Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Comments on The Clans of Scotland-The Clan Donald

James Miller ( / http://James ) (IP: )
I have an 18th century portrait of “Rose MacDonald of White House”.
Do you think she was an Aros MacDonald?
Let me know

Jean Doris LeBlanc ( / ) (IP: )
Can’t believe no one in Scotland has any info. on Allan “The Gardener” MacDonald. He may be from Edinburgh but was married to a Margaret MacDonald from South Uist. There must be a record of him somewhere.

James M. McDonald ( / ) (IP: )
This is the true history of Clan Donald. As you can see, we are a Scottish clan of absolute Irish origins.
James M. McDonald

Origins of Clan Donald

MacDonald of Donald crest appropriately worn by anyone with Clan Donald ancestry.

Clan Donald tradition traces its roots deep into the first century AD to the Ard Righ (High Kings) of Eire (Ireland). For over a thousand years Eire was divided into many small kingdoms each with their own Righ (King). He was elected from a family in the clan called the derbfine which literally means 4 generations of family in Gaelic (pronounced Gal-ick in Scotland and Gail-ick in Ireland). The Ard Righ was also elected from a derbfine. Leaders were chosen from the derbfine after they demonstrated leadership ability rather than the “divine” right of rule philosophy (birthright) of Norman and Anglo/Saxon feudalism. Under feudal law the eldest son inherited the throne (later imposed upon Scotland). Under ancient Celtic law any or all of the sons, grandsons, or cousins who could trace back to a common grandfather Righ was a candidate to be the next Righ. Under Celtic law local leadership was chosen (or elected) by the people and those local leaders elected the high King. Usually Celtic Kingdoms were divided among the children and grandchildren to maintain strong local rule. The local rulers then formed a confederation rather than a strong central government(Clan Donald is descended from the derbfine of the Ard Righ of Eire beginning with Conn Ceudcathach (hundred battles) who was Ard Righ of Eire in 125 AD.

The red hand of the High Kings of Ireland, Rampant Lion, armour clad arm holding Columba’s cross, nyvaig, and the salmon of knowledge on the coat of arms from the Somerled window at the Museum of the Isles

Our tie to the derbfine is symbolized by the red hand on the Macdonald coat of arms once displayed in the Somerled window of Armadale castle (now in the Museum of the Isles). The Red Hand stems from an ancient Irish legend of the first Celt to land on the shore of Ireland, Heremon O’Neill in 1015 BC. His father declared the first son on shore would have his choice of the lands for his inheritance. Heremon cut off his right hand and threw it from his boat to the shore of Northern Ireland securing those lands for his posterity. The Red Right Hand of Ulster has remained the symbol of Northern Ireland for thousands of years. Clan Donald traditions include two similar stories with two different Clan Donald chiefs laying claim to lands because they cut off their hand and threw it to the shore. One Clan Donald tradition is that Somerled told two of his sons the first to swim to an island could claim it. One of the sons cut off his hand and threw it to the shore before his brother could beat him. In typical Celtic style the impossibility of the feat makes it a better tale. Whether or not the symbol of the Red Hand is from a Clan Donald chief or Heremon of Northern Ireland the symbol links Clan Donald to their Northern Ireland roots. Two separate Clan Donald branches claim the right to their island using the same tradition the O’Neills of Northern Ireland used to justify their right to rule Ireland.

For centuries the men of Eire (Ireland) thought of Alba (ancient Scotland) as a mysterious land of shadows, the home of witchcraft and warrior queens(the Pict and Britannic Celtic women led their warriors into battle). In the 5th century another ancestor of Clan Donald, Fergus Mor (senior), expanded the Irish Dalriadic kingdom to the west coast of Alba. It still bears the name Argyll from the Gaelic Airer Gaidheal (pronounced Ar-gile)meaning coast of the Gael. In 563 AD another member of the ruling derbfine, St. Columba, established a Celtic Christian monastery at Iona that was later to become the burying place of Clan Donald Lords. St. Columba also established peace between Dalriada and the Picts (earlier inhabitants of Alba). In the 8th century Viking raiding parties raided the kingdom of Dalriada in both Alba and Eire. Viking colonies in the Hebrides and Dublin,Ireland became Viking launching sites for raids on Ireland, Dalriada, and Britain. The mixture of Gaelic and Viking cultures in both the Hebrides and Dublin became known as the Gall Gael (foreign Gael). The Gall Gael were characterized in the 8th century Annals of the Four Masters as heathen (non-Christian)Irish born foreigners who joined in Viking raids of Ireland and Dalriada sacking churches and destroying all they couldn’t take with them. Two hundred years later the Irish King, Brian Baru, drove the Vikings from Ireland and after another hundred years Somerled drove the Vikings from Argyll and the Western Isles. The Gall Gail that remained in the isles adopted Celtic customs, became Christian, and the ancestors of many major Highland clans of Scotland including Clan Donald. Like the Vikings the 12th century Gall Gael were seafarers and fierce warriors. Unlike the Vikings, the 12th century Gall Gael were Christian, spoke Gaelic, and retained Celtic music, government, and culture. Their Celtic cousins in Eire called them “red shanks” because the Norman cultural invasion didn’t reach the Highlands until centuries later. The Highlanders continued to wear the feileadh mor, the ancient form of the kilt, long after it was abandoned in Ireland. The 12th century Gall Gael were very different from the Gall Gael of Dublin. Their culture and government remained Celtic as the world around them changed.

