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.
Clan Alasdair (the MacAlasdairs) descend from Somerled, 12th-century Lord of Argyll, through his grandson Donald, who founded the mighty Clan Donald (the MacDonalds). Until the 15th century, they were 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.
For a long time, the identity of this clan’s progenitor was a matter of debate. The difficulty arises from the existence of two closely related men named Alasdair (Alexander) —one the son, and one the grandson, of Donald. Donald was succeeded by his eldest son, Angus, and in the past it was held by some that the MacAlasdairs descend from Angus's elder son and heir, Alasdair Og. However, others argued that the clan was actually founded by Alasdair Og's uncle, Alasdair Mòr (Donald's younger son). Virtually all authorities now agree on the latter theory — the progenitor of Clan Alasdair was Alasdair Mòr, who died in 1299 in battle against his cousin Alexander MacDougall, possibly because of a feud over the Isle of Mull. Alasdair Og succeeded his father as lord of Islay, and contrary to Clan Donald legend he seems to have supported Robert Bruce, dying with Edward Bruce at the Battle of Faughart in 1318. But the fact that Clan Alasdair was a cadet of the Clan Donald indicates that they descend from a younger brother, which Alasdair Mòr was, rather than the eldest, which Alasdair Og was.
After 1266, West Highland and Hebridean chiefs technically held their land from the Scottish king. In practice, however, the area was a separate, semi-independent kingdom known as the Lordship of the Isles and ruled by the chiefs of Clan Donald. The MacDonalds were the real authority in western Scotland until 1493, when their lands were forfeited to the Crown. 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 replaced the 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 the MacAlasdairs supporting various branches of the MacDonalds (particularly the Islay family and Macdonald of Largie) in their many clashes with the government, as well as in local and national conflicts.
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 gallòglaich (Hebridean mercenaries) who fought for various factions in Ulster. Some of them were given Irish lands in return, and 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 Covenant (part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms), when Alasdair MacColla 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.1 Therefore, MacAlasdairs are not technically among those called ‘Scotch-Irish’.
1Because the MacAlasdairs have been established in Ireland for so long, some American MacAlasdairs believe this clan to be Irish in origin. In a sense, they are right: The Gaelic peoples of Scotland—those we now call Highlanders—are descendants of Gaels from Ireland who settled in Scotland c. 500 ad. Lowland Scots in the Middle Ages spoke of the ‘wild Irish’ tribes found in the Scottish north, and even as late as 1790, Scots Gaelic was often referred to as ‘the Irish language’. However, Gaels were well established on both sides of the North Channel long before Scotland and Ireland as countries even existed, so in a sense, West Highland clans are both Scottish and Irish—and also neither. (Most of them, including the Clan Alasdair, also have Norse ancestry.)
Clan Alasdair eventually had four separate branches: the McAlesters of Loup (the chiefly family), the MacAlisters of Tarbert, the Macalisters of Glenbarr, and the Alexanders of Menstrie, whose name was anglicised after they migrated to the Lowlands in the early 14th century. (Most Alexanders, however, even 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. The Glenbarr family emerged a bit later, having made their fortune with the East India Company and then purchased many of the lands previously held by the Loup family. Before his death in 2007 the Glenbarr chieftain, Angus Macalister, donated Glenbarr Abbey to the clan for use as a Macalister Clan Centre, where Mrs Macalister still welcomes 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, 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 the Highlands, most of them in lowland Scotland, Ireland, the USA, Canada, and Australia.
The MacAlasdairs were affected by and involved in many of the famous conflicts in Scotland's history. Although the Loup and Tarbert branches occasionally took different sides, in general the clan followed the various branches of Clan Donald.
The Wars of Independence (1297-1304 and 1306-1328)
Alasdair Mòr, the clan's progenitor, is believed to have supported Robert 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). Donald of Islay, Alasdair’s eldest son and successor, was a more active ally of the Bruce clan: He is closely associated with Edward Bruce, with whom he attended King Robert’s first parliament in 1306 and with whom he died at Faughart in 1318. The loyalties of Alasdair's other sons are less clear, as records simply don’t exist. However, none of this family appear to have settled in Ireland until the later fourteenth century, which suggests they were not forfeited like those who opposed Robert I.
The Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1640s))
Clan Alasdair was united in its support of Montrose during the Civil Wars. Some clan lands were forfeited for nearly two decades. Members of this clan garrisoned the Castle at Lochhead (Campbeltown) during the siege of Dunaverty in 1647; they surrendered to General Leslie and were paroled, but some of them were later hanged as followers of Alasdair MacColla (for whom the Macdonalds and their allies were fighting). Macdonald historians have traditionally claimed that Hector of Loup, the MacAlasdair chief, stayed out of the conflict because he had married a Campbell. However, Loup’s wife belonged to the Kilberry family, not the House of Argyll, and the marriage of his daughter to Alasdair MacColla himself gave the MacAlasdair as close a connection the clan’s traditional Macdonald allies as he might have had to the Marquess of Argyll. Two historical mentions clearly place Loup among the Royalists when the Covenanting army under General Leslie marched into Kintyre. Nonetheless, unlike many in Kintyre Hector of Loup managed to land on his feet when the dust had settled. He appears to have switched sides at the last moment—and possibly more than once. Contemporary accounts of these events suggest that the MacAlasdair supported MacColla when he could get away with it, and sided with Argyll when it seemed the wisest course.
The Jacobite Risings (1689-1746)
At the time of the first Jacobite rising, all of the leading MacAlasdairs fought for the Stuart king. After the restoration of the House of Argyll, however, the clan was sharply divided. The Loup family never wavered from its Jacobite leanings, while the Tarbert family, once again tenants of Argyll, were nominally Hanoverians. However, none of the leading MacAlasdairs took an active part in the later risings. As a clan, the MacAlasdairs did not fight at Culloden Moor in 1746, though seven of this clan are named among the MacDonald contingent. 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 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 according to the Kingsburgh Documents (which can be seen at the Clan Centre, Glenbarr Abbey, Kintyre), he left Portree wearing one of Ranald's kilts.
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 civil wars of the 17th century. Somewhat later, 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 (www.clanmacalistersociety.org), which represents the chief in this country; and the Clan McAlister of America (www.clanmcalister.org), whose focus is genealogy and whose journal is part of the permanent collections of 35 major libraries across the country. These organizations work in tandem, and many of us belong to both groups.
Canada from the start was a favourite destination of Highland emigrants, 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 MacAlasdair loyalists may have emigrated northward during and after the war. 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 that province's history.
Scotland's historical links with the West Indies ensured emigration to that part of the Americas, though the earliest Scots to settle there were the hundreds of royalists sent as indentured servants after the Civil Wars (mid 1600s). 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). Some of them established temporary families with free black or even enslaved women: I was recently contacted by a man from the Bahamas who told me that his MacAlasdair ancestor lived there for some years before returning to the Scottish family he had left behind—something that was not all that uncommon.
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’. The Strathaird family (from whence came the Glenbarr branch) is represented today by Max Macalister, Esq., president of the thriving and active Clan MacAlister Society (Australia).
The only New Zealand member of this clan that I 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. There are also quite a few of us in Germany, including prominent politician David McAllister. I have had contact with members of our clan in South Africa, Argentina and Brazil, and I believe that there are also MacAlasdairs other parts of South America, but I have very little information about them.
If anyone has further information about the Clan Alasdair in any of these or other places, please let me know at http://macalisterhistory.com/
About the Clan Alasdair
- George Way of Plean and Romilly Squire, Scottish Clan and Family Encyclopedia (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1994).
- Mackinnon, Charles, Scottish Highlanders (Barnes & Noble Books, 1992).
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.)
- Hill, J. Michael, Fire and Sword: Sorley Boy MacDonnell and the rise of Clan Ian Mor, 1538-90 (Fort Worth, Tex.: The Aegis Press, 1993)
- MacDonald, R. Andrew, The Kingdom of the Isles: Scotland’s Western Seaboard, c. 1100–1336 (East Linton, East Lothian: Tuckwell Press, 1997)
- Marsden, John, Somerled and the Emergence of Gaelic Scotland (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 2005)
- Stevenson, David, Highland Warrior: Alasdair MacColla & the Civil Wars (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 2002)
- Thomson, Oliver, The Great Feud: The Campbells and the MacDonalds (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd., 2005)
- Williams, Ronald, The Lords of the Isles (Colonsay, Argyll: House of Lochar, 1999)
About the Highlands and Highlanders
- Calloway, Colin G., White People, Indians, and Highlanders: Tribal Peoples and Colonial Encounters in Scotland and America (Oxford University Press, 2008)
- Clyde, Robert, From Rebel to Hero: The Image of the Highlander, 1745–1830 (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1995)
- Devine, T. M., Clanship to Crofter's War: The Social Transformation of the Scottish Highlands (Manchester University Press, 1994)
- Fry, Michael, Wild Scots: Four Hundred Years of Highland History (London: John Murray Publishers, 2005)
- Macleod, John, Highlanders: A History of the Gaels (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996)
- Martin, Angus, Kintyre: The Hidden Past (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1984, reprinted 1999)
- Omand, Donald, ed., The Argyll Book (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2004)
- Richards, Eric, The Highland Clearances (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008). [Note: This is much better than John Prebble's book of the same name, which is written by a journalist for emotional affect and perpetuates popular-history half-truths about events that are sufficiently tragic without embellishment.]
