Clan MacNeacail

Clan MacNeacail
Clann MhicNeacail
Crest badge
Clan member crest badge - Clan MacNeacail.svg
Crest: A hawk's head erased Gules.
Motto: SGORR-A-BHREAC (Scorrybreac)
Slogan: Meminisse sed providere (Remember but look ahead)
District Inner Hebrides
Plant badge Juniper
Animal Hawk
John MacNeacail of MacNeacail and Scorrybreac
Chief of the Highland Clan MacNeacail
Seat Ballina, New South Wales
Historic seat Scorrybreac

Clan MacNeacail, sometimes known as Clan MacNicol, is a Scottish clan long associated with the Isle of Skye. The clan is closely associated with Clan Macleod, with whom the MacNeacails have been aligned since around the 14th century. Today many members of Clan MacNeacail bear the surname Nicolson which is also borne by the unrelated Clan Nicolson.



Early history

The MacNeacails, like the Macleods with whom they are closely associated, may be of Norse origin. The lands in which they lived were part of the mixed Norse-Gaelic Kingdom of Man until 1266 and the remaining early records remaining of the MacNeacails place the clan among the Gallowglasses: Viking bands who had intermarried with the native Celtic population and participated in the tribal wars of early mediaeval Ireland. According to David Sellar, the progenitor of the clan likely lived in the mid-13th century; however two genealogies produced in the 15th century take the earlier ancestry of the MacNeacails back to the Viking princes of 10th century Dublin. One tradition claims that one of their first settlements in Scotland was in the district of Coigach, Ullapool and Assynt on the north-western mainland: lands received from the thane of Sutherland for the service of the MacNicol chief against other bands of Viking raiders. Another tradition locates them in the Hebrides: the 17th-century Skye historian Hugh MacDonald claimed that a MacNicol was among the island chieftains killed in a rebellion against the Norwegian king Olaf the Red in c.1150. The name 'MacNicol's Castle' is given to two ancient ruins, in Coigach and in Lewis, appearing to corroborate these early traditions. David Sellar has speculated that the ancient arms of the MacLeods of Lewis may have been inherited from the MacNicols who had an earlier foothold in the Western Isles - the depiction of a burning mountain on a field of gold could refer to the custom of Norse chieftains lighting beacons to guide the King of Norway's ships through the Hebridean islands safe from shipwreck.

The first recorded chief of the clan is John, son of Nicail, and descended from a Norse high king. He is recorded in the company of other leading Hebridean chiefs such as Macdonald, Macdougald and Macruairi, and was courted by Edward II as a potential ally in the War of Independence. However if the account in John Barbour's poem The Bruce can be credited, he played a major role in the Scottish campaigns against the English armies in Ireland in 1316. The MacNeacails flourished during the fourteenth century, and during that time owned much of the Isle of Lewis. According to Sellar, it was at the time of the generation after John when the bulk of the clan lands passed into the hands of the Lewis Macleods: in the Hebrides, it was often claimed that this was achieved unlawfully, with the abduction and forced marriage of the MacNicol heiress by the MacLeod chief, and the sinking of a galley full of avenging MacNicol warriors on the coast off the island. The male line of the MacNeacails however continued and lived on the Isle of Skye.[1] During the 16th century MacNicoll of Portree was identified as one of the 16 members of the Council of the Isles, which met at Finlaggan in Islay to advise the Lord of the Isles.[2] After the dissolution of the lordship, the clan followed the MacDonalds of Sleat: Malcolmuill MacNicol and his brother Nicoll took part in the feud between the MacDonalds and Macleans; both were pardoned for acts of 'fire-raising and homicide' on Mull in 1563. A century later, 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 in the Civil War.

