Clan MacNeil, also known in Scotland as Clan Niall, is a highland Scottish clan, particularly associated with the Outer Hebridean island of Barra. The early history of Clan Macneil is obscure, however despite this the clan claims to descend from the legendary Niall of the nine hostages. The clan itself takes its name from a Niall who lived in the 13th or early 14th century, and who belonged the same dynastic family of Cowall and Knapdale as the ancestors of the Lamonts, MacEwens of Otter, Maclachlans, and the MacSweens. While the clan is centred in Barra in the Outer Hebrides, there is a branch of the clan in Argyll that some historians have speculated was more senior in line, or possibly even unrelated. However, according to Scots law the current chief of Clan Macneil is the chief of all MacNeil(l)s.









MacNeils of Barra

The MacNeils of Barra claim to be descendants of Anrothan, an 11th century Irish prince who emigrated to Scotland. Through Anrothan the MacNeils of Barra claim to descend from the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages. This MacNeil claim however relies solely on oral tradition, and incredibly on the authority of two crofters on Barra at the turn of the 20th century. Anrothan is claimed as ancestor of several clans in the Argyll vicinity: Clan Lamont, Clan Maclachlan, Clan MacEwen of Otter, and also the Irish Sweeneys (MacSween). If the MacNeils are indeed connected to Anrothan, then they appear to have been a junior branch of the family and were certainly overshadowed in thr 13th century by the MacSweens, Lamonts and descendants of Gilchrist. An opposing theory, proposed by Nicholas Maclean Bristol, is that there is reason to believe that they descend from Neill Maclean who appears Exchequer Rolls at a time when Tarbert Castle was being rebuilt by Robert the Bruce. The earliest contemporary record of the Macneils of Barra is only in 1427, when Gilleonan Macneil received a charter of Barra and Boisdale.



McNeills of Argyll (in Taynish, Gigha and Colonsay)



Castle Sween located on the eastern shore of Loch Sween. The MacNeills of Taynish were keepers of the castle in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The origin of the McNeills of Taynish, Gigha and Colonsay is also obscure. During the Middle Ages the McNeills held the island of Gigha on the coast of Knapdale, as well as Taynish on the mainland. The McNeills were hereditary keepers of Castle Sween under the lords of the isles during the 15th and 16th centuries. The McNeill of Gigha, Torkill McNeill, was known as the “chief and principal of the clan and surname of Macnelis” in 1530. However, with the power of the Campbells growing and spreading out into the Inner Hebrides, the influence of the McNeills of Gigha decreased. At about this time the MacNeils on more remote island of Barra far, removed of Campbell power, began to grow in prominence and for a long time since have been regarded as Chief of the Clan and Name.

Descending from this branch were the McNeills of Colonsay who obtained Colonsay in 1700 and owned it until 1904 when it was sold by John Carstairs McNeill. According to Moncreiffe, there is reason to believe that historically this branch were superior to the current chiefs of the Clan Macneil. There is even a school of thought that there is no relation at all between this branch of MacNeills to that of Barra. 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.



Early history

According to Moncreiffe, probably sometime in the 14th century MacNeills gained several islands in the Outer Hebrides - Barra including Mingulay, and Boisdale in South Uist. Barra and South Uist were part of the vast possessions of the MacRauri kindred. By as late as 1373 these islands were held by Ranald, ancestor of the Macdonalds of Clanranald, through his mother who was a MacRauri heiress. The coat of arms of the MacNeils of Barra display the Black Galley which likely descended to the MacNeils through a female descendant of the MacRauris. The personal name Rauri, which is a common given name to the MacNeils of Barra, likely passed to the MacNeils this way. In 1409 the first record of the name Rauri among the MacNeils appears. According to Moncrieffe, his son Gilleonan MacRauri was remembered in Barra tradition as descending from “thiry-three Ruaris” who had held the island before him. In 1427 Gilleonan received a charter for Barra and Boisdale from the Lord of the Isles. This charter implies that Gilleonan’s right to these lands was through his mother (daughter of Fearchar Maclean) and according to Moncrieffe this implies that her mother was a MacRauri heiress (descended from Rauri, son of Ranald, King of the Isles 1164-1207).

In 1495 Macneil of Barra received a Crown charter for Barra and other lands. In 1579 the Bishop of Isles complained of being harassed by Gilleonan Macneil of Barra. In 1688 Black Rauri Macneil of Barra (Ruaridh Dhu) received a Crown charter from James VII. During the Glorious Revolution Black Rauri supported the Jacobite king, and led his clansmen in the Battle of Killiecrankie. Later in the Jacobite Rising of 1715 he again raised his clan in support of the Stuarts. Following the defeat of the Jacobites in 1746, Rauri’s son Roderick was imprisoned in London until 1747.



Modern Clan Macneil



Kisimul Castle on Barra. Restoration of the castle began in 1938 and was completed in 1970.

The 18th and 19th century saw severe hardship to Clan Macneil clansfolk. During this era there was mass emigration from Barra to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. During the chiefship of Colonel Roderick (c.1755–1822) Barra suffered its first mass emigrations, ironically the chief described himself as a melieuratier (an “improver”). One mass exodus of Barra folk was led by Gilleonan, elder son of the chief. This consisted of 370 Catholic Barra folk (about 75 families in total) who emigrated in August to Pictou, Nova Scotia. In 1838 after going broke, Colonel Roderick’s son and heir, Lieutenant General Roderick Macneil of Barra, sold Barra to Colonel Gordon of Cluny. When Roderick died in 1863 the chiefship passed to a cousin (descendant of Gilleonan) who had emigrated during the mass emigrations to Canada in 1802.

