Home Ancestry Documentation Clan Donald is Celtic
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Doiciméadú na Sinnsear Clann Domhnaill ar Cheilteach

Documentation of Clan Donald's Celtic Ancestry

Several modern historians have disputed the traditional genealogy of Clan Donald in recently published histories of The Lords of the Isles, Clan Donald, and Somerled (Somhairlidh). It is ironic that when Celtic culture was viewed as barbaric Clan Donald suffered the consequences of being the last remaining truly Celtic society. Now that Celtic music and culture are experiencing a renaissance, some historians are downplaying Clan Donald's Celtic Heritage or even denying the Celtic origin of Clan Donald altogether. Because Clan Donald's traditional genealogy is being replaced by some in favor of a paternal Norse ancestry for Somhairlidh, Clan Donald Heritage is taking on the project of documenting the original sources and verifying the Celtic genealogy of Clan Donald. Our Norse ancestry is well documented through Somhairlidh's second wife, Ragnhilda, Donald's grandmother. There is no issue we have Norse ancestry.  There are many plausible explanations for the descendants of Somhairlidh possessing common genes with some people of Norway, as well as Ireland and Scotland.  But to dispute our Royal Celtic lineage is an assault on our heritage.  It contradicts our past official Clan Donald Historians and Genealogists and a millennia of oral and recorded family tradition.

The Book of the Dean of Lismore

The problem is that modern historians ignore the Celtic law of succession by derbfine or geilfine and attempt to put feudal restrictions on the Royal Celtic ancestry of Somhairlidh. The irony of this is that the Royal Celtic ancestry of the first kings of Scotland from Kenneth mac Alpin and Fergus mac Erc of Dalriada was based upon Celtic derbfine. When Malcolm died in 1034 leaving no direct male heir, his son-in-law Criman, placed his son and Malcolm's grandson, Duncan in line to be the next king.  Unlike feudal law under the Celtic law of derbfine and/or geilfine a king's daughters1 or her sons were just as eligible as the King's eldest son to be the next ruler.

When the preeminent 19th century Scottish Historian W. F. Skene, Esq. F.S.A. Scot, presented Highland traditions (including the Red Book of Clanranald and the Dean of Lismore's book) before the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland they found it "curious" that Clan Donald traditions credited Somhairlidh with the expulsion of the Danes from the West coast of Scotland.  All the traditional Scottish histories credited the Scottish king with expelling the Danes and didn't even mention Somhairlidh (Somerled).   For centuries the traditions of Clan Donald were at odds with every history of Scotland.  Hugh Macdonald of Sleat,  James MacPherson, Sir Walter Scot, and then W. F. Skene brought Clan Donald traditions into the light from centuries of government oppression.   A & A MacDonald brought more of those traditions within our reach with their 1896 three volume history "The Clan Donald". In 1978 Donald J. MacDonald compressed Clan Donald history into a beautiful one volume work entitled Clan Donald We are fortunate to live in the age of the Internet when anyone can access the original ancient manuscripts and read them for themselves.  We are no longer shackled by limited access to the original documents.  We no longer are limited by the interpretation of a few scholars who were granted access to ancient manuscripts on condition their history was pleasing to those in power.  We are free to study it out for ourselves and come to our own conclusions.

So where do we look for birth and death records of the inhabitants of Dalriada prior to 1100 AD? Most of the records were kept in the churches and most of the churches in Alban Dalriada were raided and burned by Vikings. Ancient Dalriada was centered in Antrim, Ireland with colonies across the Irish sea in what later became Argyll, Scotland. Since the original kings of Dalriada were in Ireland it stands to reason the genealogical records would be there as well.

The copies of the 17th century Black & Red Books of Clanranald, that were originally written in the Hebridean Kingdom, were found in Ireland. They  begin with the Milesian Myth of the origins of the Celtic people.  The 14th century Declaration of Arbroath also cited the Milesian myth as a declaration of Scottish identity.   The Black & Red Books of Clanranald then state that Declaration of Arbroath 1320Gillebride (Somhairlidh's father) went back to Fermaugh, Ireland (Fernmhaighe as it was spelled anciently) to raise an army from among his kin and regain his rightful lands in Morvern (which later became Clan Donald Arnamurchan).  Where was this Fernmhaighe? It was located in Southwest County Armagh Ireland! Armagh was anciently called Oirghialla or Airghiálla (Gaelic = gold shackles), the kingdom established by the three Collas in Uster. Somhairlidh's grandfather was Gilledomnán (Gaelic = servant of Adomnán).  Adomnán was the next head of the Celtic Christian Church at Iona after Còllum Cille.  The cain Adomnán (Gaelic = law of Adomnán) was the ancient Celtic law of chivalry that required respect of women and had severe penalties for those who violated the chastity or reputation of women or children especially in times of war.   The name Gilledomnán has great significance in Celtic culture. The name  Somhairlidh mac Gillebride mhic Gilledomnán itself gives us three generations steeped in Celtic culture.

