the name of a clan of the Western isles, which, like the Macleods,
consisted of two independent branches, the Macneills of Barra and
the Macneills of Gigha, said to be descended from brothers. Their
badge was the seaware, but they had different armorial bearings, and
from this circumstance, joined to the fact that they were often
opposed to each other in the clan fights of the period, and that the
Christian names of the one, with the exception of Neill, were not
used by the other, Mr. Gregory thinks the tradition of their common
descent erroneous. Part of their possessions were completely
separated, and situated at a considerable distance from the rest.
The clan Neill were among the secondary vassal tribes of the
lords of the Isles, and its heads appear to have been of Norse of
Danish origin. Buchanan of Auchmar styles them Irish Celts of the
ONeil tribe, and they are classed by Skene under the Siol
Gillevray, or race of Gillebride, surnamed king of the Isles,
who lived in the 12th century, and derived his descent
from a brother of Suibne, the ancestor of the Macdonalds.
About the beginning of the 15th century, the
Macneills were a considerable clan in Knapdale, Argyleshire. As this
district was not then included in the sheriffdom of Argyle, it is
probable that their ancestor had consented to hold his lands of the
The first of the family on record is Nigellus Og, who obtained
from Robert Bruce a charter of some lands in Kintyre. His
great-grandson, Gilleonan Roderick Muchard McNeill, in 1427,
received from Alexander, lord of the Isles, a charter of that
island, one of the Hebrides, eight miles long and two to four in
breadth. In the same charter were included the lands of Boisdale in
South Uist, which lies about eight miles distant from Barra. With
John Garve Maclean he disputed the possession of that island, and
was killed by him in Coll. His grandson, Gilleonan, took part with
John, the old lord of the Isles, against his turbulent son, Angus,
and fought on his side at the battle of the Bloody Bay, where he
narrowly escaped falling into the hands of the victorious Clandonald.
He was chief of this sept of division of the Macneills in 1493, at
the forfeiture of the lordship of the Isles.
The Gigha Macneills are supposed to have sprung from Torquil
McNeill, designated in his charter, filius Nigelli, who, in the
early part of the 15th century, received from the lord of
the Isles a charter of the lands of Gigha and Taynish, with the
constabulary of Castle Sweyn, in Knapdale. He had two sons, Neill
his heir, and Hector, ancestor of the family of Taynish. Malcolm
McNeill of Gigha, the son of Neill, who is first mentioned in 1478,
was chief of this sept of the Macneills in 1493. After that period
the Gigha branch followed the banner of Macdonald of Isla and
Kintyre, while the Barra Macneills ranged themselves under that of
Maclean of Dowart.
On the insurrection of the islanders, under Donald Dubh, in
the beginning of the 16th century, Gilleonan McNeill of
Barra was amongst the chiefs who, in 1504, were summoned to answer
for their treasonable support given to the rebels, and the following
year, when the Dowart Macleans sent in their submission to the
government, the Macneills of Barra, as their followers, as a matter
of course, did the same.
In 1545 Gilliganan McNeill of Barra was one of the barons and
council of the Isles who accompanied Donald Dubh, styling himself
lord of the Isles and earl of Ross, to Ireland, to swear allegiance
to the king of England. His elder son, Roderick or Ruari McNeill,
was killed at the battle of Glenlivet, by a shot from a fieldpiece,
on 3d Oct. 1594. He left three sons, Roderick, his heir, called
Ruari the turbulent, John, and Murdo. The two latter were among the
eight hostages left by Maclean of Dowart, in 1586, in the hands of
his brother-in-law, Macdonald of Dunyveg. During the memorable and
most disastrous feud which happened between the Macleans and the
Macdonalds at this period, and which has already been described, the
Barra Macneills and the Gigha branch of the same clan fought on
The Macneills of Barra were expert seamen, and did not scruple
to act as pirates upon occasion. An English ship having been seized
off the island of Barra, by Ruari the turbulent, Queen Elizabeth
complained of this act of piracy. The laird of Barra was in
consequence summoned to appear at Edinburgh, to answer for his
conduct, but as the haughty and high-spirited chiefs of the remoter
isles were, in those days, sometimes very apt to do, even with the
kings citations, he treated the summons with contempt. All the
attempts made to apprehend his proving unsuccessful, Mackenzie,
tutor of Kintail, undertook to effect his capture by a stratagem
frequently put in practice against the island chiefs when suspecting
no hostile design. Under the pretence of a friendly visit, he
arrived at McNeills castle of Chisamil (pronounced Kisimul), the
ruins of which stand on an insulated rock in Castlebay, on the
south-east end of Barra, and invited him and all his attendants on
board his vessel. There they were well plied with liquor, until they
were all overpowered with it. The chiefs followers were then sent
on shore, while he himself was carried a prisoner to Edinburgh.
