McDonald Surname Genealogy

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

McDonald Resources on

McDonald Ancestry

. 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

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
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.

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
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
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
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.

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

Arrivals in the 18th century

  • John McDonald who reached
    Virginia from Argyllshire in 1752.  After the death of his wife in
    he joined the wagon train west and bought the old Daniel Boone farm on
    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.

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
    in the late 1830’s and headed for the Victoria goldfields.
    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
    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
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
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.

Select McDonald Miscellany

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

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
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.

Select McDonalds 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)




Click here for return to front page

Leave a Reply