The Pirate’s Last Stand, a story of the Isle of Berisay
From Behold the Hebrides, by Alasdair Alpin Macgregor (1925)
NOW I would like to tell you just a little more about our old friend, Neil MacLeod, who, as I have narrated, harassed the ‘Gentlemen Adventurers’ from Fife, and who was in no small way the cause of their failure to plant a trading colony in Lewis, because, after the MacKenzies had taken possession of the Long Island, he continued to give them a great deal of trouble and anxiety, and artfully evaded the many traps which the newcomers had so diligently set to capture him.
You will recall the description I gave you earlier of Kisimul Castle, where the desperate and notorious Ruairi, Chief of the MacNeils of Barra, lived in royal style on the booty he plundered at sea, and how in the end he was enticed aboard a ship which the cunning MacKenzie of Kintail had arranged would sail into Castlebay, and anchor quietly beneath the walls of Ruairi’s fortress under cover of friendship.
Well, Neil MacLeod along with his three bellicose nephews and Torquil Blair and his four sons, together with some forty indomitable Islesmen, had been forced to seek shelter on the strongly fortified Island of Berisay, or Bereasaidh, which is situated just where the Atlantic sweeps into Loch Roag. To Berisay Neil had been accustomed for some years before to send provisions of victuals and other necessaries from time to time, that it might be a retreat unto him in his direst need. From this island he was able to conduct a series of most destructive raids on the property of the MacKenzies, because Berisay was as invulnerable as Kisimul Castle, and Neil was every bit as bravo and crafty and as elusive as the Chief of Barra.
On this rock-fortress Neil, now an outlaw, enjoyed a period of unbroken and uninterrupted success as a sea-robber; and he lived here for two or three years by a dauntless and ruthless system of piracy.
While Neil MacLeod was in possession of Berisay, there arrived in Lewis a certain English pirate, ‘who haid a shippe furnished and fraughted with great wealth.’ This pirate was none other than the doughty Peter Lowe. He and Neil, both having been outlawed for very similar reasons, became the closest friends; and it was their intention to join forces and become masters of Lewis on land and sea. But ere Lowe had enjoyed a reasonable period of residence on Berisay he and his crew were suddenly taken prisoners by the sons of Torquil Blair, and were sent along with their ship to Edinburgh by the command of Neil MacLeod, who thought that his excellent capture would result in his pardon and in the release of his brother, Tormoid, who was in prison. The Privy Council, however, thought otherwise; and the English crew and its captain were hanged at Leith, while Neil obtained neither the king’s pardon, nor yet his brother’s liberation.
Wily as was Neil, old Ruairaidh MacKenzie was wilier still, for, just as the latter was on the verge of abandoning any further attempt to surprise Neil and his garrison on Berisay, a brilliant strategical idea struck him, which, according to Sir Robert Gordon, resulted in the capture and ultimate execution of Neil MacLeod.
MacKenzie planned that the wives, children, and such as by way of affinity and consanguinity within the Island of Lewis did appertain to Neil and .his sea-rieving followers, should be collected in an open boat and taken out at low tide to a rock within easy distance of Berisay. Here it was decided to lash the boat down, and to leave it so that the tide might come in and drown its occupants.
This scheme was carried out and had the required result, because the MacLeods were sufficiently near the rock to observe the plight of their relatives and to hear their shrieks for help; and we are told that they stood aside until they were unable to bear the scene any longer, for this ‘pitiefull spectakll did so move Niell and his company to compassion!’ So MacKenzie’s plan to entice the robbers to leave their stronghold proved successful, for Neil and his clansmen surrendered themselves to the MacKenzies just as the tide was about to swamp their terror-stricken kinsfolk.
After the fall of his fortress on Berisay, Neil again appears to have effected a daring escape, and to have fled to Harris. There he sought to conceal himself among the mountain fastnesses until he was betrayed by a certain Ruairaidh, Chief of the MacLeods of Harris, who, though it seems rather difficult to believe, had been scheming for some time with the Privy Council to capture the pirate and to hand him over to the authorities to be dealt with. An ancient MS., to which I have had access, declares, however, that MacLeod of Harris was charged ‘under payne of treasone to delyver Niell McLeod to the privie Counsell.’
At any rate Neil was caught and was straightway brought to Edinburgh, where, in the spring of 1613, having been tried on and found guilty of a score of very serious charges, he was hanged at the Market Cross.
But of Neil MacLeod it was written that he met his death ‘verey christianlie.’
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