As Scotland considers its place in the UK, Ewan McDonald searches for his family's place — and history — in Scotland.

I'm a fifth-generation Kiwi. My family carries the name of Scotland's greatest clan. But no one in generations of exiles has a clue - bar one handwritten line in the family bible - where our great-great grandfather came from or what his story was.

"James McDonald, born Scotland, 1809".

That's all we know. The mother of his children was Ellen Brinner - or Brennan or Brinnan - born in Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland in 1817.

We know our great-grandfather Robert was their first child, born in Melbourne in 1842, died at nearby Williamstown in 1911. We had the names and birthdates of his four brothers and sisters; James' and Ellen's death certificates in Victoria. End of story.


Two hundred and five years after the man who gave me my surname may have been born in Scotland, I land in Glasgow.

I'm a poster-child for Homecoming 2014, where VisitScotland encourages those of Caledonian descent to come "home" and try to find their relatives, see where the family lived.

My first port of call is The Mitchell Library, a gracious relic above an unlovely motorway, where an archivist shows me to a computer and gives some lessons in searching the records. I tell him who I'm looking for.

"Oh dear," he sighs.

"You couldn't have chosen a less common name and given us a few more details?"

"It wasn't up to me," I tell him.

Two hours later I've narrowed the search: 10 James McDonald births were registered across Scotland in 1809. If I check those against the death records, knock out any who died in Scotland, I can go to the Australian immigration records and look for the men left standing.

If Alister McDermott did not exist it would have been necessary for the Scottish Tourist Board to invent him. Nearing 6ft in every direction, wearing kilt and hose and jacket and hat, he will be my guide and chauffeur for a crash tour of my name.


The Adams Dome in Register House home of the National Records Office for Scotland in Edinburgh. Photo / Supplied

We drive into the mists around Loch Lomond, climb into mountain passes, below glowering peaks. Alister gestures towards a one-lane road and summons Highland mythology of ages past: "That's where they filmed the last James Bond movie. Skyfall is just down there in the glen."

We enter a snow-laden, ice-bound, slate-grey, sky-black gash in the earth.

"This is where it happened," he gestures.

"They woke in the morning, the signal was given, and the soldiers fell upon the men, women, children. It was Friday the 13th of February, 1692. You are here just a few days after the commemoration so this was the weather, those are the sheer granite cliffs where the clansmen ran to get away from the redcoats, and they followed them and cut them down. Not one was to be allowed to live. The clan was to be extirpated - to be wiped out."

This is Glencoe: the valley of weeping. Where the Crown decided every man, woman, child, baby should be butchered; their crime was their name. McDonald.

Next morning Alister drives me to the home peat of Clan Donald: the Isle of Skye. It is not the clan's historical stronghold; that was offshore islands, Jura and Islay and other great distilleries, the steep glens and lochs of western Scotland, and Ulster.

Miles through bracken, stunted heather, windswept shores, beneath the jagged Cuillin mountains, we park in a manicured Victorian estate and walk to a 21st century, interactive sound and light and touchscreen facility, the Museum of the Isles.

Maggie McDonald, the archivist, picks up the email I'd sent from New Zealand and smiles, wistfully.

"We tried but there's just not enough information. If only you had a mother's name, or a place of birth ..."

"So this is where the trail goes cold?" I say, casting an eye over a thousand volumes of McDonald history, emigration, parish records, poetry, myth. Maggie nods.

She explains that tracing family history is not quite as simple as genealogy websites make out. You have to assume the parishes - Catholic or Protestant - were assiduous about keeping records. That parishioners could be bothered to go to the local clerk, maybe a 10-mile walk, and pay the half-crown which might have fed the family for six months, to register a birth. You have to expect that the big old parchment books weren't lost in a flood or fire.

That the birth was legitimate.

In prim copperplate handwriting in The Mitchell Library I have seen the entries: "Katherine, legitimate daughter of ..."

There are no illegitimate sons or daughters of.

