McDonald Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McDonald Surname Meaning

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.

McDonald Surname Resources on The Internet

McDonald and MacDonald Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Western Isles)
  • to Ireland, Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand

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 MacDonald 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.

John MacDonald, a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, had fled to Fermanagh in Ireland after the defeat in 1746.  His son James, born there in 1761, became one of John Wesley’s itinerant preachers in England.  James’s son George and grandson Frederic were also well-known Methodist ministers.  George had four daughters – Alice, Georgiana, Agnes and Louisa – who all married famous men.

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 1770’s.  These McDonalds are thought to have moved to Alabama and then to Mississippi in the 1830’s.   
  • 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:

  • Roderick McDonald who left the Isle of Coll (Inner Hebrides) with his family for Tasmania in 1820.
  • 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 Zealand.  Hector 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 ended up there.  Among 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.

McDonald Surname Miscellany

Somerled and MacDonald.  Studies by the Oxford genetic scientist Brian Sykes in 2005 have showed that the Somerled who is credited with driving the Vikings out of western Scotland in the 12th century was not, as legend would have it, a Celtic hero from a long line of Irish kings but was – as his Y-chromosome shows – of Norse origin.

Somerled may have 500,000 living descendants, second only to Genghis Khan.  The key person for the MacDonald descent was John, Lord of the Isles, who was known as “Good John” and who died in 1386.  He was the progenitor of most of the Somerled descendants.  DNA testing has shown that all of the MacDonald clan chieftains were genetic descendants of Somerled, as are roughly a quarter of all those who bear the MacDonald name.

Lord of the Isles.  The clan takes its name from Donald, the 3rd Lord of the Isles and grandson of Somerled, who lived until 1269.  It was Donald’s great grandson Angus Og, the 6th Lord of the Isles, who sheltered Robert the Bruce at the lowest ebb of his career.  Later, leading a small group of Islemen, Angus Og was instrumental in Bruce’s defeat of the English at Bannockburn.

Angus Og’s grandson Donald, the 8th Lord of the Isles, commanded an army of 10,000 men, including every clan of the Highlands and Isles.  They regarded the MacDonalds chiefs as heads of the ancient “race of Conn” and lineal heirs of the ancient kings of the Dalriadic Scots going back to the 6th century.

Donald of Harlaw’s son and grandson were both Earls of Ross and Lords of the Isles, commanding both Argyll and Inverness as well as Antrim in northern Ireland (as MacDonnell).  The Earldom was lost in 1471.  But the Lordship of the Isles was not absorbed by Scotland until the middle of the 16th century.

Armadale Castle.  The MacDonalds arrived in Skye from the Southern Hebrides in the 15th century.  They occupied Dunscaith and Knock castle, both within a few miles of Armadale.

By 1650 there were two farmhouses at Armadale; but after 1690 the family moved back to Duntulm castle at the northern end of Skye.  The farm and gardens at Armadale were looked after by various other MacDonalds.  The famous Flora MacDonald was married at Armadale on November 6, 1750.

In about 1790 the first Lord MacDonald returned to build a new mansion house, part of which remains as the white section of the building seen today.

Reader Feedback – Massacre at Glencoe.  I was looking at the MacDonald info where it mentioned Glencoe and listed 78 people slaughtered. I was led to believe from a previous study that it was 38 people.  But then I totally forgot about the 40 women and children who froze or starved. These are the 78 people who suffered a form of horrible death at the hands of the Campbells.

I have Campbells in my family tree and I am trying to figure when the McDonalds went to PEI and where my Campbells went to.

Angela (

MacDonalds and Culloden.  Much has been made of the story or legend that the MacDonalds, on being refused the premier position on the right of the line (which, it is said, they had claimed since Bannockburn), sulked and refused to charge.

Sir Walter Scott related how MacDonell of Keppoch advanced to the charge with a bitter exclamation, “Mo dhia, an do thrieg clann mo chinnidh mi?” or “My God, have the children of my tribe foresaken me?”  However, Andrew Lang has maintained that the MacDonalds did not foresake their leader.  If Keppoch used the expression, it was instead a hasty and irritable one during a momentary hesitation.

