Origins – Mcneill and Beyond

This is part of Mcneill and Beyond - a Memoir


3 Things We Know About McNeill

There are three stories we are told about the McNeill (and by The McNeill we mean both our earliest known ancestors, the people and culture they were a part of, and of course, ourselves).

  • We hear about the Island of Barra, and its Castle Kisimul as the seat of the McNeills.
  • We hear about the other islands (Gigha and Colonsay), and also about the McNeill name variants as being particular to locations (spelling related to each island, and O'Neill being Irish, McNeill being Scots).
  • And we hear about the great Irish King Niall of the Nine Hostages (more on him later).

It turns out there is a lot less, and a lot more, to the story.

Crofters and Stories from Barra

The first thing one should know is that the entire story from Barra of descent from Irish Kings, as well as dates of arrival and the claim to clan leadership has no actual historical evidence. Historians have checked on this, and it is all, in a word, bollocks.1

Although the traditional MacNeill descent is now perhaps the best known of all the families considered, it is by far the least well supported by documentary evidence. Indeed the crucial links in the MacNeill pedigree appear to rest, incredible though it may seem, on the authority of two crofters living in Barra at the turn of the century. This pedigree as recorded by R.L. MacNeil traces the descent of the Barra MacNeils from 'Niall son of Muirceartach, son of Donal, son of Aodh, son of Niall, son of Aodh Alaind, son of Aodh Aonrachan, son of Aodh Athlamh, son of Flathartach'. Although the names are clearly garbled and although MacNeil's account of the early history of his clan is, to say the least, highly questionable, there can be little doubt that the Barra MacNeils claimed the same descent as the Cowal and Knapdale families. No traditional pedigree of the MacNeills of Taynish and Gigha has survived but it seems more than likely that they descend from the same parent stem as the Barra MacNeils.

Against this view it is sometimes argued, following A. MacLean Sinclair, that the two families of MacNeill are not related and have separate origins (Sinclair 1906-7; 1901-10). MacLean Sinclair, however, cannot be relied on in this matter: be gives hardly any authority for his views, which involve taking a pedigree in MS. 1467 thought by Skene to be that of the MacLennans for that of the MacNeils of Barra and tacking the MacNeills of Taynish and Gigha on to the MacLeans. In view of the Cowal and Knapdale associations the claim of MacNeil of Barra to be chief of all Clan Neill does not appear to be beyond question and the date given in Castle in the Sea for the arrival of the first MacNeil ancestor in Barra c. 1030 A.D.) cannot be accepted. The Clan Neill, in any case, would appear to have been a junior branch of the descendants of Aodh Alainn, distinctly overshadowed in the thirteenth century by the MacSweens, the Lamonts and the descendants of Gilchrist.

MacNeil of Barra is said to be descended from Nial of the Nine Hostages, and Castle on the Sea and the arrival of MacNeil to Barra is set at 1030 CE. Both of these claims have a single origin with no historical corroboration. Don't go telling people of Barra that this might not be so, but for the historical record there is no evidence. Indeed as well the claim that Barra MacNeil was the chief of all MacNeil/McNeill is obviously false. Whether the MacNeil at Colonsay and Gigha is related is also unclear.

We have to recall that this kind of genealogical research and interest (and the tools we have at our disposal) are simply a foreign concept even 100 years ago, with ramapant illiteracy the norm. Though there is clearly some blame at the feet of the historian who allowed this to enter mainstream belief, it is also true that families have always told their story to each succeeding generation, but written chronicles preserved over time belong to a much smaller number of families that existed. Those stories become distorted, or changed either willfully or through simple error. So the two crofters may be true believers but there is no evidence for, and quite a bit against their tale.

What is in a Name

The old use of the surname O'Neill, McNeill and the like can provide a bit of confusion. In America it is assumed that O'Neill is Irish and McNeill is Scot, but that is not necessarily the case. First, there is confusion because the name Neil is derived from different historical persons with related names (some of whom are related to each other).

Confusion can arise between this surname 'O'Neill' (otherwise 'Ua Neill') and the names 'Ui Neill' and 'MacNeill'. As a body, the descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages are often referred to by Annalists and historians as the 'Ui Neill', taking their name from him: included among the northern Ui Neill are the O'Donnell chieftains and the O'Neill and MacLochlainn Kings of Ailech, while the southern Ui Neill includes the O'Melaghlin Kings of Meath. The 'O'Neills' are a branch of the northern Ui Neill and take their name from the Niall 'Glundubh' who was killed in 919. The 'MacNeills' on the other hand, although claiming descent from both Niall 'Glundubh' and Niall of the Nine Hostages, take their name from a later and Scottish Niall. 1

Add to these spelling origins the fact that there are historical Irish kings and subjects who took the name McNeill (in variant spellings) and were yet Irish (and had not left Ireland for Scotland). In addition, spellings changed over time.

However, names are only mistakenly changed. In many cases the written spellings of names change, for a variety of reasons, making genealogical research difficult. For example, in 2015, Lachlan MacNeil (no relation) wrote on the MacNeil group on FamilyTreeDNA:

I always assumed that my paternal line originated on the Isle of Barra: at least that is what my father told me. After many visits to Barra, before the PC, I could not find any evidence of this. In 2013 whilst on the Scotlands People webpage I discovered via the Scottish Census for 1851/1861 that my great, great grandfather Alexander McNiel, the spelling of the name at the time, was born in Heylipol Isle of Tiree and baptised 21 December of the same year. A visit to Tiree concluded that Alexander's father was James McNiel and his mother Catharene McLean.

