Clan MacNeacail

Clan MacNeacail, sometimes known as Clan MacNicol, is a Scottish clan long associated with the Isle of Skye. Tradition states that, early in its history, the clan held the Isle of Lewis, as well as extensive territory on the north-western mainland. The earliest member of the clan on record is one 14th century John "mak Nakyl", who is recorded amongst Edward I of England's powerful West Highland supporters during the Wars of Scottish Independence. John Barbour's 1375 epic, The Brus, suggests that by 1316, the clan had switched allegiance to Robert I, and made a decisive intervention in the new theatre of Anglo-Scottish conflict in Ireland. The marriage of an heiress to the MacLeods of Lewis brought a severe loss of lands and power in the following generation, forcing the clan chiefs to relocate to the surviving estates on Skye. However, the MacNeacails retained local significant influence: serving, according to tradition, as members of the Council of the Lords of the Isles and as custodians of the cathedral church of the Western Isles at Snizort. In the 17th century, members of the clan began to Anglicise their surname from the Scottish Gaelic MacNeacail to various forms, such as Nicolson. Today the English variants of the Gaelic surname are borne by members of the clan as well as members of unrelated Scottish families, including the Lowland Clan Nicolson.

Clan MacNeacail
Clann MhicNeacail
Clan member crest badge - Clan MacNeacail.svg
Crest: A hawk's head erased Gules.
MottoSGORR-A-BHREAC (Scorrybreac)
SloganMeminisse sed providere (Remember but look ahead)
DistrictInner Hebrides
Plant badgeJuniper
Arms of MacNeacail of MacNeacail and Scorrybreac.svg
John MacNeacail of MacNeacail and Scorrybreac
Chief of the Highland Clan MacNeacail
SeatBallina, New South Wales
Historic seatScorrybreac Castle[1] and Castle MacNicol (Stornoway Castle).[1]

Early historyEdit


The heartland of the clan has been for centuries in Trotternish, on Skye.[2] The earliest record of a MacNeacail in Trotternish occurs in 1507.[3] Hugh MacDonald's 17th century History of the MacDonalds shows that the clan was seated on Skye even earlier, as it states that "MacNicoll in Portree" was a member of the council of the Lords of the Isles. There are several pedigrees which document the earliest line of the clan. One such pedigree is contained within the 15th century MS 1467. This pedigree concerns a certain Ewen who must have flourished in the 15th century; he is presented as the son of John, the son of Nicol. Although further successive generations are given, the names following Nicol tend to be garbled and cannot be taken back with any confidence. Nicol appears to have flourished at the turn of the 14th century, and was likely the eponymous ancestor of the clan. The garbled names further past Nicol tend to be a mixture of Gaelic and Norse names, which suggests that the clan's claim to a Scandinavian origin is not unlikely. During the High Middle Ages, Skye formed a part of the Norse-Gaelic Kingdom of the Isles, before being incorporated into the Kingdom of Scotland through the Treaty of Perth in 1266.[4] The MacNeacails were also one of the families whom the Irish genealogist John O'Hart purported to trace back to Adam and Eve via the early kings of Ireland. According to this genealogy, some of the ancestors of Clan MacNicol include Breoghan, the Celtic king of Spain; and Lugaid Mac Con, High King of Ireland.[5] It is likely that the competing Norwegian and Celtic narratives of the clan's origins refer to two separate lines intertwined in a Norse-Gaelic marriage.

Earliest MacNeacailEdit

The first MacNeacail on record is likely a 14th-century John "mak Nakyl" or "Macnakild". This man may well be the 'John son of Nicol' who appears in the MS 1467. John is recorded in three English documents which associate him with the leading West Highland supporters of Edward I of England during the Scottish Wars of Independence. One document records that, in 1306 letters were delivered from Edward to his supporters, William I, Earl of Ross, Lachlan MacRuairi, his brother Ruairi, and John "mak Nakyl". In 1314 and 1315, Edward II of England, ordered his principle West Highland supporter John MacDougall of Argyll to receive Donald de Insula, his brother Godfrey (both likely MacDonalds), Sir Patrick Graham, and John "Macnakild" into the king's peace. The three records suggest that John was a prominent West Highland or Hebridean leader, much like the other men the records associate him with. It is also possible that John may be identical to the unnamed MacNicol who appears in John Barbour's late 14th century poem The Brus. The part of the poem which mentions this MacNicol recounts how he took part in Edward Bruce's siege of Carrickfergus Castle in 1316. As the poem associated this MacNicol with ships, it may be further evidence that John was a leading Hebridean.[6]


