McDonald Surname Meaning, History & Origin
“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 Resources on
- The Clan Donald Center. Armadale castle on Skye.
- Clan Donald USA. US Donald clan site.
- My Macdonald Family Tree. Macdonalds in Inverness.
- McDonald Family of Port Glasgow
McDonalds from Ireland to Scotland.
- McDonald Family History McDonalds from Scotland to Canada.
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:
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
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
Carolina. They too migrated to Alabama.
1840’s, most McDonalds were to be found in the northeast corridor of
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:
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 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 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
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
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
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.
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.
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
about the 40 women and children who froze or starved. These are the 78
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.
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
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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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
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
with a yellow rod and Protestantism came to be called the religion of
the yellow stick.
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.
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
|John||1787||USA (New York)||Canadian politician|
|John||1791||PEI (West River)||PEI politician|
|John||1800 c.||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|
|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
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
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.
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
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.
- 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
- 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.
Select McDonald Numbers Today
- 60,000 in the UK (most numerous
- 80,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
- 88,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)
Select 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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