John Alasdair Macdonald's Ancestry
John Alasdair Macdonald
Iain Alasdair Dòmhnallach - my Gaelic name
Iain Alasdair mac Calum Iain Iain Dhòmhnaill ‘ic Raonuill - my patronymic name
As a Macdonald I decided to concentrate on the direct male line in my family, however in my wider family tree if I go back to my great grandparents I have 3 Macdonalds, 2 Mackenzies, and 1 Macleod, Morrison and Finlayson. I have managed to trace my roots back to my great, great, great, great grandfather - Murdo (Murchadh) Macdonald, who was born around 1750 on the Outer Hebridean Island of Lewis.
Murchadh was his Gaelic name but from the 1800’s most people were expected to write (or was written for them) an anglicised name on official forms such as birth certificates and census forms. Murdo is known to have come from the village of Siadar on the Atlantic coastline of the Isle of Lewis. Around 1815, Murdo’s son (also called Murdo) moved the family to the eastern side of Lewis and became a tenant farmer in the village of Coll.
Over the last two hundred years his direct descendants have been on the same plot of land continuing the traditions of working the land and fishing. Even today, although I don’t currently live in Lewis, both my younger brothers, Kevin Alexander (a former Harris Tweed weaver) and Mark Ronald (a Master Mariner) still work the land as a part-time crofters. For as long as we can remember there has been a flock of sheep on the croft, a tradition continued to this day by my brother - my children go over every spring to ‘help’ Kevin Alexander with the lambing.
Who were we pre-1750?
The Isle of Lewis has a history as a Clan Macleod and latterly a Clan Mackenzie Island so it was fair to assume that we may have come from elsewhere in the Highlands. The Macdonald Clan is the largest of all the Scottish Clans and historically has eight main branches - Antrim(Ireland), Ardnamurchan, Clanranald, Dunnyveg and the Glens, Glencoe, Glengarry, Keppoch and Sleat. Trying to pin down which specific branch we are from is one of the hardest tasks, however thankfully my ancestors gave us some clues!
In Gaelic culture, a system of patronymics has been widely used for many centuries (eg. Macdonald = son of Donald). As a Gael, when asked by another Gael who I am “Co leis thu?” I reply with “mac Calum Iain Iain Dhòmhnaill”, meaning I am the “son of Malcolm John, son of John, son of Donald” (my great grandfather). It is also common to finish that reply with an overriding family name that may stretch back many generations. I would say “ic Raonuill” meaning “son of Ranald/Ronald’s son”.
That’s the major clue that helps narrow down which branch we may be from. Now if you look at the list of branches above, then Clanranald of Macdonald stand out as the obvious choice - impossible to prove but perfectly plausible. However, recently I stumbled on another scenario. Gaelic has a tremendous oral tradition of storytelling, songs and poetry. Two stories mention a son of the Macdonalds of Keppoch (clan lands north of Fort William) being present in Lewis during the late 1600’s. The first tells the tale of a famous swordsman and ‘son of Keppoch’ being forced into hiding for many years on the western side of the Isle of Lewis, due to a duel that resulted in the death of a powerful clansman.
The second tells the story of the Ailein Dearg (Red Allan), the youngest son of Alexander Buidhe (yellow), of the Macdonalds of Keppoch. Allan (along with 8 others) was implicated in the murder of his cousin Alexander, the Chief of the Clan. After the murder, Allan’s father (also the murdered Chief’s uncle) became the 14th Chief of the Macdonalds of Keppoch. Of the nine men implicated in the murder, seven were eventually caught and beheaded and their heads were washed in a well near Invergarry. It is still to this day known as the “well of the heads”. Allan was not caught but forced into hiding around 1665 - Gaelic tradition suggests that he spent most of the rest of his life on the western side of the Isle of Lewis!
Here’s the possible link... in English this Clan are known as the Macdonalds (MacDonnells) of Keppoch or Clan Ranald of Lochaber, but in Gaelic their name is Clann Mac ‘ic Raonuill na Ceapach. Given the rarity of our family name in Lewis and the two Gaelic stories about a Macdonald of Keppoch in Lewis, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a perfectly plausible scenario that my great, great, great, grandfather, Murdo Macdonald may have been a descendant of Ailein Dearg, the youngest son of the 14th Chief of the Macdonalds of Keppoch - at least until I find another story!