- Stevenson, David, Alasdair MacColla and the Highland Problem in the Seventeenth Century (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1980)
- Thomson, Derek, ed., The Companion to Gaelic Scotland, 2nd ed. (Gairm Publishers, 1994)
- Way & Squire, eds., The Collins Clan and Family Encyclopedia (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1998). (This book contains a detailed and authoritative section on what clans were and how they worked.)
About Scotland's history
- Barrow, G. W. S., Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000–1306 (Edinburgh University Press, 2003)
- Cowan, E. J., and R. Andrew MacDonald, eds., Alba: Celtic Scotland in the Medieval Era (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2000)
- Devine, T. M., The Scottish Nation: A History, 1700–2000 (New York: Viking Penguin, 1999)
- Devine, T. M., and R. J. Finlay, eds., Scotland in the 20th Century (Edinburgh University Press, 1996)
- Donaldson, Gordon, Scotland: James V-James VII, Edinburgh History of Scotland, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1994)
- Duncan, A. A. M., Scotland: The Making of the Kingdom, Edinburgh History of Scotland, vol. I (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1996)
- MacDougall, Norman, James IV, The Stewart Dynasty in Scotland (East Linton, Scot.: Tuckwell Press, 1997)
- Macleod, John, Dynasty: The Stuarts, 1560-1807 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999)
- McNamee, Colm, The Wars of the Bruces: Scotland, England and Ireland, 1306-1328 (East Linton, Scot.: Tuckwell Press, 1997)
- Mitchison, Rosalind, A History of Scotland, 3rd edition (Routledge: 2002)
- Nusbacher, Aryeh, The Battle of Bannockburn, 1314 (Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2000)
- Paterson, Raymond Campbell, A Land Afflicted: Scotland and the Covenanter Wars, 1638-1690 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2000)
- Smout, T. C., A History of the Scottish People, 1560–1839 (London: Fontana Press, 1985)
- Smout, T. C., A Century of the Scottish People, 1830–1950 (London: Fontana Press, 1997)
- quot;Scotland, Bloody Scotlandquot; by the Baron of Ravenstone, (Edinburgh: Canongate Publishing Ltd., 1986).
It is highly entertaining without sacrificing accuracy.
About Northern Ireland's history
- Bardon, Jonathan, A History of Ulster (Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 2005)
- McCavitt, John, The Flight of the Earls (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd., 2002)
- Miller, Kerby A., quot;The Making of the Emigrants of Ireland quot;, part one of Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford University Press, 1988)
- Wood, Ian S., ed. Scotland & Ulster (Edinburgh: The Mercat Press, 1994)
- Adams, Ian, and Meredyth Somerville, Cargoes of Despair and Hope: Scottish Emigration to North America 1603-1803 (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1993)
- Bueltmann, Tanja, Andrew Hinson, and Graeme Morton, The Scottish Diaspora (Edinburgh University Press, 2013)
- Devine, T. M., ed., Scottish Emigration and Scottish Society (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1992)
- Devine, T. M., Scotland's Empire, 1600-1815 (London: Penguin Books, 2003)
- Devine, T. M., To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland's Global Diaspora, 1750-2010 (Smithsonian Books, 2011)
- Dobson, David, Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1607-1785 (University of Georgia Press, 1994)
- Hamilton, Douglas, Scotland, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic World, 1750-1820 (Manchester University Press, 2005)
- Harper, Marjory, Adventurers and Exiles: The Great Scottish Exodus (London: Profile Books, 2003)
- Harper, Marjory, and Stephen Constantine, Migration and Empire (Oxford University Press, 2010)
- Karras, Alan L., Sojourners in the Sun: Scottish Migrants in Jamaica and the Chesapeake, 1740-1800 (Cornell University Press, 1992)
- Miller, Kerby A., Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford University Press, 1988)
- O’Callaghan, Sean, To Hell or Barbados: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ireland (Dingle, Co. Kerry [Ireland]: Brandon, 2000)
- Watson, Don, Caledonia Australis: Scottish Highlanders on the Frontier of Australia (Milsons Point, NSW: Vintage, 1997)
Good general reference
- Keay & Keay, eds., Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland (London: HarperCollins, 2001)
- Lynch, Michael, ed., The Oxford Companion to Scottish History: The Definitive Guide to 2000 Years of Scottish History (Oxford University Press, 2007)
- Thomson, Derek, ed., The Companion to Gaelic Scotland, 2nd ed. (Gairm Publishers, 1994)