Here we have a person with one spelling -- MacNeil -- using the basis of that names' spelling to do research, when in fact McNiel was the spelling used by an ancestor 150 years previously. It turns out that many a McNeill has fallen for the siren call of Barra, not only due to the purported pedigree, but also the accidental written form.

In many cases, spellings did not survive in the crossing to the new world. For one thing, sometimes people hid their origins by changing their names altogether. For another, there illiteracy was predominant, and a multitude of spellings could render a given name (which was an oral reality, not a fixed written form).

We see this in two historical family documents in the US. The first is the marriage registration in 1744 for emigrant ancestor John McNeill, where his name is spelled McNeali.

The second document is the will of John McNeill, (son of our emigrant ancestor), which has three different spellings of McNeill in the single document alone (McNeel, McNeill, and McNeil). And John himself signed with an X.

Another possiblity is disguising a name based on the threat of persecution. Apparently my maternal great grandfather, Hayes Bradley, is an example of Irish name changing, as his family name was changed from O'Brady during immigration to this country to avoid discrination against the Irish -- I guess that there was a relative somewhere with the nice sounding name of Bradley.

While there is a danger that we've gotten the wrong person with the different spellings, what should be abundantly clear is that names were written in different ways at different times (and sometimes at the same time) due to an oral culture. The finer points of consistent spelling simply did not exist, except maybe among royal chroniclers or church scribes.

Scotch-Irish / Ulster Scots, and Many Kinds of Celts

In the history of Scotland, there are many unfortunate historical misapprehensions. We are told that the Scots came from Ireland (pushing out the Picts), and that that is how the Irish became Scots. It is true that various celtic languages do or have had a degree of mutual intelligibility. This is a key factor, as mutual intelligibility is almost a prerequisite for a intermarriage (barring warfare and military domination).

It is in general true that from the time of the earliest records until the wars of Montrose in the seventeenth-century Gaelic Scotland and Gaelic Ireland, sharing common traditions and a common language, were in constant cultural and political contact.

As well, the current history of Ireland vs. Northern Ireland is seen as one of foreign oppression (on the one hand) and a long lineage of possession (on the other). It is also colored by religious differences. It is certainly the case that previous to English plantations, the history of the region was just as contentious and bloody, and common language and culture did not render it any less so.

In America, we have the term Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish, which is another term for Ulster Ireland Protestants. Note that this term is only used in the US for convenience sake. In the UK and Ireland the term is Ulster Scots.2 However, what is less obvious is that Ulster Scots is also a language, that is a dialect of Scots (more on this soon)

But even this religious divide, the Catholic Irish and the Protestant Scots, which indeed is serious and real, was not a comprehensive barrier to people and their livelihood and relations. Lines are not so neat and solid, as they are when viewed from thousand of miles away.

And so the difference between the Scots and the Irish include:

  • Language (which again, were mutually intelligible);
  • Religion (which was not always a dividing line, in early 17th century Ulster a single church would be good enough for both Catholics and Presbyterians when faced with few choices);
  • Race (where the people were distant cousins rather than distinct races); and
  • Location (insular Scotland is a very different place from the highlands, the islands, much less Ireland's various locales)

In pre-Anglo-Saxon Briton and Eire, we generally think of Irish, Scots (formerly Irish), and Britons, all Gaels/Celts (as well as the nearly extinguished Picts and various others). However, rather than very distinct racial boundaries, Gaelic communities were considered to be a kind of culture which had fluidity to it, rather than a monolitic people. The various Gaels/Celts of Briton and Ireland were not monolithic tribes (as commonly taught) but of many different tribes, some closely related, some distantly, some hardly if at all.3

Two Kinds of

Indeed, the extent of genetic diversity of the British Isles and Ireland has been recently discovered using genetic genealogy. There is now clear evidence of their being two kinds of people in Northern Ireland: One which came from the Western Islands and Highlands of Scotland, and another which came from Southern Scotland and Southern England.4 This matches the linguistic data.

Much less the fact that parts of the Gaelic speaking world have deep influence form others, such as the Norse Gaels.

Scots, not a Gaelic Language

Scots is a Germanic language spoken in Lowland Scotland and Ulster, as opposed to Scottish Gaelic, a Celtic language spoken in the Highlands and Islands (and Irish Gaelic, also a different language). Scots descended from early Northumbrian Middle English, itself descended from the Germanic language of the Angles. If our immigrant ancestors from Frisia traveled all the way up into Northumbria upon the initial (or subsequent) voyage to the British Isles, then he would be in the proximity to Southwestern Scotland from which it is likely he traveled to land in Ulster, Northern Ireland.

This would make him a Scot (but not a Celt, not Gaelic, and not Irish, originally or otherwise). There is one group whose language evolved into modern-day Scots, and whose migration pattern is the same, and that is the Angles or Anglii, a germanic tribe who was a part of Anglo-Saxon mass migration around 400 CE.

Scoti/Scotti/Scottis is the term used by the Romans to describe the Gaels (aka the Gaelic speaking people, the Celtic tribes found in the Briton and Ireland). This becomes complicated because around 1500:

...what was then called Inglis had become the language of government, and its speakers started to refer to it as Scottis and to Scottish Gaelic, which had previously been titled Scottis, as Erse (Irish). 5

From 1610 to 1690 it is estimated some 200,000 Scots-speaking Scots migrated to the Plantation of Ulster. From the genetic evidence we have, the McNeill indeed is a Scot, but not a Gaelic Scot, not a Celt, but a right Scots-speaking Scot (that is, a former Anglic-speaking Anglii).

From here we can pick up our genealogical study. For we have some evidence through various genealogical research that we have an ancestor who was born and died in Coleraine, Ulster, Northern Ireland in the years 1630-1684.


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