Scottish elevenses: Highland cheeses, oat cakes and single malt on the Isle of Skye. Photo / Ewan McDonald

And then there is ... "Have you heard of handfasting?" asks Maggie. "No," I nod.

"That was legal in Scotland at the time. A young man went to a young woman's father and made an arrangement to handfast his daughter. It was a form of trial marriage that lasted one year and a day. At the end of that, he could return the woman to her father, no questions asked.

"And of course, if there were any children born or on the way ..."

And there was no official Hatched Matched and Dispatched in Scotland until 1855. By then, James had christened the last of his five children in Victoria.

I make a joke to lighten the disappointment. Maggie brightens.

"You're on to something there ..."

There is, however, a family connection for Alister. Maggie produces the museum's latest acquisition, a 2m musket known as Gunna Breac, the Speckled Gun, after its chestnut stock.

It's held that Alister McDonald, leading the clan at Culloden, gave it to his gillie for safekeeping before charging the enemy lines; he died moments later and was Alister McDermott's five-times great-grandfather.

Alister McDermott and Clan Donald archivist Maggie Macdonald on the Isle of Skye, with the gun that belonged to McDermott's five-times great-grandfather, Alister McDonald. Photo / Ewan McDonald

Continuing the McDonald trail we drive to Inverness. We stand on a rough, boggy, undulating plain.

"Don't let anyone call this Culloden Moor," grumps Alister, who grew up here and played in what was once forest. "It's Drumossie Moor."

Culloden. The bloody, misguided 40 minutes that ended 1000 years of the clan way of life, ultimately dispersed its children from Nova Scotia to Invercargill. The romantic myth and disastrous legacy of Prince Charles Edward Stuart.

"I've heard a story," I say as we walk past stones that purport to mark the graves of clans slaughtered here, though many are simply notional. Alister nods.

"The McDonalds had the right, granted by Robert the Bruce, of standing in the position of honour on the battlefield, at the right hand of the king. But at Culloden they were sent to the far left of the ranks. They would have had to run a mile, across bogs and hillocks, carrying all their gear, to charge the English. They were not happy. They arrived a little late for the action. They spat the dummy, and the Scottish cause was lost."

A marker at the Culloden battlefield. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user James Carter

Edinburgh. Under its 27m-high dome, the New Register Office's 6.5km of shelving contains half a million volumes recording all the births, deaths and marriages in Scotland since 1855, census records from 1841 to 1901, parish records, one dating from 1553.

Many hundreds of visitors will come this year, drawn by the Homecoming 2014 events. Some will crack the mystery of their forebears or five-times grandparents. I play with those 10 names from Glasgow but know I will never find James McDonald.

Maybe he was a convict, freed, married an Irishwoman. Or a sailor who jumped ship. Maybe he wasn't James McDonald; he was someone who wanted or needed to change his name. He was 33 when Robert was born; perhaps there was another, earlier family.

I recall the conversation with Maggie McDonald on Skye, and my off-hand remark: "I suppose that if I want to find out if I'm a real McDonald, the only way would be to have a DNA test."

Her reply: "The American branch of Clan Donald is carrying out an experiment using DNA samples which has been going on for several years and is producing remarkable results.

"There are six chiefs of the branches of the clan and every one carries a result that positively traces them back to the legendary founder of the McDonalds, Somerled."

It costs US$300 ($366) to be tested and have your DNA logged on the database.

Might do it. I have nothing to lose but my name.

More articles on travelling to do genealogical research
A family history, stitch by stitch
A family gathering in Dublin
In the footsteps of my ancestors
Dreams of kilted grandeur
The Shetland connection
Tale of Oma and Opa bridges generation gap
Return to the Eagles' nest
A picturesque beginning in Eling
Getting there: Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Dubai and on to Scotland.

Further information: It's a big year for Scotland: the vote on independence, Glasgow Commonwealth Games, Ryder Cup golf and Homecoming 2014, a year's events and activities in food & drink, the outdoors, arts, cultural and ancestral heritage. See VisitScotland for more details.

See also:, and

The writer travelled courtesy of VisitScotland and Emirates Airlines.