The Clan Alasdair
by Lynn C. McAlister
NOTE: I have used the Gaelic form of our name, MacAlasdair, in writing because all of the other spellings come from it and it is, therefore, the spelling that covers all of us.
The Clan Alasdair descends from Somerled, 12th century Lord of Argyll, through his grandson Donald, who founded the mighty Clan Donald. Until the 15th century, they were, in fact, the senior cadet branch of the Clan Donald rather than an independent clan. Clan Alasdair was, and is, a West Highland clan, centred on the Kintyre peninsula and surrounding islands, although many MacAlasdairs later settled in the north of Ireland and the southwestern Lowlands.
The exact identity of this clan's progenitor was long a matter of debate. The difficulty arises from the existence at about the same time of two closely related men named Alasdair (Alexander). In the past, it was claimed that the MacAlasdairs descend from an early chief of the Clan Donald, who lost his lands and position for aiding the MacDougalls in their opposition to Robert Bruce (c. 1309). This forfeited MacDonald chief was Alasdair Og which means Alexander the younger, or "junior". Virtually all authorities now agree that the Clan Alasdair was in fact founded by Alasdair Og's uncle, Alasdair Mor (Alexander "senior"), the younger son of Donald, Lord of the Isles. The difference is important: The elder Alasdair was never chief of the Clan Donald, and although it is not known for sure whether or not he supported Bruce, he was actually killed in battle against the MacDougalls (1299). The descendants of Alasdair Og formed important branches of the Clan Donald in Antrim (Northern Ireland), but no family of significance was established by them in Scotland.
After 1266, West Highland and Hebridean chiefs technically held their land from the Scottish king. In practice, however, the area was a separate and largely independent kingdom ruled by the Lords of the Isles, chiefs of the Clan Donald. The MacDonalds were the real authority in western Scotland until 1493, when their lands were forfeited to the Crown. The downfall of the MacDonalds created a power vacuum and plunged the Western Highlands and Hebrides into chaos as various groups fought for land and influence once held by the Lords of the Isles. At this point a number of groups that had been aligned with the Clan Donald emerged as independent clans, among them the MacAlasdairs. Some MacAlasdair families prudently allied themselves with the Campbells, who eventually replaced Clan Donald as the area's major power; these families "survived Campbell hegemony in their homelands with more success than most" (Neil Grant, Scottish Clans and Tartans). But the Clan Donald connection continued, with various MacAlasdair leaders supporting the MacDonalds in that clan's many clashes with the government as well as in local and national conflicts. The MacAlasdairs appear to have worn the MacDonald tartan as late as 1745 ("Clan MacAlister News", issue #30 [Jan. 1997]).
Like other tribes of the area, Clan Alasdair had close ties to northern Ireland, particularly Antrim, from very early in its history. In the 13th and 14th centuries, members of this clan were among the galloglaich (Hebridean mercenaries) who fought for their Irish brethren, and for the exiled MacDonalds, in Ulster, and some of them were given Irish lands in return. Several prominent MacAlasdair families have been well established in Ireland since the 14th century. Other Clan Alasdair families settled in Ireland during the 17th century Scottish Wars of Religion, when Alasdair MacCholla was driven from Kintyre by the Covenanting armies under General Leslie. It is very unlikely, however, that members of this clan were included in the famous Ulster Plantations of the late 16th/early 17th centuries. Highlanders in general were specifically excluded from these attempts to "civilize" the Gaelic Irish, and the close connection of Clan Alasdair to these very same Gaelic Irish (as well as their historical ties to the troublesome MacDonalds) would have made them particularly undesirable candidates.
Because the MacAlasdairs have been established in Ireland for so long, some American MacAlasdairs believe this clan to be Irish in origin. However, the claim of one writer that the MacAlasdairs are really an Irish family who settled in Scotland is absurd: Although it is true that most Highland clans descend (at least partly) from 6th century Irish colonists, the descendants of those settlers had been living and dying in Scotland for almost 700 years before Alasdair Mor was born.
