The Connell Boat Building Family

workshop websize

Ruins of the Connell boat building workshop at Port Moluag.

Editor’s note:  This is an extract from an exceptionally full and authoritative article on the Clann Mhic Gille Chonaill by Donald C McWhannell, who is an acknowledged authority on the history of boat building in Argyll.  The full text follows below.


The well known and fondly remembered Lismore resident Donald Black, a founder member of Comann Eachdraidh Lios Mór, stated that;

“On Lismore in the 19th.century and into the early part of the 20th.century there lived and worked a family of traditional boat builders of the name “Connell”. They had obviously dropped the “Mac” as did many other highlanders. They were known locally as “na Connellaich”. The saw pit and work shop they used is well preserved and can be seen to this day at Port Moluag on the eastern shore of the island. The last member of the Connells to ply his trade was Malcolm, who like others of his time was a crofter, the name of which was Polandaidhan. He was known locally as Calum Connall, he had cousins, Duncan and Connall Connall who tenanted another croft at Baillenangobhan, the latter was known as “Connall Ruadh”. I can remember clearly seeing Calum’s enormous “rip saw” on the rafters of his then deserted crofthouse. This would be as late as the 1950’s and could very well be still there as the building still stands. He was the last Precenter to “read the line” in Clachan Church and was said to possess a tenor voice of magnificent quality. His only daughter, Sahra, was married to John MacDougall an old neighbour of ours. They were childless and she died in 1961.

Callum’s cousin, Duncan Connall, was “Ground Officer” to the Duke of Argyll for many years in the early part of this century though no longer a tenant on Argyll land. This was the clue which directed my thoughts to the possibility of a link with the MacGilleChonnel, the traditional boat builders to the Campbells. Duncan had a reputation for being ultra conscientious in the pursuit of his duties. He was also Attendance Officer to the Lismore schools. Connall Ruadh was one of those chosen to give evidence to the Napier Commission when they visited Lismore in 1883. When questioned by Lord Selkirk as to when he sold his stirks he replied in his usual abrupt manner “May sir”. The next question put to him was, “What price does one get for a stirk in May?”  Connall’s reply was “I’ll not know that ‘till I sell it! “ He was in no way overawed.

On the face of it “Oral Tradition” would certainly point to the Connall’s of Lismore being a branch of this ancient line of traditional boat builders. So too would many of the family forenames, i.e. Duncan, Malcolm and Donald. They were also tenants on what was originally Campbell land, these bits and pieces of information would seem something more than sheer coincidence” (1).

Psalms of David Gaelic Malcolm Connell precentor websize

Psalms of David in Gaelic 1846 belonging to Malcolm Connell, Precentor

Signed fly leaf 1877

Signed fly leaf 1877
Title page psalms of David websize

Title page of Psalms of David

Lismore Connels

Connall Ruadh was aged 77 years on 13th.August 1883 when giving evidence to the Napier Commission. Connel Connel / Connall Ruadh died aged 89 on 11th.January 1895. He must have been born sometime between August 1805 and August 1806.

The following information on Connel births/christenings and deaths on Lismore may be found from the International Genealogical Index (I.G.I.) and various other family history web sites.

13th. May 1778 christening of Donald son of Connel Connil and Mary McColl

14th.January 1784 birth of Donald son of Neil Connel and Anne Graham (Kilandrist)

1805 to 1806 birth of Connel Connel (Connall Ruadh) son of Donald Connel and Jane Cameron

12nd. December 1808 christening of Donald son of James Connel and Sarah McCallum (Balure)

12nd. December 1828 christening of Donald son of James Connel and Sarah McCallum (Balure)

17th.December 1836 birth of Anne daughter of James Connel and Sarah McCallum (Balure)

15th. March1838 birth of Connel son of James Connel and Sarah McCallum (Balure) and 16th. April 1838 christening of Connel son of James Connel and Sarah McCallum (Balure)

2nd. March 1841 christening of Malcolm son of James Connel and Sarah McCallum (Balure)

11th. January 1895 death of Connel Connel (Connall Ruadh), his son Donald Connel was present at his death

16th. January 1904 birth of Donald son of Duncan Connel and Catherine McPherson, Balnagowan (Donald sadly died of tuberculosis aged only 17 in 1921)

23rd. November 1909 Hector McPherson son of Duncan Connel and Catherine McPherson (Balnagowan)

13th. October 1911 Mary Jane daughter of Duncan Connel and Catherine McPherson (Balnagowan)

