Saturday, 5 October 2013

Ulster and West Highland Clan Surnames


Many people with Gaelic origin surnames are interested in researching their clan connections. This is cannot be done by assuming one’s last name is also a clan surname.  Many Gaelic surnames are not clan surnames and do not relate to historical clans.  They are surnames created from Gaelic patronymic naming customs.  Many Gaelic surnames were not fixed in until very late, circa 1500s into the 1600s.  Even then the use of clan surnames was not universal and was often a form only found on legal documents written by government officials, rather than the surname a family actually used in their community.[1]  Clan surnames were used more by older sons of landed families. In other cases families related to a historical clan via marriage, via legal contracts such a manrents (military obligations to a lord), tacsmen (land managers) or just allies, would take the surname of the clan to which they were associated.  The best way to  research one’s clan connections is through Y chromosome DNA testing (Y-DNA) and a study of the history of a district that the family originated.

Y Chromosome DNA (Y-DNA) testing usually provides a kinship group of surnames with the same paternal kinship.   Often the non-surname matches are as important as the surname matches when trying ascertain clan connections.  Many Gaelic clans had groups of surnames associated with them. There are many examples of this that have turned up in DNA results.

If you have tested your Y-DNA at the 67 or 111 and a definite kinship group has appeared the surnames in the group usually give important data relevant to past clan connections.  A good first step is to have research done on the etymology and history of those particular surnames.  Sometimes this alone reveals a family past clan connections.  For example, the common Ulster and west Highland surname of Campbell, most times this is the anglicised form of Caimbeul from the well-known Argyll family.   But some Campbell families have a kinship group that includes the surname Caulfield which an Ulster Heritage researcher knew to be anglicised form of the name Mac Cathmhaoil, a county Tyrone Irish Gaelic family and that this family used both Caulfield and Campbell as anglicised forms of their surname.  This gave this particular Campbell family their real history and geographic location to conduct further research.  This type of breakthrough happens often in the Ulster Heritage Project.

If one of your research goals is to explore your clan connections and you have reached a brick wall with your paternal kinship group matches it might help to have an expert look at the group and do an analysis of them.  This involves etymology, history, and geographic analysis of the kinship group and an examination of any primary sources.  It is complex work often working with Gaelic language sources, but can provide valuable insight into a family’s clan connections.   If you have reached a point that you would like your kinship group analyzed please contact Ulster Heritage.




[1], Michael Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2000, pages 136, 137. 

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