Being put upon his trial, he confessed his seizure of the English
ship, but pleaded in excuse that he thought himself bound by his
loyalty to avenge, by every means in his power, the fate of his
majestys mother, so cruelly put to death by the queen of England.
This politic answer procured his pardon, but his estate was
forfeited, and given to the tutor of Kintail. The latter restored it
to its owner, on condition of his holding it of him, and paying him
sixty merks Scots, as a yearly feu duty. It had previously been held
of the crown. Some time thereafter, Sir James Macdonald of Sleat
married a daughter of the tutor of Kintail, who made over the
superiority to his son-in-law, and it is now possessed by Lord
Macdonald, the representative of the house of Sleat.
The old chief of Barra, Ruari the turbulent, had several sons
by a lady of the family of Maclean, with whom, according to an
ancient practice in the Highlands, he had handfasted, instead
of marrying her. He afterwards married a sister of the captain of
the Clanranald, and by her also he had sons. To exclude the senior
family from the succession the captain of the Clanranald took the
part of his nephews, whom he declared to be the only legitimate sons
of the Barra chief. Having apprehended the eldest son of the first
family, for having been concerned in the piratical seizure of a ship
of Bourdeaux, he conveyed him to Edinburgh for trial, but he died
there soon after. His brother-german, in revenge, assisted by
Maclean of Dowart, seized Neill McNeill, the eldest son of the
second family, and sent him to Edinburgh, to be tried as an actor in
the piracy of the same Bourdeaux ship, and thinking that their
father was too partial to their half brothers, they also seized the
old chief, and placed him in irons. Neill McNeill, called Weyislache,
was found innocent and liberated through the influence of his uncle.
Barras elder sons, on being charged to exhibit their father before
the privy council, refused, on which they were proclaimed rebels,
and commission was given to the captain of the Clanranald against
them. In consequence of these proceedings, which occurred about
1613, Clanranald was enabled to secure the peaceable succession of
his nephew to the estate of Barra, on the death of his father, which
happened soon after. (Gregorys Highlands and Isles, p. 346.)
The island of Barra and the adjacent isles are still possessed
by the descendant and representative of the family of McNeill. Their
feudal castle of Chisamul has been already mentioned. It is a
building of an hexagonal form, strongly built, with a wall above
thirty feet high, and anchorage for small vessels on every side of
it. In one of its angles is a high square tower, on the top of
which, at the corner immediately above the gate, is a hole, through
which the gockman, or watchman, who sat there all night, threw down
stones upon any who might attempt to surprise the gate in the
darkness. Martin, who visited Barra in 1703, in his Description of
the Western Islands, says that the Highland Chroniclers or
sennachies alleged that the then chief of Barra was the 34th
lineal descendant from the first McNeill who had held it. He relates
that the inhabitants of this and the other islands belonging to
McNeill were in the custom of applying to him for wives and
husbands, when he named the persons most suitable for them, and gave
them a bottle of strong waters for the marriage feast.
