Researching old names can be fun but it can also be confusing. Sometimes a logical, reasonable thoght can even be downright misleading. Recently, the CMA Query Page received the following message:
I am trying to connect my family name, Colister, but seem to get stuck at the entry of Robert Colister in the late 1700s. I read one report from a family member who seemed to connect him to Scotland by way of Ireland. But, are all Colisters descend from the name McAlister? It would be nice to finally connect some dots between my name and a country of origin.
Lynn McAlister, the CMA Historian, replied:
My suggestion would be to look for your ancestors in the Isle of Man. This small, quasi-independent island between Ireland and England (now home to one of the biggest annual motorcycle races in the world, I’m told) used a language closely related to Scottish Gaelic (and thus, more distantly, to Irish), and similar surnames developed in all of these places. However, Manx "mac" names tended to lose the "ma" of mac, and many of them now start with C, K, or Q as a result. Therefore Scottish MacPhàil, McWilliam, Mackay, and MacAulay become Manx Quail or Quayle, Quilliam, Kee, and Cowley (although Cowley outside the Isle of Man has other origins), and Irish MacGuinness becomes Manx Kinnish.
Of my many resources on surnames, I found the name in only one (A Dictionary of Surnames by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges, Oxford University Press, 1988), in the spelling Callister. Hanks and Hodges explain it as a Manx patronymic form of Alexander. Of course, MacAlister in its various forms is a Scottish patronymic of Alexander, and MacAlister/Callister follows the typical Manx pattern, so it seems pretty clear that these are in fact the same name (unlike, say, Lister, which looks like MacAlister but is usually related to Fletcher). However, this does not mean that all, or even most, Callisters necessarily belong to the Scottish clan. Alasdair was (and is) a common name in the Gaelic population, and more than one Alasdair left descendants calling themselves "mac Alasdair". Obviously, the possibility that a few Scottish or Irish MacAlasdairs wound up calling themselves Callister or Colister exists, but as with Alexander (another name popularly connected to this clan), the majority of them are most likely unrelated.
I’m not sure where one begins searching for Manx roots. The General Register Office in England (P.O. Box 2, Southport, Merseyside PR8 2JD, England) and/or the General Register Office for Scotland (New Register House, 3 West Register St., Edinburgh EH1 3YT, Scotland) could probably tell you whom to contact for Manx records, and Genealogy.com or one of those sites should be able to direct you to any books on Manx genealogy. The Mormons might have some information as well, since they seem to have information about pretty much everybody. They can be searched at The Family History Library, 35 N.W. Temple St., Salt Lake City, UT 84150, or you could check out their web site, familysearch.org.
Hope this is helpful.
Lynn McAlister, Clan Historian
Clan McAlister of America