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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 stair.’

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 termed.

‘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 do likewise.

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 successfully.

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 liquor.’

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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