirty feet high, and cnchorage for small vessels on every side of it. Martin, who visited Barra in 1703, in his Description of the Western Isles, says that the Highland Chroniclers or sennachies alleged that the then chief of Barra was the 34th lineal descendant from the first Macneill who had held it. He relates that the inhabitants of this and the other islands belonging to Macneill were in the custom of applying to him for wives and husbands, when he named the persons most suitable for them, and ave them a bottle of strong waters for the marriage feast.

The chief of the Macneills of Gigha, in the first half of the 16th century, was Neill Macneill, who was killed, with many gentlemen of his tribe in 1530, in a feud with Allan Maclean of Torlusk, called Ailen nan Sop, brother of Maclean of Dowart. His only daughter, Annabella, made over the lands of Gigha to her natural brother, Neill. He sold Gigha to James Macdonald of Isla in 1554, and died without legitimate issue in the latter part of the reign of Queen Mary.

On the extinction of the direct male line, Neill Macneill vic Eachan, who had obtained the lands of Taynich, became heir male of the family. His descendant, Hector Macneill of Taynish, purchased in 1590 the island of Gigha from John Campbell of Calder, who had aquired it from Macdonald of Isla, so that it again becmae the property of a Macneill. The estates of Gigha and Taynish were posessed by his descendants till 1780, when the former was sold to Macneill of Colonsay, a cadet of the family.

The representative of the male line of the Macneills of Taynish and Gigha, Roger Hamilton Macneill of Taynish, married Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of Hamilton Price Esq, of Raploch, Lanarkshire, with whom he got that estate, and assumed, in consequence, the name of Hamilton. His descendants are now designated of Raploch.

The principal cadets of the Gigha Macneills, besides the Taynish family, were those of Gallochallie, Carskeay, and Tirfergus. Torquil, a younger son of Laclan Macneill Buy of Tirfergus, acquired the estate of Ugadale in Argyleshire, by marriage with the heiress of the Mackays in the end of the 17th century. The present proprietor spells his name Macneal. From Malcolm Beg Macneil, celebrated in Highland tradition for his extraordinary prowess and great strength, son of John Oig Macneil of Gallochallie, in the reign of James VI, sprung the Macneils of Arichonon. Malcolm's only son, Neill Oig, had two sons, Hohn, who succeeded him, and Donald Macneil of Crerar, ancestor of the Macneills of Colonsay, now the possessors of Gigha. Many cadets of the Macneils of Gigha settled in the north of Ireland.

Both branched of the clan Neill laid claim to the chiefship. According to tradition, it has belonged, since the middle of the 16th century, to the house of Barra. Under the date of 1550, a letter appears in the register of the privy council, addressed to "Torkill Macneil, chief and principal of the clan and surname of Macnelis". Mr Skene conjectures this Torkill to have been the hereditary keeper of Castle Sweyn, and connected with neither branch of the Macneils. He is said, however, to have been the brother of Neil Macneil of Gigha, killed in 1530, as above mentioned, and to have, on his brother's death, obtained a grant of the non-entries of Gigha as representative of the family. If this be correct, according to the above designation, the chiefship was in the Gigha line. Torqui appears to have died without leaving any direct succession.

The first of the family of Colonsay, Donald Macneill of Crerar, in South Knapdale, exchanged that estate in 1700, with the Duke of Argyll, for the islands of Colonsay and Oronsay. The old possessors of these two islands, which are only seperated by a narrow sound, dry at low water, were the Macduffes or Macphies. Donald's great-grandson, Archibald Macneill of Colonsay, sold that island to his cousin, John Macneill of Dunmore, and had six sons. His eldest son, Alexander, younger of Colonsay, became the purchaser of Gigha. Two of his other sons, Duncan, Lord Colonsay, and Sir John Macneil, have distinguished themselves, the one as a lawyer and judge, and the other as a diplomatist.

Clan MacNeil, also known in Scotland as Clan Niall, is a highland Scottish clan, particularly associated with the Outer Hebridean island of Barra.The early history of Clan MacNeil is obscure, however despite this the clan claims to descend from the legendary Irish King Niall of the nine hostages.The clan itself takes its name from a Niall who lived in the 13th or early 14th century, and who belonged to the same dynastic family of Cowal and Knapdale as the ancestors of the Lamonts, MacEwens of Otter, Maclachlans, and the MacSweens.While the clan is centred in Barra in the Outer Hebrides, there is a branch of the clan in Argyll that some historians have speculated was more senior in line, or possibly even unrelated.

Another Account of the Clan

BADGE: Luibheann (Octopetala) Dryas; or Feamainn Algae.
SLOGAN: Biolacreag.
PIBROCH: Spaidsearachd Mhic Nčill Bharra.

