Cén Fáth go Bhfuil sé ar a Dtugtar Chlainn Domhnaill?

Why is it Called Clan DonalD?

One of the most frequently asked questions at hundreds of Clan Donald tents all over the world is, “Why do you call it Clan Donald? Is this the MacDonald clan?” The 15th century Gàidhlig (Gaelic) documents refer to it as Clann Domhnaill (Clan Donald). This was initially assumed to be the ancient Celtic way of referring to the extended family organization of those with a common ancestor, but after reading the 15th century manuscripts this now appears to have been a simplistic view. The earliest record of the use of “Clan Donald” is found in the 1467 Gaelic manuscripts and the 17th century Leabher Dearg (Gaelic Black & Red Books of Clanranald) preserved in the Reliquiæ Celticæ. The Gaelic word “clainn” is abbreviated Cl~ and Domhnaill written with a ~ over the o as an abbreviation of the “mh“. These original Gaelic manuscripts refer to individuals associated with (not necessarily literal descendants of) Domhnaill (Donald) Triath nan Eilean (King of the Isles) as “Domhnuillach” (literally “from” or “of Donald”), and the people as a group are called “Chlainn Domhnaill” (Clan Donald). The Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh (now the Clan Donald Society of the Highlands and Islands) established in 1891, is one of the original modern clan organizations. Ten years before it was established Alexander MacKenzie, FSA Scot published his “History of the MacDonalds and Lords of the Isles” in which he occasionally used the term Clan Donald, but mostly used the surname Macdonald when referring to all of the descendants of Donald of Islay (pronounced Eye’-la). When the Rev. A. Macdonald of Killearnan and Rev. A. Macdonald of Kiltarlity published their three volume history they entitled it “The Clan Donald”. They almost exclusively referred to the descendants of Donald of Islay as Clan Donald in their history. They also included followers who were not literal descendants of Donald of Islay in Clan Donald. As our understanding of Celtic culture grows we realize the term Clan Donald was not intended to exclude anyone not literally descended from Domhnaill nan Islay (Donald of Islay), Triath nan Eilean (King of the Isles). Clan Donald Today includes many families just as did the Kingdom of the Isles and the Kingdom of Scotland.

The MacDonalD

Throughout their three volume history of Clan Donald they appropriately used “The Macdonald” as a reference to the clan chief more than Macdonald as a surname in their work. It was published at the request of the Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh. The official family organization has referred to themselves as Clan Donald ever since it was founded. In 1978 Donald J. Macdonald published his one volume history entitled “Clan Donald” that this web site is based upon. A beautiful new reprinting of this valuable history of Clan Donald has recently become available for purchase at a discounted price. Click on the underlined book title above to link to an online source.

Clan Colla

The ancestors of those with the surname MacDonald, with its many various spellings, were for hundreds of years referred to as Clan Cholla (or Colla pronounced ka’ la) in deference to another traditional ancestor (or more correctly “followers of”) Colla Uais, High King of Ireland. The famous bard MacVurich stirred the men of the Isles at the Battle of Harlaw in 1411 by reminding them they “were of Clan Colla as well as from Conn of a Hundred Battles. There are several other examples of the Lords of the Isles and their kin referring to themselves as Clan Colla. By designating the society Clan Donald the founders of the modern family organization incorporated the ancient Celtic form while honoring Donald of the Islay, a more recent traditional Celtic Chief. His Gaelic name was Dhomhnaill mac Ragnall mhic Somhairlidh or Donald, son of Ranald, grandson (or descendant) of Sorley (Somerled).

Why Not Just Call Yourselves the MacDonalD Clan?

Some do! But that is a break from a centuries old tradition which seems ironic if the purpose of an organization is to honor our ancestry. Surnames are a comparatively recent development when compared to the ancient clan system. The surname MacDonald (including alternate spellings) literally means “son of Donald” and was appropriately used by anyone who’s father’s name was Donald before surnames, as we think of them, became common in Scotland. That wasn’t until 1061 when the Scottish King Malcom Ceanmor (Gaelic meaning devotee of St. Columba with a big head!) directed there be a change from the traditional Celtic naming practices to the “custom of other nations” (as his wife, the Saxon Queen Margaret, was fond of pointing out). He commanded his chief subjects to commence using surnames taken from the territories granted by the crown. Thus were created, “The first erlis that euir was in Scotland. Mony surename also les and moir, Wes maid that tyme quhilk wes nocht of befoir” (in common English “also many surnames, small and great were made at that time not known before”). It only rhymes in the old Scots! Perhaps Malcom Ceanmor didn’t care for the Celtic practice of distinguishing people by a characteristic such as “big head“!

MacDonald appears to have been used frequently as a surname among our ancestors long before the British government required surnames in the 1855 census (British Registry). In the 1855, 1856, and 1935 census MacDonald was the second most common surname in Scotland because they counted Mac & Mc prefixes as one name. The survey noted that if they had combined the two spellings the name would still be the second most common name in Scotland (only Smith is more frequently found). Although many modern clan societies have chosen to designate themselves by a surname, the first Clan Donald society (which is now world wide) chose to use the more ancient Celtic designation that appropriately includes hundreds of surnames.