Behold the Hebrides
Hebridean Pirates Stronghold of the
MacNeils of Barra
HEBRIDEAN strongholds were invariably built as close to
the seashore as was reasonably convenient, partly for advantages of
communication, and partly as a means of protection against the sudden
incursions of fierce and bellicose neighbours. The Islesman chose the
wildest and most inaccessible site he could find on which to erect his
dun or castle.
Situated among a cluster of rocky islands is the
windswept and storm-sprayed Island of Barra. It is here that ‘ther is ane
castle in ane ile, upon a strengthey craigie, callit Kilcherin, pertaining
to the MackNeills of Barray.’ From this ancient fortress, Castlebay, the
only village in the island, derives its name.
It was beneath the shadow of a castle such as this that
the storm-distressed galley, of which Scott speaks in the Lord of the
Isle; took shelter when its rowers were well-nigh exhausted, and,
having come at last into quiet water, ‘sought the dark fortress by a
Martin, who wrote on the Hebrides more than two
centuries ago, furnishes us with an excellent account of the difficulty
which attended his procuring entrance to Kisimul Castle. He tells us that,
when he visited it, the place was surrounded by a stone wall two stories
in height and touching on the sea. The castle was guarded with the utmost
care at all times; and Martin, who was eager to effect a landing on Barra,
experienced some trouble with the Cockman, as the senior watchman was
‘I saw the officer called the Cockman,’ he wrote, ‘and
an old cock he is; when I bid him ferry me over the water to the island,
he told me that he was but an inferior officer, his business being to
attend in the tower; but if’ (he says) ‘the constable, who then stood on
the wall, will give you access, then I'll ferry you over. I desired him to
procure me the constable’s permission, and I would reward him; but, having
waited some hours for the constable’s answer, and not receiving any, I was
obliged to return without seeing this famous fort.’
Martin discovered later that the reason why he had been
unable to effect a landing was due to the fact that the Chief was away
from home, and the constable feared lest the intending visitor should be a
spy from some foreign country.
The rock on which Kisimul Castle stands is covered at
high tide. Tradition has it that captives were confined in a great tower
some fifty feet high, having been lowered into it by means of a rope which
was provided specially for the purpose.
The chiefs of the ancient family of MacNeil seem to
have been the feudal lords of Barra from time immemorial. A writer at the
beginning of the of the eighteenth century
assures us that the MacNeil who occupied Kisimul Castle when he visited it
was the thirty-fourth lineal chieftain. It would be impossible to
ascertain whether this statement was actually true or not; but at all
events it is certain that the MacNeils held unbroken hereditary possession
of Barra and the neighbouring islands for many centuries.
A charter, which is still extant, granting to a
grandson of a Neal MacNeil extensive lands in South Uist, was confirmed by
James VI. at Stirling fifty years after the warlike Lords of the Isles had
been subdued. The grant was made on the explicit understanding that the
recipient, and his heirs after him, promised to render assistance to the
Lords of the Isles against all enemies by land and by sea, and in peace as
well as in war.
The MacNeils exercised great jurisdiction over their
tenants. When the wife of a tenant died, it was customary for the
surviving spouse to appeal to the Chief, who would select for him another
wife; for it was held that otherwise he could not manage his affairs, ‘nor
beget followers to NacNeil, which would prove a public loss to him.’ In a
similar manner, a widow addressed herself to MacNeil, who straight-way
chose for her another husband.
It is said that in olden times the islanders would not
go fishing while MacNeil and his steward were about the island, because
the tenants were afraid lest the Chief might observe that their catches
were heavy, and might raise the rents in consequence.
But the MacNeils had their good points too, for when an
inhabitant became too old and frail to till the soil any longer, he was
admitted into the family, where he was maintained during the remaining
years of his life. Again, if owing to the severity of the weather, or to
any other unfortunate cause, a tenant should lose a milch cow, it was the
recognised custom for the Chief to compensate him for his loss by
providing him with another cow.
In the olden days the MacNeils were great pirates: they
terrified the whole countryside by their plundering expeditions at sea.
Perhaps this is why the powerful Lords of the Isles were favourable to the
MacNeils; expert seamen were more useful as allies than as enemies in
those far-off days. That they were doughty rievers is to some extent
proved by the fact that, as one of our great Hebridean historians tells
us, they ‘took toll of the Irishmen.’
