The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
Home > Whistler 2003 > Journal

Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

return to list of journal entries

1st May 2003 - The Clan McNeill

In August 1892, Whistler wrote a reply to a letter he had received (from an unidentified correspondent) which had enquired into the artist's Scottish heritage. The writer had apparently assumed that Whistler was of the Colonsay McNeills; Whistler writes in reply:

"Your question about the McNeills of Colonsay, I am sorry not to be able at this moment to answer -

Our McNeills are of those of Bar[r]a - the Highland McNeills... - though I fear I have rather neglected my cousinships having lived much away from my own people - "

(GUL Whistler X26)

See below for an example of the McNeills of Barra tartan, and an explanation of the history of the Barra McNeills, along with mention of the McNeills of Colonsay, from The Scottish Clans and their Tartans, (W. & A. K. Johnston Ltd, Edinburgh, 1931). A transcription of that page is also below.

The McNeills of Barra tartan

The history of the Barra McNeills


War Cry : - Buaidh no Bàs (" Victory or Death ").
Badge : - Machall-monaidh (Dryas) or Feaniainn (Algæ).

It is generally admitted that the MacNeills of Barra and the MacNeils of Gigha have had a common origin. They both trace themselves back to Neil Og, who flourished about 1300. He was succeeded by his son, also Neil Og, who is said to have been present at Bannockburn (1314), and to have obtained a charter of the lands of Kintyre from Robert the Bruce. Neil Og's grandson, Roderick, was succeeded by his son, Gilleonan, who received a charter of the island of, Barra and the lands of Boisdale in South Uist in 1427. In 1688 Roderick MacNeill (XIV.) of Barra obtained a Crown charter of Barra. Barra had to be parted with in 1840, when it was sold to Colonel John Gordon of Cluny. The present (forty-fifth) Chief is Robert Lister MacNeill of Barra, of Castlebay, Bans, Inverness-shire.

The MacNeills of Gigha have always been regarded as the oldest cadet family of the MacNeills of Barra. The Chief of the MacNeils of Gigha in the first half of the sixteenth century was Neil MacNeill. He had two sons - Neil, ancestor of the MacNeills of Taynish, and John Og, ancestor of the MacNeills of Gallachoille and of Crerar, afterwards of Colonsay. In 1554 Gigha was sold to James MacDonald of Islay. In 1590 Hector MacNeill of Taynish purchased Gigha from John Campbell of Calder, who had acquired it from MacDonald of Islay. The estates of Gigha and Taynish were possessed by his descendants till 1780, when the former was sold to Alexander MacNeill of Colonsay, a cadet of the family. On the death of Sir John Carstairs MacNeil, V.C., K.C.B., in 1904, Colonsay was sold to Lord Strathcona.

The MacNeills, a celebrated race of bards, were hereditary harpers to the Macleans of Duart.