Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


This week I bring to you, good reader, the marvelous story of a branch of my ancestry, the much distinguished MacNeil's of Scotland, written in its fullest form since the Red Book of Lewis in 1346. Here it is:

{The Curious Story of the MacNeils of Barra}

There is, far off at the fringe of those stony thrusts of land in the sea west of Scotland, a small, rocky and quite remote island by the name of Barra. This is not where our story begins, however, it is where our story ends. Let us instead consider the small clan that has long resided there, the clan whose history is enveloped in great story and song recited across the wide world: the MacNeils of Barra. This is the story of a family of such import and remarkability, that the fact that it has gone untaught in most so-called progressive and modern schools is truly a travesty.

The grandiose and stirring account of the MacNeils begins with the very inception of the Gaels- immediately after the Flood. While some chroniclers have reported the existence of a private boat manned by none other than Niall himself, I have found these tales to be quite unfounded. It is known, however, that Niall founded the Gaels no little time after the waters had resided. Of these courageous people, well endowed in the skill of bardship and wine-making, the MacNialls were the head and finest family, though some other accounts, produced by mainlanders who fought alongside Englishmen, dispute this fact. At any rate, few can dispute that Niall went on to found the city of Ur (which any good Gaelic scholar will recognize as derived from the word for fresh, new, recent, flourishing, young, vigorous, beautiful, fair). It was a bustling city, and a rather important person once called it home. I understand he made a lengthy journey and founded a clan of some significance. Niall- or rather Niall the Third- also departed from Ur, and set off for a small town on the banks of a large river. Aside from some tall lumps of mud that functioned as rude graves for the petty nobility, the inhabitants had constructed nothing more than simple bawnies and huts. Upon Niall’s arrival, the inhabitants quickly humbled themselves beneath him, and thusly Niall gave the region the name Easgaidh, which has been worn to the more vulgar Egypt over the course of the centuries. Niall also saw it fitting it name the river after himself, as he had been the first to grasp the opportunity of its anual floods. Over time this name too has been vulgarized to Nile. But Niall’s greatest achievment in his flurry of rule stands tall and proud to-day, and is commonly known as the Great Pyramid. In recent years certain English scholars have attributed its contruction to the native inhabitants, going against two thousand years of recorded knowledge.

Yet, for all the glory of the MacNiall’s accomplishments in Easgaidh, they soon grew weary of the deserts. Young Faiscal MacNiall heard of a distant land that was sparsely settled but well endowed with fertile soil. So the family, which by this time had grown quite large, set off for what they named Itealaich, for indeed across the wide sea they had flown, so eager was the clan to be rid of the deserts. Upon arrival there, they established a city, which, later legend tells us, was named after a child raised by a wolf: a quaint tale, no doubt, but belying the quite prosaic nature of the original name- Ròmach, which is hardly a name to stir one’s imagination. For, though the crops grew well, the MacNeils- as they were now called- grew anxious to move once again. It is said that Faiscal the Second journeyed far across the earth, east and west, north and south, until he chanced upon an island nation at the edge of the west- Britian. The story of this strange and marvelous journey is best recounted through the use of a tale by old Deargh MacNeil, one of the bards of old:

Upon coming to the southern shores of the land of Britian, they were confronted by a savage folk, giants of the land, who dwelt in deep wealds of ash and yew. Courageous Cearthudh leapt ashore despite the threat and slew down ten of the fell giants before he was cast back into the sea. Seeing this, Dubh Mor, his brother, splashed into the foam, his sword drawn, and cried out for his clan to follow. Their pipes roaring and droning fiercely, the MacNeils struck down two score of the giants and sent the rest fleeing into the wood. But on the following day the giants renewed their attack, and the MacNeils thought it wise to sail further west.

That they did, swiftly coming to Ireland, where they found the greater part of the land all ready settled. So instead the clan, sailing in seven ships, continued north along the island, until they came unto Ulster. Here Faiscil did battle with Cuchullian for a year and a day, and at the end brought him to a draw. Cuchullian allowed the MacNeil’s to settle in that land, and they found it pleasing. For many long years they dwelt there, in peace and prosperity, and many fellow Gaels lived there. But one day in spring, a young MacNeil named Ruadh became weary of Ireland, for he was restless, and had walked Ireland’s length seven times. He traveled to the Boyne and bought a firm little boat and sailed northward, for he had heard strange yore of the lands there. He landed in Glasgow and met with a fellow Gael who ruled a narrow band of land there. He told of marvelous tales concerning the glens and corries and islands, but warned Ruadh of the Faerie Folk of Skye, for they held the islands. But Ruadh laughed and told the king he feared neither man nor faeries, and off he went for Skye. He came to the island, which was then covered in forest, and strode ashore, blowing his horn, should any challenge him.

