Things I'm interested in on the west coast of Scotland
Sunday, June 27, 2010
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.
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?