What’s in a name….

An Historical Perspective


The Scottish Highlands

The first recorded spelling of the McDonald family name is “Therthelnac MakDonenalde.” This was dated 1251, when he was a charter witness at Lesmore, during the reign of King Alexander 111 of Scotland, 1249 – 1286.

Translation in medieval times was an undeveloped science and was often carried out without due care. For this reason, many early Scottish names appeared radically altered when written in English. The spelling variations of McDonald include MacDonald, Macdonald, McDonald, Donaldson, MacDonny and a host of other names. McDonald, MacDonald and Macdonald are the most common surnames of the group and contain statistically high percentages of Somerled descendants.

In 1880, the most common Mcdonald occupation in the USA was a Farmer – 27% of Mcdonald’s were Farmers.  Laborers and Keeping House were the top 3 reported jobs worked by Mcdonald’s.

According to census records, the average life expectancy for Mcdonald’s in 1940 was 24, and 73 in 2004.  It’s certainly nice to live in modern times!

Before the 1900’s, most McDonald families lived in Scotland. In fact in 1840, New York – which had the highest population of McDonald families – only had 299 families. Interestingly the prevalence of the surname, “McDonald,” was far greater than that of “Macdonald”, with concentration around the Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York corridor.

In Scotland the McDonald surname derived most often from Scottish settlers who arrived in to the Province of Ulster in the seventeenth century.  By the late 1800’s, the McDonald surname was most common in Inverness-shire, Scotland. Inverness-shire is an historical county and covers most of the Scottish Highlands.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the county’s clans took different sides in the religious and political controversies surrounding the English Civil Wars and the Jacobite risings, and internecine strife shook Inverness-shire. The British government built military forts, roads, and reduced the power of the chiefs. This cleared the way for acquisition of land by outsiders. These landlords forcibly evicted thousands of crofters (small-scale tenant subsistence farmers) in what is referred to as the “Highland clearances,” occurring in the early 19th century to create large sheep-farming estates. Large-scale emigration ensued to Canada, the United States, and Australia. 

Unsurprisingly, the McDonald and MacDonald names have the highest modern prevalence in the United States, Canada, and Scotland.

References include: ancestory.com; wikipedia.org; johngrenham.com; thoughtco.com; houseofnames.com

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