It is important to understand the difference between displaying a Coat of Arms which by definition belong to an individual and displaying a Clan Crest.  Although it is not forbidden to display another’s coat of arms it is more appropriate that you display your clan crest to show pride in their ancestry. The Crests of the major branches of Clan Donald are on the left of the screen.   The term “crest” is an abbreviation of the term for the symbol displayed “on the crest of the helm” (top of the helmet) of a full coat of arms in Scottish Heraldry.  For example, the ancient coat of arms of Donald of Harlaw are displayed to the right of this article and the crest on the left.  Both feature a distinct cross described in Scottish Heraldry as a cross, crosslet fitchee, gules found featured on several Scottish Crests and Heraldic Coats of Arms.

The Cross, Crosslet Fitchee, Gules

16th Century Scottish Heraldic Descriptive Terminology

CROSS: Latin style

CROSSLET: Latin style crosses at each end

FITCHEE: Pointed shaft


What Is the Origin of Clan Donald’s Cross ?

Until recently I followed the logical explanation that Clan Donald’s cross represented either  St. Còllum cilleSt. Moluag (Mo Lugaidh), or St. George‘s cross, but none of these Saint’s crosses are exactly like the cross, crosslet fitchee, gules found on most Clan Donald’s crests.  The more that I researched the various crosses the more I understood that even minor differences were significant in Scottish Heraldry.  The oldest authority on Scottish Heraldry, Sir David Lindsay wrote the first catalog of Scottish Arms in 1542.  He described the armoral bearings of the Lords of the Isles as “A galley or longa fhada with an eagle displayed, and a fiery cross.” He is the only historian to offer this interpretation of Clan Donald’s cross.  Every other description of Clan Donald’s cross is consistently a “cross, crosslet fitchee gules”. The “fiery cross” or Crann Tara was an important symbol used to rally clansmen in the Highlands & Islands of Scotland including Clan Donald.  The fiery cross is also found in Scottish Heraldry, but the fiery cross is very different from the cross, crosslet.   This article proposes a new theory on the origin of the unique cross, crosslet that has been a symbol of Clan Donald for centuries.

Is It From St. Moluag’s Cross?

It is understandable why St. Moluag‘s cross has been one explanation for the cross, crosslet fitchee gules.  St. Moluag (Moloc or Lugaidh) was a contemporary of the great missionary Còllum cille (St. Columba).  He has long been identified as the Patron Saint of the Lords of the Isles.  Patron Saints were adopted by groups of Christians including kingdoms, clans, and even families.  The crosses of Còllum cille and St. Moluag are very similar if not identical to each other, but are shaped very differently from the cross, crosslet fitchee gules.  What may appear to the modern eye as a minor difference had great significance to our ancestors.  Each cross represented a different Christian Saint to whom they looked for protection.   It is significant to note that several standing crosses associated with Clan Donald including the Finlaggen cross, the Kildalton cross, the clach clann ‘ic Ailean (Clanranald stone), and the Glencoe Memorial cross are all patterned after St. Muluog‘s or Còllum cille’s cross.  They all have the circle around the cross’ head rather than the cross with crosslets.   The clach clann ‘ic Ailean (Clanranald stone) is a 17th century carving that is the only known example of a left hand holding a cross of St. Moluag. Every other Clan Donald seal or coat of arms displays the right hand with or without a cross, crosslet.  A possible explanation for this “reversed” coat of arms is that is the way it would have appeared on the actual seal or signet ring of the chief so that the impression left in the wax seal (such as the Sleat seal at the top right corner of this page) would be a reversed image.  The Glencoe Memorial cross (erected in the 19th century) has a Celtic Trinity knot engraved into the crest of the cross.   The Kildalton cross has engravings of scenes of death such as Cain slaying Abel, David slaying a lion, and Abraham preparing to slay his son as a sacrifice.  But the Finlaggen Celtic standing cross (which was located on Clan Donald’s council isle) actually has the cross, crosslet fitchee, gules engraved at its highest point (i.e. crest)! This archaeological discovery places the use of the cross, crosslet fitchee, gules by Clan Donald more than a century before the establishment of Scottish heraldry.   Other clans later adopted a cross, crosslet in blue, white, or black rather than Clan Donald’s red.  George Eyre-Todd’s classic work “The Highland Clans of Scotland” 1923, had a cover plate showing 37 prominent clan chiefs’ coats of arms, 8 of which included the cross, crosslet fitcheein various colors. Some septs included this cross to show affiliation with Clan Donald, but not exclusively so.   One Scottish heraldic tradition links the blue cross, crosslet fitchee to the Abbotts of Lismore, but the Finlaggen discovery establishes the cross, crosslet fitchee as a symbol of Clan Donald predating its use by other clans in Scottish Heraldry by a hundred years.  This archaeological discovery justifies our designating “The Cross, Crosslet Fitchee Gules” as “Clan Donald’s cross”.


