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Antiquarian Notes, Historical, Genealogical and Social
(Second Series) Inverness-Shire, Parish by Parish
Chapter XXIII. Barra


THE MACNEILLS OF BARRA AND ITS PEOPLE.

The modern description of the estate of Barra as contained in the last MacNeill's titles ran thus—

"All and whole my lands and estate of Barra, comprehending the particular lands and others following, viz., the Island of Barra comprehending the rooms and lands of Skirsall, Oligarry, Kilibar, Neil, Vaslinclead, Grin, Quire, Allistill, Balnacraig, Huron, Tangistill ; with the Islands of Watersay, Passay, Mingilay, Sandray, Bernera, and Friday; also haul other little islands thereto belonging, with rnilns, iniln lands, multures and sequels thereof; and tiends, parsonage, and vicarage of the said lands, so far as the proprietor had right thereto, and with woods, fishings, grazings, sheillings, mosses, muirs, meadows, and hail parts, pendicles, and pertinents of the said lands vhatsomevcr, all lying within the parish of Barra and Sheriffdom of Inverness."

This description may be contrasted with an ancient one which ran thus, establishing that the MacNeills at one time also possessed the southern part of South Uist, viz.—

"All and whole the lands of Barray, Watersay, Sandray, Phappy, Migillay, Berneray, the Isles of Ferray and Killigilt, and hail remanant lands and islands adjacent to the said Isle of Barray, called the Pennicle Isles of Barray and all and whole the lands called Tirrung of Degastill, lying in South Uist, and of old occupied by Macniel of Barray, Tirrungs of Finday, Kilbarry, Niclein, Grangeburrow, the Tirrung of Kelles and Hannugastill, with the Castle of Keismill; and all and sundry other castles, towers, fortalices, manor places, mills, woods, fishings, tofts, crofts, muirs, marshes, islands, lochs, pasturages, parts, pendicles, annexis, connexis, and pertinents thereof whatsomever, pertaining to the said Isles of Barray and remanent isles above specified, or possessed by the said Macniel, all lying within the Sheriffdom of Inverness, and now united, annexed, and incorporated in ane haill and free barony called the barony of Barray."

The MacNeill family are of great antiquity, allowing largely for such ridiculous exaggeration, such as that there were 33 Roderick MacNeills in succession. The first known as having a charter was named Gilleonan, found in 1427, but his father's name Roderick, and grandfather's Murdoch, are also recorded. Besides making a good appearance in the field as fighting men, the MacNeills were, as might be expected, quite at home on the sea and a terror to all their neighbours. In 1745 the chief would have joined Prince Charles were he not led and dominated by his superior, Sir Alexander Macdonald of Sleat. Barra's sympathies however were so well known that he was kept in confinement for some time in London. Sir Alexander's letter to the effect that he had no wish Barra should commit himself, involving forfeiture, is much to his credit, seeing that as superior the estate might fall into his own hands.

This MacNeill, or his son Roderick, was a Captain in the Fraser Highlanders and was killed at Quebec in 1759.

The superiority of Barra, some £40 Scots, still forms, I understand, part of the Macdonald estates.

Sir Walter Scott in one of his poems, referring to the Highland and Island chiefs, couples the MacNeills with the Mackintoshes-

"Macneil of the Islands, and Moy of the lake,
To honour, to justice, and vengeance awake."

The people, if the land, including all the islands, extending to 22,000 acres, were evenly distributed, are not in excess, but at present, were it not for occasional good fishing seasons, many are ill off, and the east coast fishermen who frequent Castlebay and other parts, carrying with them as they do their labour and sustenance, spending little or nothing, do not contribute to the well-being or prosperity of the people. It may be hoped, however, that when a regular market all the year over is opened by the Mallaig railway, the people by their fishing, including lobsters, cockles, and other shell-fish, will be permanently benefitted.

The MacNeills, like the Clanranalds, were ruined by the supercession of kelp. The last of them, who failed in almost every scheme he undertook while proprietor, distinguished himself as a soldier after the sale, which took place about 1838. He was, however, singularly kind to the people, and his and his family's name are held in reverent respect to this day. A good illustration of this has fallen under my personal observation and deserves to be remembered. My devoted friend and supporter, Mr Michael Buchanan, accepted my invitation to London chiefly that he might with his own eyes see the house where General MacNeill lived, and died in 1863.

A very interesting account of the Barra family by that talented clergyman, the Rev. A. Maclean Sinclair, of Prince Edward Island, shows that Roderick MacNeill, residing at Vernon River in that island, a tall, good-looking, and pleasant man, father of six sons, in good circumstances, now represents Barra. He is a son of Lachlan, who died in 1892, aged 73, son of Rory Og, who died in 1850, son of Roderick, styled of Brevaig, which Roderick, then an old man, emigrated in 1802. Brevaig was a son of Gilleonan, younger son of that Roderick Macneill of Barra who obtained a Royal charter of Barra in 1688.

I look back with pleasure on my visits to Barra, and my intercourse with its interesting people, not the least being a visit to Eoligarry and its worthy occupants of the kith and kin of Clan Chattan.

I must now leave the Isles and take a long stride to Badenoch, and Strathspey.


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