Obituary: Ian Macneil, Clan chief and lawyer

Born: 20 June, 1929, in New York. Died: 16 February, 2010, in Edinburgh, aged 80.

IAN Macneil was chief of Clan Macneil of Barra and a most popular and respected figure on the island. He put the family estate on the island into public ownership and worked, over many years, to improve the conditions of the islanders. His legal career was principally centred in academia in the United States, where he was Wigmore Professor of Law at Northwestern University in Chicago and, on a one year visiting professorship at Harvard in 1988, met and was much impressed by a young student named Barack Obama. He recognised the potential of the future leader and commented to his wife at the time that he felt that Obama could become America's first black president. Macneil was invited to President Obama's inauguration last year but for health reasons was unable to attend.

Macneil did much to preserve and enhance the community of Barra. Angus MacNeil, the Western Isles MP, said "Macneil was much loved and respected on Barra. He was a person who delighted in other people and was active in the Barra community in protecting the island air service from proposed Scottish Executive cuts eight years ago. He had a strong interest in crofting and made considered submissions on the Crofting Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament."

Iain Roderick Macneil, The Macneil of Barra, Chief of Clan Niall, Baron of Barra and 26th Chief was educated at Castlebay on Barra, and the universities of Vermont and Harvard then practised law and lectured in America. In 1972, he was made a Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford, and then in 1979 was made an honorary visiting fellow at the Faculty of Law at Edinburgh University.

He was much esteemed for his expertise in the field of contract law and co-wrote a lengthy volume on US arbitration law.

But he also used his considerable knowledge of the law and finance to the lasting benefit of Barra. In 2004, Macneil transferred nearly 9,000 acres of his land on the island to Scottish ministers, along with fishing and mineral rights. His farsighted hope was eventually to give it to the residents. Significantly, he offered the land to the community more than 20 years previously, but it was not taken up as he was considered a good landlord.

Macneil was a regular visitor to the island, although he spent much time in his home in the Grange area of Edinburgh. He maintained close ties with the picturesque Kisimul Castle, the family seat that is now run by Historic Scotland. In 2000, he agreed an annual rent for the castle of 1 and a bottle of malt whisky. "Presently Talisker," an islander said. "Although The Macneil has reserved the right to change the whisky."

The family's connection with Barra is long-established. The family claimed descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages, the king of Ireland from 379 to 405, and the clan Macneil is thought to have lived on Barra for 1,000 years.

In 1838, with the family facing severe financial problems, the 21st chief, General Roderick MacNeil, sold the island. As he had no offspring, the title of clan chief passed to a cousin whose line emigrated to the United States. In 1937, Kisimul Castle and most of Barra were bought by Robert Lister Macneil, a descendant of the 22nd chief, and father of Ian Macneil.

Macneil had dual citizenship and in his later years decided to leave the United States and pursue his Scottish heritage. In a recent interview he admitted, with obvious pride, that his family had "largely repatriated ourselves from North America to Scotland".

The new Clan Chief, Rory Macneil, remembers his father with a special pride. "He was always a fiercely independent fighter and an innovative thinker," he said. "He championed the little guy, both professionally as a lawyer and on Barra.

"It had always been so: when he was a student at Harvard Law School, he campaigned vigorously against McCarthyism. We were brought up to be involved and contribute to society."

The affection and regard in which Macneil was held on the island was considerable. His warm and jovial personality – a beaming smile was never far away – endeared him to everyone.

Sarah MacLean who has run the most recent Macneil of Barra Gatherings spoke for many when she told The Scotsman: "Macneil of Barra wanted them to be small, informal gatherings so he could meet and speak with all the visitors. He had a very generous spirit and a great sense of duty towards the island. All the people who attended the Gatherings really enjoyed spending time with him and his family. "

Macneil wrote widely on legal subjects both in the US and in Scotland and was a most active and respected member of the Standing Council of Clan Chiefs.

He married Nancy Wilson, of Ottawa, in 1952. She and their children Rory – who now becomes clan chief – Jenny and Sandy survive him.