17th to 19th centuries

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.[3] 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. As a cousin of the intensely Jacobite MacLeods of Rassay, the chief, John Nicolson, appears to have assisted in the concealment of Charles Edward 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. Another man of the clan, Donald Nicolson from Raasay, also helped to protect the Young Pretender during his flight after the defeat, 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 island 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 chief left his seat at Scorrybreac and his family settled in Tasmania.[1]

20th century

In the 1980s, Sir David Nicolson, 4th Baron Carnock was recognised by the Lord Lyon King of Arms as chief of Clan Nicolson.[4] The heirs of the MacNeacail chiefship were however not content with this. Ian Nicolson, an Australian, petitioned the Lord Lyon to be recognised as chief of the Nicolsons of Scorrybreac (Clan MacNeacail) and in 1988 was recognised as Ian Norman Carmichael MacNeacail of MacNeacail and Scorrybreac, Chief of the Highland Clan MacNeacail.[5] The current clan chief is John MacNeacail of MacNeacail and Scorrybreac who resides in Ballina, NSW, Australia.[6] In 1987, the clan purchased the Ben Chracaig estate, which makes up part of the original Scorrybreac lands. Today, this land is governed by Clan MacNeacail, but is open to the general public.

Tradition concerning the MacNeacails

The Bruce

For to the fycht Maknakill then
Com with twa hundreth sper-men
And thai slew all that mycht to-wyn
This ilk Maknakill with a gyn
Wan off thar schippis four or five
And haly reft the men of lif.[note 1]

John Barbour, The Bruce.[7]

According to Sellar, possibly one of the earliest references to a Clan MacNeacail chief appears in a passage from John Barbour's epic The Bruce, which dates to about 1375. Sellar believes that the Maknakill recorded may be the chief, or at least a close relative to the chief of Clan MacNeacail. The passage (right) recounts the siege of Carrickfergus Castle in April 1316, by Edward Bruce, brother of Robert I. During Bruce's siege, Sir Thomas Mandeville arrived in Dublin with 15 ships in an attempt to lift the siege. Sellar argued that the arrival of Maknakill would have played a large part in preventing Mandeville from relieving the castle. Sellar is of the opinion that the "Maknakill" recorded in The Bruce may be the same as the "mak Nakyl" and "macnakild" recorded in 1306 and 1315. In 1306, letters were delivered from Edward I of England to the Earl of Ross, Lachlan MacRuairi, his brother Ruairi, and John "mak Nakyl". In 1315, Edward II of England instructed John MacDougall of Argyll to receive Donald MacDonald, his brother Godfrey, Sir Patrick Graham and John "macnakild" into the king's peace. According to Sellar, since the MacDougalls, MacDonalds and MacRuairis mentioned were all prominent Hebridean leaders it is quite likely the "mak Nakyl" and "macnakild" was also a Hebridean leader.[7]

"Mac Nicol". A Victorian era romanticised depiction of a member of the clan by R. R. McIan, from The Clans of the Scottish Highlands of 1845.
A Descriptione of the Lews

In the late 17th century the origin of the Macaulays, Macleods, MacNeacails, and Morrisons was documented in an historical account of Lewis. John Morisone, self-described "Indweller" of Lewis, writing sometime between about 1678 and 1688, stated that the early inhabitants of Lewis were three men from three separate races.[8]

The first and most antient Inhabitants of this Countrie were three men of three severall races viz. Mores the son of Kenannus whom the Irish historiance call Makurich whom they make to be Naturall Sone to one of the Kings of Noruvay. some of whose posteritie remains in the land to this day. All Morisones in Scotland may challenge there descent from this man. The second was Iskair Mac.Awlay ane Irish man whose posteritie remain likvise to this day in the Lews. The third was 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 and continueth to his posteritie (Macleud of Lews) dureing 13 or 14 generations and so extinct before, or at least about the year 1600 the maner of his decay I omitt because I intend no historie but a descriptione.[9]

John Morisone, A Descriptione of the Lews.

Other traditions concerning the clan

On Lewis the ravine separating Dùn Othail from the mainland is called "Leum Mhac Nicol", which translates from Scottish Gaelic as "Nicholson'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".[10]

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.[11]


Motto: Remember but look ahead
Coordinates N 57° 24.79511', W 6° 11.61977'
HQ Carlingford, New South Wales
Origin Kingdom of Man
Created Unknown
Abolished 1826
Succeeded by Highland Clearances
Governance Clan MacNeacail
Arms of Clan MacNeacail

Scorrybreac is the land that the clan occupied for 800 years, and was seat of the Clan MacNeacail chief until 1826. The MacNeacails emigrated from Scorybreac during the Highland Clearances. In 1987, the clan purchased the Ben Chracaig estate, which makes up part of the original Scorrybreac lands. Today, this land is governed by the Clan MacNeacail Trust. The land is just north of Portree, and very rugged. The Portree Circuit is a footpath that goes through Scorrybreac and is open to the general public.