The chief of the Macneills of Gigha, in the first half of the
16th century, was Neill McNeill, who was killed, with
many gentlemen of his tribe, in 1530, in a feud with Allan Maclean
of Torlusk, called Alein nan Sop, brother of Maclean of
Dowart. His only daughter, Anabella, made over the lands of Gigha to
her natural brother, Neill. The latter was present, on the English
side, at the battle of Ancrum-Moor, in 1544, but it is uncertain
whether he was there as an ambassador from the lord of the Isles, or
fought in the English ranks at the head of his clansmen. He sold
Gigha to James Macdonald of Isla in 1554, and died without
legitimate issue in the latter part of the reign of Queen Mary.
On the extinction of the direct male line, Neill McNeill vic
Eachan, who had obtained the lands of Taynish, became heir male of
the family. His descendant, Hector McNeill of Taynish, purchased in
1590, the island of Gigha from John Campbell of Calder, who had
acquired it from Macdonald of Isla, so that it again became the
property of a McNeill. The estates of Gigha and Taynish were
possessed by his descendants till 1780, when the former was sold to
McNeill of Colonsay, a cadet of the family.
The representative of the male line of the Macneills of
Taynish and Gigha, Roger Hamilton McNeill of Taynish, married
Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of Hamilton Price, Esq. of Raploch,
Lanarkshire, with whom he got that estate, and assumed, in
consequence, the name of Hamilton. His descendants are now
designated of Raploch.
The principal cadets of the Gigha Macneills, besides the
Taynish family, were those of Gallochallie, Carskeay, and Tirfergus.
Torquil, a younger son of Lachlan McNeill Buy of Tirfergus, acquired
the estate of Ugadale in Argyleshire, by marriage with the heiress
of the Mackays in the end of the 17th century. The
present proprietor spells his name Macneal. From Malcolm Beg
McNeill, celebrated in Highland tradition for his extraordinary
prowess and great strength, son of John Oig McNeill of Gallochallie,
in the reign of James VI., sprung the Macneills of Arichonan.
Malcolms only son, Neill Oig, had two sons, John, who succeeded
him, and Donald McNeill os Crerar, ancestor of the Macneills of
Colonsay, now the possessors of Gigha. Many cadets of the Macneills
of Gigha settled in the north of Ireland.
Both branches of the clan Neill laid claim to the chiefship.
According to tradition, it has belonged, since the middle of the 16th
century, to the house of Barra. Under the date of 1550, a letter
appears in the register of the privy council, addressed to Torkill
McNeill, chief and principal of the clan and surname of Macneilis.
Mr. Skene conjectures this Torkill to have been the hereditary
keeper of Castle Sweyn, and connected with neither branch of the
Macneills. He is said, however, to have been the brother of Neill
McNeill of Gigha, killed in 1530, as above mentioned, and to have,
on his brothers death, obtained a grant of the non-entries of Gigha
as representative of the family. If this be correct, according to
the above designation, the chiefship was in the Gigha line. Torquil
appears to have died without leaving any direct succession.
The first of the family of Colonsay, Donald McNeill of Crerar
in South Knapdale, exchanged that estate in 1700, with the duke of
Argyle, for the islands of Colonsay and Oronsay. The old possessors
of these two islands, which are only separated by a narrow sound,
dry at low water, were the Macduffies or Macphies (see MACPHIE).
Donalds great-grandson, Archibald McNeill of Colonsay, sold that
island to his cousin, John McNeill, who married Hester, daughter of
Duncan McNeill of Dunmore, and had six sons. His eldest son,
Alexander, younger of Colonsay, became the purchaser of Gigha. Two
of his other sons, Duncan and Sir John McNeill, have distinguished
themselves, the one as a lawyer and judge, and the other as a
Duncan, the second son, born in Colonsay in 1794, after being
educated at the universities of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, was
admitted advocate at the Scottish bar in 1816. In 1824 he was
appointed sheriff of Perthshire, and in November 1834,
solicitor-general for Scotland, which office he held till the
following April, and again from September 1841 to October 1842. At
the latter date he was appointed lord-advocate, and continued so
till July 1846. He was elected dean of the faculty of advocates, and
in May 1851 was raised to the bench as a lord of session and
justiciary, when he assumed the title of Lord Colonsay. In May 1852
he was appointed lord-justice-general and president of the court of
session, and in the following year was sworn in a privy councillor.