The Cross, Crosslet

The shape of Clan Donald’s cross is unique and unlike any of the Saints’ crosses previously discussed.  Clan Donald’s cross is a red, Latin style cross, with a Latin style cross on each end, and a pointed shaft (Heraldic terminology: cross, crosslet fitchee gules).   The pointed shaftis a characteristic of the warrior’s cross first recorded during the Crusades.  Both Còllum cille’s cross and St. Moluag’s cross predate the Crusades and do not have the pointed shaft.  Standing crosses all over Ireland & Scotland erected prior to the Crusades take the form of Còllum cille’s and St. Moluag’s cross, the oldest surviving being atKildalton on Islay (800 AD). Standing crosses are considered missionary crosses because they have the same shape in four directions signifying Christ’s instructions to “Go ye therefore and teach all nations”.   St.Còllum cille and St. Moluag were both  6th century missionaries who brought Christianity to Scotland so these standing crosses are a fitting tribute to their shaping of Ireland and then Scotland into Christian nations.




Crusaders’ Cross

Clan Donald’s cross, crosslet fitchee gules was not in the shape of a missionary cross. It is the shape of a warrior’s or crusader’s cross. It is important to note the differences between the “Latin style” cross, crosslet and the several other distinct shapes of Crusader crosses such as St. James’ cross with a fleur de lis at each end and a shell on top (pictured here as a Crusader’s coat & cape).  St. James cross is often depicted with a sword blade staff rather than the pointed staff of Clan Donald’s cross, crosslet fitchee gules. St. John’s cross flared out at each tip and the Jerusalem cross which had a bar at the end of each tip (like a capital T instead of a small t). The Crusaders believed they were fighting in God’s army (as did their opponents).  The variations in the Christian cross were used to identify their Order of Knighthood just as various military units have symbols to identify them today.  The tradition behind the pointed shaft is that the Crusading knight or warrior planted the shaft of the cross in the earth as he said his prayers before each battle.  The cross was left during the battle and the warrior returned to claim his distinct cross when his prayers were answered.  If not, the cross remained as a memorial that he had said his prayers before he died.  A few exemplary knights of the first Crusade were elevated to Sainthood by the Pope. Those Sainted Knights’ crosses were adopted by different orders of knights who wore the cross of their Saint upon their shield and embroidered upon their surcoat & cloak or cape.  The different shaped crosses were very significant to the wearer who wore it prominently to identify to which order of knights he belonged.  Scottish Heraldry meticulously described and recorded clan symbols for the same reason.  The cross, crosslet fitchee gules within the Clan Donald crest identifies the wearer as Clan Donald.

The Significance of the Color of the Cross

Because several European nations participated in the first Crusade the Pope assigned various colors of the cross to identify from which nation the knight, or order of knights, hailed.  A red cross on white originally indicated France, green on white indicated Flanders, blue on white indicate Galicia, yellow on white indicated Italy, and white on red indicated they were from England.  Ironically St George’s red cross (signifying the knight was from France) was chosen by England’s King Richard in the 3rd Crusade and became England’s flag (and the flag of Northern Ireland) prior to the union of the crowns.  But King Richard actually ruled England from what is now France.  He didn’t even speak English! He left the rule of England to his unpopular brother John (of Robin Hood fame). And Richard chose to wear the French red cross when he entered the Crusades. I have understood why some have  jumped to the conclusion that Clan Donald’s cross, crosslet fitchee, gules came from St. George’s cross.  Many Irish associate the flag of Northern Ireland with 17th century British plantations.  Thousands of Scottish McDonalds came to Northern Ireland during the 17th century,  but the cross, crosslet fitchee gules predates the British plantation of Northern Ireland by at least 300 years.   The cross displayed in crests of Clan Donald is unlike St. Georges’ cross.   While searching for a Crusader’s cross closer to the cross, crosslet fitchee, gules I found an article about one of the orders of the Crusades, that provided protection to Christian pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land.  They chose the cross of St. Julian, patron Saint of pilgrims & warriors, as their emblem.

Exactly Like St. Julian’s Cross

The cross featured on Clan Donald crests is exactly like the Crusader St. Julian’s cross held by a Right Hand, usually wearing a knight’s gauntlet.  St. Julian was the patron Saint of warriors and hospitallers (Gaelic briugu hosts of feasts or innkeepers) which were both important functions of Celtic clan chiefs.  But there are much more personal reasons Donald of Islay would have adopted this symbol.

Becoming familiar with the Legend of St. Julian will give each member of Clan Donald a greater  appreciation  for not only this symbol of our clan, but also for Donald of Islay from whom we get our surname, MacDonald.  This legend provides a logical explanation of why a French Crusader’s cross was carved on the head of the 14th century standing cross on a Scottish island.   The  Finlaggen Celtic standing cross was discovered during a 1990 archeological dig on the island of Islay (pronounced eye-la), the original “eilean nan comhairlidh” or council isle, the ruling seat of the Lords of the Isles.

The Legend of St. Julian fits into known Clan Donald history like a long missing puzzle piece and gives us a plausible explanation for how a French Crusader Saint’s cross found its way to 14th century  Finlaggen.  The cross, crosslet fitchee, gules has become one of the most recognizable symbols of our clan for over 700 years, yet no logical explanation of why this particular cross has symbolized Clan Donald through the centuries has been offered until now.