Sunday, June 27, 2010

Eoligarry House

The original seat of the clan MacNeil of Barra, Kisimul Castle, is one of the most distinctive landmarks of the Western Isles and, fully restored, it is in the care of Historic Scotland and open to the public.

Of almost as much interest to me, however, is a later house of the MacNeil chiefs after Kisimul had been abondoned as a residence in the early 18th century. This was Eoligarry House at the north end of Barra. It was demolished in the mid 1970s but for many years formed an almost equally distinctive landmark at the opposite end of the island in stark contrast to the croft houses around it.

Picture credit RCAHMS

Eoligarry House was built around 1790 by Colonel Roderick MacNeil, the 40th chief, and as it stood in one of the most fertile parts of the island (indeed the site was doubtless deliberately chosen for that reason), it became the MacNeil chiefs' home farm as well as residence. As such, the house was surrounded by farm steadings and "offices" (which in 19th century Scotland signified buildings such as stables, workshops etc. attached to a big house) as well as a walled garden.
The MacNeils didn't enjoy Eoligarry for long, however, for the next chief, General MacNeil went bankrupt in 1838 (in common with a number of Highland chiefs around this time) and his estates were sold to meet his debts. Barra was sold to Colonel Gordon of Cluny from Aberdeenshire who had also owned neighbouring South Uist and Benbecula since the bankruptcy of the Macdonalds of Clanranald.

Cluny let Eoligarry Farm to a Dr MacGillivray in 1840 so Eoligarry House no doubt became a slightly grander than usual farmhouse. In the 1900s, Cluny's daughter, Lady Gordon-Cathcart, sold Eoligarry to Dr MacGillivray's two sons but in 1917 the farm was "raided" by landless men of Barra and parts of it staked out into crofts. To regularise this, Eoligarry Farm was bought by the Board of Agriculture for Scotland in 1919 and the rest of it divided into crofts as well. But the MacGillivray brothers retained the house until the survivor of them died in 1939.

In the 1940s, the now empty Eoligarry House was bought by the Roman Catholic church to serve as a church for the new community of crofters in the vicinity. It continued in this role until a new purpose built church was built in the walled garden in 1963. With no further role, the house fell into decay and was finally demolished in the mid 1970s. But the footprint of Eoligarry House and its walled garden and "offices" can still be seen on Google Earth - compare with the map above:-

As well as the church in the walled garden, some council houses have been built on the site as well. This is what it looks like today courtesy of Google Streetview:-

Was it an act of 70s cultural vandalism to demolish such a Georgian house? Probably, but you also have to ask what could be done with a decaying mansion in such an incongruous location. And as I type this, I answer my own question - convert it to a hotel. Better a restoration of Eoligarry House than the construction of the awful (in terms of architectural merit, I mean, not quality of service) Isle of Barra Hotel which was built - I think I'm right in saying as a flagship project of the old Highlands and Islands Development Board - at around the time Eoligarry House was demolished. Oh well, they just didn't think like that in the 60s and 70s, did they? No point moaning about the sins of the fathers. Doubtless someone will bemoan the demolition of the IoBH a hundred years from now - if it survives that long. Will Kisimul Castle survive them both?

Picture credit RCAHMS

Picture credit Ramsay Imlach

And again as I type this, I find the IoBH growing on me. Doubtless in the 1790s someone moaned about the incongruity of Eoligarry House's "modernistic" architecture!

PS - I believe it's pronounced EE-awl-uh-gurrie - but don't quote me on that.

EDIT October 2017 - see Eoligarry revisited for a further snippet of info about Eoligarry House.


  1. Nobody mourned the passing of Eoligarry House,or the people who owned. "Land for the People"

  2. That's the correct pronunciation

  3. Neil - I have just found this entry having 'googled' Eoligary. I did so having just read a book called 'The Road was Free' (1948) by Frank Baker, who hitchhiked to Barra with his wife from his home in Mevagissey, Cornwall in the summer of 1946. He gave a fascinating description of their visit to Eoligary House, which prompted my brief internet research. Frank died in 1982, so his work is still under copyright and I should not quote so long a passage. But I will do so because almost all of his books (with the exception of Miss Hargreaves and a new paperback edition of The Birds) are long out of print and are now very hard to find. I hope his estate will forgive me - but it's a good example of Frank's writing, which deserves a wider audience.

