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Issue 61 - By Sea and Land

Scotland Magazine Issue 61
February 2012


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By Sea and Land

We look at the history of Scotland's great surnames

As one of the most well known, numerous and widespread of the Scottish Clans, the name MacDonalds’ history is well charted.

As the largest of all the Highland Clans, it once controlled virtually the whole of Scotland’s western seaboard, with possessions in Ireland and the Isle of Man. Although different spellings occur (McDonald, MacDonell, or McDonnell), family members share the same genealogical roots. But where did the family originate?

The name MacDonald was first found in Kintyre, where members of this clan had resided for many years. After the Roman Empire fell, the Dark Ages descended on Europe, and the only people left literate were monks. They cared for documents such as the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, the Inquisition, the Ragman Rolls, the Domesday Book, clan genealogies, baptismals, parish records, cartularies, and tax records through this truly chaotic period of history. Through documents such as these, we are able to piece together the fascinating tapestry of the MacDonald family history.

The clan MacDonald derives from Donald of Islay, the King of the Isles who was the grandson of Somerled. Their history had descended through a succession of Norse Kings who held the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland and the western Isles of Scotland, as far north as Lewis.

In the mid-13th century, the MacDonalds officially became a Scottish clan, receiving the title of Lord of the Isles. The Lord of the Isles had four main branches: Clan Ian of Ardnamurchan, the Clan Ranald, Clan Ian of Islay, and clan Donald of Lochaber. They enjoyed blood bonds with the MacLeans, MacLeods, MacNeils, MacKinnons, MacQuarries and Macfies, among others. Because of their influence and their many alliances, the MacDonalds were considered to be a threat to the Scottish Kings.

The Kings were quite successful at gradually eroding the political power of the MacDonalds, who enjoyed a period of resurgence during the reign of Robert the Bruce, in the 14th century.

During this period, they did extend their territorial holdings, however, they were plagued by internal rivalries. Eventually, the MacDonalds split into several clans, all of which had some measure of influence. Despite having the support of the MacDonalds, the Stewart Kings remained wary of their power and influence.

An important event in the history of the MacDonald clan arose from their rivalry with the Campbells. In 1603, the Campbells supported the Union of the Scottish and English Crowns, while the MacDonalds remained loyal to the deposed Stewart King, James VII. Nearly a century of dispute eventually led to the Glencoe massacre of 1692 where, as vengeance for a late submission to the Scottish crown, 37 MacDonalds were butchered in their sleep.

Many members of the MacDonald clan migrated to Ireland during the 17th and 18th centuries. Much of this was due to the turbulent atmosphere in Scotland. Religious persecution was a threat to the security of the MacDonald clan, and those who did not pledge an oath of belief and loyalty to the new church could be burned at the stake, or hanged. Thus, many families sought a new home, which would be free of this intolerance.

Some of the clan moved to Ireland in the Plantation of Ulster. In 1890, a census of Scottish families in Ireland was taken. At that time, it was estimated that there were more than For others, the welcoming lands of the North American colonies were the destination. There they were greeted with freedoms unprecedented.

Numerous Scottish clansmen settled along the east coast of the colonies that would become the United States and Canada. Others travelled to the open country of the west. At the time of the American War of Independence, some remained in the United States, while those who remained loyal to the crown went north to Canada as United Empire Loyalists.

The highland games and Clan societies that sprang up across North America in the 20th century have helped many Scots to recover parts of their lost traditions.


There are many MacDonald tartans depending on occasion and family branch.

Early Origins: Dalriadan
Gaelic Name: Mac Dhomhnuill.
Clan Crest: An arm holding a cross
Motto: “Per Mare, Per Terras” (By sea and by land)
Coat of Arms: A gold shield with a red eagle on a black galley.
Plant Badge: Heath