Barra, Kiessimul Castle

Tower House

Site Name Barra, Kiessimul Castle

Classification Tower House

Alternative Name(s) Kisimul Castle; Caisteal Chiosmuil; Castlebay; Kiessamul Castle; Castle Bay; Bagh A' Chaisteil

Canmore ID 21390

Site Number NL69NE 3

NGR NL 66519 97944

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

Ordnance Survey licence number 100020548. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Western Isles
  • Parish Barra
  • Former Region Western Isles Islands Area
  • Former District Western Isles
  • Former County Inverness-shire

Recording Your Heritage Online

Kisimul Castle

Probably early-mid 15th century; recreated 1956-70 by Robert Lister MacNeil The former seat of Clan MacNeil and the best preserved castle in the Western Isles, Kisimul comprises a main tower and later structures within an enclosing curtain wall - an arrangement that continues the form of the Gàidhealtachd stronghold into the late medieval period. One of the castles associated with an under-lordship of the Lords of the Isles, it parallels Breachacha, its contemporary on the Isle of Coll, and may have been built by the same master mason. The enclosure surrounds a small island occupied since prehistoric times. It is entered via steps up from the water through a wide, late 16th/early 17th-century gateway with a slot-machicolation and yett, the two-leaved gate having been removed from the castle and taken to Eoligarry, Balelone, Kilmuir Kirk to Kisimul in 1939. This gateway replaced two 15th-century entrances - one to the east, blocked by the later Watchman's House (which no longer survives), and a postern gate on the north-west curtain wall, blocked-up since the 17th century. Beside the main entrance stands the earliest identifiable building - a plain, three-storey unvaulted residential tower of local gneiss rubble, its parapet raised, probably at the same time as the curtain walls, in the 16th century. A stone forestair leads up to the curtain wall-walk, from which a bridge flies out to a platform cantilevered out from the tower entrance. The door is located between the first and second floors, to which it is connected by mural stairways. These floors contained separate lodgings with latrine closets in the walls, the second floor, lit by windows on all sides but with no fireplace, being the laird¿s private apartment. The unlit ground floor, from which access to the floors above was via a trap door, was entered by a low doorway reached by a stone forestair. The building on the north-west side was the hall (with two sea-flushing garderobe projections), which would have been thatched and lit by a central hearth. It acquired an upper floor and was extended south west in the 17th century, blocking the postern gate. The rounded internal tower, built into the north corner of the enclosure and later raised, contained the pit prison and latrine below a guard room; this and the hall were substantially rebuilt in the 1950s, when the building on the north east was reinvented as a mortuary chapel. Other buildings of c.1500 included the Watchman¿s House (foundations survive), Tanist (heir¿s) House (now rebuilt), and kitchen (now re-roofed). Only a fragment survives of the late 16th-century crew or boat house, which stood outside the walls south of the tower. Putlog holes indicate the position of the former wooden wall-walks, which would have been intended principally as viewing platforms. It is doubtful that the aim of this castle was primarily defensive, and evidence for external hoardings is weak, although as late as 1675 the MacNeil was using `hagbutts, guns and pistols' to fend off a party of government officials who had arrived to serve a writ, and earlier that century Ruairidh the Tartar's piracy resulted in the castle being captured by 20 men with `swerdis, gantillatis, plaitslevis, bowis, darlochis, durkis, targeis, Lochaber aixes, tuahandit swerdis, and othuris wapponis invasive¿. Kisimul was abandoned in the early 18th century, and burnt out in 1795. During the herring boom, stone was taken for ballast and much of the curtain wall and other buildings was destroyed. The 20thcentury rebuild was largely conjectural, making liberal use of concrete and cement render. In 2000, the present chief, Iain R. MacNeil, made Kisimul over to Historic Scotland on a 1,000 year lease, the annual rent being £1 and a bottle of whisky. (Open to public; guidebook available)

Taken from "Western Seaboard: An Illustrated Architectural Guide", by Mary Miers, 2008. Published by the Rutland Press

Archaeology Notes

NL69NE 3 66519 97944

(NL 6651 9791) Kiessimul Castle (NR) (Remains of).

OS 6" map, Inverness-shire, 2nd ed., (1904)

Kiessimul Castle stands on a low rock rising a few feet above high water mark, 200 yds. from the shore of Castle Bay.

The Commission (RCAHMS 1928) dates the tower and curtain wall to the 15th c. with later buildings of the 17th and 18th c. MacGibbon and Ross (D MacGibbon and T Ross 1889), however, date the original buildings to the 13th c. and are supported by Toy (S Toy 1966), who points out that "since there is no note of its existence before the early part of the fifteenth century it has been assumed that it belongs to that period, despite its obviously more ancient character", He notes the ommission of the prow on the south side of the keep from the commission plan and draws attention to the addition of a fourth storey at a later period. Cruden (S Cruden 1960) says the south "wall face is perfectly flat" and disagrees with Toy (S Toy 1966) that there is a prow.

D MacGibbon and T Ross 1889; RCAHMS 1928; S Cruden 1960; S Toy 1966.

Non-Guardianship Sites Plan Collection, DC28149- DC28153, 1957-- 1958 & 1966.


Scotland's Magazine, February 1960 p.53 - photograph of castle partially restored

(Undated) information in NMRS.

Generally as described above. According to Mr Robins (Schoolmaster, Castlebay, Barra) the original buildings are 13th. century with later additions from 15th to 18th c. Toy's assertion (S Toy 1966) that there is a prow on the S wall of the keep is incorrect, and hence the plan supplied by the commission (RCAHMS 1928) (which agrees with Cruden {S Cruden 1960}) is accurate. The castle has been, and is in the process of being restored. It is occupied by The MacNeil of Barra.

Visited by OS (N K B), 24 May 1965.

Scheduled as Kisimul Castle, Castlebay, Barra.

Information from Historic Scotland, scheduling document dated 17 January 2001.

NL 6651 9791 An integrated programme of archaeological work, documentary research and a building survey were undertaken with the aim of informing Historic Scotland's future conservation and management of the newly acquired monument (NMRS NL69NE 3).

Twelve test trenches were excavated by hand in the courtyard, the basement of the tower and the pit prison revealing, in places, up to 1.2m of sediments. In the W part of the courtyard a series of medieval/post-medieval levelling deposits containing bone, shell and construction debris were encountered. In the tower and around the Gockman's house, floor surfaces and other deposits associated with their use and abandonment survived. Evidence for metalworking was found associated with the later phases of the Gockman's house, and a part-waterlogged floor deposit survived in the basement of the tower. A decorated gold object, thought to be a lace tag from the early 12th century, was recovered from this deposit.

The test trenches also revealed evidence for extensive prehistoric occupation which includes pottery, flint and cereal remains. The finds were associated with buried soils and are consistent with a Bronze Age or Neolithic presence on the island. The exact nature and duration of this occupation is unclear at present.

The building survey indicated that the initial phase of building included a great hall for public ceremony and a tower reserved for more private life, but there is very little evidence in the fabric of the building that provides an indication of the date of foundation. However, both negative and positive documentary evidence points to the establishment of the MacNeill's control of Barra, and the construction of the castle, in the first half of the 15th century. The glazed wares recovered from the excavations include nothing obviously earlier than the 15th century and therefore support this date.

Full details lodged with the NMRS.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

J Morrison 2001.

Architecture Notes



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