Clan Alasdair eventually had four separate branches: the McAlesters of Loup (the chief's family), the MacAlisters of Tarbert, the Macalisters of Glenbarr, and the Alexanders of Menstrie, whose name was anglicized after they migrated to the Lowlands in the early 14th century. (It is important to note that the vast majority of Alexanders, even most of those in Scotland, are not connected to this clan.) The Tarbert family went bankrupt and lost its lands in 1746. Although descendants of that family still reside in the area, the Tarberts as a viable branch of the clan ceased to exist at that time. The Loup family acquired substantial lands elsewhere, sold its Kintyre lands in 1795 to pay off debts, and settled in Ayrshire; the current chief, William McAlester, lives in England. Of the four branches, only the Glenbarr family still holds its lands in Kintyre: The Laird and Lady of Glenbarr operate the Macalister Clan Centre at Glenbarr Abbey and welcome clansmen from all over the world as guests.
Most MacAlasdairs, however, were tenant farmers and fishermen who suffered with other Highlanders the problems that plagued the area: frequent political unrest, periodic famine, high rents, and even Clearances (a term that refers to the widespread eviction or forcible relocation of tenant farmers from their lands - either by their own chiefs or by outsiders who acquired their chiefs' estates - so that the land could be put to more profitable use). As with most Highland clans, therefore, there are far more MacAlasdairs living elsewhere than there are in Scotland, most of them in Ireland, the USA, Canada, and Australia.
Clan Alasdair in Scottish History
The MacAlasdairs were affected by and involved in many of the famous conflicts in Scotland's history. However, like the great Clan Donald from which they sprang, they did not always agree about which side was in the right!
The Wars of Independence (1297-1304 and 1306-1328)
The position of important MacAlasdairs in the Wars of Independence (the era of Robert Bruce and William Wallace) is unclear. Alasdair Mor, the clan's progenitor, is believed to have supported Bruce in his struggle for the Scottish throne, although his support may have had more to do with local conflicts than with personal conviction, as was often the case in the Highlands. The loyalties of Alasdair's sons Donald and Godfrey are currently a matter of debate. Because they were "received into the peace" of the English king around the time of Bruce's triumph in Scotland, most writers have assumed until recently that these men opposed Bruce. However, Vance McAlister, historian of the Clan MacAlister Society (USA), suggests that this assumption is not sound. Almost all of Scotland's important men, including Robert Bruce, are known to have made treaty at one point or another with the English king; that these early MacAlasdairs would do so is hardly proof that they opposed Bruce. Until the date of the document is known for certain, its meaning cannot be guessed at. Furthermore, Charles MacKinnon lists the Clan Alasdair among those rewarded by Bruce after his victory at Bannockburn, and the Scottish History Society has concluded that the "Donald of the Isles" mentioned as attending Bruce's first parliament was in fact the son of Alasdair Mor - both of which seem odd if the clan's leaders had opposed Bruce. Finally, if Donald and his brother(s) had opposed Bruce, it seems unlikely that they would have remained in possession of their lands, and yet Donald's descendants are identified, not with Ireland or England, but with Kintyre. All of this, however, must remain speculation until there is more definite evidence one way or the other. Unfortunately, such evidence may simply not exist.
The Wars of Religion (mid-1600s)
Clan Alasdair was united in its support of Montrose in the Wars of Religion, although the chief chose to stay out of the conflict, possibly because his wife was the daughter of the Covenanting Earl of Argyll. Some clan lands were forfeited for nearly two decades, and members of this clan were among those massacred by General Leslie's men at Dunaverty Keep in 1647. There were MacAlasdairs in the Scottish army that invaded England in support of Charles II (1650), and it was this conflict that produced the earliest Clan Alasdair emigrants I know of to the United States. Several MacAlasdairs, captured at the Battle of Worcester (where Oliver Cromwell finally defeated King Charles), were transported to New England in 1651.