According to various traditions, the MacNeacails once had possession of Lewis before losing their lands to the MacLeods through the marriage of a MacNeacail heiress.[7] In the 17th century, John Morison of Bragar stated as much when he wrote: "... Macknaicle whose onlie daughter Torquill the first of that name (and sone to Claudius the sone of Olipheous, who likewise is said to be the King of Noruway his sone,) did violentlie espouse, and cutt off Immediatlie the whole race of Macknaicle and possessed himself with the whole Lews ...".[7][8] Similarly, the garbled Bannatyne Manuscript indicates that the MacNeacails held Lewis from the Kings of Mann, and that the clan's possession of the island terminated though the marriage of an heiress to a MacLeod. The manuscript also states that a branch of the MacNeacails held Waternish on Skye before the MacLeods. Other traditions associate the MacNeacails with the mainland in Assynt and Coigach; the ruins of Caisteal Mhic Neacail ("MacNeacail's Castle") near Ullapool may well corroborate these links.[7] Producing a description of Assynt to accompany the Statistical Account of 1794, Rev William Mackenzie drew upon a local tradition that the district had been granted by the Thane of Sutherland to one 'MacKrycul', in recognition of his service against Viking cattle-raiders. The local belief that MacKrycul was the 'potent man' from whom the MacNicols descended is seemingly backed up by the MS. 1467, in which the first of two Nicails - living approximately in the mid-twelfth century - is listed as the son of 'Gregall'.

The History of the MacDonalds may well refer to a member of the clan, when it states that a "MacNicoll" was killed on North Uist by Olaf the Red. Olaf ruled the Kingdom of the Isles until his death in 1153. Since the reference to MacNicoll appears after an account of Godfrey Donn, during an episode which took place in about 1223, the story of MacNicoll's death may actually refer to Olaf the Black, rather than his grandfather Olaf the Red. Another tradition which may refer to the MacNeacails concerns the coat of arms of the MacLeods of Lewis. In the 17th century, the Earl of Cromartie recounted the traditional explanation of the arms: that the Kings of Norway had the MacLeods man two beacons, one on Lewis and one on Skye, to guide the king's ships safely through the islands. Since the MacLeods appear to have gained Lewis long after the Hebrides was incorporated into the Kingdom of Scotland, the tradition may well refer instead to the MacNeacails. If this is the case, then the MacLeods of Lewis not only inherited their lands from the MacNeacails, but also aspects of their heraldry.[7] The actually heraldry borne by the medieval clan is, however, unknown.[9]

History of the clanEdit

16th to 19th centuriesEdit

By the sixteenth century, the MacNicol chiefs were based at Scorrybreac House on Skye, reputed to have been gifted by the Scottish crown originally in 1263, in recognition of service at the Battle of Largs. The MacNicols were patrons of the cathedral church of St Columba on the River Snizort. One hundred leading men of the clan are believed to lie buried within its grounds, and a small chapel bears the name MacNicol's Aisle in honour of their generosity as benefactors. After the dissolution of the Lordship of the Isles, the clan followed the MacDonalds of Sleat. Malcolmuill MacNicol and his brother Nicoll took part in the feud between the MacDonalds and Macleans: both being pardoned for acts of 'fire-raising and homicide' on Mull in 1563. During the Scottish Civil War of the 17th century the MacNeacails again fought alongside the house of Sleat.[10] Sorley MacNicol was listed as one of the 'friends and followers' who had supported Sir James MacDonald in raising his clan for the service of Charles I and the Marquis of Montrose.

The Reverend Donald Nicolson of Scorrybreac, head of the clan at the end of the 17th century, is reputed to have had 23 children, through whom he is a common ancestor of many Skye families.[11] Donald's attachment to the Episcopalian faith, and refusal to swear allegiance to William III after 1689 seems to have resulted in his being driven from his parish as a Non-juror and Jacobite some time after 1696. The MacDonalds of Sleat avoided action in the 1745 rebellion, and the Nicolsons did not rise as a clan for Charles Edward Stuart, but tradition maintains that a band of Nicolsons fought at Culloden in the Jacobite ranks.

