Iain Maciver: When will Western Isles’ forgotten castle be saved?

Old weather-beaten seafarers looked up to the sky over the Western Isles and scratched their grey heads last Thursday.

It is nothing unusual to see mist rolling from the sea. That does not only happen on the Mull of Kintyre, you know. But this was no ordinary mist or haar, to give it its proper name.

That reminds me – should the song go: “Mull of Kintyre, haar rolling in from the sea”? It’s all right, Paul McCartney. I do prefer your version. Mist rolling in from the sea rolls off the tongue better.

This was a brown or reddish haze that covered the Western Isles. It turns out it wasn’t haar at all, but volcanic fallout drifting down from Iceland, according to scientific sky watchers.

Stornoway-based weather boffin Eddy “Weather” Graham has photos that show how local visibility was affected in a few hours. That was due to high levels of the nasty gas, sulphur dioxide, which can cause asthma.

Eddy’s research was confirmed by a volcanologist in Michigan, who said the choking volcanic cloud that loomed over the Western Isles on Thursday was, by the weekend, causing respiratory problems to those unlucky enough to be affected down in the Welsh valleys and the south-west of England.

The day before it darkened our skies, authorities in Iceland had reported an eruption in a place called Sundhnúkagígar. Unlucky old Iceland is seeing its fifth major eruption since the end of 2023.

My severe sneezing probably helped the nasty brown smog on its way south. Luckily, I am still getting over a bad cold, and I’ve never felt any ill effects.

I was also lucky that it was well before the pandemic that I managed to get to the iconic Kisimul Castle on Barra. In fact, I have been over to the castle in the bay at Castlebay more than once. What a wonderful place.

If you are fortunate enough to have access to a boat, which won’t happen for a while, you’ll discover an entirely different world within. When you enter, you’ll find yourself in a wee courtyard with what appears to be four small cottages around the side, with windows and sloping roofs.

The scene is similar to that here in Plasterfield, but it’s almost a square. Almost because one corner has a large tower, several floors high, from which the Macneil flag is flown. This was the living quarters for the high heid yins of the Clan Macneil, and this was their world HQ. Given to much raiding and pillaging up and down the west coast back in the 15th century, they were also known to raid Ireland in their galleys, when the forecast was for fine weather and no haar.

Kisimul Castle, Isle of Barra.
A conservation deal for Kisimul Castle was agreed in 2013, but nothing has happened more than a decade on. Image: Heartland Arts/Shutterstock

Also behind the external curtain wall, there was, and still is, a hall, a ceremony room, a kitchen, a chapel, and a storage area for weapons of mass destruction. I have no idea what they keep in there now. Mind you, it may well be empty bottles of whisky.

The castle was given to the then Historic Scotland because, in 2000, Ian Roderick Macneil, the 46th clan chief, signed it over in a 1,000-year deal. HS got the castle for £1, as well as an annual rent of a bottle of Talisker whisky. Well, the empties have to go somewhere.

When can we return to Kisimul?

Sadly, Kisimul has been shut for the last few years due to concerns about safety. It needs quite a lot of work doing. You can sail around it, but you must not set foot there.

A deal for HS to pay half of the estimated £200,000 repair bill, with Macneils around the world paying the other half, seems to have come unstuck. Despite conducting another survey recently, no actual repair work has taken place.

The people of Barra are frustrated. Macneils in America are frustrated. They arrive at this time of year to see their clan seat, only to find it locked up.

With the Macneils’ history and their raiding ways, the last thing you want is that lot to see red

So, Historic Environment Scotland, as you are now, please let us know what is happening. Any news of a start to the work soon? You tell me, and I will ensure everyone in Barra knows very quickly. With the Macneils’ history and their raiding ways, the last thing you want is that lot to see red.

A guy in Carloway, on the west of Lewis, has been telling me that he got very worried about last week’s red ash cloud. So much so, he called his insurance company and asked them if they had any idea if more ash clouds were expected to come down from the volcanoes in Iceland, and whether the ash would get into his house.

He was very happy with their response. He told me: “They said that if that happens, I can be assured that I will be well covered.”

Iain Maciver is a former broadcaster and news reporter from the Outer Hebrides

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