When visiting clan tents at any Highland Games anywhere in the world you will hear terms such as Chief, family, sept, and branch. These terms are used consistently in most clans, and Clan Donald’s booths are not an exception, though maybe they should be.
A Much Earlier Time
Most clan societies look to the 16th& 17th centuries as the time their clans were at the height of power. Their chiefs were feudal lords who obtained authority through both birthright and loyalty to the Scottish crown.
From the crown these “Lairds” obtained land and power over several unrelated families that lived on those lands. These families are now referred to as septs of those chiefs’ clans. This concept and practice are the foundation of the “clan sept lists” seen in most clan booths, on clan maps, and clan reference materials such as “Collins Guide to Scots Kith & Kin”. But Clan Donald’s height of power was hundreds of years earlier than the other clans and under a totally different form of government.
For hundreds of years prior to feudalism the government in the Highlands & Islands was a system of Celtic clan chiefs bound together in several loose confederations under minor kings called Righ. The right to govern in Celtic society was earned through individual deeds (actions) instead of government deeds (documents). The ancient Celtic chief was elected by his clan as the one most capable of leading them and removed from office if they failed. Those chiefs formed a Council of the Isles that represented their clans. They elected a High Chief called the Triathnan Eilean (King of the Isles). Many of the clans making up the Council which met on theEilean nan Comhairlidh, Islay were branches of Clan Donald, but others were not even closely related. Their participation in the Kingdom of the Isles was probably less than voluntary just as Europe’s feudalistic governments were based upon conquest and force. The concept of “If you’re not with us, then you are against us” prevailed at the time.
There is no reason to assume the Kingdom of the Isles was just “one family” any more than was the Kingdom of Scotland. The more we learn about our ancient ancestors the more the oversimplified version put forth in traditional Scottish histories gives way to understanding. The Gaelic writings of the seanchaidh (pronounced shawn-a-eh, Gaelic meaning oral historians) of the Triath (kingdom) make it clear that everyone included in 13th century Clan Donald were not directly descended from Donald of Islay, but were loyal to the leadership of the TriathnanEilean. The Kingdom of the Isles was initially a rival of the Kingdom of Scotland, but was eventually incorporated and recognized by Scotland as the “Lordship of the Isles”. Finally the Scottish crown declared the forfeiture of the Lordship in 1493. There are hundreds of surnames with little or no blood relationship to Clan Donald that have a legitimate claim of affiliation with Clan Donald because of the Lordship of the Isles. These families fought along side, lived along side, and considered themselves part of the TriathnanEilean and Clan Donald long before surnames were even in use among common folk.
Triath nan Eilean or Kingdom of the Isles
Clan Donald and the Kingdom (Lordship) of the Isles were Celtic societies living under Celtic laws. The Celtic law of rule by “derbfine” Gaelic meaning 4 generations) is one reason Clan Donald became divided into “sliochd” or branches, each ruled by a descendant of Donald of the Isles rather than the feudalistic concept of the eldest son inheriting a united kingdom. The Celtic way was to diffuse government into local kingdoms rather than have an all powerful, centralized government. The Celtic system allowed various clan chiefs to govern as they each saw fit for their clan. But it led to clan rivalries even between the Clan Donald branches. It exposed the small Celtic Kingdoms to the divide and conquer tactics of the Roman legions, and later Anglo/Saxon monarchs of Great Britain.
The branches of Clan Donald were named and determined by the different Clan Donald lands granted the descendants of Donald of Islay. Obviously everyone living on the land was not a literal descendant of the chief. The clan system was a society based on the family concept of the chief acting as a father figure, but not literally the father of every clan member. In fact tracing bloodlines is further complicated by another fundamental Celtic social concept called cain i’arraith mac righ (the law of fostering the king’s son). The chief placed his children in the care of the most humble families and took foster children from humble families of the clan. This ensured social equality within the clan during a time that Roman Europe was developing the caste (class) system that later gave birth to feudalism. In Celtic society the clansmen who had mastered particular skills took foster children to provide apprenticeships as carpenters, cattlemen, seamen, horsemen, pipers, historians, or weavers. But everyone was trained as a warrior. Most 17th – 19th century British historians thought Celtic fostering was a barbaric abdication of parental responsibility and a violation of every “civil” culture’s class system. But if you honestly look at the tremendous emphasis that Scottish culture has consistently placed upon education in every country to which the Scots migrated (or in reality were banished), you will see this is yet another example of Celtic culture being ahead of its time. Fostering was a transcending trust that the Celtic culture placed in their clansmen to raise and teach skills to their children for the benefit of the entire clan. Rather than a barbaric cultural trait that justified the suppression of Celtic culture in post Culloden Britain, this Celtic cultural trait should be viewed as the roots of our modern educational system!
Determining the SliochD(Branch) of Your Ancestors
If you are fortunate enough to have family tradition that tells you with which branch your ancestors associated, you may choose to wear that tartan. It is not necessary that you trace your genealogy directly back to a Clan Donald branch chief to justify wearing the branch tartan (if you can do that you could be in line to be chief). There were considerable movements and marriages that weren’t confined to Clan Donald branches or lands. It was a strong Celtic traditional value to seek a bride outside the immediate clan which not only prevented consanguinity (inbreeding problems experienced by feudal nobility, such as hemophilia), but strengthened the clan by expanding it’s influence. This Celtic trait of your ancestors may make the decision of which MacDonald tartan to claim as your own more complicated and explain why the common Scottish answer to the question, “Which tartan should I wear?” is “Which one do you like?”
To assist you we have included a brief summary of the history of eight branches of Clan Donald from Donald J. Macdonald’s history of Clan Donald. We chose a few historical events that convey what your ancestors experienced as rank and file of Clan Donald. For the genealogies and personal life history of each chief we recommend Donald J. Macdonald’s work. You can access the history of each branch by clicking on the appropriate crest to the left or at the bottom of the page depending on what device you are using. You may also click on branches at the top header to access each branch.
We have also included several legendsassociated with each branch of Clan Donald. These legends are a large part of what motivated your ancestors and often took place in the land associated with that branch. To our Celtic ancestors the traditions were part of the land upon which they lived and died. Each rock, each loch, and glen have a tradition associated with them. Knowing these traditions helps you understand the lands of your ancestors that were such an important part of their identity. An Important Part of Who they Were and Who You Are.
To your ancestors:
It was enough to say “of Islay“, “of ClanranalD“, “of Glengarry“, “of Lochaber“, “of Glencoe“, “of Sleat” “of Ardnamurchan“, “of Dunnyveg” or “of Antrim“. That is the Celtic way to communicate generations of ancestry, legenDs and history that conveyeD who they were as well as from where they came.