The ancient British actually invited Angle and Saxon armies to Britain to protect them from both Viking and Celtic raids. It wasn’t long before an Anglo/Saxon king sat on the British throne and it became known as “Angland”. In 1066 AD a failed Viking invasion left “Angland” too weak to resist the invasion of William of Normandy. The Anglo/Saxon heir to the British throne fled to Scotland with his daughter, Margaret to avoid the Norman invasion. Margaret married the Scottish King Malcolm Canmore. Margaret is credited with (or accused of) changing Scotland to conform with her Anglo/Saxon concept of civilization (as had already occurred in ancient Britain). Scotland became more Anglo/Saxon, Britain became known as “Angland”. and was ruled by Normans who began incurring on Ireland. Albain Dalriada was constantly raided by Vikings from the sea and Saxons from the East Scottish lowlands. The Kings of Albain Dalriada were forced to turn to their kindred Celts in Ireland for help. According to 17th century Clan Donald manuscripts Gillebride (Gaelic meaning servant of Bridgit) turned to his kindred in Celtic Ireland (Fermanagh now known as Armagh) to restore him to his “rightful lands” in Albain Dalriada.

Dal Riada was actually an ancient Celtic kingdom in Antrim, Ireland that expanded across the Irish sea to Argyll, Lorne, Morvern, and the islands between. Albain Dalriada had declared itself independent of the Irish Dalriadic Kingdom leaving it easy prey for both the Vikings and lowland Saxons. Into this world was born Somerled in 1102 AD in what is now County Down, Ireland to the wife of Gillebride Na H’Uaimh (of the cave). Gillebride’s designation in Gaelic may be an indication of a life spent in hiding from Viking invaders. Modern historians have conjectured that Somerled’s name (Norse meaning Summer Sailor) indicated he was of mixed Norse/Celtic ancestry. The Gaelic form of the name, Somharlidh was very common in the Ulster provinces of Ireland. We don’t know Somerled’s mother’s ancestry, but he did take a Viking Princess as his second wife (which made his sons natural leaders of the Gall Gael in the Hebrides). His first wife was Irish. Somerled’s father was of Celtic name and Albain Dalriadic nobility. The facts that Gillebride turned to his kindred Celtic Ireland, obtained a Celtic Irish army, and that Somerled was later asked to lead the Celts to repel the Viking raiders all substantiate the Clan Donald tradition they were of Clan Cholla (Celtic nobility) rather than Viking ancestry as asserted by some modern British historians. Clan Donald tradition credited Somerled with the re-establishment of Celtic rule in Albain Dalriada. Some historians (Marsden & Thompson) attempt to discredit these traditions or downplay his Celtic roots while others (McDonald, Roberts, & Paterson) recognize the Lordship of the Isles (Clan Donald) as the last truly Celtic society in Scotland. McDonald, in his work, “Kingdom of the Isles” theorized historians tend to only discuss kingdoms that “failed” to survive to the extent they contributed to countries that did survive (an application of Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest”). Even so-called scientific genetic tracking reached a fork in the genetic trail where they had to choose to follow the Celtic marker or a Norse marker (both are present in known descendants of Somerled). They chose the Norse marker because of recent tendency to disregard Clan Donald’s Celtic heritage. Actually it has been those historians who try to discredit the Celtic traditions of Clan Donald that inspired the creation of this web site. Our purpose is to preserve the traditions that survived the post-Culloden government suppression of Celtic culture. By making Clan Donald traditions available to the public we hope to help them survive the current assault.