MacNielONE of the most Interesting places in the Outer Hebrides at which the steamer puts in is Castle Bay in Barra. As one of the safest harbours in the Minch this has, in recent years, become a great fishing port. The island ordinarily has a population of about 2,000, but during the herring season this is increased severaL times over. The "land" is nothing to speak of, for it consists mainly of absolutely bare rocks worn by the Atlantic storms of thousands of years. The houses of the old crofters and clansmen of former days, which may still be seen, are almost as primitive, being little more than oblong enclosures of great stones piled together, their interstices merely filled with peat, and their thatch roofs tied down with cords and old fishing nets. They have the smallest of windows, and, for a chimney, merely a hole to let the smoke out. Probably the crofters always obtained their livelihood chiefly from the harvest of the sea. In time of scarcity, indeed, it is said they were able to subsist altogether on the cockles which they obtained in hundreds of horse-loads at a time from the sands of one famous beach. But of late years, since the coming of the railway to Oban and Mallaig, with a fleet of steamers in connection, to buy up the fish and carry them swiftly to market, the profits of this harvest have been vastly increased, and the results are to be seen in the well-built stone cottages which have sprung up, and the general air of business and prosperity which fills the place. While heaps of herring barrels are piled on the shore, the bay is full of fishing craft delivering their catch of the previous night, and there are great sheds full of active and happy women, cleaning, salting, and packing the fish, to be shipped by and by on the waiting steamers for transport to the great centres of industry.

In the midst of all this bustle and business appears, strangely enough, the silent and significant monument of an older time. Ciosmal, or Kismul Castle, on an island in the bay, with its great square walls and scarcely broken battlements, speaks of a time when the island lords and chiefs of clans held their own in these outer isles, and defied the power even of the king of Scotland himself to enforce the law of the realm. The stronghold is stated to have been an arsenal of the Norsemen during their dominion in the Isles.

Kismul Castle was the seat of the MacNiels of Barra, chief of one of the most ancient of the island clans, and also one of the proudest and most independent. In his Account of the Western Highlands, written early in the eighteenth century, Martin describes a visit here, and his failure to gain admission to this jealously guarded stronghold. "There is," he says, "a stone wall round it two storeys high, reaching the sea, and within the wall there is an old tower and a hall, with other houses about it. There is a little magazine in the tower, to which no stranger has access. . . ." The tower was kept by a gocman, or warder, who paced the battlements night and day, and, without the express sanction of MacNiel himself, would admit no one within the walls. Martin asked to be ferried over to the stronghold, and was referred to the constable of the castle. He accordingly sent a request to that authority, but though he waited for some hours he received no reply, and was forced to come away without gaining access to the place. He learned afterwards that MacNiel happened to be from home, and that the constable and gocman could not admit a stranger on their own responsibility. Though the proud old castle is now inhabited only by ravens and hoodie crows, with perhaps an otter or two which take their living, like the clansmen themselves, from the shoals of fish in the waters around, it is still a stern and stately old place, strikingly suggestive of the bold and fierce life of its masters of other days.

The antiquity of the race of MacNiel is undoubted. It is indicated in the jocular tradition that the chief of the clan, on the occasion of the great flood of the Biblical narrative, refused Noah’s offer of hospitality, saying that "the MacNiel had a boat of his own! " The name Niel, or Nial as it was originally spelt, is at any rate one of the oldest Celtic personal names, and the clan which owns it to-day may possibly bear some relationship to the Hy Nial, or ancient royal race of Ireland. The first of the Scottish race whose name appears in a charter is Nial Og, or the younger.. The charter is of the reign of Robert the Bruce. The clan was at that time located in the Knapdale district of Argyllshire, and the chiefs were hereditary constables of the castle on Loch Swin. Along with their possessions in Knapdale, the MacNiel chiefs probably owned at that time, and for centuries before, the island of Gigha, three and a half miles off the Kintyre coast. Here, at any rate, is the ancient burying place of the MacNiels. According to Martin, already quoted, "most of all the tombs have a two-handed sword engraven on them, and there is one that has the representation of a man upon it." It was in Gigha that in 1263 John of the Isles met Haco, the Norwegian king, on his way to the battle of Largs, and refused to join him and renounce allegiance to Alexander III. MacNiel was possibly the host on that historic occasion. In any case he would almost certainly be present at the meeting, which was to have such far-reaching consequences.

