Ackergill Tower was built in the early 16th century. The Clan Keith, under John Keith of Inverugie, inherited the lands of Ackergill in 1354 from the Cheynes family. The Tower may have been built by his son, but was first mentioned in 1538.
A legend relates the tale of a young woman by the name of Helen Gunn, who was abducted by John Keith for her beauty. She flung herself, or fell, from the highest tower to escape her abductor's advances. Supposedly her ghost is still seen, wearing a long red rustling ball gown and a tall head of black hair. This was in the late 14th or early 15th century and is said to have been the true beginning for all feuding between the Gunns and the Keiths. It led to the Battle of Champions in either 1478 or 1464, a judicial combat which led to a massacre of the Gunns by the Keiths at the chapel of St Tear (or Tayre) just east of the village.
In 1547, the Sinclairs of Girnigoe attacked and seized the castle. Mary of Guise, then Regent of Scotland, granted the Sinclairs remission for this and returned Ackergill Tower to the Keiths. She later installed Laurence Oliphant, 4th Lord Oliphant, as keeper of Ackergill in 1549. The Sinclairs again captured the castle in 1556, for which they were again granted remission.
In 1593, Robert Keith, brother to William Keith, 6th Earl Marischal (who rightfully owned the tower), seized Ackergill by force, for which he was declared a rebel, and the castle was returned to the Earl. In 1598, another Keith, one John Keith of Subster, attacked the tower in the dead of night, taking its occupants by surprise and capturing the place.
In 1612, the Sinclairs acquired Ackergill Tower once again, but through legal means, when it was sold to the Earl of Caithness by the Earl Marischal. However, by 1623 it was under assault once more, when it was besieged by Sir Robert Gordon during his feud with George Sinclair, 5th Earl of Caithness. The Sinclairs surrendered the castle before any assault took place.
In 1651, Oliver Cromwell may have used Ackergill Tower to garrison his troops during his siege of the Keith's Dunnottar Castle, when he was hunting for the Honours of Scotland. In 1676, John Campbell, 2nd Earl of Breadalbane and Holland took possession of Ackergill Tower in repayment of debts owed to him by the Sinclairs.
John Campbell put Ackergill Tower up for sale in 1699, and it was bought by Sir William Dunbar of Hempriggs. The Dunbars began extensive renovations, including the addition of a lean-to-shaped extension to the tower. In the mid-19th century, further additions including a cap house were made by the architect David Bryce on behalf of George Sutherland Dunbar, 7th Lord Duffus. It remained in the hands of the Dunbars of Hempriggs until 1986, when it was sold. The castle underwent a two-year period of restoration work before opening as an exclusive hotel and business venue.References:
Dating from the 15th century, Kisimul is the only significant surviving medieval castle in the Outer Hebrides. It was the residence of the chief of the Macneils of Barra, who claimed descent from the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages. Tradition tells of the Macneils settling in Barra in the 11th century, but it was only in 1427 that Gilleonan Macneil comes on record as the first lord. He probably built the castle that dominates the rocky islet, and in its shadow a crew house for his personal galley and crew. The sea coursed through Macneil veins, and a descendant, Ruari ‘the Turbulent’, was arrested for piracy of an English ship during King James VI’s reign in the later 16th century.
Heavy debts eventually forced the Macneil chiefs to sell Barra in 1838. However, a descendant, Robert Lister Macneil, the 45th Chief, repurchased the estate in 1937, and set about restoring his ancestral seat. It passed into Historic Scotland’s care in 2000.
The castle dates essentially from the 15th century. It takes the form of a three-storey tower house. This formed the residence of the clan chief. An associated curtain wall fringed the small rock on which the castle stood, and enclosed a small courtyard in which there are ancillary buildings. These comprised a feasting hall, a chapel, a tanist’s house and a watchman’s house. Most were restored in the 20th century, the tanist’s house serving as the family home of the Macneils. A well near the postern gate is fed with fresh water from an underground seam. Outside the curtain wall, beside the original landing-place, are the foundations of the crew house, where the sailors manning their chief’s galley had their quarters.