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Ancient Celtic Government & Society
Clan Donald tradition traces its roots deep into the 1st century ADC to the àrd righ(Gaelic = high king) of Eire (Ireland). For over a thousand years Eire was divided into many small kingdoms each with their own righ (pronounced Ree). In Celtic society each Righ was elected from a family (clan) within the kingdom. The royal family, within four generations, were referred to as the derbfine (or geilfine when including five generations). The àrd righ (high king) was also elected from the derbfine, or occasionally the geilfine, of the àrd righ‘s family. Displaying The Red Right Hand within a coat of arms indicated that person’s ancestry included one within the geilfine (5 fingers or 5 generations) of the àrd righ‘sfamily. Scottish historians have disputed the accuracy of Clan Donald’s royal ancestry assuming the feudal paradigm of father to son royal lineage. Based upon that false assumption they concluded that our royal pedigree had gaping holes that would require, as one historian put it, “the longevity of the antediluvian patriarchs” on the part of our ancestors to explain. But the Celtic law of geilfine (symbolized by the red right hand) explains the 3 or 4 generation gaps in our traditional royal pedigree. It is not meant to be an unbroken father to son pedigree line, but shows only those who reigned as high king or Ard Righ of ancient Ireland. This is a prime example of what the authors Rev. Angus Macdonald & Rev. Archibald Macdonald referred to in their introduction to “The Clan Donald” on page 50, “We confess to attaching very little value to the opinion of Scottish historians regarding the history of the Highlands. Ignorance of the language, customs, and traditions of the people has so tainted their utterances; racial hatred has likewise so blinded them to facts, that their deliverances on the difficult problems of Highland history are in the main quite unreliable.”
The first time I read the above statement I could not understand how or why Scottish historians would be accused of ignorance of the language, traditions, & customs of Scottish Highlanders & Western Islanders. But the more I read other histories of the Highlands the more I saw the bias (even racial hatred) to which the authors of “The Clan Donald” referred. Scottish historians, from the Lowlands of Scotland, uniformly ignored the libraries of ancient Gaelic manuscripts known to Highlanders and rewrote Highland Scottish history to suit the purposes of those who governed. They have described our Gaelic, Highland & Island ancestors as illiterate, immoral barbarians, but we now know from ancient Gaelic manuscripts that they had a beautiful literary heritage. Their literature reflects a culture very different from their contemporary Lowland Scottish cultures, but in many ways more like 21st century western society.
So an understanding of our ancestor’s culture is essential, and for the most part is not found in most histories of Scotland. In our ancestors’ Celtic culture Righ were chosen after they demonstrated leadership ability rather than the “Divine birthright” of European feudalism who’s roots grew out of the Roman occupation. This alone would explain the generation gaps if British historians were actually looking for a reasonable explanation. But they were more interested in discrediting what the Highlanders wrote about themselves than understanding them. The different manner in which the Celts determined their leaders was discussed by the 3rd century Roman historian Cassius Dio. He noted (with disgust) the equality of women in Celtic society in matters of owning property, conducting warfare, and even leading armies made up of men & women. These “pillars of Celtic society” were viewed as totally unacceptable in Roman society. Roman influence on the development of European feudalism is common knowledge. However, the evidence of democratic elements and equality for women in ancient Celtic society have been rebuffed by most British Historians who were intent on justifying their government’s “bringing civilization” to those whom they considered barbaric Highlanders, Irish, and Welsh descendants of the original British.
Dalriada was a 4th century Irish colony in what later became Western Scotland. Dalriada was established under the Celtic system. But under feudal law the “divine” right of rule was the birthright of the eldest son of a King or a Lord. Daughters only had standing if there were no sons. Even then their standing often depended upon how well they married. Norman and Anglo/Saxon feudalism was first introduced to Scotland in the 11th century, but didn’t totally replace the Celtic system in the Scottish Highlands for another 600 years. The Kingdom of the Isles, under the leadership of Clan Donald, was one of the last to conform to the feudal system and this brought our ancestors into conflict with the Scottish feudal government imposed upon them. Since our modern society is almost totally based upon the feudal concepts of property ownership and indentured servitude (today we call it debt) we must undergo a major paradigm shift in order to understand our ancestors’ Celtic way of life.
Getting to Know Our Ancestors
A prime example of modern historians’ failure to make this paradigm shift is when they assume Celtic lines of authority follow feudal heraldic laws (strictly paternal). They don’t. Under ancient Celtic law any or all of the sons, daughters, grandchildren or cousins who could trace back to a common grandfather Righ were candidates to be the next Righ. In 1st century AD Roman occupied Britain the famous Iceni Celtic warrior queen Boadicea (Boadicca) led the ancient Britannic people against the Roman occupation with the battle cry, “how much better is poverty with no master than wealth with slavery!” Boadicea almost achieved for her ancient Britains the freedom from Roman tyranny enjoyed by her Celtic neighbors. Both the Irish & Scots had successfully repulsed Roman conquest. Ironically, a thousand years later it was Saxon & Norman feudal systems, spawned by the Roman conquest of Europe that were imposed by the British government upon the Scottish lowlands, then Ireland, & finally the Scottish Highlands & Western Isles.