The son of MacNiel of Bruce’s time was Murchadh or Murdoch, and his son again was Ruari or Roderick. By a charter of the time of James I., dated 1427, Ruari’s son Gilleonan was settled in Barra. The charter conveyed to him also the lands of Boisdale in Uist, but on his attempting to take possession of that property he was opposed by Ian Garbh MacLean of Coll, who asserted a previous right. In the struggle which followed Gilleonan was slain. His son, however, another Gilleonan, on 12th August, 1495, obtained another charter, confirming him de novo in all his possessions, and for centuries the clachan clustering round the head of the Castle Bay was known as Baile Mhicneill, or Macneil-town. The son of this chief, still another Gilleonan, played an active part in the rebellious activities of his feudal superior, the Lord of the Isles, which activities ended in the death of John, fourth and last Lord of the Isles, as a landless and impoverished wanderer in the purlieus of Dundee, in 1498.

Though the MacNiels of Barra have invariably been declared by tradition to be the chiefs of the clan, the MacNiels of Gigha were, from an early time, owing to the distance and the stormy seas separating Gigha and Barra, forced to fend for themselves, and the Gigha family made a claim to independent chiefship. In 1493 Malcolm MacNiel of Gigha, the head of that house, was a personage of much importance in the West Highlands.

Like the other supporters of the rebellious Lords of the Isles, the MacNiel chiefs were the subject of many attempts at suppression and control by the Stewart kings, but, secure in their far western fastnesses, they laughed at the royal summonses and flouted the royal commands to attend trial, and accordingly the Parliamentary records of that time again and again contain the note "MacNele saepe vocatus sed non comparet." For a century after the downfall of the last Lord of the Isles the MacNiels of Barra continued this haughty demeanour. Upon the forfeiture of John of the Isles they had become holders direct of the crown, but this seems to have made no difference in their habit of disregarding the royal mandate. As an instance of their pride the tradition may be recalled that when the Laird of Barra had dined, a herald used to sound a horn from the battlements and make proclamation: " Hear, O ye people, and listen, O ye nations! The great MacNiel of Barra having finished his meal, the princes of the earth may dine!

Roderick MacNiel of Barra, chief of the clan in the reign of James VI., was so well known for this characteristic as to be named " Rory the Turbulent." He went so far, at last, as to seize an English ship on his island coast. News of this act being conveyed to the English court, Queen Elizabeth complained to the Scottish king of the act of piracy. Accordingly MacNiel was summoned to Edinburgh to answer for his act. This summons he treated with contempt, and several efforts made to apprehend him proved ignominiously unsuccessful. At last, however, MacKenzie, the tutor of Kintail, undertook to effect his arrest. His plan was to use stratagem where force had failed. Accordingly he came ostensibly on a friendly visit to Kismul Castle. In the interchange of hospitalities he invited MacNiel and his retainers on board his ship. There they were treated so well, especially with strong waters, that presently they were all reduced to helplessness. The retainers were then put on shore, and the vessel hoisted sail under cover of night, and was soon far beyond reach, with the unconscious MacNiel on board. The chief was carried to Edinburgh, and immediately put upon his trial. He confessed to the seizure of the English ship, but declared that he had thought himself bound, as a loyal subject, to avenge the injury done by the Queen of England to the king’s mother and to James himself. This answer secured his life, but his estate was forfeited and given to Kintail. The latter then restored it to MacNiel, on condition that he should hold it of him, and pay sixty merks Scots as a yearly feu duty. Some time afterwards, on the marriage of a daughter of Kintail to Sir James MacDonald of Sleat, the superiority of Barra was conveyed to MacDonald as part of the lady’s dowry.

Rory the Turbulent died as he had lived, though the final act of his life was as conspicuous for its loyalty as his earlier behaviour had been for contempt of the royal commands. When the young Earl of Argyll was commissioned by James VI. to proceed against the Catholic lords, Angus, Errol, and Huntly, MacNiel joined the royal army with his clan, and at the battle of Glenlivet, in which Argyll was so signally defeated, he is said to have displayed prodigies of valour before he fell at the head of his followers.

The MacNiels of Barra intermarried with the families of Clan Ranald, MacLeod, Cameron, Duart, and others of chief consequence in the West and the Isles. In the earlier part of the nineteenth century the chief of the clan, Lieut.-Colonel MacNiel, who was a Deputy Lieutenant of Inverness-shire, was one of the most enterprising of the island landlords, introducing manufactures, promoting agriculture, and improving the native breed of cattle. He abandoned Kismul Castle as a residence and built the mansion of Eoligearry at the north end of the island. He was an extremely handsome man, adored by his people, who ruined themselves to save him from ruin. In 1840, however, he sold Barra to Colonel Gordon of Cluny for Ł38,050, and so severed the connection of his family with the island which had existed for more than four hundred years. The present head of the house of the Barra family is the forty-fifth chief. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and has his home in the United States of America. In April, 1918, he received from the United States Government the appointment of Assistant to the Bureau of Imports, War Trade Board.