Aileach-an authentic reproduction birlinn nyvaig

According to the 17th Century “Book of Clanranald” Gillebride met with his kinsmen at Fermanagh, Northern Ireland around 1110 AD and raised an army to retake his rightful inheritance in Morvern and Ardgour then known as Albain Dalriada. Gillebride was not successful, but his son, Somerled, did succeed in regaining his ancestral lands and then set his aim to rule the Gall Gael of the Isles. Somerled first established a fleet of warships that could outmaneuver the Viking longboats. They were half the length of longboats and had a rudder in the center instead of the Viking “steer board” on the right (starboard) side of the boat (Somerled is credited with inventing the rudder which is as important an inovation to sea travel as the wheel was on land). In other respects Nyvaigs were similar to the Viking galleys with a high fore and aft and a shallow, open hull for oarsmen. The Celts called their design birlinn nyvaig (Gaelic meaning little ships). Most of what we know about these nyvaigs comes from Wallace Clark’s account of the reconstruction of a nyvaig he called Aileach (pronounced ail-ee-uch. Do not pronounce it “I Leak” as I did the first time I read it. Not a good name for a boat). The story of the research, construction, and voyages of the Aileach (Gaelic meaning beautiful) is recorded in “The Lord of the Isles Voyage” by Wallace Clark (Out of print). The Aileach is docked on Loch Leven when not on educational tours through the Highlands & Islands of Scotland. The current Chief of Clanranald has participated in many of those voyages and supported the Aileach project as part of the Lord of the Isles Trust.

Donald J. Macdonald’s history of Clan Donald

Somerled’s descendants retained and expanded the territory taken back from the Viking raiders. This became a traditional Celtic kingdom they called the Kingdom of the Isles. The Celtic concept of a separate kingdom was not well received by the Anglo/Saxon Scottish Kings. Both Somerled and his grandson, Donald, rejected Scottish demands they pay tribute and allegiance to the Scottish crown. Somerled defeated two Scottish attempts to invade his kingdom and finally retaliated with an invasion of Scotland in 1163 AD. A Celtic army of several thousand filled 163 nyvaigs that sailed up the Clyde river. How different British history would read if Somerled had not been assassinated in his sleep the night before the great battle. Suddenly without their Celtic Lord of the Isles, Somerled’s army returned home after engaging the forces of Scotland deep in their homeland. This is another Clan Donald tradition summarily dismissed by modern historians who site a Scottish chronicle written at least two hundred years after the fact, which claimed Somerled was immediately killed in battle and the army of the Isles slaughtered on the battlefield. The actual source, The 13th century Annals of Ulster, state, “Somharlidh Mac Gilla-Adhamhnain and his son were killed and slaughter of the Men of Airthir-Gaedhel and of Cenn-tire and of the men of Insi-Gall and of the Foreigners of Ath-cliath [took place] around him.”

Clan Donald tradition is that Somerled was assassinated and his army battled without him. Modern historians have interpreted the above quote as a battle in which Somerled and thousands of his followers were slain. They say Clan Donald tradition is a Celtic fantasy devised to explain away an embarrassing defeat. Nothing in the existing records contradict Clan Donald tradition. If Somerled’s army was so soundly defeated why didn’t the Scottish army invade the Isles as they had attempted to do twice before? The Isles-men returned to the Western Isles disheartened at the loss of their warlord, but after heavy losses on both sides they had accomplished their goal of discouraging another Scottish invasion.

Somerled’s son from his first wife died with him, so under Celtic law a younger son, Reginald, was elected the next King of Argyll and the Isles by the clans of the isles. Reginald’s son, Donald of Islay, ruled Argyll and the Isles next from Finlaggen (Gaelic meaning fair little hollow) on the island of Islay (pronounced Eelu) which lies less than 20 miles north of Ireland. It is from Donald of Islay that Clan Donald gets their name. Dhomhnaill is Gaelic for world ruler. It is most commonly rendered Donald, but there are many variations. Macdonald or McDonald both mean son of Donald. In classic Celtic manner each of Somerled’s and Donald’s descendants inherited portions of the kingdom (branches) and the Lordship of the Isles grew and remained the dominant power in Argyll and the Isles for four centuries.

Modern historians have assumed the Celtic army was no match for armored knights, but such an assumption ignores the battle of Harlaw three centuries later. Harlaw is often oversimplified as having been Highlander against Lowlander, but in reality it was again the Lord of the Isles leading a Celtic army against an Anglo/Saxon, Norman style knights of Scotland. Both kingdoms claimed Ross shire and the Lord of the Isles invaded Scotland to defend Ross from feudal lords. It was Celtic warfare pitched against Norman style armored knights and modern historians all agree neither side won. The loss of life was devastating on both sides. The problem is, the modern historians’ misunderstanding the purpose of either Lord of the Isles, Somerled or Donald of Harlaw. These historians assume both Celtic invasions set out to conquer Scotland and failed. But Clan Donald tradition states the goal was to stop the aggression of the Scottish Kings and establish the Lordship as a force to be feared and respected. Both Somerled & Donald’s Celtic forces accomplished their goal and returned home. In 1163 they lost Somerled. At Harlaw they lost thousands, but the result in both cases was almost 200 years without another Scottish invasion. Ironically, what Scotland failed to conquer with armies they gained through the friendship of a young Norman Lord who would be King of Scotland(Robert the Bruce) and a young Angus MacDonald who was to become the next King of the Isles.

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