Because the right to rule under Celtic law was shared by anyone of the derbfine. In Irish records (and Clan Donald records) the next king was not automatically the oldest living son of the previous King, but his relationship (grandson, nephew, cousin) was always well documented. Consequently the Annals of Ireland are filled with the genealogies of Celtic leaders. So we must look to the ancient Annals of Ireland for verification of Clan Donald tradition that we are descended from the High Kings of Ireland. As you read the Annals of Ireland Annals of the Four Masters you will see the list of the Kings of Ireland seldom passes from father to son. Neither should the Traditional Royal Lines of Somhairlidh be mistaken for a lineal, paternal ancestry. Obvious examples of the rule of derbfine are Cairbre Riadal, son of Conn of a Hundred Battles' daughter being followed by Art, his uncle and son of Conn of a Hundred Battles.   Then in 323 AD the Three Collas, who were the nephews of the ruling Ard Ri (High King) of Ireland claimed the right by derbfine to that throne and proved it by defeating the king in combat as was common in that time. But their victory was short lived as they violated Celtic law by slaying their uncle which forfeited their posterity's place (that's us) in the Royal derbfine. This was referred to in the Annals of the Four Masters as "The curse of the Finghal".

Don Schlegal has done considerable research into his mother's Irish McDonnell line, including yDNA genetic research, and published his conclusions in The Ancestors of McDonalds of Somerset.  He disagrees with those who would attach a paternal Nordic ancestry to Somerled. I only recently discovered Don Schlegal's work through the Clan Donal, USA web site.  Another viable explanationHow to Train Your Dragon for similar genes shared by Norse and Scottish is the historical fact that 30,000 Scots migrated to Norway from 1600 to 1650.  That is as many as migrated to Northern Ireland during that period!  The 17th century Scottish plantations of Northern Ireland effectively displaced the native Irish Catholic population.  Long before the infamous 18th century "Daunting of the Isles" Scottish people set sail for distant lands.

STOP !  WARNING! DO NOT CONTINUE READING unless you have a sense of humor. Another (tongue in cheek) evidence of Scottish influence among the Vikings is the Dreamworks blockbuster animated film "How to Train Your Dragon" where all the real Vikings speak with a thick Scottish brogue and Shrekthe outcast rebellious son speaks with an American accent!  This modern fairytale takes place on an island, not in Norway.  The movie is based on a book by Cressida Cowell who said she was inspired by childhood memories of holidays in the Hebrides.  And there is no doubt the producers were inspired by how everyone fell in love with the tartan trews clad  "Shrek" (which arguably portrays the history of the feudal takeover of Scotland, complete with Lord Farquart).  Most historians have discredited Celtic histories as mere fairy tales despite their having been passed down for centuries.   Even the Annals of the Four Masters have been totally disregarded by modern historians in order to rewrite Scottish history to suit their own purposes.   Metaphorical stories have always been a major characteristic of Celtic culture (the Annals frequently mention dragon sightings).  So, what better way for Hollywood to portray a modern fairytale character who is "set in his ways" than to give him a Scottish brogue! And so with tongue in cheek to satisfy those who dismiss the Celtic classics as fiction we simply add "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Shrek" as indisputable evidence of our Celtic roots! In fact 5 of the last 7 box office hits from Disney's Pixar studios have had the leading characters speak with a Scottish brogue.  So the crowning evidence is Pixar's latest smash success 'Brave' that takes place in the ancient Scottish Highlands. Those familiar with the legend of Somhairlidh (Somerled) will recognize the story retold in 'Brave' as how Mirada's father, King Fergus became king.  In 'Brave' Merida's mother, Queen Elenor, sums it up nicely, "Legends are lessons that ring with truth".   Although this is merely a line from a modern fairy tale based upon Celtic traditions, it is a very pertinent line to consider as our modern historians weigh the validity of traditional Clan Donald legends and genealogies.

1Possibly the most famous example of a daughter inheriting the position of High King is Macha daughter of Ard Ri Aed Ruad.  She ruled as Ard Ri and led her warriors into battle long before Conn Cued Cathach.

Our search of ancient records of Ireland is possible because of an Internet project of Professor Marianne McDonald of the University College, Cork. The excerpts from the Annals of the Four Masters can be found in their entirety at celt.ucc.ie/search.html.