Kisimul Castle



Kisimul Castle, seat of the chief of the Macneils of Barra, tells us of the nature of Gaelic lordship in the Middle Ages. Caisteal Chiosmuil, the island stronghold’s Gaelic name, means ‘castle of the rock of the small bay’.

It’s said that the Macneils settled in Barra in the 11th century, but it was only in 1427 that Gilleonan Macneil was recorded as the first lord. He probably built the castle that dominates the rocky islet, and in its shadow a crew house for his personal galley and crew.

The Macneils were a seafaring clan. A descendant, ‘Ruari the Turbulent’, was arrested for piracy of an English ship during James VI’s reign in the later 1500s.

The Macneils of Barra

The Macneils of Barra claimed Irish descent from the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages, high king of Ireland in the 5th century and great-grandfather of St Columba.

By the 1400s, their clan chief was part of an elite group of lesser lords who were members of the Council of the Isles. This body advised the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles, usually meeting at Finlaggan, on Islay.

The Macneils didn’t emerge as lords of Barra until Lord Alexander MacDonald granted the island to Gilleonan Macneil in 1427 – but they may have had some control over it in earlier medieval times.

Heavy debts forced the Macneil chiefs to sell Barra in 1838. But a descendant, Robert Lister Macneil, the 45th Chief, bought the estate in 1937, and set about restoring his ancestral seat. It passed into state care in 2000.

An island stronghold

The castle built in the 1400s was originally a three-storey tower house, in which the clan chief lived. A curtain wall fringed the small rock on which Kisimul stood, and enclosed the small courtyard with its ancillary buildings.

Ancillary buildings included a:

  • feasting hall
  • chapel
  • tanist’s (heir’s) house
  • gokman’s (watchman’s) house

Most of the buildings were restored in the 1900s, the tanist’s house serving as the family home of the Macneils.

A well near the postern gate is fed with fresh water from an underground seam. Outside the curtain wall, beside the original landing-place, are the foundations of the crew house, where the sailors manning their chief’s galley had their quarters.

Opening times

Kisimul Castle is closed until further notice to allow for conservation works, but you can get closer to the castle by taking a short boat trip around Castlebay.

Boat trips:
2 May to 14 Sept:
Thur, Fri and Sat, 10.30am, 11.15am, 12 noon, 1.45pm, 2.30pm, 3.15pm and 4pm.
Tours leave from the pontoon in the Marina.

Free of charge, but numbers are limited and you will need to prebook your ticket.

Historic Scotland


Download our visitor app

Discover more on the go – the Historic Scotland app lets you find out about Scotland’s most iconic places wherever you are.

Plan your visit

More than 20 of our sites are now open. Please book your tickets in advance.

Become a member

Join Historic Scotland to visit our properties free of charge for a full year and support our work at the same time.

Hire a site for filming

Use one of our fantastic locations on your next shoot for an awe-inspiring backdrop to your work.

Learning visits

Our 300+ historic places serve as creative inspiration for all sorts of learning activities – and for learners of all ages.

Search our events

See the past brought to life by the imaginative year-round programme of events at our properties.