He was M.P. for Argyleshire from 1843 to 1851.
Sir John McNeill, G.C.B., and F.R.S.E., the third son, was
born at Colonsay in 1795, and in his 19th year graduated
M.D. at the university of Edinburgh. He practised for some time in
the East, as a physician, and in 1831 was appointed assistant envoy
at the court of Persia. In 1834 he became secretary of the embassy,
and received the Persian order of the Lion and Sun, and in June 1836
was appointed envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to
that court. In 1839 he was created a civil knight grand cross of the
order of the Bath. During his residence in Persia he became
thoroughly acquainted with the habits, policy, and resources of the
Asiatic nations; and was enabled, even at that period, to point out
the aggressive designs of Russia with singular penetration and
ability. In 1844 he returned home, and soon after he was placed at
the head of the board appointed to superintend the working of the
new Scottish Poor law act of 1845. In 1851 he conducted a special
inquiry into the condition of the Western Highlands and Islands. In
February 1855 he was chosen by the government of Lord Palmerston to
preside over the commission of Inquiry into the administration of
the supplies of the army in the Crimea. In 1857, he was sworn of the
privy council, and on April 22, 1861, he received the degree of
LL.D. from the University of Edinburgh. He is also Doctor of Civil
Law in the University of Oxford.
a popular poet and song-writer, descended from a respectable family
in the West Highlands, was born October 22, 1746, at Rosebank, on
the Esk, near Roslin, Mid Lothian, where his father, at one period
an officer in the army, had taken a farm. He was educated at the
grammar school of Stirling, under Dr. David Doig, to whom he
dedicated his Will and Jean. He subsequently attended some classes
at Glasgow, in the higher branches of education. At the age of 14 he
went to Bristol, to a cousin, formerly a West Indian captain, who
sent him on a voyage to the island of St. Christophers, furnished
with a letter to a mercantile house there. On his arrival, he
obtained a situation in the counting-house of the merchant to whom
he had been recommended, but having forgot himself so far as to
snatch a kiss from the wife of his employer, one day while reading
in the garden with her, he was soon dismissed. He remained for many
years in the West Indies, but never could rise above subordinate
situations. During this period, it is said, he was employed as a
negro-driver, and in 1788 he published a pamphlet in defence of the
system of slavery in the West Indies, which was for ever abolished
by the Emancipation act of 1830.
When upwards of forth years of age, Macneil returned to
Scotland in bad health and in anything but prosperous circumstances.
He had, when a boy of eleven years of age, written a species of
drama, in imitation of Gay, but his poetical powers seem to have
been allowed to remain almost dormant during his long and struggling
career in the West Indies. He now, however, began to give the world
assurance of his possessing the vision and the faculty divine, by
publishing, in the spring of 1789. The Harp, a Legendary Tale, in
two parts, which brought him into favourable notice in literary
society, but added nothing to his income.
Having no prospect of employment in his native country, he
again quitted it, but this time for the East Indies. Disappointed,
however, in his expectations there, he soon returned to Scotland,
and took up his abode in a cottage near St. Ninians, in the
immediate neighbourhood of Stirling. During his sojourn in the East,
he visited the celebrated caves of Elephanta, Cannara, and Ambola,
of which a detailed account written by him, was published in the
eighth volume of the Archaeologia. He afterwards wrote a number of
love songs in the Scottish language, which speedily became
favourites with all classes. Of these, his Mary of Castlecary, I
lood neer a laddie but ane, Come under my plaidie, and others,
nearly all of a dramatic nature and in the dialogue form, are
familiar to all lovers of Scottish song.
