Kisimul Castle, Castlebay, Barra – Clan MacNeil
Rather than using a traditional moat for protection, Kisimul Castle uses the water of Castlebay in Barra as a natural defence against incoming enemy invaders.
The castle is the traditional clan seat of the MacNeil clan and is said to have been constructed as early as the 11th century by ‘Neil of the Castle’ MacNeil, a direct descendent of Neil of the Nine Hostages, High King of Ireland at the end of the 4th century.
The MacNeil clan would then make the castle their long term home and are said to have fought at the Battle of Bannockburn on the side of Robert the Bruce in 1314 during the Scottish Wars of Independence before later being given the title of Lords of Barra with ‘Gilleonan MacNeil’ becoming the first person to hold the accolade in 1427.
Having such great power in a relatively isolated part of Scotland did lead to the MacNeils committing some gruesome acts, however, perhaps none more so than ‘Marion of the Heads’, second wife of Gilleonan, who earned her nickname after beheading her stepsons to ensure her own son’s succession as the head of the clan.
The isolation did have other benefits, however, and meant that the clan was able to remain well protected from attacks with Barra being hard to access from the Scottish mainland, where battles often raged. The castle was, however, besieged several times during clan wars and the MacNeils would travel across the water to fight in battles at Worcester and Killiecrankie before taking up the Jacobite cause in 1715.
Despite not actually fighting during the Jacobite Risings, the clan’s chief would be imprisoned for his connection to Bonnie Prince Charlie and an agent even reported in 1750 that the clan were to support the exiled Bonnie Prince Charlie by raising 150 men to start a new rising after the disastrous defeat of Cullodden in 1746.
This proposed rising didn’t end up coming to fruition, however, and the 14th chief, Roderick, was later forced to sell the castle and all his lands around Barra to the Gordons of Cluny in 1840. Kisimul would then pass under the control of the Cathcarts before finally being returned to the Macneils in 1937. It has since been restored over the course of the 20th century and is now under the control of Historic Environment Scotland after being leased to the organisation for 1000 years by the family in 2001.