Alexander MacDonald and Our Origins as Sons of Skye

I feel that it is fitting that my first post on my new blog should give a general history of my name, MacDonald, and outline the origins of my family of MacDonalds.

The story of my MacDonalds, is a story that must be very typical amongst Scottish families. It is the story of a highland crofting and wool weaving family, who ’emigrated’ to the lowland industries in the 19th century to work in factories, swapping their crofts for tenement flats and their Gaelic for Scots.  The MacDonalds then later emigrated to the new world in the 20th century before I more unusually returned the MacDonalds of my line back to Scotland in the 21st century.

The name MacDonald itself is somewhat of a curiosity. It has an ancient lineage in its traditional Gaelic form of MacDhòmhnaill, the pronunciation of which is difficult to describe to an English speaker. When the Gaelic speakers of Scotland moved to work in the industries of the lowlands in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was often very difficult for the Scots speakers to spell and pronounce the names of their highland neighbours. Prevailing attitudes of the time were also not favourable to Gaelic and highlanders came to be seen as rebels, outsiders, brigands and disturbers of the peace. English became the language of the ‘refined’, while Gaelic was caricatured as a barbaric and simplistic language, leading inevitably to a large proportion of Scotland’s Gaelic surnames being anglicised. As a result, the base name of MacDhòmhnaill has been variably corrupted to MacDonald, McDonald, MacDowell, Donald, McDaniel, McDonnell, O’Donnel, Donaldson etc.

Coire na Creiche, site of a battle between the MacDonalds of Sleat and the MacLeods of Dunvegan that was so fierce the crown intervened to end the long running clan feud.
Coire na Creiche, site of a battle in 1601 between the MacDonalds of Sleat and MacLeods of Dunvegan that was so fierce the crown intervened to end the long running clan feud.

For more than 700 years Clan Donald was a major military and political power in the West Highlands and was for a time a semi-independent state under the leadership of Somerled Mac GilleBride, until he died at Renfrew in 1164. The large maritime empire of the MacDonalds came to be known as the ‘Lordship of the Isles’ and was in some respects a successor kingdom to the islands and territories that had previously been under Norwegian control in Scotland. The MacDonalds were a fusion of traditions between the Gaels and the Norse ‘incomers’, and the language, culture, technology and ancestry of the people of the Western Isles show unmistakable Norse influences.

The MacDonalds had sufficient military strength to directly challenge the kings of Scotland and the clan was present at nearly every defining moment of Scottish History, from Bannockburn to Culloden, and all the intermittent power struggles in between.  However, over the long centuries the Lordship would continue to fragment and gradually wane in power. After the last Jacobite uprising the clan system, which was the basis of military service in the highlands, was decimated and the bonds of clanship as an everyday reality for the people started to rapidly disappear. Clan chiefs moved from being paternal figures bound by a form of social contract with their clan, which literally means ‘children’, to becoming early exploitative capitalists and absentee English landlords, sweeping the people from their ancient homelands to make way for more profitable sheep grazing. This was a traumatic betrayal and revolutionary change for the Gaelic world, one which was reflected in the poetry and songs of the period, and to a certain extent still reflects the psyche of people in Scotland.

My own MacDonalds enter the stage at this junction of history. The first of my ancestors to appear on the records is my 5x Great Grandfather Alexander MacDonald, a woolen weaver, who was born around 1750. He is known to be living in Sleat on Skye around 1780 and by 1795 he is recorded as living in Paisley, where he is listed on the parish records for the birth of my 4x Great Grandfather, Donald MacDonald. Unfortunately, the written records of births, deaths and marriages do not exist for this period of Skye’s history, making any further investigation extremely difficult.

The 1795 extract of Donald MacDonald’s birth. Born as ‘Daniel’ he used the name ‘Donald’ throughout his life.

Alexander MacDonald was a relatively early emigre from Skye and it is not entirely clear as to why he left. The MacDonald Baronet’s of Sleat were an infamous and self absorbed family that so typified the increasingly anglicised lords of this era. In 1739, the 7th Baronet of Sleat, Alexander MacDonald, along with Norman MacLeod of Dunvegan, had attempted to kidnap men and woman from the islands of Skye and Harris with the intention of selling them into indentured servitude in the American colonies.  the 7th Baronet had also refused to join the 1745 uprising and even raised a Pro-Hanoverian militia to hunt down Jacobites, despite the MacDonald population of his lands being sympathetic towards Charles Edward Stuart’s uprising.

Sir James MacDonald 1741-1765 and Sir Alexander MacDonald 1744-1810 attributed to William Mosman, 1749.
Sir James MacDonald 1741-1765 and Sir Alexander MacDonald 1744-1810 attributed to William Mosman, 1749.