Clan Donald may not have added to their laurels during that fateful day.  But they deserved no ignominy. Young Clanranald himself was badly wounded.  All three regiments lost many officers and men, including MacDonald of Scotus, killed with twenty of his men around him, and Keppel’s brother Donald.

Reader Feedback – MacDonalds and Culloden.  Just found your website and wanted to write in with a correction. I’m preparing a book dealing solely with the MacDonalds’ part in the battle.  Its working title is The Culloden Assassination and is focused on Keppoch himself. I’ve bought a copy of Tales of a Grandfather and Scott doesn’t quote Keppoch in Gaelic, only in English.

So that begs the question: “Where does the Gaelic quote come from?”

You may also be interested to know that Scott says the reason why the clansmen suffered so heavily was because they had been told to expect a march, not a battle, and thus had stowed away their heavy targes.

Regards, George F. Campbell (

The MacDonald Sisters. The Rev. George Browne MacDonald, born in Lancashire in 1805, was the father of four famous daughters, the MacDonald sisters.

Alice (1837-1910) married John Lockwood Kipling and their son was the writer and poet Rudyard Kipling.

Georgiana (1840-1920) married (Sir) Edward Burne-Jones, the pre-Raphaelite painter, and, despite their increasingly strained relationship, wrote his biography. Her circle of close friends included George Eliot and William Morris. Georgiana settled in the seaside village of Rottingdean where her nephew Rudyard Kipling also lived for a while.  The novelist Angela Thirkell was her grand-daughter.

Agnes (1846-1906) married the painter (Sir) Edward J. Poynter who became President of the Royal Academy. Their architect son Ambrose was employed by Rudyard Kipling to make alterations to Bateman’s, his second Sussex home, in 1902.

Louisa (1845-1925) was the wife of Alfred Baldwin, the Bewdley iron-master. She wrote a number of books, including novels and poetry, though nothing of lasting value. Her son Stanley Baldwin, a politician, was later British Prime Minister during the General Strike of 1926 and the Abdication crisis of 1936.

Meanwhile the youngest sister Edith (1848-1947) remained single and wrote the family Annals in 1927.

The Glenaladale Settlers.  Glenaladale is a settlement in South Uist in the Western Isles.  The islanders there were being forced out by Colin MacDonald, the tacksman of Boisdale.  The story goes that he had a very religious wife who was trying to force the Catholics there to become Protestant.  They beat the people to church with a yellow rod and Protestantism came to be called the religion of the yellow stick.

In February 1772, Captain John MacDonald of Glenaladale went to Greenock and chartered the Alexander. Three months later this vessel, with 210 emigrants, set sail for St. John, New Brunswick.  One hundred of these were from Uist and 110 from the mainland.  The family heads included Donald and Angus MacDonald from Boisdale and John MacDonald from Stonybrig.  They were accompanied by Father James MacDonald and by a Dr. Roderick MacDonald, who owing to his medical prowess and their own prudence, successfuly combated the cases of fever which occurred.

They arrived safely in the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the end of seven weeks and dropped anchor in what is now known as the harbor of Charlottetown, opposite to a spot that had been partially cleared of woods in preparation for this new colony. 

Eminent Canadian MacDonalds

MacDonald Birth Place Position
John 1787 USA (New York) Canadian politician
John 1791 PEI (West River) PEI politician
John 1800 Scotland Toronto merchant
John S. 1812 Ontario (Glengarry) Ontario Premier
John A. 1815 Scotland Canadian Prime Minister
Donald 1816 USA (New York) Canadian senator
Donald A. 1817 Ontario (Glengarry) Ontario Lt. Governor
brother of John S.
Daniel 1822 PEI (St. Andrews) Catholic bishop
Ranald 1824 USA (Oregon) English teacher in Japan
John 1824 Scotland Canadian politician
Hugh 1827 Nova Scotia (Antigonish) Nova Scotia judge
James 1828 Nova Scotia (Pictou) Nova Scotia judge
Andrew 1829 PEI (Three Rivers) PEI judge
William F. 1831 PEI (Tracadie) Tobacco manufacturer
Ronald 1835 Nova Scotia (Antigonish) Catholic bishop

Archibald MacDonald and the Hudson Bay Company.  Archibald McDonald grew up in Invergarry, Invernessshire where his father was the head forester to Edward Ellice.  There he learnt to shoot, fish, hunt, and stalk the deer under the expert guidance of his father.