A number of Nicolsons were involved in the sheltering of the fugitive Prince Charles Edward in the Hebrides after Culloden. As a cousin of the intensely Jacobite MacLeods of Rassay, the chief, John Nicolson, appears to have assisted in the concealment of the prince in a cow byre on his estates: John's descendants preserved a lock of the prince's hair, and the cup out of which he drank on his night on Scorrybreac lands. Margaret Nicolson, grand-daughter of Reverend Donald, and wife to John MacDonald of Kirkibost, North Uist, crossed the Minch to Skye to inform the prince's supporters of his imminent arrival in the company of Flora MacDonald. Another man of the clan, Donald Nicolson from Raasay, also helped to protect the Young Pretender during his flight, and was recorded by Bishop Robert Forbes in The Lyon in Mourning as suffering torture for his refusal to reveal the whereabouts of the prince after arrest by government troops. Alexander Mackenzie, in his history of Clan Mackenzie, claims that Angus Nicolson of Stornoway raised 300 men from the Isle of Lewis for Jacobite service, only to be ordered back by a furious Earl of Seaforth when they landed on the mainland.

During the 19th century the clan was badly affected by the Highland Clearances in which many of the clansfolk were forced to emigrate from Scotland. In 1826, the sons of chief left Skye and settled in Tasmania.[12]

20th centuryEdit

In 1934, Norman Alexander Nicolson, heir to the chiefship of the clan, was granted a coat of arms by the Lord Lyon King of Arms emblazoned Or, a chevron between three hawks' heads erased Gules, with the crest: a hawk's head erased Gules, with the mottoes: SGORR-A-BHREAC and GENEROSITATE NON FEROCITATE. In 1980, Norman Alexander's son, Ian, petitioned the Lord Lyon to be recognised as chief of the clan, and was duly recognised as "Iain MacNeacail of MacNeacail and Scorrybreac, Chief of The Highland Clan MacNeacail".[13] The current clan chief is John MacNeacail of MacNeacail and Scorrybreac, who resides in Ballina, NSW, Australia.[14] In 1987, The Clan MacNeacail Trust was formed, and the Ben Chracaig estate in Scorrybreac was purchased "for preservation and public enjoyment".[13]

Traditions concerning the clanEdit

On Lewis the ravine separating Dùn Othail from the mainland is called "Leum Mhac Nicol", which translates from Scottish Gaelic as "Nicolson's Leap". Legend was that a MacNeacail, for a certain crime, was sentenced by the chief of Lewis to be castrated. In revenge he ran off with the chief's only child to the ravine and leaped across the chasm. MacNeacail threatened to throw the child into the sea unless the chief himself agreed to be mutilated as well. Attempts at rescuing the child failed and the chief finally agreed to the mans terms. Just as the chief consented MacNeacail leaped over the cliff and into the sea with the child crying out in Gaelic. "I shall have no heir, and he shall have no heir".[15]

A tradition from Skye is that a chief of the MacNicol clan, MacNicol Mor, was engaged in a heated discussion with Macleod of Raasay. As the two argued in English a servant, who could speak only Gaelic, imagined that the two leaders were quarrelling. The servant, thinking his master in danger, then drew his sword and slew MacNicol Mor. To prevent a feud between the two septs, the clan elders and chiefs of the two septs then held council to decide how to appease the MacNicols. The decision agreed upon was that the "meanest" of Clan Nicol would behead Macleod of Raasay. Lomach, a lowly maker of pannier baskets, was chosen and accordingly cut off the head of the Laird of Raasay.[16]

Clan CastlesEdit

  • Castle MacNicol which is also known as Stornoway Castle is under the pier in Stornoway harbour on the Isle of Lewis.[1] It was the original stronghold of the Clan MacNicol (MacNeacail) until the island passed by marriage to the MacLeods in the fourteenth century.[1] Although some stories have a Viking named Leod seizing the castle from the MacNicols.[1] The castle had an eventful history until it was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell's forces in the middle of the seventeenth century.[1]
  • Scorrybreac Castle on the Isle of Skye was for centuries the seat of the MacNicols and may have been given to them for fighting at the Battle of Largs in 1263.[1] James V of Scotland is believed to have spent a night at Scorrybreac in 1540.[1] The chief sold these lands to the MacDonalds in the nineteenth century.[1]

Clan profileEdit


Today members of Clan MacNeacail may show allegiance to their clan and chief by wearing a Scottish crest badge. This badge contains the chief's heraldic crest and heraldic motto. The motto which appears on the crest badge is SGORR-A-BHREAC, which refers to the ancestral lands of the clan chiefs.[14] The crest itself is a hawk's head erased Gules.[17] The heraldic elements with the crest badge are derived from the Arms of MacNeacail of MacNeacail and Scorrybreac, the chief of the clan. The arms of the chiefs of the clans MacNeacail and Nicolson are in fact very similar: the arms of the MacNeacail chief are subordinate to those borne by the Nicolson chief.[18] According to Robert Bain, Clan MacNeacail's clan badge is a trailing azalea.[19]


MacNicol/Nicolson tartan. The historian James Logan, who travelled the Scottish Highlands collecting tartan in the early nineteenth century admitted he could not find an authentic MacNicol/Nicolson tartan.

