Barra: Episodes from an Islands History

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The blatant act of piracy also provided a pretext for outside kindreds with an interest in the island to prove their loyalty by being seen to impose order and bring miscreants to justice in an island hitherto beyond the reach of the Crown. Contemporary sources suggest that the outcome was a ratcheting of pressure within the MacNeils until one group effectively broke the other. He was taken away as a prisoner to Glasgow.

The way they killed him was to put him in a hogshead barrel with iron spikes through the boards, and to roll the hogshead down a slope, either in Edinburgh or in England.

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At the end of July Niall was allowed to return to the islands on bail, with his uncle, the Captain of Clan Ranald, going surety RPC ix [], 32; x, Although the case was reconvened at the end of , Niall Uibhisteach was clearly and understandably reluctant to return to Edinburgh; it was not until January that he was exhibited before the Privy Council there RPC ix [], , , His eventual appearance was likely calculated to win favour with the authorities, given recent reported events in Barra.

Perhaps the two brothers enjoyed popular support, and were too well secured against attack. For the authorities, Barra was just too remote and unimportant to deal with directly. It is clear, however, that the legitimate heir, Niall Uibhisteach, remained a force to be reckoned with.

From the evidence of the anonymous description of the island composed around , the aged Ruairidh an Tartair had resumed his chieftaincy before his death NLS Adv.

Barra: An Island's History

It is unclear, however, whether this peace involved some form of settlement and reparations with the defeated Niall Uibhisteach. Yet is appears unlikely that the Protestant clergyman of the island could have been murdered without the act being at least alluded to in contemporary official sources. He was murdered. His story concentrates our attention on the political circumstances in Barra in the early seventeenth century, but the actual event and its immediate context remain elusive. Understanding the political dynamics of the period necessitates going beyond examining bilateral relationships forged between the island clans on the one hand and the Privy Council on the other, in order to gauge the complex and often unpredictable interactions among Hebridean kindreds, regional magnates, and various sectors of the state and ecclesiastical administrations.

Recently, in a series of fascinating debates, historians have cast valuable light upon the roots, contexts, interpretation, and overall significance of the Statutes of Iona of These effects were haphazard, unpredictable, paradoxical — and sometimes of less consequence than might be expected. Barra offers an intriguing example of an island kindred not directly affected by the Statutes of Iona. Its chief Ruairidh an Tartair was not kidnapped and held captive, and did not subscribe to the measures in August Nevertheless, their ratification appears to have represented a turning point for the MacNeils.

Firstly, as was the case with a number of other kindreds, the measures possibly provoked further internal dissension, judging by the evidence of contemporary song, at all levels of society. Fosterage plays a significant role in the history of Barra during this period, with events testifying to its continuing resilience and adaptability, but also to the potential risks it incurred Parkes In another example, fosterage was evidently employed in an attempt to reconcile the MacNeils with the MacDonalds of Clan Ranald, following what appears to have been a lengthy feud between them over the ownership of Boisdale, the southern district of South Uist.

As stated above, it is highly probable that he played a crucial role in settling the conflict dividing the kindred.


To cope with the new configurations of power, controversial strategies had to be devised, endorsed, and put into practice. Circumstances certainly differed, but a common denominator affecting the three principal kindreds discussed in this article was that chiefly authority was challenged, and power either substantially redistributed between assertive younger rivals and regional magnates, or else taken away entirely.

The narrative draws attention to a network of native clerical families serving as hereditary administrators of local church sites throughout the islands. Nevertheless, matrices of folk memory repay close analysis, focusing attention on actors, events, processes, institutions, perceptions, and identities that, despite their historical import, may not be immediately apparent in the profusion of contemporary archival sources.

I am especially obliged to Calum MacNeil for being so kind in sharing his encyclopaedic knowledge of his native Barra. John MacPherson was himself to have a son named John b.

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The events described by John MacPherson may have taken place either in autumn or summer , during a time of exceptional destitution on the island: see the excerpts from letters by Father Neil MacDonald of Barra to Father Angus MacDonald, Rome, 7 October and 4 March , printed in Campbell , , No likely John MacPherson has been located in the War Office deserter registers in the National Archives WO25 class, although it should be noted that the regimental lists, as bound, are often acephalous, and that MacPherson is said to have enlisted on behalf of another.

In , they are looking after the infant Donald. For this, my thanks to Calum Macneil. Note the great difference in their ages, casting doubt on the background to the story as related in oral tradition. My thanks, again, to Calum Macneil for this reference. Later folk interpretations, of course, need not belie prehistoric origins. For other examples of piracy in the Northern Isles during this period, see Murdoch , , About , John MacNeil, then a young boy, had been given as a foster-child to William Nycoll, a merchant from the parish of Northam in Devon.

Nycoll evidently regarded this as a prudent investment for the future safety of his ships sailing through the Minch, but the arrangement also suggests bonds of mutual interest and trust between island clans and at least certain merchants of the period, a corrective, perhaps, to the popular picture of the Minch at the time as being an arena of unbridled predatory piracy. See also Mackie , , , , Clearly these women were rather more than mere pawns and marriage counters.

If Niall Uibhisteach was the progenitor of the later MacNeils of Vatersay, tensions between the families may have lingered into the early eighteenth century Campbell and Eastwick , Ruairidh MacNeil of Barra remains free. Jun Island chiefs released from captivity after reaching agreement with Crown? Iain MacNeil dies shortly afterwards in Edinburgh Tolbooth. Edinburgh: HMSO. Branigan, Keith. Stroud: Amberley. Branigan, Keith, and Patrick Foster.

Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press. Brochard, Thomas. Cameron, Rev. Alexander ed. Calendar of State Papers relating to Scotland, 11 Edinburgh: H. General Register House. Campbell of Airds, Alastair. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Campbell, John Gregorson. The Gaelic Otherworld. Edited by Ronald Black. Edinburgh: Birlinn.

Campbell, John Lorne ed. Gaelic Folksongs from the Isle of Barra. London: Linguaphone Institute. The Book of Barra. Stornoway: Acair. Campbell, John Lorne, and Francis Collinson eds.

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  • Details if other :. Thanks for telling us about the problem. Return to Book Page. Preview — Barra by Keith Branigan. Get A Copy. To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number. Would you like to tell us about a lower price? If you are a seller for this product, would you like to suggest updates through seller support? Keith Branigan has carried out archaeological and historical research on Barra for over twenty years and written six previous books reporting his discoveries.

    With colleagues from Sheffield University he has discovered and recorded almost archaeological sites on the Barra islands and excavated fifty of them. Barra - Episodes from an Island's History looks at a dozen episodes of particular interest and importance in the history of Barra and the Bishop's Isles, from the time of the Pioneers who first settled the islands around BC to the Vatersay Raiders of In reading about these events you'll also meet some of the colourful characters who have peopled Barra over the centuries from the Viking invader Onund Woodenleg, and the piratical chief Rory the Tartar, to the Macneil who fought at Corunna and Waterloo, went spectacularly bankrupt, and then went on to become one of Britain's most senior soldiers.

    You'll also witness the notorious clearances at the hands of Colonel Gordon of Cluny and the tragic fate of passengers on the Annie Jane in Weaving together the evidence of archaeology, historical documents and oral tradition this book provides a fascinating overview of six thousand years of Barra's history.

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