To understand the various spellings of our surname we must begin with the name in its original language, Gàidhlig. The more we understand our ancestors’ ancient language, the more we will understand our ancestors. Rendered here as “Gàidhlig”, in its own language, it is pronounced “Gaelic”. (Just as French is rendered Français in French. In Gàidhlig our name means son of, or descendant of, Donald of Islay (pronounced eye’ la). Hear Dhomhnaill pronounced in Gàidhlig by Julie Fowlis singing “Mo Dhomhnallan Fhein” (My Own Donald) by clicking on the title. You can hear how Clan Donald is said in Gàidhlig by going to the official Clan Donald Skyewebsite of the Gàidhlig school on Skye. The phrase “Chan eil aoibhneas gun Chlann Domhnaill” means “There is no joy without Clan Donald”.
Domhnaill (pronounced Doan’l) is still a prominent Gàidhlig given name which literally means “world ruler.”Domhan (pronounced Do’an) is old Gaelic for world and val (pronounced like we’ll without the we) meaning ruler. Domhnall Dubh was the last descendant of the Lords of the Isles to claim that title. His name literally means “ruler of the dark world” and was a Gàidhlig reference to the Devil, himself. But in the Clan Donald histories his name was rendered “dark Donald” in English. The name Domhnall Dubh certainly didn’t help efforts to reinstate him as Lord of the Isles, although to his enemies he probably was the devil himself!
Gaelic Glyphs & Abbreviations
When looking for our surname in the oldest Gàidhlig documents you will find it written “mc domhnail” or even ” cdonall” with an up side down ~ (tilde) and a dot over the o as an abbreviation of the silent “mh”. Another abbreviation of the “mh” consonant was just a dot over the “m”. The 1467 Gàidhlig manuscript by Dubhghall Albanach mac mhic Cathail (shown above) provides the best examples of how our surname was written in its original language. The second column, bottom line reads “cl~donall mhic ragnaill” and just seven lines above that reads “Mac Ragnaill Mhic “Somhairle mhic, pronounced ” ‘ic” or ” vic ” with a very soft ” v “, means “descendant of”. Ancient Highland Gàidhlig writings included many glyphs over and under letters that changed the sound of that letter. Mac was often rendered as an elevated “ c ” with a vertical line or an “m” under it sometimes with a dot on either side. So the name mac Domhnaill was written in 14th century Gàidhlig manuscripts.Seeing the original helps us understand that the various ways of rendering the prefix “Mac” in English as Mc, Mc, or even as an M’ are a carryover from the original language. Your ancestors often abbreviated Mac as Mc. The 1408 signature of Donald of Harlaw, Lord of the Isles, “McDo.mnaill” begins with the Mc and has an .m with a dot over it as an abbreviation of the “mh”. This combination of an “m” and an “n” together has often been rendered as a double n in English as in MacDonnell or McDonnald which more closely indicate the original pronunciation.
Ancient documents occasionally have a dot over the first “d” which indicates the “dh”sound. When followed by a vowel it is pronounced similar to a glottal “g” or “c” in the back of the throat which explains the MacConnell and MacDhonell spellings more common in Gàidhlig speaking areas of the Highlands and Ireland. The Gàidhlig has a long vowel sound followed quickly with just a slight “l” as in “MacDoan’l”. But the English pronunciation of the surname has become a soft “o” sound more like “ah” as in “MacDawnell” with more emphasis on the ending which explains the frequency of the McDaniel spelling in the USA. Only by going back to the original language is it apparent how McDaniel and McDonald are various spellings of the same Gàidhlig surname. The double translation from the original Gàidhlig to the Latin and then from Latin to the English form of name resulted in the “d” on the end. The “d” ending was not part of the original name. Many who went to the lowlands and Eastern seaboard Scottish cities used the literal English translation of the Gàidhlig mac Domhnaill which is “son of Donald”. This became Donald’s son or Donaldson. Other Highland names went through a similar transformation such as Mac Andrew which became Anderson, and Mac Allistair became Allison.
Gàidhlig Naming Practices
Pure Gàidhlig “surnames” began in a patronymic form indicating a son (mac) or daughter (nic) of the father’s given name. Prior to the 19th century it was not a social custom for all the children of a man to have the same surname as their father. In Gàidhlig cultures a son of Andrew was mac Andrew and his sister was nic Andrew! If their grandfather was Angus then mhic was used to indicate multiple generations such as mac Andrew mhic Angus. So we see our ancestor listed as Somhairlidh mac Gillabride mhic Gilledomnán. The chief of the MacDonalds of Keppoch‘s title includes multiple generations in the old Gaelic way, “Ranald of Lochaber Mac Mhic Raonuill “(Gàidhlig= son of Ranall’s son). There are several oversimplified, urban legends to explain the various spellings of the prefix, such as “Mac” is Scottish and “Mc” is Irish. While it is true there are more Mc’s in Ireland and more Mac’s in Scotland today, that was not always the case. When the Scottish General Register Office started registering surnames in 1851 there were actually more McDonalds in Scotland than MacDonalds. Nevertheless the document grouped the various spellings under MACDONALD and included MacDonnell and MacConnell as alternate spellings of the same name. The most obvious example that various spellings were once acceptable are the signatures found in the 3rd volume of The Clan Donald history completed in 1904. The authors of The Clan Donald (who spelled their name “Macdonald”) included 11 pages of signatures of prominent members of Clan Donald. Despite the multiple signatures, written in their own hand with various spellings, the authors of “The Clan Donald” chose to type each & every name “Macdonald” at the bottom of each page! The MacDonell spelling was retained by many of Glengarry when the chief of Glengarry maintained it as “closer to the original Gàidhlig” (which is true). Our surname has been spelled several different ways, but it is the same name as evidenced by the 1851 census in Scotland when our surname, including all of the alternate spellings, was the second most common surname in Scotland.