A Brief History of the Clann Alasdair

The Macalisters or M(a)cAlisters originate in Kintyre and Knapdale, western Scotland. The name mac Alasdair meant son of Alexander – all of the numerous modern spellings derive from this. The chiefly family, McAlester of Loup, traces its descent in a direct male line from Somhairle (Somerled), a Gall-Gaidheal (mixed Gaelic and Norse) warlord who died in 1164; DNA testing has confirmed this descent.

The Macalisters were the senior cadet branch of the Clan Donald until almost 1500, and they maintained close ties to that clan well into the 18th century. As with all tribal groups, the Clan Alister absorbed unrelated families living on their lands, but Bryan Sykes’s exhaustive study of Britain’s genetic makeup concluded that about 40% of living Macalister men, worldwide, are descendants of Somerled[1] – a fairly high percentage.

Like other clans in the southwest Highlands, the Macalisters spread into northern Ireland early on; some families of this clan were established there by the 14th century, descendants of the famous gallòglaich (West Highland mercenaries), and a considerable number followed the Macdonalds of Dunyvaig to Antrim after that clan lost its Scottish lands in the 1600s.[2] Like the Macdonalds, however, Macalisters as ‘uncivilised’ Gaels were not considered appropriate candidates for the Ulster Plantations and so they are not technically among the group now known as Ulster Scots (or Scotch-Irish).

Before the Union of 1707, most Macalisters who went to the colonies did so as transportees, many of them Royalist or Jacobite prisoners of war. After 1707, when the Empire was opened to Scotland, Macalisters were among those who chose to take advantage of the opportunities offered by emigration – either as permanent settlers with their families, or temporarily as ‘sojourners’ seeking adventure or advancement before returning home. There were indeed Macalisters among those evicted in the infamous Highland Clearances (and at least one Macalister landlord did some of the evicting), but that is certainly not the whole story.

The first Macalisters on record in what became the United States arrived there late in 1651, transported Royalists who had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Worcester. A fair number fled north during the American War, settling in what is now Canada. After the war, Canada became the preferred destination for Highland emigrants to North America. Among the early Macalister settlers in Australia was Lachlan Macalister of the Strathaird (Isle of Skye) family, who arrived with the North Hamptonshire Regiment (48th Regiment of Foot) in early 1817. The name appears to have been well established in South Africa before the end of the 19th century: Of the 60 or so Macalisters listed as British soldiers in the Boer War, more than half appear to have been South African. There are also Macalisters in New Zealand, Germany and the Netherlands, and quite a few in South America (particularly Brazil and Argentina). The number of Caribbean Macalisters of primarily African descent suggests that some Macalister sojourners there followed the custom of establishing temporary families with enslaved women.

Copyright  © Lynn McAlister, 2013


[1]Saxons, Vikings & Celts, pp. 213-4

[2]Contrary to popular belief, the use of Mac- versus Mc- is not a reliable indication of origin – both forms have always been used in both Scotland and Ireland.

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