Brief History of the Clan
Clan MacNeil claim descent from Niall, a descendant of Aodh O’Neil, twentieth in descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages the famous founder of the U’Neill dynasty of High Kings of Ireland. Niall established himself on Barra in 1049 and is considered the first chief of the Clan MacNeil.
The fifth chief, Neil MacNeil, was described as a Prince at a Council of the Isles in 1252 and aided in defeating the Norse at the battle of Largs in 1263. His son, the sixth chief, Neil Og MacNeil fought with Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn and was rewarded with lands in Kintyre.
Another branch of the MacNeils established themselves on the island of Gigha under Torquil MacNeil in 1427. After 1493 the two branches of MacNeils took opposite sides in the long running feud between the MacDonalds of Islay and the MacLeans of Duart, Barra MacNeils sided with the MacLeans while the Gigha MacNeils fought on the side of the Clan Donald.
The MacNeils were famous for their sailors and quite often for their lawlessness on the high seas. The fifteenth chief of Barra, Ruari MacNeil, was known as a “hereditary outlaw” and was dubbed “Ruari the turbulent”. He has also been described as the last of the Vikings, raiding ships of all sorts from his island fortress of Kisimul Castle. Ruari eventually had a writ issued against him by the King, was captured by his own nephews and taken in chains to Edinburgh in 1610. His son, Neil Og then became chief.
Neil Og’s grandson, Roderick Dhu (the Black), led his fellow clansman at Killiecrankie fighting staunchly for the Jacobite cause. He rallied the Clan MacNeil once more to the aid of the “Old Pretender” in the Rising of 1715.
The 21st chief, General Roderick MacNeil was in economic ruin and had to sell the Island of Barra in 1838. Roderick had no children of his own and the chiefship then passed to a cousin whose line had emigrated to the New World.
In 1937 Kisimul castle and most of the Island of Barra were brought back into the family when Robert L. MacNeill, a descendant of the 22nd chief, returned from the United States, purchased most of Barra and spent his life restoring Kisimul Castle. His son, the 46th chief, is a law Professor and divides his time between Scotland and the United States.
47th and present Chief
Rory Macneil of Barra
and his family,
Wife Sau Ming,
and sons Seumas (right) and Ruari (left).
Past Chiefs of Barra
38th Chief: Robert Dhu, Baron of Barra. Married to Isabelle MacLeod. Died 1715
39th Chief: Roderick ‘Dove of the West’ Married to Alice MacLeod. Died 1736
40th Chief: Roderick “The Gentile” Married Jean Cameron. Died 1822
41st Chief: Roderick “The General” Baron of Barra, lost the Barony and the Estate of Barra in 1838. Married to Isabella Brownlow. Died 1863 (when the Chief died, the chieftainship passed to a cousin, descendant of Gilleionan, who had emigrated to Canada in 1802)
42nd Chief: Donald McGougan MacNeil, Baron of Barra. Died 1880
43rd Chief: Ian MacNeil, Baron of Barra. Died 1893
44th Chief: Roderick Ambrose MacNeil, Baron of Barra. Bequeathed the title of chief upon a second son Robert Lister. Died 1914
45th Chief: Robert Lister MacNeil, Baron of Barra, an American who bought the Barra Estate in 1937 and restored the Castle. Died 1970
46th Chief: Ian Roderick MacNeil, Baron of Barra. Born in the USA, he was a Harvard educated Professor of Law. He gifted Kisimul Castle to Historic Scotland for 1000 years in 2001, and gifted the Estate of Barra to the Scottish Ministers in 2004. Married Nancy Wilson of Ottawa, Canada. Died 2010.
If you have genealogical ties to the surname Macneil or any of Clan Macneil’s Sept family names (listed below), you were born into the Clan Macneil. If you are not a member at present, our Association would be delighted to have you join us as a member by clicking on Membership Application above. If you are a current member who needs to renew his/her membership, click on Membership Renewal above.
Alphabetical listing of Sept Names for Clan MacNeil
Clan MacNeil in Canada Genealogy
If you have roots in Barra and / or Nova Scotia our genealogist Vince MacNeil may be able to help you with your search. He has extensively researched the MacNeils of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and has access to the Barra Parish Register (1805 – 1851). Vince has also collected a fair amount of information concerning MacNeils who settled on the mainland of Nova Scotia. Vince can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Science is Helping to Answer Questions About the Origins of the Clan MacNeil
Clan MacNeil has an exciting new project at Family Tree DNA. This project is receiving international support with MacNeils of varied origins and from different countries around the world participating. Project results thus far are exciting and it is now clear that the Clan MacNeil is comprised of a genetically diverse group of individuals.