    "Crumbling into decay,stark with the classical serenity of the late eighteenth century, once the home of the Lords of Barra and the power-house of the island, the Manor stands abandoned to the winds. It is not necessary to give here anything of the history of the Macneils, the Gordons and McGillivrays, successive Lords of Barra, who lived in this house and left their influence upon its huge rooms and dank mist-drenched walls. It is sufficient to hint that there have been in the last hundred years times of oppression on the island, and of a tyranny which still seems to cling mercilessly about the sad rooms of Eoligary House. It is open to the traveller, for it is now Catholic property, one of the ground-floor rooms being maintained as a chapel where Mass is said.
    We wandered all over the place and climbed to an immense attic which was littered with odd and rusty lichenous fragments of past ownership - the refuse of a life which is always left in a house and which nobody can ever clear up. Huge rusty keys, iron bars, soot-darkened bottles, pages from a tract on some surgical experiment, leaves from a store catalogue advertising goods as prices which now seem incredible, sacks and the skeletons of baskets...suitable props for grand guignol, we thought. And we all began to assume that charade manner which such places evoke, half amused, half saddened, toying with horrible possibilities and wandering to our own corners, each making his own discovery in that wistful way, that watchful vagueness which one shows in a museum, as though the sub-conscious were alert with the unseeable past, and the conscious mind temporarily at rest.
    All the time we we were a little uneasy. For such investigations call forth mockery which hangs around abandoned rooms. Here unhappy lonely Lairds who had tyrannized over working people had lived out their bitter lives; and though the house passed later into new ownership, the old mark had never left it. So we descended the ladder-way carefully, talking with deliberate cheerfulness of the keen summer sunshine which had brought such wonderful colour from the sea that afternoon. I think we were all glad to leave Eoligary House."

    Isn't that wonderful?

    (c) Frank Baker - "The Road was Free" T.V Boardman and Company 1948

  4. Fantastic piece of feedback there, Chris. Thanks for contributing it.

  5. Does anyone know of a Hugh Macdonald of Eoligarry, who was deceased by 1842 when his daughter Christian married the Rev. Henry Beatson that same year? Please get in touch if you have any information?

  6. Sorry Neill, I really should have identified myself as having posted the above notice. "Hugh Macdonald of Eoligarry" is not strictly correct! The "Inverness Courier" actually says: "Hugh Macdonald, Esq., Eoligarry, Inverness-shire". Genealogically, "Esquire" suggests to me a man of some standing, but not necessary "heriitable proprietor of the lands of Eoligarry" which the word "of" implies! He may have been merely "residenter in Eoligarry" - but surely in the "big house"! In various records he is described as "manager for Barra" (OPRs B. (son) 1805), "factor to Col. Macneill of Barra" (Fasti, his son-in-law) and "land steward" (D.1882 (daughter) OPRs). Not a very popular man I would think - especially in those days! Here is another little quote I found on the Internet:
    A reference to Angus Calder's book - “Cropping the Bluebells” c.1987
    ". . . Whole islands were cleared in the Hebrides, and the 800 people cleared from the Barra Isles or the 1600 from South Uist cannot have ‘wanted to emigrate’ or they would not have had to be clubbed, fettered and pursued at the instigation of the landlord, John Gordon, and by a minister, Henry Beatson.
    See full quote:

    All fascinating stuff! We visited Eoligarry many years ago, but at that time neither Beatson or Macdonald were of interest to me. You don't, by any chance, have any monumental inscriptions of the graveyard at Eoligarry. I see another visit to Barra is beckoning - David

  7. First time I have heard of Col. MacNeil? Interesting. Calum Ban wrote. "The Children will return to the shores, to right the wrongs".