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 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 the same dynastic family of Cowal and Knapdale as the ancestors of the Lamonts and the McSweens. 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. However, according to Scots Law the current chief of Clan Macneil is the chief of all MacNeils.
The MacNeils of Barra claim descent from a prince of the O’Neill dynasty, Ánrothán Ua Néill. Anrothan emigrated to Scotland in the 11th century. Through him the MacNeils of Barra also naturally claim descent from the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages. 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”.
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 18th and 19th century saw severe hardship to Clan Macneil clansfolk. During this era there was mass emigration from Barra to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. During the chiefship of Colonel Roderick (c.1755–1822) Barra suffered its first mass emigrations, ironically the chief described himself as a melieuratier (an “improver”). One mass exodus of Barra folk was led by Gilleonan, elder son of the chief. This consisted of 370 Catholic Barra folk (about 75 families in total) who emigrated in August to Nova Scotia. In 1838 after going broke, Colonel Roderick’s son and heir, General Roderick Macneil of Barra, sold Barra to Colonel Gordon of Cluny. When Roderick died in 1863 the chiefship passed to a cousin (descendant of Gilleonan) who had emigrated during the mass emigrations to Canada in 1802.
Robert Lister Macneil, was born in 1889. An American citizen and a trained architect, he succeeded the chiefship of Clan Macneil in 1915. In 1937 he was able to purchase Barra and the ruinous Kisimul Castle largely using the money from his second wife. Immediately he began work restoring the castle, aided in part by funds from a British Government grant. By his death in 1970 he had completed the restoration of the castle – ancient seat of the chiefs of the clan.
Years Attended: 2010 (First Year Attendee!)
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