In the early fifteenth century, Franciscan Third Order Regular communities began to be established in Ireland. In 1445 the archdeacon of Connor was sent a mandate by Pope Eugenius VI, authorising him to establish a Franciscan Third Order Regular friary in his diocese.
A 1580 map of the County Antrim coastline shows the friary at ‘Glanarme’ on the other side of the river from the castle. It was probably closed by the beginning of the seventeenth century, but its site continued to be the favoured burial place of the local population, including settlers from Scotland.
Little of the friary survives today, and what remains is not easy to interpret. It was aligned along the traditional east-west axis, so what was once thought to have been the chancel is now believed to have been a transept.
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.