Around 1728 a “John McIlchonnill” was the miller at “Baligrundale” (Breadalbane Muniments National Archives Scotland, GD112/2/106 No.52) possibly giving further support to the likelihood that the Lismore Connells were indeed members of the “Clann Mhic Gille Chonaill” kindred. This would however only allow for some fifty years, or say two or three generations, for the transformation of McIlchonnel to Connel to have taken place. This perhaps seems somewhat unlikely within a Gaelic speaking community. There are some further difficulties as the Lismore surname Connel might have derived from McConnel / MacDhomhnaill or even from the Lorne place-name Connel / A’Chonghail. Conversely the fact that there were three boat building/carpenter families on Lismore in 1841 with surnames McDonald, at Port Ramsey formerly at Kilcheran and Achnacroish, McIntyre, at Sailean and later at Achnacroish, and Connel at Port Moluag (Baileouchdarach) might suggest that there is less reason to think that the Connels in Lismore were Mac Dhomhnaill and more reason to think that they were Mac Gille Chonaill. The Lismore Connells or na Connallaich, were engaged in boatbuilding into the early years of the twentieth century (2).

It is worth mentioning that in 1635 Mac an t-Saoir, Mac Gille Thomhais and Mac Gille Chonaill shipwrights were all working together building a birlinn for Campbell of Glenorchy. Historically there were other boat-wrights in Argyll and Perthshire, as well as those belonging to the Clann Mhic Gille Chonaill and Clann Mhic Gille Lùcais hereditary shipwright families. Individual boat-wrights whose surnames were, Ure (possibly a Mac Iomhair), Mac an t-Saoir, and Mac Gille Thomhais are mentioned in various Argyll and Perthshire related documents held in the National Archives Scotland.

The surname Mac Gille Chonaill has been transcribed in a great variety of ways however in Perthshire it can be shown to have transformed over time into McIllchonnell and finally to McWhannell. The surname McWhannell has of occasion been believed to derive from Mac Dhomhnaill while Mac Gille Chonaill has been taken to represent Mac Gille Dhomhnaill.

The Clann Mhic Gille Chonaill boatbuilders

The shipbuilding families of the Clann Mhic Gille Chonaill were based on Loch Awe, near Inverawe on Loch Etive and at Dunstaffnage. It would appear that the Mac Gille Chonaill family in their capacity as shipbuilders were associated with the Campbell of Argyll, Campbell of Craignish and Campbell of Glenurquhay (later of Breadalbane) families. Grave slabs (circa 15th century) commemorating what are almost certainly Mac Gille Chonaill shipwrights are located at Kilmarie, Craignish and Inishail, Loch Awe. Both slabs display a typical west highland sword with depressed quillions, a boat with high prow and stern and a shipwrights axe and adze or hammer. The Inishail slab features a helmeted crew and a helmsman who may be wearing a liripipe. The period of the Earldom of Argyll was from 1457 to 1701 and documents exist relating to the boatbuilding activities of members of the Mac Gille Chonaill family during the late seventeenth century and on into the 18th.Century. It is recorded that in 1697 a Mac Gille Chonaill boat-wright was in charge of Breadalbane’s “great boat”. It might therefore be possible to suggest that members of the kindred also skippered some of Argyll’s vessels. As late as 1764 “a retainer John McIlchonnel, a boat-carpenter” is on record at Inveraray. He also served as the town piper and became a burgess of Inveraray. In contrast to the information available on the Clann Mhic Gille Chonaill little has yet been discovered concerning the Clann Mhic Gille Lùcais other than that their shipbuilding activities were located on Loch Fyne and that they continued to build boats for the Dukes of Argyll until around 1780.

The Lismore Connels and other Argyll “Connells” 

Presently it is not possible to determine if the Lismore Connels, who are recorded from 1778 to 1961, were or were not related to John McIlchonnill miller at “Baligrundale” in 1728, and whether they do relate to the famous shipbuilding Mac Gille Chonaills.   Further progress might be possible if documented information about them for the period between 1728 and 1778 were to be discovered. It is also the case that there are many other persons surnamed “Connell” in the records for Argyll indeed there are currently one hundred and twenty one Connel, eighty eight Connell and two Conell entries plus one Connall entry listed on the I.G.I. data base in relation to Argyll.

Workshop and sawpit

Workshop and sawpit

close up of sawpit overgrown websize

Close up of sawpit now overgrow 

Sawpit cleared websize

Sawpit cleared