BADGE: Luibheann (Octopetala) Dryas; or Feamainn Algre
PIBROCH: Spaidsearachd Mhic Neill Bharra
One 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 horseloads 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 dachan 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 cornparer". 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 proclarnation : "Hear, 0 ye people, and listen, 0 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 carne 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 felt at the head of his followers.
The MacNiels of Barra intermarried with the families of Clan Ranald, MacLeod, Cameron, Duart, and others or 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 £38,050, 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