ISLE OF BARRA
Kisimul Castle
© Siar Media 2012
Glance at any map or Ireland and the west of Scotland to see why Kisimul Castle looms up from its rocky base in Castlebay. The bay is the first safe anchorage in the Outer Hebrides north of Ireland. In turbulent times its control was essential to the security of anyone living in Barra, so too to anyone seeking control of the islands further north. Moreover, the bay is within easy striking distance of in-lying islands like Tiree and coll. The speedy Norse, and later Hebridean, galleys could make short work of the Minch between sunny Tiree and Muldonaich at Castlebay’s entrance. But how to guard a large bay with the small population of Barra and the short range weapons available before gunpowder dominated warfare? Some foresighted War God had helped provide the answer geological eons earlier when the forces of the earth had created a small rocky island strategically located a few hundred yards from the inner shore. Miracle of miracles, it had fresh water! A primal geological “pipe” brings water through the underlying rock strata to what is now a dug well. The people needed only to fortify that rocky island, and the bay became quite secure against marauders. Almost surely the Norse or Celts who built the present Castle had before them the example of an ancient broch (prehistoric fort, of which many are found in Barra) located where Kisimul now stands. The solution to their defensive problems was clear, and that is why Kisimul came to be. KISIMUL CASTLE AND THE MACNEILS For many generations Kisimul was the home and stronghold of the Macneils of Barra, widely noted for their lawlessness and piracy, and led by chiefs like Ruari the Turbulent, 35th Chief, who feared not to seize ships of subjects of Queen Bess herself. (The numbering of the chiefs here follows a tradition tracing Macneil clan lineage to Niall of the Nine Hostages, High King or Ireland in the 4th century A.D., and numbering him as our first Chief).  As the power of the central government in Edinburgh, and later, London, gradually superseded the strength of the clans, the importance of Kisimul to the Macneils declined; in the mid-18th century it was abandoned in favour of newer and more comfortable quarters on Barra itself. In 1975 a fire destroyed the roofs and floors; Kisimul was left to the birds, to venturesome children, to the occasional visitor, and to scavengers who carried off its very fabric as ballast and for sity paving stones. A sorrowing clansman wrote generations later:   Dark is the sea around the keep of my fathers Gaunt the high walls of Castle Kisimul No warder keeps watch, no eager clan gathers Lap of waves only, and shriek of the gull.   The decay of the Castle paralleled the decline of the clan system, the short-lived and unequally distributed prosperity of the kelp industry, the clearances and immigration of countless sons and daughters of Barra, and hard times for those who remained at home. The abandonment of the Castle was followed in two or three generations by the loss through bankruptcy of Barra itself by the Macneils of Barra, Barra’s acquisition by one of the more notorious of Highland landlords, and the death in 1863 of the last of the old chiefs, Roderick the General, 41st Chief.   Kisimul, 1909  Kisimul Castle was, however, destined to rise again and become once more the home of the Macneil chiefs and a centre for the Clan Macneil. With the death or Roderick the General the succession passed to a branch of the family that had emigrated to Canada – as had many other Barra Macneils. Its claim to the chiefship was established legally in 1915 when Robert Lister Macneil matriculated arms as the Macneil of Barra in the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh. (He re-matriculated arms in 1962, thereby legally laying to rest various disputes which had arisen.  Robert Lister in 1937 reacquired the Estate of Barra and the ruins of the Castle. (Some in Barra still remember his second wife, Marie, who had a deep abiding affection for Barra and its people; it was she who made possible Barra’s reacquisition by the Macneil family, Robert Lister himself being a person of limited means.)   In 1938 excavation of the Castle was commenced towards its eventual restoration. The major part of the work you see today was carried out, however, between 1956 and 1970, the year of Robert Lister’s death. His widow, Elizabeth, thereafter restored the kitchen building pursuant to his plans. Elizabeth’s financial and moral support had enabled Robert Lister to carry out the restoration. In addition to family funds, the restoration of the Castle was financed by government grant and generous contributions of numerous Macneils throughout the world. Robert Lister, who was both the designing and supervising architect of the restoration, never needed to look beyond Barra for the on-site labour, skills, and organising ability required to complete this work. Except for such specialised things as iron work and mill work, necessarily carried on away from every construction site, every bit of the restoration was performed by Barramen. Thus the rebuilding of Kisimul was accomplished virtually entirely by the descendants of those who built the Castle originally – a continuity of life of which all with Barra heritage may be justly proud. HOW OLD IS THE CASTLE? The earliest recorded reference