A major focus of the project is to gain an understanding of the genetic make-up of the people of Barra and to compare these results with MacNeils who hail from other parts of Scotland and Ireland. DNA is helping MacNeils connect with long lost cousins. Early test results indicate that MacNeils are generally of Norse-Viking descent or are of Celtic origin.
Vince MacNeil, Clan MacNeil in Canada genealogist, is co-administrator of this exciting project. For more information on this project visit the site here.
The Clans Heraldry
Macneil of Barra McNeill of Colonsay
|Macneil of Barra Modern||Macneil of Barra Ancient||Macneil of Colonsay Modern||Macneil of Colonsay Ancient|
The island’s place name is derived from two elements: Barr and Old Norse ey (“island”). It is possible that Barr represents the Gaelic personal name Finnbarr. Other possibilities are that it instead represents the Old Norse elements berr or barr (“bare” or “rough”), or perhaps the Celtic element *barr (“top” or “peak”).
Barra once formed part of the Kingdom of the Isles. In the middle part of the twelfth century, this realm was partitioned between the Crovan dynasty and Clann Somhairle, and it is uncertain which family controlled the island during this period. In 1293, years after the collapse of the realm and its incorporation into the Kingdom of Scotland, the island formed part of the Sheriffdom of Skye, which could be evidence that it had indeed formed part of the territories previously controlled by the Crovan dynasty like other parts of the sheriffdom. By this period the island appears to have formed part of the extensive Clann Ruaidhrí lordship. Early in the reign of Robert I, King of Scotland, the island was included in the king’s confirmation of Clann Ruaidhrí territories to Ruaidhrí Mac Ruaidhrí. Later in 1343, Barra is again recorded in a royal charter to Raghnall Mac Ruaidhrí. Following the latter’s assassination in 1346, the Clann Ruaidhrí territories passed into the possession of Eóin Mac Domhnaill, and formed part of the Clann Domhnaill Lordship of the Isles.
In 1427, Alexander, Lord of the Isles granted the island to Giolla Adhamhnáin Mac Néill, a member of Clan MacNeil. The clan held the island until 1838, when Roderick MacNeil, 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 and Canada. Barra was restored to MacNeil ownership in 1937 when the Barra estate, which encompassed most of the island, was bought by Robert Lister Macneil.
In 2003, the ownership of the Barra Estate was passed by the owner, Ian Roderick Macneil, to the Scottish Government. The estate can be transferred to the inhabitants in the future, at their request. Macneil had previously transferred Kisimul Castle to Historic Scotland in 2000.
In May 2007 Channel 4‘s Time Team came to the hamlet of Allasdale to investigate the exposed remains of Bronze Age burials and Iron Age roundhouses in sand dunes that had been previously uncovered by storms. The programme was broadcast on 20 January 2008.
Barra has an oceanic climate, with mild temperatures year round.
|Climate data for Barra (Traigh Mhòr Airport, averages 1981-2010)|
|Average high °C (°F)||8.3
|Average low °C (°F)||4.3
|Average rainfall mm (inches)||144.4
|Average rainy days (≥ 1 mm)||21.4||18.2||20.7||11.8||12.0||11.1||12.8||17.2||14.6||16.6||20.0||20.7||197.1|
|Mean monthly sunshine hours||27.4||61.3||97.6||157.0||209.6||172.6||149.7||156.8||122.6||85.5||41.4||19.5||1,300.9|
Kisimul Castle at Castlebay is located on a rock in the bay, so giving the village its name. A smaller castle can be found in the middle of Loch St Clare on the west side of the Island in Tangasdale.
The highest elevation on the island is Heaval, halfway up which is located a prominent white marble statue of the Madonna and Child, called “Our Lady of the Sea”, which was erected during the (Marian year) of 1954. The predominant faith on the island is Catholicism and the Catholic church dedicated to Our Lady of the Sea is immediately apparent to all who arrive into Castlebay.
Other places of interest on the island include a ruined church and museum at Cille Bharra, a number of Iron Age brochs such as those at Dùn Chuidhir and An Dùn Bàn and a range of other Iron Age and later structures which have recently been excavated and recorded.