Thus far have we travelled from the old days when the gocman challenged from the, battlement of Kismul Castle, and MacNiel from his island fastness defied the mandates even of the Scottish kings. The fame of the ancient island chiefs is likely to remain in memory, however, as long as the music and song of the Isles are remembered, for one of the most beautiful of the Hebridean songs lately collected and given to the world by Mrs. Kennedy-Fraser, is that known as "Kismul’s Galley."

Septs of Clan MacNiel: MacNeilage, Neal, MacNelly, Neill.

Kisimul Castle
A walkthrough of Kisimul Castle on Barra, the home of the MacNeil Clan. All Music is either from or associated with Barra or the MacNeil Clan.

Tour Scotland wee video of photographs of the Island Of Barra
This is the second southernmost inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides. Alexander, Lord of the Isles granted the island to the MacNeil clan in 1427. The clan held the island until 1838, when Roderick MacNeil, the 40th Chief of the Clan, sold the island to Colonel Gordon of Cluny. Gordon expelled most of the inhabitants in order to make way for sheep farming. The displaced islanders variously went to the Scottish mainland, Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America and Canada. Barra was restored to MacNeil ownership in 1937 when the Barra estate, which encompassed most of the island, was bought by Robert MacNeil, a U.S. architect, and 45th chief of the clan.

Daytrip to the Island of Barra - December 2016
Short video of our day trip to the Island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The outbound flight was delayed, so unfortunately we did not have time to visit Castlebay, the main town on the Island. We only had time to have lunch in the airport before our return flight to Glasgow. There are only 2 flights per day.

Macneil clan shocked as DNA checks force rewrite of history
15th January 2015

For centuries the MacNeil clan based on the Hebridean island of Barra have proudly claimed to be descendants of Ireland's "greatest" King, Niall of the Nine Hostages.

But a check on hundreds of modern day MacNeils has revealed their roots actually lie with the Vikings and not the Irish.

DNA swabs taken from Barra MacNeils as far away as Canada and Australia have proved that the blood of fierce Norse raiders runs through their veins.

The finding comes from the MacNeil Surname Y-DNA project run by genealogists Vincent MacNeil and Alex Buchanan.

Clansmen from all over the world including Scotland, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have provided DNA samples.

MacNeil remains the main surname on Barra on the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides with a population of just 1,000.

Clansmen believed they descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages through an 11th century Irish prince who emigrated to Scotland.

But the DNA project has not found a single match to Ireland.

"We can say we can re-write the history of the Clan MacNeil," said genealogist Vincent MacNeil, from Nova Scotia, Canada.

"We don't have one participant from Barra that matches the O'Neills of Ireland.

"If you look at the history of the Clan MacNeils we are probably of Norse descent. We have legends and myths that have been passed through generations.

"But mother nature knows who we are. Oral history is wonderful and often there is truth in it. But everybody's family history is in their DNA."

The clan was infamous throughout Scotland and beyond for its Viking-style pirating and great seamanship.

MacNeils raided the seas from their base at Kisimul Castle in Birlinn vessels - boats similar to the Viking longships.

Western Isles MP, Angus MacNeil, who also lives on Barra, said: "The MacNeils were a notoriously pirating clan. It's no surprise we have Norse DNA.

"Maybe we are the last Vikings."

The MP added: "'Conquer or die' is the clan motto. Given the size of the island we ended up on we must have been better at the dying then the conquering."

Paul McNeil, a 70-year-old clansman, from Washington state, said he was devastated when he got his DNA results.

He said: "I nervously awaited the results, and was emotionally devastated when we received them."

The college teacher added: "A heavy workload and a bottle of whiskey after work, helped me to get over it in a matter of weeks."

"I found solace in the fact that, if not a Celt, I am nevertheless a Gael.

Michael MacNeil, 62, from Nova Scotia, Canada, said: "It wasn't what I expected."

The Aerospace engineer, whose family emigrated from Barra seven generations ago, continued: "I'm pretty good with being of Viking descent. I have no problems at all. You are what you are."

Calum MacNeil, a retired fisherman who lives near Castlebay on the Isle of Barra, said: "I knew that anyway but I didn't want to tell anybody."

Niall of the Nine Hostages, whose dynasty dominated Ireland between the 5th and 10th Centuries, got his name from taking hostages as a strategy against his opponent chieftains.

The King, who died in 405AD, was the founder of the longest and most powerful Irish royal dynasty and known by some as the greatest king that Ireland ever knew.