Other Ancestry: The 'Mostly Celtic' Clan Donald

A look at our Results tables will immediately show that the majority of our participants are not haplotype R1a and thus cannot possibly be pure paternal line descendants of Somerled. In some cases this arises because we have some participants who joined the project looking to see if they were related to Clan Donalds by unique reasons, and proved not to be, and in other cases simply because of the diverse nature of the way the Clan grew. Though the central name of the Clan Donald is MacDonald and its variants, approximately 400 other names are also recognized on the Clan Donald USA web site as being represented in our Clan. Some men with these names have even proved to be likely Somerled descendents. These cases are discussed below.

In examining the data, you will notice a number of non “MacDonald” type names included. Some represent the current family names of females who have obtained samples from their MacDonald paternal line cousins. Others such as Forbes or McKinley and Lee are individuals who have joined the project attempting to clarify their potential relationship to our large dalriadic modal group 13-24-10-11-14.

Several such as Moen, a Norwegian, and Pruner have joined as they claim possible descendancy from Scots enslaved by vikings and taken to Norway or Germany. Each of these is extremely close in genetic markers to one or more Clan Donald signatures. An Anderson is known to be from from Islay. The Houstons group of R1b are from Ireland but are attempting to determine whether they were Clan Donald mercenaries from the Isle of Skye, the Uisden Clan Donald branch. Since their data represents a signature which has been tentatively identified as Norwegian by researcher Ken Nordtvedt and is also found among Morrisons residing in Ulster but traditionally lawmen for the Lordship of the Isles, their Skye origination appears supported. The Buies are a well known family from the island of Jura, formerly controlled by the MacDonalds, similar signatures can also be found in the Lindsey project, presumably representing the Lindseys of Jura.

MacCutcheon which also means “son of Hugh” is a recognized Clan Donald name from the island of Skye. (For some unknown reason their signature closely matches the Campbell chiefs). McQuiston which means “son of Hugh” is a family with well documented genealogy records to the early 1700s which has been attempting to confirm their Clan Donald affiliation.

Alexanders can be both Scottish and Irish with potential Clan Donald affiliation on both sides of the water. Alexander is a common Anglicization of MacAllister as is Sanderson. These names are found both within the Scots/Dalriadic modal group and the O’Neill group.

Connell, McConnell and McDaniel are simply alternate potential spellings of MacDonald.

McReynolds is often an Anglicization of MacRanald. Ranald was Somerled’s son and Donald’s father. Two of our clan chiefs currently carry that first name.

What are the explanations for the large number of Clan Donalds who have no common ancestor with other MacDonalds in the project for 20 generations or more? First, and most important is that DNA measures pure paternal lines not zig-zag cousin relationships. Male lines regularly “daughter out.” Computer analysis of historical data indicates that as many as 95% of the males lines of 1000 years ago have daughtered out. It has happened within the senior lines of the Lords of the Isles, within the senior lines of the Glengarrys, and the Captains of Clanranald. Clan Donald's historic pattern of active warfare and galloglas service, coupled with sons becoming Catholic priests, would accentuate this likelihood of daughtering out.

One aspect of this “daughtering out” process is referred to as genetic drift. As lines disappear through war, disease, or “daughtering out” a relatively few core values become a higher and higher proportion of the overall male population. The “successful” grandfather lines become fewer and fewer.

The lines we see on the DNA results charts probably represent no more than 10% of the lines existing within Clan Donald 500 years ago. On the other hand, the continuation of the project and its rapid growth give us a unique ongoing opportunity to maximize our number of matches. If any participant knows of a fourth or fifth cousin who could be tested, that helps the project both in filling in the blanks and in assisting and determining whether certain mutations which the current participant may have are recent.

An R1b or I or E genetic signature in no way means that you are “not a real” MacDonald or Clan Donald. At the time our emigrations began after 1745, we were all undoubtedly cousins many times over. The R1b portions of the clan were interbreeding long before our R1a chiefs’ ancestors first appeared on the Scottish scene around 836AD. The extensive sources of our Irish ancestry had migrated from Antrim or Ulster to Scotland as early as 400AD and there was regular trade and mercenary soldiering between Scotland and Ireland for at least 1,200 years thereafter. Simulations of random genetic breeding within a population suggest that after approximately 14 generations, i.e. 300 to 500 years, every member of the population shares all grandparents of every other member of the population. Although some of our R1bs were undoubtedly introduced from Norway since the modern population of Norway has approximately 25% R1b, those males would have been introduced between 800 and 1100AD with 600 years to inbreed into the “native” Scottish and Irish population.

Failure to prove descent from Somerled through the purely paternal line measured by the Y-chromosome in no way implies that your line is not a “real” Clan Donald line. The most famous example of this point is the Earl of Antrim, who is clearly descended from Sorley Boy of the Dunnyveg branch of the Clan. It is historically perfectly clear that his pure paternal line is Kerr, not McDonnell; however, upon failure of the original male line, the former Mr. Kerr’s ancestors generations ago were permitted to assume the name McDonnell and also assume the titles Earl of Antrim and Viscount Dunluce.

Another example how descent through the female line could have arisen is a situation in which both a MacDonald daughter and her husband died, leaving orphans who were then raised and/or adopted by either her brother or father. A third common example would involve the circumstance in which half brothers were raised in the same household due to multiple marriages by the male, the female or both. We have numerous documented examples of such combined families described in the three volume Archibald and Angus treatise, Clan Donald. Some of these tiered families arose from death of a spouse, others arose from divorce. Especially given the combination of hand fast unions and irregular unions, it would not have been uncommon for a wife to bring children to her new married home from a prior union.

