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The historic castle which guards the bay at Castlebay in Barra is ‘unlikely to open’ in 2022, according to Historic Scotland.

The national agency, which has acted as custodian of the iconic Kisimul Castle since it was passed into their care in 2001, today (Monday 9 May) answered questions posed some time ago by welovestornoway.com.

The questions were asked in response to a building crescendo of concern from islanders and visitors alike. People are wondering why, after the relaxation of Covid restrictions, Kisimul has not reopened for public visiting.

Staff at Bùth Bharraigh, who run an informal visitor information service, continually field questions from visitors about the iconic castle and Clan Macneil has spoken ‘with sadness’ of the fact that the castle is to remain closed even during their 2022 Clan Gathering, due to be held between 8 and 10 August.

A spokesperson for Historic Environment Scotland (HES) said: "We very much understand the concerns expressed in relation to the ongoing closure of Kisimul Castle, however our first priority is to manage the risks to staff and visitors and hence the property remains closed for the moment as our conservation team considers the best way ahead.”

HES have been leaseholders of the castle since it was passed into their care in 2001, for a lease payment of £1 and a bottle of whisky each year. The arrangement was made by Iain Roderick Macneil, 46th Macneil of Barra, and is good for 1,000 years.

Historic Environment Scotland’s corporate plan, Heritage for All (published on 5 April 2022) gives as a key outcome that the historic environment is looked after, protected and managed for the generations to come.

In the plan, they say: “We will look after the historic environment assets in our care – managing the long-term future of the properties, sites, collections and archives we look after to deliver real benefits for the people of Scotland

“We will champion the maintenance and reuse of the historic environment – working with people, communities, government and developers to enable appropriate change that keeps this sustainable resource in use.”

Lack of use is exactly what campaigners complain about, with Na h-Eileanan an Iar MSP Alasdair Allan saying last month: “It is a pathetic situation for any country to be in, having a site as iconic as Kisimul Castle shut, with no clearly-stated prospect for reopening.

“I echo the worries of the castle’s owner, Macneil of Barra, and the wider community that one of the most recognisable properties in Scotland is falling into a dilapidated state under public custody.”

HES said today: "We intend to reassess the property soon to consider what options may be open to us and will continue to have dialogue with the owners and other relevant partners throughout that process. It is, however, unlikely that the property will reopen this year unfortunately.

"We are also planning to meet local MSP Alasdair Allan to discuss some of the issues we face at the property, including historic repairs which are coming to the end of their lifespan and have exacerbated the present condition of the monument." 

The historic body says that a timescale and cost cannot be stated until a full assessment has been made of what is required in terms of conservation work.

Among safety concerns they identify, concrete floors in Marion’s Extension - seen above, the Tanist Hall and the Great Hall are causing concern over structural stability, as are some of the walls within the castle itself.

Rectification work will need many areas of poured concrete slabs to be removed and steel reinforcements to be replaced after corroding badly due to high chloride levels in the concrete.

Access to the hall was suspended in 2016 after inspection by structural engineers and options were discussed on how to install supports, but no agreement could reached over funding or refurbishment routes with Clan Macneil and the hall has remained closed.

A proposal to use foundation money was drawn up in 2019, but a follow-up visit in March 2020 was cancelled due to Covid and since then visits have been restricted to safety and condition checks.

The works planned at that time were to replace the chapel roof and timber access stair to the tower. A water pipe which runs over the seabed from Castlebay shore also needs to be replaced.

An HES spokesperson said: “While traditionally the Clan Gathering of Clan MacNeil would have elements of access on the property, it has been disrupted in recent years due to conservation works and safety issues, and the gathering has taken place elsewhere in Castlebay.

“We will obviously discuss this matter with the clan chief well in advance. We have also been engaging with Outer Hebrides Tourism and Barra Heritage Centre and are aware and keen to support significant homecoming activity across the islands in 2023.”

Next year also sees a second significant homecoming event, with the centenary commemoration of emigration to Canada in June 2023 and HES said: “Ideally we would have some level of access to the castle made available for then.”

In the meantime two part-year staff remain active at Kisimul, working remotely with other teams and supporting local community activity through volunteering. HES continues to pay them and provide activity for them whilst the castle is closed.

Pictures of the interior of Kisimul buildings and the central courtyard are from Historic Environment Scotland.