Rising from a craggy rock in Barra’s Castlebay, the stone ramparts and intimidating sheer walls of Kisimul Castle are fairytale vision brought to life.

For locals, the 15th century gem is the island’s star attraction and a lure for visitors drawn by its magical setting.

While its role as stronghold of Clan Macneil mean for those across the globe who share the family name and its variations, the castle is a place of pilgrimage and a ‘must see’ experience.

However, since 2019 those travelling to the only surviving medieval castle in the Western Isles will have found its doors firmly closed to visitors.

Shut since before the pandemic for safety reasons, frustrations have grown at home and abroad that there is still no sign of it reopening.

Now it’s emerged that the castle is likely to remain closed for some time yet, with plans by Historic Environment Scotland to carry out a high-level inspection unable to begin until works on its interior are complete.

And although engineers were recently spotted inspecting the site, locals fear that with a small window of opportunity to carry out any significant work, along with the logistical headache of bringing equipment and a workforce to the site make it unlikely that anything will happen soon.

The Scottish Farmer: Castlebay in Barra

It’s led to concerns the iconic landmark will remain firmly out of bounds for visitors for several years to come.

The castle passed into the care of Historic Scotland, predecessor of HES, from Ian Roderick Macneil, 46th Clan Chief in 2000 in an extraordinary 1,000 year deal in return for £1 and an annual rent of a bottle of Talisker whisky.

In 2013 Historic Scotland said it had struck a deal with his son, Rory Macneil, the 47th Clan Chief, for a £200,000 scheme to preserve the ruined fortress for future generations.

Half the finance was being provided by funds donated by Clan Macneil members across the globe. It is now said to be held by the Historic Scotland Foundation for future conservation work.

The lack of progress, however, has led to exasperation at home and abroad.

“It’s a huge issue for Barra, the castle is our biggest tourist attraction – Castlebay has that name for a reason,” says Brian Currie of Craigard Hotel, which overlooks the Kisimul Castle.

“We’ve had American tourists with Macneil heritage who have come to stay at the hotel and who didn’t realise that it’s closed.

“It’s very disappointing for them.”

While across the Atlantic in Indiana, Kenny McNeil, President of the Clan Macneil Association of America, says the closure is affecting international travellers seeking to reconnect with their Scottish roots.

He is due to arrive in Scotland in August for a tour organised by the Association. Unlike previous tours which included a trip to Barra to pay homage at the ancestral pile, this year’s will avoid the island completely.

The Scottish Farmer: Kenny McNeil, Clan Macneil Association of America, and wife Pam during a previous visit to ScotlandKenny McNeil, Clan Macneil Association of America, and wife Pam during a previous visit to Scotland (Image: Contributed - Kenny McNeil)

Instead, what’s billed as an “unforgettable journey” for the clan’s American members will include trips to Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull, the historic seat of Clan Maclean, Kilchurn Castle on Loch Awe, associated with the Campbells, and Castle Sween.

He says not being able to provide a visit to Kisimul Castle has led to a slump in the number of people expressing interest in taking part in this year’s tour, with association members voicing dismay at its closure.

“I know a lot of people from America but also Australia and Canada who talk about the castle and say they don’t want to travel all that way just sit on a boat and look at it.

“It’s the seat of Clan Macneil, and a trip to the castle is a really big deal because they see it as part of them.

“I’m regularly asked ‘why can’t we go to the castle, what is going on, when is it opening?’

“It takes around five hours on a ferry to get there from Oban and 90 minutes by plane from Glasgow.

“The castle isn’t the only reason people would want to visit Barra but it’s a big reason, and people don’t want to spend all that time getting there and not to get inside.

“I know a lot of the locals are distraught about it,” he adds.

In some cases, visitors who had planned to marry within the castle walls have scrapped their plans to travel to Barra after learning the castle remains closed.

While there are worries among islanders of the lasting impact on tourist numbers to the island: when open, the castle is said to have averaged around 5,000 visitors every week.

“It’s one of our biggest assets but it’s closed,” said one islander.

The Scottish Farmer: The interior of Kisimul Castle is said to require repairs before high level work beginsThe interior of Kisimul Castle is said to require repairs before high level work begins (Image: Kenny McNeil)

“Up to 2019 when it closed, we were seeing a lot of weddings there but that’s stopped.

“The boats will take visitors around the castle but it’s not the same and people aren’t taking that up.

“Our worry is that because Historic Environment Scotland has so many properties that have been closed for inspections and repairs. Because of our location, we are being left to last.”

Islanders have become so concerned that they have discussed the possibility of a crowdfunding effort to raise money to carry out works themselves.

However, they say they have been told that the work has to be done and funded through the government agency.

Part of the issue is understood to revolve around previous repairs carried out on the castle which have now significantly deteriorated, leaving some floor areas and walls in need of attention to make them safe.

The castle’s position in the middle of the bay, however, means everything needs to be transported by boat while a lack of space within the castle could mean the construction of a temporary deck to store items for use in the repairs.

The Scottish Farmer: The interior of Kisimul Castle, BarraThe interior of Kisimul Castle, Barra (Image: Kenny McNeil)

Kisimul was a symbol of Gaelic power in the Middle Ages and the seat for the Macneils of Barra, who claimed descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages.

A 5th century Irish warlord who battled the Romans and armies of Scotland, England and France, he is said to have seized nine hostages during his campaigns and kept them as symbols of his power.

Although considered a Macneil stronghold since the 11th century, the castle was built in the 1400s.

Heavy debts forced the Macneil chiefs to sell Barra in 1838. It fell into decline, with some its stonework removed to be used for fishing vessel ballast and paving in Glasgow.

A descendant, Robert Lister Macneil, the 45th Chief, bought it in 1937, and carried out repairs before it passed to state care.

A spokesperson for Historic Environment Scotland (HES) said: “The issues at Kisimul Castle are complex, and works to the interior of the site are required before we can progress with the planned high-level inspection of the site.

“HES’ in-house engineers have recently visited the site to review its condition.

The Scottish Farmer:

“They are now assessing the best approach to mitigate the risk in the short-term in parts of the Castle, including the Great Hall and Marion’s extension. This would also allow access to specialist teams for further works to be undertaken.

“We appreciate that the Barra community is keen to showcase Kisimul to visitors arriving from across the world.

“We are working with the community to strengthen our outreach offer in the interim, including running free boat trips around Castlebay throughout the summer, and expect to open our Visitor Engagement Centre in Castlebay over the next few weeks.”