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The Scottish Nation

MCNEILL, 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 O’Neil 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 crown.

      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 different sides.

      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 king’s 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 McNeill’s 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 chief’s 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 majesty’s 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. Barra’s 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. (Gregory’s 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. Malcolm’s 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 brother’s 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). Donald’s 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 diplomatist.

      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.

MACNEIL, HECTOR, 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. Christopher’s, 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 loo’d ne’er 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, ‘Scotland’s 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 o’War.’ All his pieces are in the Scottish dialect.

      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 correct.

      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 works are:

      On the Treatment of the Negroes in Jamaica. 1788, 8vo.

      The Harp; a Legendary Tale. Edin. 1789, 4to.

      Scotland’s 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. 1796, 4to.

      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. 4to.

      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.

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