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The Gaelic name Domhnall comprises domno meaning "world" and val "might" or "rule."  The Donald clan traces its descent from the Norse leader Somerled and his grandson, their first chief Domhnall mac Raghnaill, who died around 1250.  The prefix mac designates "son of" and describes Domhnall's son and subsequent followers. 

The proper spelling has been MacDonald.  But the most common usage outside Scotland is McDonald.

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Scotland. The MacDonalds were the Lords of the Isles in early Scottish history.  Their base was the Western Isles, essentially their own independent fiefdom.  They had arrived in Skye from the southern Hebrides in the 1400's.  Their home at Armadale castle still stands.  But their independent status ended in 1493 when they forfeited the title of Lord of the Isles to the Scottish crown.

Subsequent centuries saw different McDonald clans emerge in different parts of the Isles and Highlands and in Ulster.  The seven main branches of the clan were those of Antrim, Ardnamurchan, Clanranald, Glencoe, Glengarry, Keppoch and Sleat. 

Inter-clan warfare and clan fighting were ongoing at this time.  The 1640's Wars of the Three Kingdoms, for instance, was in large part a clan war between the MacDonalds and the Campbells, the MacDonalds allied with the English Royalists and the Campbells with the Scottish Covenanters.  In 1692 78 MacDonalds were slaughtered by the English at the infamous Massacre at Glencoe.      

The defeat at Culloden, where the MacDonalds - forming the left of the Jacobite line - were routed by the English cavalry, marked the end of their Highland way of life.  The options for the fighting men were limited, either to join the army or to emigrate.

Etienne MacDonald, whose father had fought at Culloden, enlisted in the French army and became one of Napoleon's Marshals.  Others chose the British army.  Hector MacDonald, for example, joined the Gordon Highlanders in 1870.  Very popular with the troops, this crofter's son rose through the ranks to become a general.  However, his story ended sadly.  Accused of homosexuality, he committed suicide.

Many MacDonalds emigrated in the 19th century as the economic situation in the Highlands deteriorated. Canada and Australia were the favored destinations.  These Gaelic-speakers would generally encounter ignorance and prejudice on their arrival, often being kept in holding camps until local authorities decided how and where to disperse them.

No one quite knows where the children's song Old McDonald Had a Farm came from.  The earliest written reference is in Tommy's Tunes, a collection of World War One songs.

Ireland.  MacDonald lands in Scotland were not far from the Ulster coastline and some MacDonalds crossed to Ireland as mercenary gallowglasses.  As reward they obtained estates in Laios and Wicklow.  They were well established in Leinster by the mid-16th century, in particular in Dublin and county Carlow.
Canada.  The first arrivals to Canada were planned.  In 1772 the MacDonald of Clan Ranald purchased 20,000 acres of land in Prince Edward Island, for settlement by 200 members of his clan.  Those who came were known as the Glenaladale settlers.

The journey to Canada could be hazardous, as this 1826 MacDonald account reveals:

"Of the emigrants on the Northumberland, only one of them spoke the English tongue.  They were also blissfully ignorant of geography; enough for them to know that their destination was, as promised by the captain, the island of Cape Breton.  But on arrival in New Brunswick the captain dumped his human freight ashore in order to make room for a return cargo of timber.  An Acadian schooner happened along and these poor emigrants had just enough money to charter this vessel to take them to Cape Breton."

Another family account tells of a Donald MacDonald from Skye who became a fugitive after knocking down a British officer in Saint John, New Brunswick.  He found a job on a farm and later fell in love with one of his employer's daughters.  Donald and Ann married, farmed at Canaan, and raised twelve children.

Many in the Maritime Provinces continued to adhere to their Catholic religion and to their traditional Highland way of life.  As did those who arrived in Glengarry, Ontario.