He walked to the highest hill upon the island, and from there could see all across the island and across the sea. While he stood there a short, gnarled old man approached him.
“What may I do for you sir?” asked Ruadh.
“Och! My young boy is dreadfully ill, and will soon die. But perhaps you may heal him sir, for I know you come from many miles distant, where they say men have measured the girth of the world.”
“Easy to say sir, I will help your son as best I can,” replied Ruadh, for he was a kind hearted young man.
The old man led Ruadh across the island to a deep glen where ancient yews, their bark covered over in green lichens and mosses, grew thick and dark. At the head of the glen the trees drew back, and a white gloaming waterfall poured down into a shining pool. Ruadh thought he could hear pipes and fiddles over the waterfall, and he also thought it odd the little old man should lead him so deep into the glen. He thought it odd yet that the little old man should walk through the waterfall, but Ruadh supposed that perhaps men had odd dwellings here, so he followed. Behind the veil of the falls the pipes and fiddles were louder, and their music entrancing. The dwelling behind the falls was composed of a single great room lit with a bright glow, though Ruadh could see no fireplace. Bright weavings were draped across the room, and from deeper within came the sound of the pipes and fiddles.

The old man led Ruadh to a loft where a young man lay, quite obviously ill and pale. “This is my son- sir, please help him, and I will grant you my daughter in marriage and an island.”
Ruadh sat and thought, but he could think of nothing. He walked about, and suddenly he thought of a tale his grandfather had told him of the king of Greece.
“Ah! I have it! Sir, have you a boat or ship?”
“My ship is the swiftest under the skies, but it moves only under dawn and dusk,” replied the old man.
“Lend me it, and I shall go and find the cure for your son.”
The old man did, and Ruadh waited until dusk, and set sail. Swift was his boat! They talk of steam ships to-day, but the Faerie ship could outpace them all. It was in little time- the last gleam of sun was off the horizion- that Ruadh came to the king of Greece. He explained his purpose, and asked if the king could help him. The king knew well the history of the MacNeils, and in honor of them, allowed young Ruadh to take a great book of herbs and medicines the learned men of his kingdom had accumulated. Ruadh read it over, and just as dawn was breaking, found the sweet-herbs he needed, and, with the book in hand, sailed quickly westward again, landing on Skye just as the sun raised its last ray over the world.

Swiftly Ruadh found the old man and his boy, and swiftly he prepared the cure. Three days later the boy was well, and the old man kept his word, giving his daughter to Ruadh in marriage. Ruadh was smitten with love and awe at her, for none surpased her beauty. But the old man had also promised an island, and he brought Ruadh and his bride to it. Ruadh thought they were nearing the edge of the world, but just then the island rose in front of them: our Barra. Ruadh and his bride stepped ashore, but the old man vanished. His wife- whose name was Beithe- told him of a spring on a small island on the north end of the island, and they walked to it. Quite a spring it was! for bubbling forth was not water, but the finest whiskey ever brewed! And standing beside the spring was a tree bearing the finest haggis ever eaten! Little could Ruadh keep such a discovery to himself, so he sailed back to Ulster and told his clan, and bid them come and settle on Barra. So they did, and built a fort about the spring.

For some years they dwelt on the island and prospered, but one winter two ugly urisgs began to trouble the island, wrecking fences and houses for sport, eating the corn, and frightening the cows. The MacNeil’s tried their best to drive them from the island, but the urisgs were to sly. One day they decided upon a plan. A man and his companion happened by the cave where the urisgs lurked, and they spoke loudly of the great whiskey spring in the fort on the island.
“Aye,” said the one man, “it is a fne thing, but I certainly hope those awful urisgs find it.”
“Indeed, for I fear they would drink it all up, and perhaps eat all the haggis also.”
“Och, what an awful thole that would be!”
Of course the two urisgs overheard, and that night they crept inside the fort, whose door was left unguarded, and drank, and drank, and ate, and ate, until they could hardly stand. After a while they stood and drank some more. As morning approached, they feared being caught in the fort, and plunged into the ocean, but having drank so much of the whiskey, they swam westward until far beyond sight. What happened to them no one can say, but they never bothered Barra again.

And so ends Deargh’s tale. He could speak of more, of course: of the fell Norse invaders and our clan’s brave repulsal of them, of the Lord of the Isles, of the ‘45, and of the waning days of the clans. But it is best to end here. Needless to say, with such wealth, the MacNeils thought it best to remain on Barra and farm and raise a few cows, that is, until an Englishman discovered the secret of the spring. The Englishman, upon examining the spring, dispatched an agent from the Department of Health who declared the whiskey spring and haggis tree to be unsanitary and unliscensed, and promptly closed it down- for good. Many folk had all ready moved to America, and few folk live on Barra to-day. But we hold fast to the long and proud history of our clan, though, perhaps, it is true some of the facts are rather murky. But, as it is often said in Gaeldom, if it was a lie told me, it was a lie told you.

{The author might add that in truth, he knows relatively little of the MacNeil's history before, say, the nation of Scotland's conception. How they wound up on Barra, and where the Gaels came from in general, is largely a mystery. So, quite sorry, but I am not descended of the man who named the Nile. Just thought I'd let everyone know...}


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