Not unlike the wild MacLeods of Lewis, the MacNeils
subsisted largely on the plunder which they took at sea, and which they
carried off on their predatory excursions into the territories of those
neighbouring clans on the mainland, who often showed great and
well-justified hostility toward them. Incidentally, it may be noted that
these expeditions frequently involved the clansfolk in expenses, which
they could ill afford, because the chief, like the lord of the manor who
in feudal times drew his rents in services and kind, and required of his
tenants, according to their status, the fulfilment of certain definite
military obligations, reserved the right to levy, as he thought fit,
imposts and dues on his people. These enabled him to participate, perhaps,
in some internecine clan feud, or to equip himself for a piratical
campaign. Together with the long-recognised right to sorn, the
indiscriminate raising of revenues for military and naval purposes must at
times have weighed very heavily on some of the poorer island communities.
Where agricultural conditions were always more or less
poor, owing chiefly to the weather and the barrenness of the soil, it was
usual for many of the lairds in the Western Isles to resort to piracy, so
as to supplement their incomes, which even in the most favourable years
were seldom very large. And so these small island communities throve to a
great extent on the occasional depredations which they made on
neighbouring lands and properties, as well as on any passing vessel whose
cargo they might be tempted to seize.
Now, a certain chief called Ruairi an Tartair, or the
noisy and turbulent Roderic, was notorious for his daring exploits at sea.
He had no mercy for anyone; he treated friend and foe alike. He would hide
secretly in the sheltered creeks around Barra until he espied upon the
tide some innocent merchant galley on which he might prey. The stormiest
weather was no deterrent to him, for he ventured out whenever he thought
that there might be some unsuspecting ship sailing by.
It is said that in his castle he had a wonderful
collection of goods which he had taken from the vessels of all countries.
In his cellars he had casks of the finest French and Spanish wines, which
he had succeeded in capturing on various rieving cruises; and it is
supposed that in his stables he kept three pairs of black steeds, whose
shoes were made of the gold which he derived from melting down the
precious ornaments captured on the high seas.
In his day Kisimul Castle was always the scene of much
feasting and merriment, because Ruairi could well afford to wine and dine
sumptuously on the strength of his relentless plunder. To his feasts he
often invited his friends and kinsfolk; and from the Statistical Account
it would appear that he gave them a liking for excessive drinking, because
we read that the natives of Barra, besides being deplorably ignorant, were
‘much addicted to large libations of whiskey.’ It is said, too, that after
Ruairi had feasted, it was the custom for a bugler to ascend the tower of
his stronghold and announce to his kinsfolk that, since Ruairi, their
Chief, had dined, all kings and princes of the earth were now permitted to
But Ruairi’s rieving excursions continued with few
interruptions, so that merchant vessels were loath to sail within many
miles of Barra, if they could possibly avoid doing so. He harassed the
ships of Queen Elizabeth until she could endure it no longer; and she was
obliged at length to demand his apprehension, a handsome reward having
been offered by the English Court to anyone who might lead to the pirate’s
arrest. Elizabeth complained to the King of Scotland because of the
piratical excursions of the Chief of Barra upon her subjects, whereupon
Ruairi was summoned to appear in Edinburgh on a charge of piracy.
But he defied the summons; and all attempts to arrest
him proved futile. Eventually James VI. entered into a secret arrangement
with a certain MacKenzie of Kintail, of whom you shall read afterwards.
MacKenzie was entrusted with Ruairi’s capture; and he managed it very
One fine day a galley set sail for Barra; and when it
came beneath the walls of Kisimul Castle the anchor was dropped, and
overtures were made to Ruairi, who was invited aboard the stately ship
under the cover of friendship. We are told that Ruairi complied with the
request, ‘having suffered himself to be overpowered with excessive
And when the Chief had stepped inside, where he thought
a feast was sure to be, suddenly the hatch was closed upon him. ‘Where‘s
my sgian-dubh? he cried. ‘Treacherous and vile are ye!’
In the dead of the night the anchor was raised, and the
ship sailed away for Edinburgh; and the cockle gatherers and the whelk
gatherers assembled on the shore, and wept and wailed because their daring
Chief had been stolen.
In Edinburgh, Ruairi was asked why he had committed
these acts of piracy on merchant galleys of the Queen of England, to which
he replied that it was his only means of avenging the cruelty which His
Majesty’s mother, Mary, had suffered at the hands of Elizabeth. This
answer obtained for him his pardon; and, though je was dispossessed of his
estate, his life was spared.
So the ship sailed out to sea
And its captive's heart was sore,
For in Barra Ruairi
Was a fairing chief no more!
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