MacNeil Land Claims on Barra and Vatersay Islands

MacNeil of Barra - Buaidhi no bas (To conquer or die)

MacNeil of Barra – Buaidhi no bas (To conquer or die)

A land ownership storm is brewing on the islands of Barra and Vatersay in the Outer Hebrides. The late Ian MacNeil, 46th Chief of Clan MacNeil, announced in 2003 that he had agreed to donate the 9000-acre crofting estate on the islands to the Scottish Government. However it was made clear that if the islanders wanted the land at a later date, they were to be given the estate free of charge.

Over 1000 residents of the islands are involved in meetings to discuss the offer of possible community ownership made by the late chief. If the plan goes forward, the majority of the length of the Outer Isles would be community owned. The islanders also have in their sights 7000-acres already owned by the Government, which includes 440 crofts and two working quarries.

Barra councilor Donald Manford said the reason the islanders are considering community ownership is so the area can be administered locally. “There is a very clear view from many on Barra and Vatersay that they should take more control to engage in the development of important infrastructure on the islands. We can’t depend on the local authority to do these things as they did historically. If we don’t do it ourselves, nobody else will.”

When the MacNeil land transfer to the ministry was completed in 2004, the then rural affairs minister Ross Finnie said: “We intend to manage this land with a view to its transfer, along with our own properties, to community ownership at a time appropriate to the islanders of Barra.”

However, a statement released recently by the Scottish Government claims the opposite: “The Transfer of Crofting Estates Act sets out that any Government-owned land sold would be subject to the independent valuation applied by the District Valuer.”

In an article published by Herald Scotland Highland Correspondent David Ross, acclaimed Highland historian Professor Jim Hunter challenged the Government’s view, based on a piece of Tory legislation. “It’s not the case that the Transfer of Crofting Estates Act stipulates a purchase price based on valuation. What the act really says, in Section 1(4) is: ‘The disposal of property under this act shall be on such terms as the secretary of state, with the consent of the Treasury, may agree with the body acquiring the property’.” In this case, the Scottish Government now takes the place of the secretary of state.

Hunter also stated that the Tory Government foresaw circumstances where land could be passed for no monetary value when the Crofting Act was being passed in 1997. Lord Lindsay, then Scottish Minister, said flexibility was needed on a case by case basis between local crofters and the taxpayer. “The Government is prepared to consider transfer at no consideration, where this is necessary, to make sure the trust (community or crofting) gets off to a good start.”

Islanders have called for this issue to be cleared up as quickly as possible, as discussions regarding the future of Barra and Vatersay continue.

Clan MacNeil ties go back more than 1000 years on the islands. The land was granted to the Clan by Alexander, Lord of the Isles in 1427, and was held until the 19th century when the island suffered severe hardships. 40th Chief Roderick MacNeil sold the island to Colonel Gordon of Cunly in 1838, who cleared the island of inhabitants to make way for sheep farming. Displaced MacNeils ended up scattered across the globe; namely in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. When Roderick died in 1863 the chieftainship was passed to a cousin who had emigrated to Canada in the mass emigrations of 1802.

American citizen and trained architect Robert Lister MacNeil succeeded the chieftainship in 1915, and was able to purchase Barra and the ruinous Kismil Castle in 1937. He immediately began work restoring the castle, aided by a grant from the British Government. By the time of his death in 1970 the castle was restored, and since 2001 has been leased for a term of 1000 years to Historic Scotland at £1 per year and a bottle of Talisker Whisky.


Read our 2010 article on the late Clan Chief Ian MacNeil here

And for more information on the MacNeils of Barra, check out our page at



About Nadine Lee

Originally from New Zealand, Nadine is a documentary researcher now based in the north east of Scotland.

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One thought on “MacNeil Land Claims on Barra and Vatersay Islands

  1. Wendy Latimore-Ferrell

    Personally, I’m sure many feel I have no right to say anything about this, but as a descendant of the MacNeill Clan of Barra, I watch all of these things and have an interest. The way I read the last paragraph, the term “LEASED” is the most important term here. Not sure about Scottish law, but in the U.S. that term means that the “lessor” can change the terms and renegotiate. Nowhere do I see that anyone had “given” the land to the Government permanently (although 1000 years is a long time). Maybe I’m missing something here especially since I’m not familiar with the laws there. I am curious about it so if someone can elaborate on those legal terms, I would be very interested.


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