ONE of the largest and oldest of all Scottish Highland clans, the Macdonalds are probably now the most widespread of all the clans, with tens of thousands of people of that name to be found in the USA and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, throughout England and Ireland and above all in Scotland.

There are many variants of the name and numerous branches of the clan, such as the MacDonnells of Antrim who are a cadet branch of Clan Donald and have their own chief recognised in Ireland.

Here the Lord Lyon King of Arms recognises several distinct Macdonald clans who have their own chiefs, namely Macdonald of Clanranald, MacDonell of Glengarry, MacDonald of Keppoch, Macdonald of Sleat, and Clan MacAlister which was the earliest branch to split off from the main Macdonald clan. Other branches without recognised chiefs include the MacDonalds of Glencoe, Dunnyveg, Lochalsh and Ardnamurchan.

No matter the name or branch, all Macdonalds trace their origin back to Domhnall, or Donald, the son of Ragnall mac Somairle, usually rendered in English as Ranald. As his name suggests, Ranald was the son of Somerled, the creator of the kingdom of Argyll and the Isles, which for a brief period in the 12th century, was independent of the kingdoms of both Norway and Scotland.

Somerled was almost certainly of both Irish and Norse descent and is recognised as a great fighter who welded his own kingdom together and was the founder of a dynasty that is very much extant today. DNA studies have identified 500,000 people worldwide as descendants of Somerled, making him second only to Genghis Khan in the procreation stakes. His grandson Donald is traditionally held to be the progenitor of Clan Donald, though there is some dispute among genealogists and historians as to who exactly Donald was and what he did to found the clan.

According to traditions passed down by seannachies, the clan bards who were charged with memorising a clan’s ancestry, the Macdonalds could have been around a lot longer. According to historian William Anderson: “Sir James MacDonald of Kintyre, in a letter addressed, in 1615, to the bishop of the Isles, declares that his race ‘has been tenne hundred years kyndlie Scottismen under the kings of Scotland’.” That’s probably a huge exaggeration, but there is no doubting the longevity of Clan Donald.

As I have previously stated, when it comes to histories of the clans, I usually refer to the book The Great Historic Families of Scotland published by Dr James Taylor in 1889, but he is quiet on the origins of Clan Donald.

For this column, therefore, I rely on other Victorian accounts, such as the Clan Donald official history written for the Clan Donald Society by two Macdonald clergymen in 1896. There’s also The Scottish Nation, Or the Surnames, Families, Literature, Honours and Biographical History of The People of Scotland by William Anderson, published in 1863. It is also a much more recent publication which informs most of this column, however. I am indebted to the Clan Donald Society of the Highlands and Islands for their website publication of a 2013 history of the clan by Dr Ian Macdonald who gives a very even-handed account of the origins of Clan Donald.

All historians of the clan need to be familiar with the Books of Clanranald, the so-called Red and Black Books which are manuscripts dating from the early 18th century and which give the story of the origins of the clan. The authors of the 1896 history state: “Though not perhaps invariably accurate in every date and detail, yet, on the whole, we believe it to be the most honest and reliable of all the ancient authorities on the origin and history of the clan.”

IT is the Book of Clanranald which makes the bold statement that the ancestors of Clan Donald include Conn, the second century High King of Ireland, via the Clan Cholla, one of the great families of the Kingdom of Dalriada. Fanciful, but nevertheless possible.

They are on much more certain ground about Somerled who was killed attempting to expand his kingdom of the Isles to the rest of Scotland at the Battle of Renfrew in 1164. The Clanranald books are the source of the story that Somerled was betrayed before the battle and killed by an assassin.

The children and grandchildren of Somerled are almost lost to written history, apart from Donald as Lord of the Isles making a charter with the monks of Paisley Abbey. Such obscurity was the fate of so many of the founders of the clans which arose in the Highlands in the 12th to 15th centuries, but we can trace back many generations of Macdonalds since them.

Somerled’s grandson Donald inherited his father’s share of the kingdom that was divided between the three sons of Somerled. Donald’s uncle founded Clan MacDougall, but it was Donald who succeeded to his father’s lands and who was named Lord of Islay. He had possessions on the mainland around South Kintyre but otherwise seems to have kept himself to Islay and the isles as the kings of Scots fought with the kings of Norway for possession of most of the west coast of Scotland.

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He is alleged by one chronicler to have killed his Uncle Dougall, and also to have sent back a nasty present to King Alexander II – the head of the man that the king had sent to ask him to swear fealty. As warlike as his grandfather, Donald is also known to have endowed church buildings such as the Benedictine monastery on Iona and reportedly went on a pilgrimage to Rome to receive absolution from the Pope for his numerous misdeeds.

In 1266, the Macdonalds were first mentioned in royal history in the Treaty of Perth which saw all their lands come under the overlordship of the Scottish Crown rather than that of Norway.