The Jacobite Risings (1689-1746)
The MacAlasdairs were sharply divided in the Jacobite era. Alexander of Loup (the clan's chief at that time) was an active Jacobite, fighting for the House of Stuart in several major battles. Like many Jacobite chiefs, Alexander was forfeited of his lands, although they were ultimately restored. The Tarbert family, on the other hand, were ardent Hanoverians. Archibald of Tarbert even allowed government forces to be stationed on his land so that Jacobite groups like that raised by Hector MacAlister on the Isle of Arran would not be able to join in the Rising of 1745.
As a clan, the MacAlasdairs did not fight at Culloden Moor in 1746. (Records are said to exist of some MacAlasdairs fighting at Culloden with other Jacobite clans - probably the MacDonalds - but I have not yet been able to verify this.) However, the future Glenbarr family was directly involved in the escape of Prince Charles (Bonnie Prince Charlie) after that disastrous battle. Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald was the future sister-in-law of Anne Macalister, whose husband Ranald was factor on some of the MacDonald estates in Skye. The prince took shelter in the Macalisters' home on his flight from Scotland, and he left Portree wearing one of Ranald's kilts. Ranald himself did not approve of this and chose to stay elsewhere until Charles had left so that he could honestly say he had not been involved. Anne Macalister's recollections of the incident are recorded in the Kingsburgh documents, which can be seen at the Clan Centre, Glenbarr Abbey, Kintyre.
Clan Alasdair in the New World
Records indicate that there were a handful of MacAlasdairs in the U.S. as early as the 1650s, some of them banished for their involvement in the various rebellions and risings that took place in 17th century Scotland. Coll McAlister of Balinakill was one of the founders of the 1739-40 Cape Fear settlement in North Carolina, and many MacAlasdairs emigrated to this colony in the years that followed. MacAlasdairs fought with distinction in the Revolutionary War, on both sides in the Civil War, and in every American military conflict since. The name appears, in various forms, 12 times on the Vietnam Wall memorial in Washington, D.C. MacAlasdairs have also left their name on towns (McAlester, OK; McAllister, MT; McAlisterville, PA, among others), a Confederate military fort (Fort McAllister, Richmond Hill, GA), and even a college (McAlester College in Minnesota).
MacAlasdairs are represented in the States by two organizations: the Clan MacAlister Society, based in California and focused mainly on Highland games and similar events; and the Clan McAlister of America, whose focus is genealogy and clan history and whose journal is part of the permanent collections of 35 major libraries across the country. CMA can be reached via the link shown at the bottom of this page.
Canada was a favourite destination of Highland emigrants from the start, and MacAlasdairs naturally were among them. During the American Revolution, when emigration to the 13 southern colonies was forbidden, Canada was by far the preferred alternative, and some U.S. MacAlasdairs may have emigrated northward during and after the war because they had opposed the revolution. Clan McAlister of America has several Canadian family lines, and some MacAlasdair families are today represented on both sides of the U.S./Canada border.
The best-known member of this clan connected with Canada is Sir William Alexander of Menstrie, who was granted about 40,000 square miles in eastern Canada for the development of the Nova Scotia ("New Scotland") colony. Although he invested (and lost) much of his personal fortune in the colony's development, Sir William's own family never settled there, and modern Nova Scotian Alexanders do not descend from him. Nevertheless, his name is forever associated with the province's history.
Scotland's historical links with the West Indies ensured emigration to that part of the Americas; after the Union of 1707, when English restrictions on Scottish trade in the Caribbean were eliminated, settlement by Scots in this part of the world increased. Like Canada, the British West Indies saw an influx of Loyalist Scots during and after the American war. According to David Dobson, however, Scots attracted to the West Indies tended to be those with business or financial interests there, and many of these eventually returned to Scotland (Dobson, Scots in the West Indies, 1707 - 1857).
The establishment of the Clan Alasdair in Australia probably dates to 1817, when Lachlan Macalister of Strathaird (Isle of Skye) emigrated to "the Land Down Under". Australian MacAlasdairs are represented by the thriving and active Clan MacAlister Society (Australia), and they even have their own MacAlasdair tartan, designed in the colours of the Outback. The Australian Clan MacAlister Society can be reached at: 46 Hawthorn Ave., Chatswood, NSW 2067, Australia.
