Now believed to have come from Viking origin, the MacNeil clan are traditionally said to have been descended from Niall, a descendent of Aodh O’Neil, king of the north of Ireland at the beginning of the 11th century.
It is thought that Niall arrived on the island of Barra around 1049 and he is often regarded as the clan’s first chief. His lineage would then go on to establish themselves as the prominent family on the island and by the year 1252, Hector Macneil, the clan’s 5th chief, would be described as a prince at a meeting of the council of the isles.
The clan would then be caught up in Scotlands domestic struggles as the defeat of the King Haakon at the Battle of Largs in 1263 would mean the Outer Hebrides would be transferred from Norse control to the Kingdom of Scotland. This would pave the way for the clan to fight alongside Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and Neil Og MacNeil would be rewarded by the king for his services with additional lands in the north of Kintyre.
The clan’s ninth chief, Gilleonan, would then receive an official charter for the island of Barra from the Lord of the Isles in 1427 and siding with this powerful lord would ultimately lead to misfortune for the clan as the twelfth chief would be arrested and imprisoned at Portree by King James V.
The chief would remain imprisoned until the king’s death in 1542, when he was released by Regent Moray in an attempt to use him as a counterbalance to the growing power of the Campbell clan. This would ultimately prove unsuccessful, however, as the MacNeils would continue to be troublesome and became known for their reputation as pirates and outlaws that enjoyed raiding other clans from their base at Kisimul Castle.
One particularly troublesome chief, ‘Ruari the Turbulent’ was such an expert at causing mayhem that a letter was sent from the king asking his supporters to find the chief and ‘root him out’. The king would not need to get involved, however, as such was the hatred of Ruari that his own nephews launched an attack on Kisimul and captured him. The MacNeils would then become much more accepting of central authority and Ruari’s son, Neil Og, would be appointed a colonel of the horse by King Charles. The clan would then fight at the Battle fo Worcester in 1651 before receiving a charter for their lands in Barra from the crown in 1688.
Thanks to this close relationship with the Stewart monarchy over the 17th century, the MacNeils would become fierce Jacobites and fought for James VII at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. They would then go on to support the cause during further risings in 1715 and 1745 and, unlike some other clans, were not forced to forfeit their estates following the ultimate defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1746.
This meant that the clan would prosper until the beginning of the 19th century when, after struggling with financial difficulties, the twenty-first chief was forced to sell Kisimul Castle in 1838. He would also sadly pass away with no children, meaning the chiefship of the clan passed to a line of the family who had emigrated to America and the chiefship remained detached from their homeland in Scotland for almost 100 years until 1937 when the grandfather of the present chief returned back to Barra to reclaim Kisimul. He would devote the majority of his life to restoring the great castle and this work would be continued by his son.
The current clan chief is Roderick ‘Rory’ Wilson Macneil.