Dr Macdonald’s history skips a generation, and no wonder as Alexander of Islay was allied to England’s King Edward Longshanks, but Macdonald then records the actions of the first great chief of Clan Donald, Alexander’s brother Angus Og who succeeded him.

“Angus Og MacDonald, Lord of Islay, was a grandson of Donald and a great, great grandson of Somerled. Angus Og assisted Robert the Bruce in his quest to be King of Scots. At the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Angus Og and the men of the Isles fought in support of King Robert the Bruce and helped him win the battle. As a result, Angus Og received the Lordship of Lochaber, with Duror and Glencoe as well as the islands of Mull, Jura, Coll and Tiree. Angus Og was succeeded by his son John of Islay.”

The clan also received a singular honour from the Bruce – the king decreed that they would always form the right wing of his royal army, a distinction they held all the way to Culloden.

Angus Og is one of the nobles mentioned in John Barbour’s epic poem The Brus which recalls how Robert the Bruce and the clan chief became friends:

And Angus of Ile [Islay] that tyme was Syr

And lord and ledar of Kyntyr.

The King rycht weill resawyt he,

And undertook his man to be.

And he and his on mony wyes,

He abandowynt to his service,

And for mair sekyrness gaiff him syne,

His Castle of Douaverdyne [Dunaverty].

In the course of a few years, we can see how the Macdonalds grew as a clan in the way that the other great Highland clans developed in the 14th century – by being on the winning side of the battle for Scottish independence and by expanding their lands either through royal decree or marriage, with Angus Og’s son John particularly successful at the latter. They also began to develop the culture and form of a clan, with the chief ruling through his subordinate officers and having the final word on all matters legal and political.

Dr Macdonald tells us: “By marriage, John of Islay obtained the territory from Knoydart to Moidart and the islands of Eigg, Rhum, Barra, Uists and St. Kilda. He became the first Lord of the Isles and when he died in 1387, he controlled the whole of the Hebrides from Lewis to Islay (except Skye). And also the mainland from Kintyre to Moidart.”

Only four generations of Macdonalds would hold the title Lord of the Isles – it is now one of the Scottish titles of the heir to the UK throne – but in that time the Macdonalds very nearly took over the whole north of Scotland. The clan fought numerous battles as it attempted to impose its Lordship of the Isles over much of the mainland, and also showed its ambition to gain titles.

John of Islay’s son Donald married Mariota, Countess of Ross, and through her he claimed the earldom. That brought him into conflict with Robert Stewart, 2nd Duke of Albany, and his forces led by the Earl of Mar. The ferocious Battle of Harlaw in 1411 proved inconclusive though the Macdonalds had to retreat west.

The Earldom of Ross was eventually awarded to Mariota by King James I and thus the Macdonald Lord of the Isles also became the Earl of Ross. But James imprisoned Alexander, son of Donald and Mariota, during one of the frequent rebellions by nobles during his reign. Alexander’s cousin called out the clan and won a decisive battle over the royal forces led by the Earls of Mar and Caithness. On James I’s assassination in 1437, Alexander was finally recognised as Earl of Ross.

DOWN the decades, the growth of the Macdonalds’ landholdings and their huge influence on the Highlands began to bring them into conflict with other ambitious clans, most notably Clan Campbell. As their territory expanded, so the clan diversified – they had just too much land for it all to be ruled from a centre in Argyll, so branches of Clan Donald grew up, showing just how clanship was as much a product of territory as kin. In 1493, King James IV had made the clan forfeit the Lordship of the Isles, following the forfeiture of the Ross Earldom 18 years earlier.

James V and his son James VI and I began recognising the different branches of Clan Donald as clans in their own right, so no longer could the Macdonalds put an army of 10,000 men in the field as they had done at Harlaw. But they were still a force to be reckoned with as the Campbells found out during the wars of the Three Kingdoms. Led by the Marquess of Montrose and Alasdair Mac Colla of the Clan Donald of Dunnyveg, the royalist forces led by the Macdonalds annihilated the Campbells at the Battle of Inverlochy on February 2, 1645.

The National:

After the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692 in which 70 members of the MacIain branch of the clan were killed, the Macdonalds supported the Jacobite side in the 1715 rising, but by the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rising in 1745, the clan was split in its adherence. Many fought and died for the Jacobites at Culloden and one notable woman stayed loyal to the prince – Flora MacDonald, who famously rescued Charles Edward Stuart from certain death.

The clan suffered with all others in the Highlands and Islands during Clearances, and there are instances of entire Macdonald areas emptied by emigration to Canada and the USA.

That only spread its influence, with Glasgow-born Sir John Alexander Macdonald becoming the first Prime Minister of Canada.

The Lord Lyon King of Arms judged in 1947 that Rt Hon Alexander Godfrey Macdonald, 7th Lord Macdonald of Sleat, should be named High Chief of Clan Donald, and his son Godfrey James is the current chief, the Macdonald of Macdonald.