The MacNicol/Nicolson tartan that appears in the 1845 work The Clans of the Scottish Highlands, by James Logan and illustrated by R. R. McIan, represents a woman wearing a tartan shawl.[20] Logan even admitted they had never encountered a tartan for the MacNicols/Nicolsons, and that "it is probable they adopted that of their superiors" - the MacLeods.[20]

Origin of the nameEdit

Today many members of Clan MacNeacail bear the surname Nicolson (and variations). This is because in the late 17th century members of the clan began to Anglicise their Gaelic name (Modern Scottish Gaelic: MacNeacail) to Nicolson.[21] The surname Nicolson means "son of Nicol". The personal name Nicol is a diminutive of Nicholas, derived from the Greek Νικόλαος meaning "victory people". The personal name Nicol was first brought to the British Isles by the Normans.[22] Nicholas was a very common mediaeval name and is found in many different forms as a surname.[23]

Like-named families and clansEdit

Many families who bear same surname as the clan do not have any historical connection to the clan. For example, according to tradition the MacNicols from Argyll are thought to descend from a 16th-century Macfie. The MacNicols from Angus cannot be connected to any other like-named family, but it is possible they are related to Nicolls of Kinclune, in Angus. Some of the MacNicols on Lewis may well be related to Clan MacNeacail, but others were originally MacRitchies. A Nicolson family has been recorded in Caithness since the 17th century. The Nicols of Ballogie claimed in the early 20th century to descend from Clan MacNeacail; the family claimed to have been pushed south by the Mackintoshes. Although there is no record of any such conflict, clan histories of the Mackintoshes record a certain "Clan Nicol vic Olan" as one of their followers (this clan, however, is not heard of after the late 15th century). One Nicolson family of the name in Shetland derive their surname from a 17th-century man, while another family is related to the Nicolsons from Aberdeen and Edinburgh. The Nicolsons of Cluny, Kemnay, and Glenbervie are also descended from the Nicolsons from Aberdeen and Edinburgh. The latter family, also known as Clan Nicolson, is the main Lowland family of the name. This family can be traced to the mid 15th century in Aberdeen, and has been represented in recent years by Nicolson of that Ilk. The family has no known connection to Clan MacNeacail.[24]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Coventry, Martin. (2008). Castles of the Clans: The Strongholds and Seats of 750 Scottish Families and Clans. pp. 398. ISBN 978-1-899874-36-1.
  2. ^ Sellar; Maclean 1999: pp. 3–4.
  3. ^ Sellar; Maclean 1999: p. 12.
  4. ^ Sellar; Maclean 1999: pp. 4–6.
  5. ^ Irish Pedigrees (5th ed., 2 vols., Dublin, 1892; reprinted Baltimore, 1976); criticised by Sellar & Maclean as obviously unreliable.
  6. ^ Sellar; Maclean 1999: pp. 6–8.
  7. ^ a b c d Sellar; Maclean 1999: pp. 8–11.
  8. ^ Scottish History Society 1907: 214-215.
  9. ^ Sellar; Maclean 1999: p. 23.
  10. ^ Way, George and Squire, Romily. Collins Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia. (Foreword by The Rt Hon. The Earl of Elgin KT, Convenor, The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs). Published in 1994. Pages 252 - 253.
  11. ^ Sellar; Maclean 1999: pp. 15–16.
  12. ^ Sellar; Maclean 1999: pp. 19–21.
  13. ^ a b Sellar; Maclean 1999: pp. 23–23.
  14. ^ a b "The Clan MacNicol". Retrieved 26 March 2009.
  15. ^ Thomas 1890: 371.
  16. ^ Maclauchlan; Wilson 1875: 272.
  17. ^ Way of Plean; Squire 2000: 226.
  18. ^ Campbell of Airds, Alastair. "A Closer Look at West Highland Heraldry". Heraldry Society of Scotland. Retrieved 26 March 2009.
  19. ^ Bain 1983: 138-139.
  20. ^ a b Stewart 1974: 86.
  21. ^ "Clan History of the Nicolsons of Skye". Archived from the original on 8 December 2008. Retrieved 26 March 2009.
  22. ^ Black 1946: pp. 628-629.
  23. ^ Reaney; Wilson 2005: 2260.
  24. ^ Sellar; Maclean 1999: pp. 25–31.


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