Celtic kingdoms were usually divided among all the children and even grandchildren in order to preserve local rule. Local clans or kingdoms formed alliances or temporary confederations rather than a strong central government. These confederations were maintained by the giving of “hostages” in much the same manner as later kingdoms made alliances through royal marriage. These “hostages” were not prisoners, but guests of the chief’s house. They were raised according to the customs of their host which fostered understanding. Niall of the Nine Hostages established such unions with nine other kingdoms in the 5th Century. For over 600 years Clan Donald documentation has shown descent from the geilfine of the Ard Ri of Eire symbolized by The Red Right Hand. Our Celtic royal ancestry includes Niall of the Nine Hostages and back to Conn ceud cathach (hundred battles) àrd righ of Eire about 125 AD. Clan Donald and the Kings of the Isles (later dubbed the Lords of the Isles) were the last remnant of a Celtic style kingdom to be overcome by the European tidal wave of feudalism.
21st Century Disputes of Clan Donald Traditional History
Recent conclusions from yDNA studies have added a new challenge to Clan Donald traditions that we are descended from Colla Uais and Conn ceud cathach. This new challenge is based upon observations that yDNA mutations occur extremely infrequently over many (even “hundreds of”) generations. However, like the 19th century Scottish historians’ challenge, these studies are inappropriately focused on paternal, or yDNA. Studies of the maternal lines (Mitochondrial or MtDNA) make similar (to a lessor degree) claims to genetic pattern retention, but “bipaternal models (which include both parents) show that MtDNA actually underestimates how quickly human populations become homogenous in ancestry.” In other words, excluding either parent’s genetic influence may result in an overestimated number of generations to a common ancestor. This, more recent genetic tracking report and a new computerized genealogical relations mapping tool both indicate the common ancestor of most groups is now shown to be much more recent than the 20,000 to 30,000 years originally claimed by Prof. Sykes. His extreme projections of common ancestors are problematic because of multiple hapogroups (R1a & R1b) among documented male line descendants of Somerled. Prof. Sykes has concluded that only 17% of those with the surname Macdonald (including alternate spellings) are descended from Somerled (R1a haplogroup). A more reasonable explanation for the various haplogroups is that Prof. Syke’s estimates of yDNA marker retention are overstated.
As of February of 2015 my wife and I have been able to trace our individual genealogies back to the 16th century on a few of our lines. The “Finding relations ” program cross matched common ancestors in our two family trees and determined my wife & I have at least four common ancestors! We were born on opposite ends of North America. She is from New England, Pilgrim ancestry when my ancestors were still in Ireland & Scotland. The startling determination we were 12th cousins was softened considerably when the same program determined we were both more closely related (11th cousins) to almost every one of the 30 other people in a genealogy class we attended! The other class members had Paternal (yDNA) ancestry from all over the world, different continents, and different races yet we all had a documented common ancestor within the last 400 years.
Paternal, yDNA genetic studies alone give an incomplete picture. Conclusions drawn solely from these studies can be misleading, especially when used to determine the number of generations to a common ancestor. Factoring in the maternal, MtDNA drastically reduces the number of generations to a genetic common ancestor placing him closer to what Clan Donald’s traditional ancestry has maintained for hundreds of years. Consider the improbability that the closest common ancestor of people with variations of the same surname lived 20,000 years ago, rather than 1,000 years ago. This is the conclusion some geneticists leap to. It is not logical since surnames have only been in use for the last 1,000 years! The 21st century pioneers of tracing genetic markers alsofail to consider recorded, historical migrations as a viable explanation for similar genes shared by modern Norse and Scottish people. It is an historical fact that 30,000 Scots migrated to Norway from 1600 to 1650. That is as many as migrated to Northern Ireland during that same period! The 17th century Scottish plantations of Northern Ireland effectively displaced the native Irish, Catholic population and left a undisputed impact on the Northern Irish genetic imprint. Yet some argue that common genetic markers between modern Norse & modern Clan Donald are sufficient reason to disregard our traditional genealogy and traditional Clan Donald history.
The Red Right Hand
Almost a thousand years of written history testify of our traditional link to the ancient àrd righ geilfine of Ireland symbolized by the The Red Right Hand in the coat of arms of the Somerled window. This window was once prominently displayed over the entrance of Armadale castle and is now exhibited at the Museum of the Isles. The Red Right Hand is also part of the 1655 official seal of Macdonald of Sleat on the upper right corner of this web site and Glengarry’s armorial Bearings. The Red Right Hand is an ancient Celtic symbol of those descended from the original Gaelic Milesian invasion of Ireland. One of the oldest existing histories of Clan Donald, the Red & Black Books of Clanranald (Reliquiæ Celticæ) begins with the Milesian myth. The Red Right Hand is also mentioned in Oisinic poetry as one of the banners of the Fianna, the ancient order of Irish champions or warriors. The champion Cailte‘s banner was called the Lamh Dhearg (Gaelic = red right hand). It was also the symbol of the 5th century àrd righ Niall (Neil) of the Nine Hostages. Although written off as only a legend by many historians recent yDNA studies have verified genetic evidence of a common ancestor among many clans with traditions they descend from Niall of the Nine Hostages. Recent interpretations of Clan Donald yDNA concluded the vast majority of Clan Donald, or even those with the surname MacDonald or its various spellings in English, are not direct paternal descendants of Somhairlidh (R1a Haplogroup) or Colla Uais. But they do share a similar yDNA pattern with others claiming that Niall of the Nine Hostages was their ancestor (R1b Haplogroup). When seeking to understand the Celtic culture of our 4th to 11th century ancestors it is essential that we not ignore what they said about themselves in favor of 17th century Scottish feudal heraldic law, 19th century Scottish historical re-constructionists, or even 21st century geneticists. Continue reading of Clan Donald’s origins by clicking Clan Cholla, the name by which Clan Donald was known anciently.