Robert Lister Macneil, was born in 1889. An American citizen and a trained architect, he succeeded the chiefship of Clan Macneil in 1915. In 1937 he was able to purchase Barra and the ruinous Kisimul Castle largely using the money from his second wife. Immediately he began work restoring the castle, aided in part by funds from a British Government grant. By his death in 1970 he had completed the restoration of the castle - ancient seat of the chiefs of the clan. In 2001 the castle was leased to Historic Scotland for one thousand years at the rent of £1 per year and a bottle of Talisker whisky. In October 2004 the chief handed over 3,600 hectares, comprising of almost all of his estate on Barra to Scottish Ministers. The current chief of Clan MacNeil is Ian Roderick Macneil of Barra, The Macneil of Barra, Chief of Clan Niall and 26th of Barra, also Baron of Barra. The chief is a member of the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. The current chief, while an United States citizen, lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.



Clan symbols



A crest badge suitable for wear by a member of Clan MacNeil.



Macneil of Barra tartan. Has been the standard Macneil tartan for over a century.



Macneil of Colonsay tartan. One of the two offical clan tartans of Clan Macneil.



Crest badges and clan badge

Modern clan members, who wish to show their to a particular clan and chief can wear a crest badge. Scottish crest badges usually contain the heraldic crest and heraldic motto of the chief of the clan. While clan members are may wear the badge, the crest and motto within it are the heraldic property of the chief alone. A crest badge suitable for a clan member of Clan MacNeil contains the crest: on a chapeau Gules furred ermine, a rock Proper. The motto upon the badge is: BUAIDH NO BAS (translation from Scottish Gaelic: “To conquer or die” or “Victory or death“).

Though not a clan in its own right, MacNeil(l)s who consider themselves of the Colonsay “branch” have used the following crest badge distinguish themselves from the Barra “branch”. This crest badge contains the crest: an armoured dexter arm with dagger; and the motto: VINCERE AUT MORI (translation from Latin: “Conquer or die”).

Another symbol used by clan members is a clan badge, or sometimes called a plant badge. The original clan badges were merely plants worn in bonnets or hung from a pole or spear. Today, the clan badge attributed to Clan MacNeil is dryas. Trefoil has also been attributed to the clan, however this clan badge may actually be attributed to the McNeills of Gigha, a branch of Clan MacNeil. Trefoil has also been attributed to the Lamonts, another clan in Argyl. The Lamonts and MacNeils/McNeills both claim descent from the same O’Neill who settled in Scotland in the Middle Ages.




There have been several tartans associated with the name MacNeil / MacNeill. However, in 1997 the chief of Clan Macneil directed members of the clan that there were only two tartans that he recognised as “clan tartans”. These were: Macneil of Barra and Macneil of Colonsay. In 1997 the Macneil of Barra tartan has been the standard Macneil of Barra tartan for over a century.



Chiefs of Clan MacNeil



MacNeil tartan, as published in the Vestiarium Scoticum in 1842. The tartan is not recognised as a “clan tartan” by the current chief.



Crest badge appropriate for a clan member of Clan MacNeill of Gigha and Colonsay.

The chiefs of Clan MacNeil, are reckoned from Niall Noigíallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages), from whom all the MacNeil chiefs claim descent. The clan claims Niall Noigíallach as its first chief, while the current chief is reckoned as the 46th chief.




Year of death


Niall Noigíallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages)

High King of Ireland also a member of the Connachta dynasty and ancestor of the Uí Néill dynastic family



Eógan mac Néill

King of Aileach and Prince of Ulster, also the ancestor of the Cenél nEógain dynasty and their septs (O’Neill, O’Docherty, O’Boyle, MacNeill, etc.)



Muiredach mac Eógain

King of Aileach and Prince of Ulster



Muirchertach mac Muiredaig

High King of Ireland in 487, King of Aileach



Domnall mac Muirchertaig

High King of Ireland in 559, King of Aileach



Áed Uaridnach

High King of Ireland 599, King of Aileach



Máel Fithrich mac Áedo)

King of Aileach, Prince of Ulster



Máel Dúin mac Máele Fithrich

King of Aileach, Prince of Ulster



Fergal mac Máele Dúin

High King of Ireland 709, King of Aileach



Niall Frossach

High King of Ireland 759, King of Aileach



Áed Oirdnide mac Néill

High King of Ireland 793, King of Aileach



Niall Caille mac Áeda

High King of Ireland 832, King of Aileach and Ulster



Aed Finliath

High King of Ireland 861, King of Aileach and Ulster



Niall Glúndub

High King of Ireland 878, King of Aileach and Ulster



Muirceartach na Cochall Croiceann (Muirchertach mac Néill)

High King of Ireland 937, King of Aileach and Ulster



Domnall ua Néill

High King of Ireland 954, King of Aileach and Ulster



Muirceartach na Midhe

Prince of Ulster and Tyrone



Flathartach an Trostain

King of Aileach and Ulster and Prince of Tyrone



Aodh Athlamh

King of Aileach and Ulster and Prince of Tyrone



Aodh Aonrachan

King of Aileach, Prince of Aileach and Argyll, resigned kingship to brother Domhnall in 1033



Niall of the Castle

Prince of Argyll and the Norse Council of the Isles. Began construction of Kisimul Castle




Prince of the Norse Council of the Isles




Prince of the Norse Council of the Isles




Prince of the Norse Council of the Isles




Prince of the Norse Council of the Isles



Niall Og
































Roderick Og




Roderick the Turbulent




Niall Og








Roderick Dhu

Baron of Barra



Roderick ‘Dove of the West’

Baron of Barra



Roderick ‘The Gentle’

Baron of Barra



Roderick ‘The General’

Baron of Barra, lost the Barony and Estate of Barra in 1838



Donald McGougan








Roderick Ambrose




Robert Lister

Baron of Barra



Ian Roderick

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