Name Games

On this day in 1576, bonds of manrent were drawn up between the Earl of Argyll and John Mudeortach (Muirdearach) Macalastair.[1] At first glance this appears to be a member of our clan, but this ‘Macalastair’ was in fact a Macdonald – John of Moidart, Captain of Clanranald. In this case, what appears to be John’s surname is in fact his patronymic, and it illustrates the importance of caution when identifying Highlanders before about 1650. 

Although many of the fixed surnames that came to be associated with the Gaidhealtachd[2], including Macalister, are called patronymics, a real patronymic is not passed down generation after generation the way that surnames are. In its truest sense, a patronymic changes with each generation, so that John’s son Michael is Michael Johnson, whose son is Paul Michaelson, whose son is Stephen Paulson, and so on. (This system is still used in places like Iceland – where Stéfan Jónsson really is the son of someone called Jon – and, in addition to a regular surname, Russia.) But Gaelic patronymics could be flexible, incorporating the name of a noteworthy recent ancestor even if that person were not the individual’s actual father. Thus most clan chiefs also had a ‘chiefly patronymic’ that honoured an early or important chief of their clan. Angus mac Teàrlach M’Allester (Angus, son of Charles Macalister) was also known as Angus vic Ean Dhù (grandson or heir of black John), because the first independent chief of the clan was named Iain Dùbh, or black John. (Contemporary records sometimes went further and used the chiefly patronymic exclusively, leading some historians to conclude that several lairds of Loup were named John, when in fact none of them were, after Iain Dùbh himself.)

Alasdair has always been a common name throughout the Highlands, used by nearly every Gaelic family at one point or another, so it is hardly surprising that there were an awful lot of people being called mac Alasdair in the years before permanent surnames came into general use. Furthermore, in the case of the Macdonalds, some of these families were neighbours of the Clan Alasdair and confusion easily arises. In 1542, for instance, we find Donald McAlester of Largis [Largie] in Kintyre, who is “probably one of” the Clanranaldbane of Largie[3]; this family of Macdonalds were closely associated with the primary Macalister families during MacColla’s rising in the 1640s and in the later Jacobite era, but they were never part of the Clan Alasdair. During the Dunyvaig rebellions of the early 1600s, one of the primary troublemakers was Ranald Og McAlester, also called Ronald Og McAngus, who was an (unacknowledged) illegitimate son of Angus of Dunyvaig[4] and was clearly understood at the time to be one of the Dunyvaig MacDonalds.

Other Macdonald ‘Macalisters’ were less closely involved with us but have caused trouble for those who wrestle with our clan’s genealogy. In family trees posted on line, I have seen dates and events given for Alexander Macalister, Laird of Loup, that in fact apply to Alexander MacEan MacAlister of Glengarry. The two men lived at the same time, but Loup never held lands in Glengarry or, as far as I can tell, had much direct interaction with the Glengarry Macdonalds. Then there is Roderick (or Ruairidh) McAllester, briefly Bishop of the Isles, who has often been claimed by Macalisters as one of our clan. However, this Roderick is known elsewhere as Roderick Ranaldson, a patronymic not used by the Clan Alasdair but naturally in regular use among the Clanranald. A more careful look reveals that he was in fact the brother of the above-mentioned John Muidearach.[5]

When the apparent surname cannot be relied upon, historians must look for other clues to distinguish individuals from others using variations of the same names. Such clues can be found in a person’s other names and property designations, but understanding them requires a wider knowledge of an area’s history and people. Ranaldson was not used as a patronymic by any of the Macalister families in this era, so the fact that Bishop Roderick McAllester is elsewhere called Roderick Ranaldson should be an immediate tip-off. As for his brother, what appears to be John’s second name, Muidearach, is really a designation meaning ‘of Moidart’, a part of the West Coast not associated with any of the leading Macalisters. A McAlester of Largie or MacAlister of Glengarry is similarly unlikely to belong to the Clan Alasdair, as neither of these properties were held by members of our clan. Although there might well have been Macalisters in Largie, Glengarry or Moidart, no members of our clan were of any of those places.[6] 

Looking at this from the opposite direction, the same clues can be used. Leading Macalisters can often be spotted easily by the designations ‘of Loup’, ‘of Tarbert’, ‘of Balinakill’, etc., even when they appear without the Macalister name. The Clan Donald cadet described by Sir George Mackenzie as ‘M’donald of Lowp’ was the chiefly family of the Clan Alasdair[7]; and the un-named ‘Laird of Lowip’ who signed King James’s General Band was the clan’s chief, Alasdair Macalister.

By the early 17th century, surnames had begun to solidify. All of Dunyvaig’s acknowledged sons are called Macdonald, as are the Largie family and the Glengarry and Clanranald branches by the mid-1600s. By the time of the Jacobite risings (1689-1745), someone whose name appears as a variation of Macalister is almost sure to be a Macalister. In the earlier period, however, that was not always the case.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] Wormald, Lords & Men in Scotland, pp. 189-90

[2] Gaidhealtachd refers to places where the Gaelic language was prevalent or Gaelic culture prevailed. For much of written history, it is more or less synonymous in Scotland with the Highlands, but was once much more extensive; it can also have a wider meaning that incorporates Ireland and even parts of Nova Scotia.

[3] Origines Parochiales, vol. 2, p. 26

[4] Smith, Book of Islay, p. 263

[5] Munro & Munro, pp. 288-9

[6] Someone is said to be ‘in’ a place when he or she lives there, probably as a tenant, but has no legally connection to the property. Someone who is ‘of’ a place is the laird or tacksman of the property.

[7] Mackenzie, The Family Names of Scotland (Edinburgh: Scottish Record Society, 2008), p. 130

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