The name is derived from Niall, a descendant of an Irish prince who married into the royal house of Dalriada>. He was said to be descended from "Niall of the Nine Hostages" a king of Tara in Ireland who ruled around 400. They were originally confined to the islands of the Hebrides, mainly Barra>, Gigha and Colonsay and a small enclave in Argyll at Taynish.
MacNeil of Barra
The first Niall came to Barra around 1049 and is considered to be the first chief of the clan. Neil MacNeil was the fifth chief and was described as a prince at the Council of the Isles held in 1252. He was still chief after the Battle of Largs in 1263 which ended the domination of the Western Isles by the Vikings from Norway. Neil's son, Neil Og Macneil, is believed to have fought for Robert the Bruce> at Bannockburn in 1314 and was given land in northern Kintyre.
Gilleonan, the 9th chief, was was given a charter of Barra and Boisdale in 1427 from the Lord of the Isles. In the 16th century, the 12th chief (also named Gilleonan) attended a meeting with King James V> at Portree, along with a number of other island lords. He was promptly imprisoned for many years, despite being promised a safe conduct by the king. He was not released until 1542 when the Regent Moray tried to use the chiefs in the isles to inhibit the power of the Campbells in Argyll.
In the 16th century, the MacNeils augmented their income with a bit of piracy and were sometimes referred to as the "last of the Vikings". The 15th chief was denounced so many times that he was labelled a "hereditary outlaw". On one occasion the chief was tricked into appearing before King James VI> for attacking the English ships of Queen Elizabeth. When asked why he had done so, he replied that he thought he was doing the King a favour by annoying the woman who had beheaded the monarch's mother (Mary Queen of Scots>). Eventually, the king issued letters requiring loyal subjects to "extirpate and root out" both the chief and members of the clan. In 1610, the chief's nephews attacked the seat of the clan chief at Kiessimul Castle, captured their uncle and put him in chains. The chief's son became head of the clan and fought for King Charles II> at the Battle of Worcester. The next chief, Roderick Dhu, was received at court in London and granted a royal charter for all the lands of Barra. The clan remained loyal to the crown - including the "Old Pretender" when the Jacobite Uprising of 1715 took place.
The MacNeil stronghold on Barra was Kisimul Castle. There may have been a building there as early as the 11th century but the present structure probably dates from the 13th century but the dates are uncertain. The castle was beseiged several time in the various clan wars. But when the 21st clan chief became bankrupt in 1848, it was sold along with Barra to the Gordons of Cluny who later sold it to the Cathcarts. The line of the hereditary chief passed to a cousin who had emigrated to North America earlier in the 19th century. In a romantic turnaround, a later clan chief, Robert Lister MacNeil, came back from America to Barra in 1937 and purchased the castle and subsequently devoted his life to restoring it. His son, Ian Roderick MacNeil (the 46th of the Clan MacNeil if you start with Niall of the Nine Hostages) is a distinguished lawyer and has continued that task. Recently the National Trust has taken over the restoration work on a long-term lease (for a Pound a year and a bottle of whisky!)
MacNeill of Colonsay
The members of the clan who lived on the island of Colonsay usually spelt the name MacNeill. They had come to Colonsay from Taynish (on the Argyll mainland) and the island of Gigha. Torquil MacNeill of Taynish was granted the islands of Gigha and Danna and on the mainland in 1440 by Alexander, Lord of the Isles. Torquil became keeper of Sween Castle in 1449 but the castle passed to the MacMillans through marriage to a female heiress when the male line failed.
Torquil MacNeill had a large number of children who formed many minor branches, creating a complicated genealogy (which the MacNeill children were said to be required to recite backwards every Sunday!). Gigha was sold to the Campbells in 1554 but was later repurchased by the end of the 16th century.
MacNeills had been established on Colonsay from early times and in 1700 Donald MacNeil of Crear acquired the island from the Earl of Argyll, in exchange for his own estates. But when the kelp industry collapsed in the second half of the 19th century, the island was sold to pay off debts. The chieftainship passed to a MacNeill in New Zealand.
MacNeills in Galloway
A separate family of MacNeills was founded by a Gilbert MacNeill and was granted lands in the Rhinns of Galloway by Robert the Bruce. Another Galloway family, the MacNeillys, are unrelated - their name is derived from "mac an fhilidh" meaning son of the poet.
The MacNeil clan motto is "Buaidh no bas" which means "Conquer or die".
Surnames regarded as septs (sub-branch) of the MacNeil clan include MacGugan, MacNeilage, MacNeiledge, MacNeilly, Neal, Neil, Neil, Neill, Neilson, Nelson.
There are MacNeil clan Web sites here> and here>.
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