Closed Kisimul castle crumbling in public care, MSP says

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Castlebay’s historic Kisimul Castle, the ancestral home of the chiefs of the Clan MacNeil, is ‘falling into a dilapidated state under public custody’, an Isles MSP has said, echoing the fears of Macneil of Barra.

‘It is a pathetic situation for any country to be in, having a site as iconic as Kisimul Castle shut, with no clearly-stated prospect for reopening,’ said Na h-Eileanan an Iar SNP MSP Alasdair Allan, about Barra’s focal heritage site and major tourist attraction.

At least two high-profile events are planned over the next two years in Castlebay, where the 16th century tower stands on a rocky islet: the Worldwide Gathering of the Clan MacNeil in August, 2022, and centenary commemorations of emigration to Canada in June, 2023.

‘It will be greatly disappointing, for example, if the property remains closed to visitors during the international gathering of the Clan MacNeil later this summer,’ Dr Allan said.

In a letter to the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, Angus Robertson MSP, Dr Allan has asked when Historic Environment Scotland (HES), the carers of the castle since 2000, plans to reopen the castle, closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, to the public.

‘Crucially, there needs to be a long-term plan put in place by HES for Kisimul Castle. Unfortunately, even if the castle were to open tomorrow, it is likely that large areas of the site would remain closed, including the Great Hall, due to fears about falling masonry,’ Dr Allan said.

‘I echo the worries of the castle’s owner, Macneil of Barra, and the wider community that one of the most recognisable properties in Scotland is falling into a dilapidated state under public custody. I have asked that the Cabinet Secretary meets with myself and other stakeholders to progress these matters.’

The late Professor Ian Roderick Macneil of Barra, the 46th Macneil of Barra and 26th Chief of Clan MacNeil, a Harvard educated legal scholar and US Army infantryman, gifted the crofting estate of Barra to the Scottish nation, and granted the lease of Kisimul Castle to Historic Scotland for 1,000 years at an annual peppercorn rent of £1 and one bottle of malt whisky – usually Talisker from Skye.

One of his Harvard Law School students was a young Barack Obama. Macneil recalled coming home one night in 1988 and telling his wife: ‘I think I have the first black president in my class.’ On his death, he was succeeded in the position of chief by his son Roderick Wilson Macneil.

A spokesperson for Historic Environment Scotland (HES) said: ‘We very much understand the concerns expressed in relation to the ongoing closure of Kisimul Castle, however our first priority is to manage the risks to staff and visitors and hence the property remains closed for the moment.

‘We intend to re-assess the property in the next month to consider what options may be open to us and will continue to have dialogue with the owners.’