However, other MacDonalds who came to Ontario integrated more readily into the Canada that was forming.  There were many eminent MacDonalds at that time and some left a mark on early Canadian history, in politics, law, or in business:
  • John MacDonald from Perth, for instance, arrived in Toronto in the 1820's and became one of the wealthiest merchants in the country. 
  • while Hugh Macdonald came to Kingston in 1820.  His son John A. rose to become the first Prime Minister of Canada.  John's tenure of office spanned nineteen years and he was the dominating figure in Canadian Confederation when it came in 1867. 
Archibald MacDonald, who arrived in 1854, made his name in the Canadian West.  He started as a fur trader for the Hudson Bay Company and ended up as their last chief factor in active service. 
America.  There were some early McDonald arrivals in America.  Bryan McDonald came from Ireland in 1689 and bought land from William Penn near New Castle in Delaware. 

Arrivals in the 18th century included: 
  • John McDonald who reached Virginia from Argyllshire in 1752.  After the death of his wife in 1785, he joined the wagon train west and bought the old Daniel Boone farm on the Tennessee river.  His family subsequently moved onto Ohio.
  • another John McDonald from Argyllshire who came to North Carolina in the 1770ís.  These McDonalds are thought to have moved to Alabama and then to Mississippi in the 1830ís.  
  • and the MacDonalds of Sleat who left Skye in 1800 also for North Carolina.  They too migrated to Alabama.
By the 1840's, most McDonalds were to be found in the northeast corridor of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.  Since then they have spread across the country, with the largest number now in Texas.

Two McDonald brothers Dick and Mac, sons of an Irish immigrant, made the name McDonald more famous than any clan exploit. They started a fast food hamburger restaurant in California which they franchised and devised its golden arches trademark.  Although the chain was later acquired by Ray Kroc who attempted to re-write its history, these two brothers were the real founders of McDonalds.

Australia.  Among the early McDonalds who came to Australia were:
  • Donald McDonald, a convict transported to Australia on the Florentia in 1830. 
  • William and Mary MacDonald, who arrived on the William Nicholl from Skye in 1833.
  • John and Mary McDonald, who arrived in South Australia from the Highlands in the late 1830's and headed for the Victoria goldfields.  Grandson Angus later became a successful businessman in Mount Gambier.
  • Donald and Agnes MacDonald, who came from Skye in the 1840's.  His son Charles became one of the largest cattle ranchers in Australia.
  • and Henry and Una McDonald, who arrived on the Derry Castle from Liverpool in 1854.  They later settled in Wellingrove, NSW.
New ZealandHector McDonald was an early trader and settler in the Otaki region of North Island, New Zealand.

However, more McDonalds settled on South Island, particular in towns such as Dunedin and Invercargill on its southern tip.  Alexander MacDonald had been a missionary in Samoa in the 1830's who had ended up there.  Among the early settlers were John McDonald who ran a flour mill in Berwick and Donald and Agnes MacDonald who lived in Waikiwi.  Further north was Alan McDonald who raised cattle on a large scale at Woodbury in south Canterbury.  

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If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

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John MacDonald
or John of Islay was the fourth and last Lord of the Isles.  He died in 1503.
Flora MacDonald's fame came from helping Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after the 1746 defeat at Culloden.
John A. Macdonald from Scotland was the first Prime Minister of Canada.  His tenure of office spanned nineteen years and made him the dominating figure of Canadian Confederation.
Ramsay MacDonald, born of humble circumstances in Morayshire, rose through the ranks of the Parliamentary Labor party to become twice British Prime Minister, once in the 1920's and again in the 1930's.
Dick and Mac McDonald were the real founders of the McDonald's hamburger chain.  In the late 1940's they pioneered the principles of fast food at their McDonald's restaurant in San Bernardino, California.
John D. MacDonald was a Florida-based crime and thriller writer, best known for his Travis McGee series.
Sir Trevor McDonald from Trinidad has been a most well-known news presenter on British TV.

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  • 60,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 80,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 88,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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