The potential for a child from an irregular union during a marriage should also not be the subject of hostile Victorian attitudes. Robert II, 1st Stuart King of Scotland, is known to have fathered at least twenty children, most of whom were from irregular unions. The ladies who generated these children were not servants, but often were the daughters of members of the Royal Court. Anyone claiming descent through Robert the Bruce, as do many of our chiefly lines, have their share of bastards from the English Kings in their blood lines. Unless you assume that each of your grandparents for the last twenty five generations were perfectly happy throughout their marriages, that each grandfather for twenty five generations was never gone for extended periods at war, or at raiding or driving cattle, that each grandfather never angered his wife by affairs or siring his own illegitimate children, that no grandmother ever had too much to drink at a wedding, funeral or ceiligh and that each grandmother never considered divorce or adultery, one break in a 900 year old paternal line should not be considered either shameful or even mildly shocking. The Y-chromosome test is very strict; it only requires one slip in 900 years for a completely different result.

An interesting variation on the half brother issue arises from discovery that one of our Glencoe MacDonald reference point sources who can directly trace his line to a MacDonald born in Glencoe and who died in Glencoe in 1730, a descendent of the youngest son of the Glencoe chief in 1745, and a third Glencoe descendant all turned out to be R1b in their pure paternal descent rather than R1a like Somerled. We historically know that Iain Fraoch, the root of the Glencoe MacDonald line was the result of an irregular union between Angus Og and the daughter of the local McEnruig chief at about the time that Angus Og had been granted control over Glencoe by Robert the Bruce. It clearly was a politically convenient union which was undoubtedly strongly supported by her father as well as Angus Og; Angus Og recognized his son, granted him the lands historically held by his maternal grandfather, and that son of irregular union was ultimately buried in Iona. The point on which we fail to focus is the probable subsequent children of the chief’s daughter by existing Glencoe men. She undoubtedly would have been considered quite a “catch” since she had borne the son of the overlord of the district and came from the line of the local chief. This could have easily resulted in a series of Celtic half brothers who were raised with Iain Fraoch and ultimately became the surviving line.

There is no reason to suppose that “membership” in the Clan was solely from male descent. The politics of arranging marriages to maximize clan power was based on the assumption that armies were raised based on family ties including maternal cousins. Ranald, Somerled’s son and Donald’s father, led “the hosts of Islay” in raiding Ireland. The identity of these “hosts” is not defined. They clearly were not all descendants of either Somerled or Ranald. Similarly, Donald went raiding in Derry in Ireland along with his maternal first cousin, Thomas Lord of Galloway, with fighting men of undetermined genetic source. Finally, as a part of the dowry of Agnes O’Cahan, wife of Angus Og, her father provided approximately one hundred and forty fighting men from principal families of Derry. By the time that family names started to be used after the English manner, many of the descendants of original followers of Gillebride, Somerled, Ranald, or Donald had been fighting in Clan Donald war bands and intermarrying with Clan Donald daughters for four hundred to six hundred years. Some of the Clan Donald men, be they R1a or not, took the surname MacDonald, others did not.

In considering how little bastardy, much less adultery, was regarded as a problem even among the “high families” of neighboring realms, it should be recalled that William the Conqueror was himself a bastard. Similarly, the Duke of Gloucester, one of the most powerful nobles in the early Norman rule of England was a royal bastard.

Another common practice which could legitimately obscure “pure” paternal line analysis was the custom of fosterage. Under this practice a family which desired to bind itself more closely for political or other reasons to another family would offer their child to be raised by the other family as a member of that family. At least one recent book on the Lordship has asserted that Donald Balloch, one of the most famous of the Clan Donald warriors and counselors to the Lords of the Isles, was fostered with and raised by the McLeans.

We have described how non-Somerled descendants could become Clan Donald men. Because of the progenitors of the Clan did not know about DNA, we expect them to have been selected at random with respect to their DNA from the general populations, Celtic and Norse, of western Scotland. As we show here, the DNA statistical data agrees with this idea. The data of interest is the percentage of the population with a given haplogroup (not haplotype.) This is shown in the table below and as a haplogroup map of Europe.

haplogroup map of europe

This data can be used in a mathematical procedure that shows how "close" different populations are. The results appear in the plot below. As can be seen, the MacDonalds are closest to the general population in Scotland.

mcdonald plot

The vast majority of all Clan Donalds are within haplogroups R1b and R1a, with some I. Our chiefs are group R1a; the majority of the Clan is R1b. The original “Celts” were probably all R1b, but R1b has always been far more widespread that just the Celts. Accordingly there are R1b members among the Saxons in Germany as well as the Danes and Norwegians even though the highest percentage of R1b are found among the Irish from whom most of us paternally descend (as well as the Basques and the Welsh) so some of our R1b may Danish, Saxon, or Norse. The main source of R1a and I in Clan Donald was probably the Norse; as discussed elsewhere, the haplotype of almost all of our R1a men has a marker value (YCAIIb = 21) which is very strongly Norwegian (not Danish). The plot just above here seems to indicate that the MacDonalds are closer to Danish than Norwegian, but this plot does not take into account the state of this YCAIIb marker. Our I component may also have some Frisian or Danish source. Saxon and Danish Y chromosomes may of course have come to Scotland through England, as the Saxon and Danish incursions were primarily in England. The I-M307 (formerly I1a) variety of I is typically Norse or Danish while the I-M223 (formerly I1c) variety is more typically native British (Pictish or native Ulster).