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A Commitment to Kisimul – an Icon of the Isles

1 November 2013

One of Scotland’s most iconic castles is to undergo major conservation, archaeological and interpretation work as part of a plan agreed between Historic Scotland and Macneil of Barra.

Kisimul Castle of the Isle of Barra is regarded as the most significant medieval castle in the Western Isles. It sits spectacularly on a rock in the bay and is the seat of the Chief of the Clan Macneil and the symbolic home of the Clan around the world.  It is of local, national and international significance and one of the most recognised sites in Scotland.  

The work, which will see an investment of over £200,000, half of which is coming from funds donated by Clan Macneil members, represents a unique opportunity to conserve and secure the site for current and future generations.   It will also result in an improved visitor experience and ensure that the fabric and structure of the castle are conserved for years to come.  Gaelic will be a key consideration in the interpretation that will be developed for the site.  

As part of the plan, three key projects will be completed by the end of 2015 – re-roofing the flat roof over the hall; reinforcing concrete structures and overhauling  the chapel roof and incorporating a new timber walkway.   Upgrading works to slipways at the castle and on the shore will follow at a later date. Historic Scotland have made special efforts to record local knowledge of the source of materials used to build the castle.  In this way, it should be easier to more accurately conserve the fabric of this ancient monument.

Archaeological excavations, commissioned by Historic Scotland  in 2013, unearthed some interesting items including possible Iron age pottery, flint cores and animal bone.  Now as a significant part of this plan, further work has the potential to discover more about the castle’s history, how it was used and the history of the earlier occupation of the Islet on which the castle sits.  

Kisimul has played an important role in the history of the southern Hebrides, and was a significant structural, military and administrative presence at the crossroads of the Norse-Celtic seaways.

A variety of factors, including the happenstance that on several occasions when visiting chroniclers were in Barra they were unable to visit Kisimul, and a fire in the 18th century that destroyed most if not all written records as well as furniture and furnishings, mean that Kisimul’s history is unusually undocumented, even as compared with comparable structures in similarly “remote” locations, and is hence subject to an unusually wide range of interpretations.

In 2000, responsibility for management and conservation of the castle was transferred  to Historic Scotland on a 999 year lease by Ian Roderick  Macneil of Barra, 46th Chief, for £1 and the annual rent of a bottle of Talisker.  The Castle is a popular destination for visitors to the island with around 5,000 people annually taking the short boat journey to see the site for themselves.

Historic Scotland have staged several events with the Island’s school children and will continue involving the wider community in its work at the castle. In 2014 we plan to build a large lime kiln which will be used to burn local shell using peat as fuel to make lime for mortar.  This mortar will be used in conservation works at the castle – a traditional method that was used to make the historic mortars at Kisimul.  The kiln itself will be retained as a feature on the foreshore in Castlebay.

Historic Scotland's own skilled conservation workforce will continue to work with local tradespeople as work progresses at Kisimul, and in particular on the replica limekiln.

Rory Macneil, the 47th Clan Chief said:   

“Agreement on the conservation plan is a milestone in the long and varied history of Kisimul Castle.  It opens the door to completion of the immediate projects covered by the plan and long term conservation of this unique structure.  

“This plan will help ensure that Kisimul continues to play a central, symbolic and economic role in Barra and Vatersay, and to serve as an inspiration to MacNeils around the world.  I would like to express my gratitude to clanspeople whose contributions to the Kisimul Castle restoration fund can now be put to good use, and to Historic Scotland for its stewardship of the Castle over the past 13 years and the positive way in which it is engaging with the Barra and Vatersay community.”

Ian Walford, Chief Executive of Historic Scotland said:  

“Kisimul Castle is a true icon of the Western Isles, representing Barra’s rich, colourful and sometimes turbulent history. There are few castles of this nature in Scotland, sitting proud in the island’s main harbour and for most visitors it is their first experience of Barra’s historic environment.

“We are delighted to be launching this plan.  Working in partnership with Macneil of Barra, this plan will conserve and enhance a truly magical site in a spectacular Scottish setting for future generations to come.”   

Alasdair Allan MSP for the Western Isles said:

“Anyone who has been to Barra, and taken the small boat across the water to Kisimul castle will know it is located in such an atmospheric and romantic setting.  The “castle in the sea” is loved by both visitors from around the world and the local community alike.  

“It is a surviving symbol of Gaeldom – a period when Gaelic power and culture, held sway over the West Highlands and Islands – and now this management plan will ensure its survival, well into the twenty first century. “

Barra-based Western Isles Councillor, Donald Manford said:  

"The community of Barra and Vatersay has taken Kisimul Castle to it’s heart in a way that's difficult to quantify. Historic Scotland are to be commended for the way they have understood and strengthened this special relationship."

Angus MacNeil MP for the Western Isles said:

“This is a fine sum of money being spent in Barra on the iconic Kisimul Castle and it is all the more impressive that half of it was raised from the MacNeil Diaspora across the world.

“The current chief Rory MacNeil and his late father, the much loved Ian Roderick MacNeil and 46th Chief,  deserve great credit for fostering these links.  The castle is a marvel of both natural and human creation and this money helps it to see its second millennia."

Notes to editors:

  • Historic Scotland is an executive agency of the Scottish Government charged with safeguarding the nation’s historic environment. The agency is fully accountable to Scottish Ministers and through them to the Scottish Parliament.

  • 2013 is the Year of Natural Scotland, inspiring our people and our visitors to celebrate Scotland’s outstanding natural beauty, landscapes and biodiversity as Scotland prepares to welcome the world in 2014 and beyond. Find out more about Scotland’s outstanding natural beauty at

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For further information

Laura Shaw
Media & PR Officer
Communications and Media
0131 668 8588 or 07854 366 805