Edward Ellice also recruited for the Hudson Bay Company.  As he commented later, “I took great care to send out the best men we could find, principally from the north of Scotland.  They went out first as apprentices, then were made clerks, and gradually advanced to higher positions in the service.”  Archibald MacDonald was enlisted for this company.

Archibald sailed for North America in the summer of 1854 on the Prince of Wales, a sailing ship of 600 tons, on the annual voyage from London to York Factory via Hudson Strait and Bay.

The influence of the fur traders stretched at that time from Labrador to the mouth of the Columbia river.  Except for the Red river settlement, the territory was entirely populated by feuding tribes of nomadic Indians.  Trading posts were positioned at intervals of 200-300 mile distances on waterways navigable by canoes and rowing boats.

Large numbers of Indians were employed as voyageurs and hunters.  They were not easy to handle and it required men of strong character, tact, good judgment and fair dealing to win their respect and to exercise discipline over them.  Such was the test that awaited a young recruit from Scotland.

Reader Feedback – McDonalds from the Inner Hebrides to Tasmania.  Roderick McDonald with his wife and family left the Isle of Coll and sailed to Hobart in 1820. Their family settled at Launceston. Hector McDonald who travelled to New Zealand is one of Roderick’s sons.

Jenny Hainsworth (

Hector McDonald, Early New Zealand Trader and Settler.  Hector McDonald had emigrated at the age of six with his family from Scotland to Tasmania in 1818.  At an early age he joined a whaling vessel and in 1832 established a shore-whaling station at Kapiti Island in New Zealand.  When the colonial settlement of Port Nicholson (Wellington) was established in 1840, he turned to trading.  He ran two schooners between his store at Otaki and the new settlement, trading in Maori produce.

He had met the local Maori chieftain, Te Rauparaha, and the two developed a mutual respect.  He married his niece, Te Kopi, but she died while giving birth to their only son, Hugh.  Hugh was raised by Hector and his second wife Agnes, who were to have five daughters and five sons of their own.  The family grew up bilingual.

In 1858, when a coach service began along the coast between Wanganui and Wellington, Hector McDonald built an accommodation house and changing stables at the mouth of the Hokio Stream.  Agnes and Hector ran the accommodation house for eleven years.  More than a convenient stop for travellers, it provided a link between the developing colonial society and the coastal Maori villages of Horowhenua.

In December 1876 Hector McDonald was elected to the first Manawatu County Council as the member for Horowhenua Riding.  However, he died eihteen months later, after having collapsed in the street outside an Otaki hotel.  He left an estate of just £47.

By the end of the 1880s the Horowhenua region had been opened up to European settlement.  To the new settlers the McDonalds were figures of romance and the acknowledged authorities on things Maori.  In a period when the area was still predominantly Maori, they had adapted themselves to the dominant culture and provided an important link between Maori society and the immigrant population.

Reader Feedback – Macdonalds in Samoa.  There were Macdonalds that arrived in Samoa maybe in the early 1800’s. We are trying to find out where they came from originally. The name I have is Allan or possibly Alexander Macdonald. He may have been a builder. He married in Samoa and lived in Palauli, Savaii.

One possibility suggested is Alan Macdonald, the son of Angus Macdonald (born in 1770) and his wife Flora Mackinnon.

Any information you may have of ships that came on or before that time I would like to research. Allan Macdonald is my great great great grandfather. But we have no information on him.

Maria Hunt (

McDonald Names

  • 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 well-known news presenter on British TV.

McDonald Numbers Today

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

McDonald and Like Surnames

The Scottish Highlands were Gaelic-speaking and their clan names appeared first in Gaelic and only later in an English version.  Each clan controlled its own local territory and frequently fought with neighbors.  Many, however, took the clan name in order to receive clan protection.

The clan downfall came following the 1715 and 1745 uprisings with the Battle of Culloden when the clan culture was broken up and clan tartans banned (although they came back into fashion with Queen Victoria a hundred years later).  The Highland clearances, supplanting people for sheep, was a further blow and many Highlanders were forced into emigration, still speaking their native Gaelic, to Canada and then to Australia and New Zealand.

Here are some of the clan surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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