Rory MaNeil, who became the 27th chief in 2010, following the death of his father Ian Roderick MacNeil, The MacNeil of Barra, Chief of Clan Niall, Baron of Barra and 26th Chief.
Kisimul Castle, built on an island in Castlebay, Barra is the seat of the current clan chief, Rory MacNeil, and was restored from a ruinous state by his US born grandfather in the early 20th century. Archaeological evidence has revealed that there has been human occupation on the island since at least the Bronze Age. The present castle dates from the 14th century.
The MacNeils of Barra developed from a fusion of Celtic and Viking cultures. They were great seamen and pirates, and their vessel of choice was the Birlinn – a technological descendent of the Viking long ships that once raided the seas from their base on Barra. These boats symbolised the cultural and technological fusion of the Norse and Gaelic worlds.
The Birlinn was the Rolls Royce of ships in medieval Scotland and a sure sign that its owner was a man of great social standing. Which is why so many were carved on the gravestones of the mighty a visual reminder of the Viking’s technological legacy.
According to the ancient Norse Grittir Saga, the first Viking on Barra was the improbably named Omund the Wooden-Leg, so named because he had, like all good pirates, just one leg. He and his followers defeated the Gaelic-speaking natives and set up base on Barra from where they launched summer raids to rape and pillage.
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During the reign of James the VIth, clan chief Roderick MacNeil earned the displeasure of the king by attacking ships of the Elizabethan Royal Navy. King James, who hoped to succeed to the English crown, was over anxious to keep on the right side of Elisabeth the First of England. Angered that MacNeil’s attacks on English ships might jeopardize his regal ambitions, he had the chief arrested and brought in chains to Edinburgh.
When asked by the king to explain his acts of piracy, MacNeil replied that he thought the King would be pleased that he had attacked ships belonging to the woman who had killed his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. Elisabeth had indeed long ago ordered the execution of her cousin, Mary, the mother of the king. King James was so baffled by MacNeil’s reply that he let the wily chief go on a promise of good conduct in the future!
There has long been a dispute and a rivalry between the MacNeils of Barra and the Macneils of Colonsay over the seniority of each branch of the clan. The Colonsay Macneils believed for a long time that their branch was older – some even argued that they were no relations of the Barra MacNeils at all. However, according to a 1962 decree by the Lord Lyon, the chiefs of MacNeil of Barra are chiefs of the whole name of MacNeil by Scots Law.