Clan profile


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.[6] The crest itself is a hawk's head erased Gules.[12] 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.[13] According to Robert Bain, Clan MacNeacail's clan badge is a trailing azalea.[14]


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.[15] 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.[15]

Origin of the name

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.[16] 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.[17] Nicholas was a very common mediaeval name and is found in many different forms as a surname.[18] The surname and its variations are associated with other clans such as Clan Macfie and Clan Nicolson; and also as sept names for Clan Macleod of The Lewes.[19]


MacNecail Nichael Nickoll(s) MacNecail(l) Nichel(s) Nickolson MacNicael(l) Nichoal Nickson MacNichel(l) Nicholai Niclasson MacNichol(s) McNichol Nichol(s) Nicol(s) MacNicholas Nicholas(s) Nicolaisen MacNicholl(s) Nicholaisen Nicoll(s) MacNickel(s) Nicholassen Nicollsoun MacNickell(s) Nicholay Nicolson MacNickle(s) Nichold(s) Niklesson MacNickol(s) Nichole(s) Niochol(l) MacNickoll(s) Nicholl(s) Nix(on) MacNicol(s) Nicholson(e) Nuccle(s) MacNicoll(s) Nicholsoun Nuccol MacReacail Nickal(s) Nuckall MacRickle Nickall(s) Nuckel(s) MakNychol(l) Nickel(s) Nuckelson MhicNeacail Nickell(s) Nuckle M’Nychol(l) Nickelson Nuckoll M’Nychole Nickerson Nucolsone Neclasson Nickisson Nychol(l) Necole(s) Nicklas(s) Nycholay(i) Necolson Nickle(s) Nycholson Nicail(l) Nickold(s) Nycholsoun Niccol(s) Nickole(s) Nycol(s) Niccoll(s) Nickol(s) Nycoll(s)

See also


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.
  1. ^ English translation: "MacNicol came then to the fight with two hundred spearmen, and they slew all they could overtake. This same MacNicol captured four or five of their ships by a stratagem and utterly deprived the men (in them) of their lives".[7]


  1. ^ a b "Clan Macneacail". Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. Retrieved 26 March 2009. 
  2. ^ Black 1946: 551.
  3. ^ Sellar and Maclean, The Highland Clan MacNeacail (Maclean Press, 1999), at pages 15-16.
  4. ^ "Sir David Henry Arthur Nicolson of that Ilk, 4th Baron Carnock". Retrieved 26 March 2009. 
  5. ^ "MacNeacail of MacNeacail and Scorrybreac". Burke's Peerage and Gentry. Retrieved 26 March 2009. 
  6. ^ a b "The Clan MacNicol". Retrieved 26 March 2009. 
  7. ^ a b c Sellar, W.D.H.. "Carrickfergus – 1316" (pdf). Scorrybreac: the Journal of Clan MacNicol in North America 20 (2): 8–10. Retrieved 21 April 2009. 
  8. ^ Scottish History Society 1907: xxxi.
  9. ^ Scottish History Society 1907: 214-215.
  10. ^ Thomas 1890: 371.
  11. ^ Maclauchlan; Wilson 1875: 272.
  12. ^ Way of Plean; Squire 2000: 226.
  13. ^ Campbell of Airds, Alastair. "A Closer Look at West Highland Heraldry". Heraldry Society of Scotland. Retrieved 26 March 2009. 
  14. ^ Bain 1983: 138-139.
  15. ^ a b Stewart 1974: 86.
  16. ^ "Clan History of the Nicolsons of Skye". Retrieved 26 March 2009. 
  17. ^ Black 1946: pp. 628-629.
  18. ^ Reaney; Wilson 2005: 2260.
  19. ^ "MacLeod Septs". Retrieved 24 March 2009. [dead link]


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