to the Castle seems to be that of Dean Munro, who visited Barra in 1549. (Gilleonan, 33rd Chief, and member of the Council of the Isles, would have occupied the Castle until then.) Buchanan, 1582, also refers to the Castle. In 1613 Ruari the Turbulent, 35th Chief, complained in a suit against his son, Neil Og, later 36th Chief, that Ruari and his wife were “within thaire awne house and castell of Kismule in the Yle of Barray, thair doing thair lauchful effairis in sober and quiet manner” when Neil and twenty men “with swerdis, gantillatis, plaitslevis, bowis, darlochis, durkis, targeis, Lochaber axis, tua-handis swerdis, utheris waponis” came “to said Kismule, enterit violentilie thairintill and pat violente handis in the said complenaris … layed thame fast in the yrnis … and detanis the saidis complenaris fast in the yrnis within the same”   The first explicit written description of any detail is that of Martin Martin, who visited Barra in 1695. He describes Kisimul much as we know it today after restoration: “… there is a stone wall around it two stories high, reaching the sea, and within the wall there is an old tower and a hall, with other houses about it.” Sad for our knowledge of the Castle was Martin’s experience: “I saw the officer called the Cockman, and an old cock he his: (he refused to ferry me over). Macneil and his lady being absent was the cause of this difficulty, and of my not seeing the place.”   The chief away at Martin’s visit, Ruari Dhu, 38th Chief, is particularly interesting as he was the last of the old raiding and feuding chiefs. Perhaps when Martin called he was off on some Jacobite plot. Ruari had carried a huge battle axe in the great victory at Killiecrankie under Bonny Dundee in 1689. He had refused to take the oath to King William two years later – fortunately Barra was farther away from Dutch William’s soldiers than was Glencoe. Twenty years later old Ruari was out again in the ’15 in support James III. Or perhaps when Martin called he was off about his famous – and almost fatal – challenge of Rob Roy MacGregor, the result of which was Ruari’s nearly losing his right arm. Black Ruari was even less lucky on an affair in Mull where he stabbed with a dirk. He held the fatal weapon in the wound until his faithful galley crew had carried him swiftly over the waters to Kisimul, where he let go of the dirk and promptly expired.            One wonders what Black Ruari would have thought of the name the clan bestowed on his eldest son, Roderick: The Dove of the West, who became 39th Chief after that fatal night in Mull. The old days of piracy, raiding, and duelling were over. But black Ruari’s sons and clan had been with him in the ’15, and his grandson, Roderick the resolute, was with Wolfe at Quebec in 1759, where both were killed at the Heights of Abraham. The latter’s son, Roderick the Gentle, who in 1763 succeeded his grandfather as 40th Chief, fought in several battles in the American Revolution, with Macneil clansmen at his side. And the last of the old line of chiefs, Roderick the General, 41st, had a distinguished military career.   But back to the age of the Castle, and hundreds of years earlier. In 1427, the Lord of the Isles gave Gilleonan, 29th Chief, a charter to Barra (and Boisdale in South Uist, which we lost to Clanranald in 1601). W. MacKay MacKenzie, in the 19928 Report of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments, concluded for this (the first extant written record of Macneil control of Barra) that “The erection of the castle in its oldest form is probably to be dated after 1427”. Few today would accept this kind of reasoning in ascertaining the age of the Castle. (It represents a peculiar amalgam of acceptance and rejection of Macneil clan tradition: acceptance that the Castle was built by Macneils, rejection that it dates to a far earlier time.)   John G. Dunbar has published the most scholarly analysis of the Castle (Glasgow Archaeological Journal, Vol.5, p.25). He too adopts an early 15th century date, but based on comparison with other West Highland castles. In doing so he dismisses several features others have seen as indicating earlier dating. These include the put-log holes in both tower and curtain wall, and the absence of vaulting and fireplaces in the tower.   Several experts have put the date of Kisimul much earlier that the 15th century. MacGibbon and Ross, who studied virtually all Scottish castles in the late 19th century, saw Kisimul as in the period 1200 – 1300. Sidney Toy suggests that it belongs to the 13th century. Stewart Cruden’s view is that “we can confidently attribute this most interesting Hebridean castle to the thirteenth century and even suggest that the keep is a twelfth century structure”. These earlier dates are in harmony with The Statistical Account of Barra (1791-99) which states that “The tradition here is, that this fort was built upwards of 500 years ago”.   By far the oldest date attributed to the Castle is 1030 A.D. It comes from Clan Macneil tradition as related by Robert Lister, who made a lifelong study of the Castle and its history and who knew its fabric in minute detail. He attributes this date to the beginning of the exterior curtain wall (then 12 feet high), by Neil of the Castle, 21st Chief, and approximately 1120 A.D. to completion of the large tower, by Donald, 23rd Chief.
ISLE OF BARRA