Kisimul Castle, Isle of Barra, Outer Hebrides
~ History ~
The MacNeils of Barra claim descent from the Irish prince of the Uí Néill dynasty, Ánrothán Ua Néill, son of Áed, son of Flaithbertach Ua Néill, King of Ailech and Cenél nEógain, who died in 1036. Anrothan emigrated to Scotland in the 11th century.
1030 ~ The stone outer walls of the castle are built by Neil MacNeil, 21st clan chief, standing some twelve feet high upon a rocky knoll out in the protected bay off Barra, where fresh water for a well has long supported earlier long forgotten fortifications.
1120 ~ The main tower of the castle is finally finished by Donald, 23rd clan chief.
1252 ~ Neil MacNeil, fifth Lord of Bara is described as a prince at a Council of the Lord of the Isles.
1314 ~ Neil's son, Neil Og MacNeil, fights for Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn against the English invaders.
1427 ~ Gilleonan MacNeil receives a charter of Barra and Boisdale from Alexander MacDonald, the Lord of the Isles, their clan overlord.
He marries Marion, daughter of the powerful MacLeod's of Harris and who was previously married to equally powerful MacLean of Duart.
As part of Marion's inheritance from the MacLean's came the island of Coll, which upon her death was to go to their son Iain Garbh MacLean. Gilleonan instead, upon marrying Iain's mother, takes for himself the Island of Coll and with it Castle Breachacha. Iain leaves for Ireland in a dark and desperate mood upon losing his father's castle and his inheritance.
Iain returns to take Coll with a force of men from Ireland and engages Gilleonan in combat. Gilleonan gains the upper hand when one of Iain's men fatally stabs Gilleonan from behind. Marion persuades Iain not to kill his half-brother Ruari MacNeil.
Following the death of Gilleonan Marion pays for a henchman to behead two of his sons from a former marriage in order to make sure her son Ruari is heir to the MacNeil chiefship.
Ruari later becomes MacNeil chief. Her other son Iain Garbh builds himself a castle on loch in Barra called Sinclair Castle.
Gilleonan's namesake, the twelfth chief, is one of the island lords who are tricked into meeting King James V of Scotland at Portree. Together with the other Lords of the Isles they are promised safe conduct but instead are arrested and imprisoned.
1542 ~ The MacNeil chief of Barra is not released until the king's death, when the Regent Moray wants to use the island chiefs to counterbalance the growing power of the Clan Campbell.
1545 ~ The MacNeil's support the last Lord of the Isles in his alliance with King Henry VIII of England against The Scottish Crown and their campaign to destroy the power of the Lordship of the Isles.
1579 ~ The Bishop of the Isles makes a complaint of molestation against the MacNeil chief of Barra. His son, the next chief, is denounced as a rebel by the Privy Council so many times that he is described as a "hereditary outlaw" and the last of the Viking raiders. From Kisimul his clans lawlessness and piracy leads to the King to request of his loyal vassals to extirpate and root out the chief of Clan MacNeil, whose own nephews captured him and placed him in chains.
1613 ~ Neil Og keeps his father Ruari the Turbulent, and his stepmother held prisoners in irons in the castle pit dungeon.
1651 ~ The chief of Clan MacNeil, Neil Og, is appointed as Colonel of the Horse by King Charles II of England and fights at the Battle of Worcester.
1689 ~ Neil Og's grandson Ruari Dhu the Black, receives a Crown charter for all of the lands of Barra to be erected into a free barony. Rouari leads his clan to victory in the Battle of Killiecrankie in support of the Jacobite cause against the English, carrying with him a great battle axe. The battle however sees a third of the Highlanders killed.
1691 ~ Ruari MacNeil refuse to take the oath to King William of Orange. Fortunately for the MacNeil's powerbase of Barra was far more out of reach than the MacDonalds of Glencoe who are massacred by the Hanoverian red coats.
1715 ~ Following the defeat of the next Jacobite uprising, MacNeil's two sons, Roderick and James, escape into exile in France.
Robert Roy MacGregor (Rob Roy), son of Chief Donald MacGregor of Clan Gregor, is said to be the best swordsman in all the Highlands.
On hearing of this reputation Ruari MacNeil challenges Rob Roy to a duel. Ruari eventually reaches the district of Rob Roy and comes across a little man on a horse who looks very tired. Ruari asks him where Rob Roy lives.
‘You have him here,’ says the man, ‘and he will be very glad to welcome you to the district.’
‘Well,’ says Ruari, ‘I am MacNeil of Barra, and since I heard of your having a great name I came to try you.’
'‘I am very tired just now,’ says Rob Roy, ‘after making a great journey, and you had better dwell peacefully with me this night and we will try each other to-morrow.’
‘Out of here I will not go,’ says Ruari, ‘till you try me.’
‘Right enough, if that is how it is,’ says Rob Roy, coming off the horse. The duel begins. Soon Ruari loses the top of his ear.
Rob Roy asks him if that would do. Ruari replies that this would not.
By the end of the duel Ruari's right arm is in two even halves above the elbow. He is unable to continue the duel and yields. Rob Roy takes him home until his arm has healed. Ruari and Rob Roy become close friends.
1742 ~ Ruari dies after a failed raid on Duart Castle, where he is mortally wounded near the heart by a dagger. However, he refuses to die until his men have returned him to Kisimul Castle in Barra.
Upon releasing finally his hand from the dagger as he comes into view of the castle he finally dies.
1747 ~ Roderick MacNeil is finally released by the English after being imprisoned in London following his consignment to a prison ship on return to the Scotland following his father's death.
1759 ~ Roderick is with the British General Wolfe at Quebec, where both are killed at the Heights of Abraham fighting the French.
1795 ~ A fire destroys the roofs and floors of the castle, leaving it for locals to scavenge off much of the stonework.
1838 ~ The clan prosper until the twenty-first chief, General Roderick MacNeil, is forced to sell Barra and Kisimul.
1863 ~ Roderick the General, the last of the old MacNeil chiefs dies.
Kisimul Castle is one of the most remote castles in all of the British Isles, located at the most southern tip of the Outer Hebrides on a small rocky outcrop in the bay of castlebay, on the Isle of Barra.
It os also one of the most spectacular and most worthwhile to explore.
Reaching the Island is in itself an adventure, travelling down the islands that make up the Hebrides, with its unique landscape and the most amazing white beaches you could hope to find anywhere.
The castle can only be accessed via boat out in the bay which takes a few minutes. Upon arrival at the front gate, you will find the castle has plenty to explore. Its accurate restoration allowing the visitor to easily picture how life would have been like in its hey-day.
Upon leaving the castle you will get the opportunity to sail all the way round the castle to get the full effect of this fantastic Hebridean fortress.