The only New Zealand member of this clan that we have had contact with descends from a Robert McCallister of Lancashire, who emigrated to N.Z. in 1910; his descendants may be the only MacAlasdairs of that spelling in the country. However, there are certainly others of the clan there. If anyone has any information about the clan's history or a Clan Alasdair association in New Zealand, please contact me.
There have been MacAlasdairs in the Netherlands since 1717, when Duncan of Loup, youngest of the 8th laird's sons, settled there. I believe that there are also members of our clan in South Africa and parts of South America, but I have no information about them. If anyone does, or has further information about the Clan Alasdair in any of these or other places, please let me know.
Credit where credit is due . . .
I am extremely grateful to "Arlington Bob" McAllister of the Clan McAlister of America; Capt. Ian MacDonald of Clachan, Tarbert (Kintyre); Russell Sorrells in Tennessee, Kathan McCallister in Texas, and Peter Alexander of the Clan MacAlister Society in Australia for the information, suggestions, and clarifications they have provided me in my study of the Clan Alasdair.
About the Clan Alasdair
- "Clan Macalister", in Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland, edited by John and Julia Keay (London: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 643.
- Charles MacKinnon, Scottish Highlanders (Barnes & Nobles Books, 1992).
- George Way of Plean and Romilly Squire, Scottish Clan and Family Encyclopedia (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1994).
About the Clan Donald and the Lordship of the Isles
(Several of these books contain information about the Clan Alasdair as well, but some of the conclusions are out of date.)
- Donald J. MacDonald of Castleton, Clan Donald (Loanhead, Midlothian [Scotland]: Macdonald Publishers, 1978).
- R. Andrew MacDonald, The Kingdom of the Isles: Scotland's Western Seaboard, c. 1100 - 1336 (East Linton, East Lothian [Scotland]: Tuckwell Press, 1997).
- Oliver Thomson, The Great Feud: The Campbells and the MacDonalds (Stroud, Gloucestershire [England]: Sutton Publishing Ltd., 2000).
- Ronald Williams, The Lords of the Isles (Colonsay, Argyll [Scotland]: House of Lochar, 1997).
About the Highlands and Highlanders
- Robert Clyde, From Rebel to Hero: The Image of the Highlander, 1745 - 1830 (East Linton, East Lothian [Scotland]: Tuckwell Press, 1995).
- Robert A. Dodgshon, From Chiefs to Landlords: Social and Economic Change in the Western Highlands and Islands, c. 1493 - 1820 (Edinburgh University Press, 1998).
- John Macleod, Highlanders: A History of the Gaels (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996).
- Way & Squire, eds., The Collins Clan and Family Encyclopedia (Glasgow: Harper-Collins, 1994). (This book contains a detailed and authoritative section on what clans were and how they worked.)
About Scotland's history
- Rosalind Mitchison, A History of Scotland, 2nd edition (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1982).
- T. C. Smout, A History of the Scottish People, 1560 - 1839 (London: Fontana Press, 1969).
- T. C. Smout, A Century of the Scottish People, 1830 - 1950 (London: Collins Publishing Group, 1986).
These books, despite their age, are still among the most highly regarded Scottish history texts available. For a more brief and less scholarly account, I suggest
- "Scotland, Bloody Scotland" by the Baron of Ravenstone, (Edinburgh: Canongate Publishing Ltd., 1986).
It is highly entertaining without sacrificing accuracy.
About Northern Ireland's history
- Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ulster (Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1992).
- Kerby A. Miller, "The Making of the Emigrants of Ireland", part one of Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford University Press, 1985).
- T. M. Devine, ed., Scottish Emigration and Scottish Society (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1992).
- Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford University Press, 1985).
Good general reference
- Keay & Keay, eds., Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland (London: HarperCollins, 1994).
- Derek Thomson, ed., The Companion to Gaelic Scotland (Oxford & New York: Blackwell Reference, 1983).
Clan McAlister of America
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Last Updated: November 2010