Clan McNeil, Its history up through the 1500s

The times of the MacDonald 'Lords of the Isles'

The ancient Dalriadic kin had been displaced by the MacDonald Lords of the Isles in the 1300s. Despite various attempts to reclaim their lands, especially Castle Sween. they were forced to find new lives and fortune in Ireland. The MacDonalds maintained their power for some 200 years. Their chiefs styled themselves "The Lords of the Isles", and they ruled from several forts and castles dominating the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, including Castle Sween.

In this pecking order, Clan McNeill accepted The MacDonalds as their overlords. As such, they held the position of 'constable', or governor of Castle Sween. It seems that the last McNeill to hold this honour did not have a male heir to follow him. Instead, his heiress daughter married a MacMillan. Their descendants continued governing the Castle until:

"In 1478, MacDonald was again in trouble, summoned to Parliament on a charge of treason for giving aid and counsel to traitors based on Castle Sween, which he had 'stuffed' with victuals, men and arms, and for supporting Donald Gorm and Neil MacNeil with their men who had been the cause of trouble in the area." (Campbell, vol I, page 143)

One result of this uproar was that the McNeills of Sween were banished from the Castle Sween area to the east side of Loch Caolisport, around Crear.

The end of the MacDonald hegemony came in Edinburgh in 1499. The Annals of Ulster recorded thus: "A sad deed was done in this year by the king of Scotland, James Stewart. Eoin Mac Domhnaill, king of the Foreigners' Isles, and Eoin the Warlike his son, and Raghnall the Red and Domhnall the Freckled, were executed on one gallows the month before Lammas." (from page 60, Moncreiffe)

With the MacDonalds weakened, and the Campbells (and the Crown) not yet strong enough to be effective overseers in the Western Highlands, a classic power vacuum ensued. This meant that, for such as the McNeill, it was a time of danger and insecurity, for in fact, piracy.

In 1520s, a younger son of the MacLean of Duart Castle, Allan MacLean, roamed the seas like his Viking ancestors, pillaging, plundering and burning throughout the southern Hebrides. He is remembered as "Allan nan Sop", or "Allan of the Straw", from his habit of burning out his hapless victims with their own straw stacks. He murdered the McNeill Chief of Gigha, along with many of his Islanders in 1530. Those he did not murder he imprisoned. The Scottish Queen Regent directed Campbell of Argyll to proceed against these McLeans. Allan nan Sop was, however, too powerful to control. He collected Gigha rents until his death (in bed) in 1544, after which he was buried at Iona, his sins forgiven.

Life did not settle down until the whole area came under effective Campbell rule. In the process, the McNeills became adherents to the Campbells of Argyll, to the disapproval of many pro-MacDonald historians. These historians did not however, live in a world of MacLean piracy.

The Wretched 1600s