Another Alexander, Sir Alexander MacDonald the 9th Baronet of Sleat, continued to add further infamy to his family’s increasingly questionable legacy. He acceded to the head of his clan from 1766 and his tastes were described as “if not wholly English, at least entirely anti-Celtic”, he increased rents and evicted many of his poorer tenants. His loyalty to the London Government resulted in him being awarded an Irish peerage and in 1777 he offered to raise a regiment from his estate to fight against the Americans in their war of independence. When the MacDonald lords attempted to raise another regiment from their estate in 1798, the population had become so disgruntled with their feudal lords that they had refused to enlist, an act considered unthinkable just 50 years before. By the beginning of the 19th century the strong bonds of loyalty between the clansmen and their clan chief were now demonstrably broken.

It’s uncertain how closely linked these events were to my family of MacDonalds, but it is beyond doubt that the actions taken by the Baron’s of Sleat led to increasingly large numbers of Gaels emigrating their from homes in Sleat, Trotternish and North Uist. Whether or not my Alexander MacDonald left for these reasons, or others, I will probably never know.

However, not all MacDonald’s left their ancient homeland and one of my 5x Great Grandfather’s sons remained on Skye throughout his entire life, even living for a time on the estate of the MacDonald’s of Sleat at Armadale. His name was Niel MacDonald and he was a coachman, a manager of horses and lived at the Ardvasar Inn, which still exists today as a functioning inn, more than 150 years after Niel MacDonald lived there. Niel’s two daughters,  Louisa and Susan MacDonald,  worked as personal servants to the Baron’s of Sleat, who had by this time adopted the Bosville-MacDonald surname.

An 1817 extract from the parish records showing that Alexander MacDonald's son Niel MacDonald lived at the estate of Armadale, site of the present day Clan Donald centre.
An 1815 extract from the parish records showing that Alexander MacDonald’s son Niel MacDonald lived at the estate of Armadale, site of the present day Clan Donald centre.

Louisa MacDonald, is listed on the 1851 census as being employed by Lord Godfrey Bosville-MacDonald, 4th Baron of Sleat at his residence at Kingston House in Westminster. She was in fact the nurse maid to the Baron’s children, Eva MacDonald and Somerled MacDonald. Somerled would later be educated at Eton and became the 5th Baron of Sleat before his death at the age of 25 on Christmas day, 1874. Susan MacDonald is also listed on the 1851 census. It records that she was a house servant at Birdsall House in Yorkshire, home of Henry Willoughby, the grandson of Lt-General Godfrey Bosville-MacDonald, the 3rd Baron of Sleat, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars.

As for Alexander MacDonald, my 5x Great Grandfather, I have never discovered where or when he died, I can only presume he never returned to Skye. It seems that his first wife Kate McKinnon died in the 1780s before he was remarried to an Agnes Fletcher, my 5x Great Grandmother. The rest of Alexander’s life is a mystery. As for my 4x Great Grandfather Donald MacDonald, he took up the trade of his father as a woollen weaver and although he was born in Paisley, he would move to Sleat later in his life to live near his half-brother Niel. Donald had a very eventful life in his own right, and lived through politically tumultuous times in Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire. Donald will be the subject of a future post, where I hope to explain a little about how my MacDonalds of Sleat were to become the MacDonalds of Springburn.

A section of the family tree showing my 5x Great Grandfather Alexander MacDonald, my 4x Great Grandfather Donald MacDonald, his half brother Niel MacDonald and his daughters Louisa and Susan MacDonald.
A section of the family tree showing my 5x Great Grandfather Alexander MacDonald, my 4x Great Grandfather Donald MacDonald, his half brother Niel MacDonald and Niel’s daughters Louisa and Susan MacDonald.

3 thoughts on “Alexander MacDonald and Our Origins as Sons of Skye

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  1. Is it a romantic story, or was the position of clan chief once decided on merit, by the will of the clan, across many clans of the Western Isles? I’m wondering when this started changing to a hereditary system? Was it just because of the English invasion? Or did it start earlier when the lowland King James of Edinburgh get more control of the Highlands?
    Either way, these actions of the anglicised clan chiefs seem to have destroyed what remained of the social cohesion of many clans. Even so, it’s surprising how many MacDonalds moved to London. I’ve found one in my own family tree, born on Skye, lived and died in London. Where they bonded or servants to the Lord MacDonald spending the clan wealth in London?

    1. Hi Keith, I am sceptical that there was ever a time in which clan chiefs were chosen on merit, certainly not in the early-modern period anyway. Historically it could be said they were chosen on merit at times, if you define merit to be the strongest claim in terms of military or political power. The clan system developed independently of the Norman conceptions of feudalism prominent in the lowlands and England. Many problems were later to arise because of this incompatibility between the Norman model where feudal land ownership was everything, and the Clan system which had more of an emphasis on the loyalty of people to a particular chief. Conflict often occurred when the Clan loyalties of the people on the land didn’t match up with the legal feudal right of a landowner.

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