In 1795 appeared his principal poem, Scotlands Skaith, or
the History of Will and Jean, ower true a tale, the object of which
was to exhibit the evils attendant on an inordinate use of ardent
spirits, in the story of a once industrious rustic and his wife
reduced through intemperance to poverty and distress; and so great
was its popularity that in less than twelve months it had passed
through fourteen editions. It was followed in the ensuing year, by a
sequel, entitled The Waes oWar. All his pieces are in the
In consequence of continued bad health, in 1796, with the hope
of deriving benefit from a tropical climate, to which he had been so
long used, and also of bettering his circumstances, he was induced
to go out to Jamaica, and on the eve of his departure composed his
descriptive poem, entitled The Links of forth, or a parting Peep at
the Carse of Stirling, which was published in 1799. At Jamaica he
remained for a year and a half, residing with Mr. John Graham of
Three-Miles-River, where he wrote The Scottish Muse, which
appeared in 1809. On the death of that gentleman he left Macneil an
annuity of £100.
In 1800 Macneil returned to Scotland, and having now a
competence and leisure to attend to literary pursuits, he took up
his abode at Edinburgh, where he mixed in good society. The same
year he published, anonymously, a novel, entitled The Memoirs of
Charles Macpherson, which is understood to contain an account of
his own early career. Soon after, he set about preparing a complete
collection of his poetical works, which appeared in two volumes, in
1801. He next published two works in verse, entitled Town Fashions,
or Modern Manners Delineated, and Bygane Times and Late-come
Changes, and in 1812, a novel in two volumes, styled The Scottish
Adventurers, or the Way to Rise, in all of which he eulogises the
manners and habits of past times, in preference to what he deemed
modern innovations and corruptions. Many minor pieces he inserted in
the Scots Magazine, of which he was at one time editor. He died at
Edinburgh of jaundice, 15th March 1818. The statement in
Chambers Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, that he was
in such destitute circumstances at the time of his death that he did
not leave wherewithal to defray his funeral expenses, is not
The portrait of Mr. Macneil is subjoined;
[portrait of Hector Macneil]
He is described, towards the close of his life, as having been a
tall, fine-looking old man, with a very sallow complexion, and a
dignified and somewhat austere expression of countenance. Like all
persons who have made poetry their profession, and felt the
struggles and privations attendant on the exclusive service of the
muses, he invariably warned all young aspirants for poetic fame
against embarking in the precarious occupation of authorship. His
On the Treatment of the Negroes in Jamaica. 1788, 8vo.
The Harp; a Legendary Tale. Edin. 1789, 4to.
Scotlands Skaith, or the History of Will and Jean; owre true
a Tale. Together with some additional Poems. Embellished with
elegant engravings. 2d edit. Edin. 1795, 8vo. Again, entitled,
Politicks, or the History of Will and Jean; a Tale for the Times.
The Waes of War; or, The Upshot of the History of Will and
Jean. Edin. 1796, 8vo. Lond. 1796, 4to.
The Links o Forth; or, a Parting Peep at the Carse of
Stirling. Edin. 1795, 8vo.
Poetical Works, Lond. 1801, 2 vols, 8vo. 1806, 2 vols, 12mo.
3d edit. 1812.
The Pastoral, or Lyric Muse of Scotland; in 3 cantos. 1809.
Bygane Times and late-come changes, or a Bridge-Street
Dialogue in Scottish verse, exhibiting a Picture of the Existing
Manners, Customs, and Morals. 3d edit. 1812.
Scottish Adventurers, or the Way to Rise; an Historical Tale.
1812, 2 vols. 8vo.
An Account of the Caves of Cannara, Ambola, and Elephanta, in
the East Indies; in a Letter from Hector Macheill, Esq., then at
Bombay, to a friend in England, Archaeol. viii. 251. 1787.