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Castle of a clan chiefKisimul Castle (Caisteal Chiosmuil, ‘castle of the rock of the small bay’) is testament to the nature of Gaelic lordship in the Middle Ages. The island fastness in Castle Bay was the residence of the chief of the Macneils of Barra, who claimed descent from the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages. Tradition tells of the Macneils settling in Barra in the 11th century, but it was only in 1427 that Gilleonan Macneil comes on record as the first lord. He probably built the castle that dominates the rocky islet, and in its shadow a crew house for his personal galley and crew. The sea coursed through Macneil veins, and a descendant, Ruari ‘the Turbulent’, was arrested for piracy of an English ship during King James VI’s reign in the later 16th century.
The Macneils of BarraThe Macneils of Barra claimed Irish descent from the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages, high king of Ireland in the 5th century and great-grandfather of St Columba. By the 15th century, their clan chief was part of an élite group of lesser lords who were members of the Council of the Isles. This body advised the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles. They traditionally met at Finlaggan, on Islay, in the southern Hebrides. The Macneils may have had some control over Barra in earlier medieval times, but it wasn’t until 1427 that they emerged as lords of Barra, when Gilleonan Macneil was granted the island by Lord Alexander MacDonald.
An island strongholdThe castle dates essentially from the 15th century. It takes the form of a three-storey tower house. This formed the residence of the clan chief. An associated curtain wall fringed the small rock on which the castle stood, and enclosed a small courtyard in which there are ancillary buildings. These comprised a feasting hall, a chapel, a tanist’s (heir’s) house and a gokman’s (watchman’s) house. Most were restored in the 20th century, the tanist’s house serving as the family home of the Macneils. A well near the postern gate is fed with fresh water from an underground seam. Outside the curtain wall, beside the original landing-place, are the foundations of the crew house, where the sailors manning their chief’s galley had their quarters.