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This is some information about how the MacIsaacs became part of the
MacDonald clan. My parents went to a MacIsaac reunion in 1986 in PEI, and
they brought back a booklet by Leo P. MacIsaac of Mermaid, PEI. It is very
informative. I posted on this site about the story I am relaying a while
back, but it took me a while to find this booklet. Sorry for the delay. I
copied this passage verbatim from the booklet. I don't know if there are any
more copies around or if Leo is still alive, but it has a lot of information
about the MacIsaac/McIsaac families of PEI.
From: The MacIsaacs came from Scotland
Pgs 5 – 9
By:Leo P. McIsaac
Prince Edward Island
July 1, 1986
Now to the MacIsaacs
We MacIsaacs are not a traditionally recognized Scottish clan. Our ancestors
were latecomers to Scotland. There is no mention of our name on any Scottish
records until late in the thirteenth century. But from then on, three
branches of the family became widely recognized.
From my several trips back to Scotland since the end of World War II, I’ve
tried to piece together the background and history of our family based on
what is written, as well as on interviews with some of the older Scottish
custodians whose tradition and legend seems to be as strong as the written
One story, which I got from a very pleasant afternoon with the custodian at
Sterling Castle back in the late 1960’s, seems to tie together all the other
traditional explanations, which were offered. He explained the legend that
there were two Danite youths from Ireland whose families had become
Christians during the time of Saint Patrick, 390-467 A.D. and had resisted
the British invaders back in the twelfth century. They were set afloat in an
open boat; likely from the port of Drogheda, County Meath, into the Irish
Sea, form where the tides still flow strongly up through the northern
The story was that they soon drifted north into the Sound of Sleat, between
county Knoydart and the Isle of Skye. Not knowing any language but the Irish
Erse and being of obvious Jewish parentage, they were readily given the
surname “Isaac”, this being the best known Jewish name among the uneducated
local populace. Their sons and descendants became known as “MacIsaac”, in
line with local name, customs and traditions.
During the next three or four centuries the clan was to multiply rapidly and
spread all throughout the western islands and coastal regions of Scotland.
During this time they seemed to have divided into three branches. One group
became known as “McKeesic”. Those were fishermen; apparently a very hardy
and successful race who worked for the fish merchants who owned the boats
and gear. On the rough seas of the west coast, these McKeesic clan were
tough and successful fisher folk. Education came second to hard work for the
hired help of the lords and chieftains of the isles who dominated the
lucrative fishing and farming operations even then.
The other group, the MacIsaac or McIsaac, seem to retain more the traits of
their ancestors. They became gifted artisans, tradesman, and business
people. Some of the categories listed are tax collectors, sheriffs, jailers,
policeman, and soldiers. As tradesmen they were known as brewers, boat
builders, carpenters, stone masons, stone cutters, bricklayers and builders.
The other group which seemed to have moved farther inland to the highlands
became shepherds and farm hands, and eventually their name was spelled
McKissock. All of these families, however, had their roots on the west coast
from the Isle of Mull through Moidart, north to Knoydart and over to the
southern part of Skye.
Many languages or tongues of Celtic origin were in general use in Scotland
up to this time. The MacIsaac family was given credit in many quarters for
purifying many, many words and phrases of the Erse tongue, which became the
basis of the widespread and unified Gaelic language, which was declared the
official tongue of Scotland during the 1500’s.
The Scottish economy at this time had expanded to a successful commercial
basis based on the production of sheep for wool and meat, and barley for
The McKissock group, who were known as great lovers, also became recognized
as some of the most cunning and competent shepherds on the hills. They are
given credit for breeding and training the original Scottish sheep dogs.
This was high technology in those days, and the fame and commerce resulting
even from this development brought further wealth and prosperity to the
As for being great lovers, there are many traditional rumors and stories
about lonesome lassies disappearing from the glens and dales for days on
end, up into the hills to assist with the shepherding. We find nothing
recorded to substantiate these rumors and so will try to pass on the facts
and most logical legends as we found them.
It is quite evident from a perusal of the records and history that the
people of this age could not be classed with the angels and saints. Although
castles were built, tartans were designed, music from Scotland became
recognized all over the world, outdoor athletics and sports were developed,
dances were refined, and contests in all those fields were highlights of
In agriculture, new breeds of cattle evolved – especially Aberdeen Angus and
Ayrshires. Sheep breeds were being purified both for their meat quality and
for their wool production. But Old Nick was around then, too. There were
inter-clan rivalries, even inter-family disputes about religion, politics
and employment. Sheep stealing was general. Law enforcement was very
difficult because laws were largely unwritten. Jails for minor offences were
usually in the form of older, vacated buildings controlled by the sheriff of
the area. He usually was judge and jury, because after having, for instance,
arrested and brought in someone accused of stealing sheep, he could make it
easy or difficult for the accused to escape before punishment was meted out.
The greatest stigma in those days was not to be accused of, or arrested for,
committing a crime, but to be so incompetent as not to escape before being
sentenced. There are many stories about McKissock shepherds being brought in
and accused of sheep crimes. But instead of being sentenced, they were
rewarded with several days of feasting on the products of the malting barley
and the best mutton, after which they would mysteriously disappear back into
the hills before being punished. However, those accused of serious crimes
against society were often punished severely. They were made to walk with
ankle shackles – no chains or padlocks in those days – to the coast, and
then conveyed to some of the small outer isles where they often disappeared
from starvation and exposure over winter.
It was a rugged society, and each man and each family had to pretty well
look after himself. The general attitude to attain ownership or control of
property was: first, claim it. If the claim was disputed: fight it. If the
fight was lost: try it again from another angle. Last resort: tell them,
Battle of the Longhorns
The 13th and 14th centuries A.D. saw most of the productive land in Scotland
claimed and settled. Then as clans or families expanded, they thought they
required more land, and the most powerful set out to procure it by fair or
foul means from another.
One of the most famous disputes of this kind involved not only land but
religion, politics and women. This was the famous fight between the
Campbells and the MacDonalds. It is believed by many to be a general
dispute, but we should be more specific.
The Campbells were a very progressive and prosperous clan and had subdivided
several times over the centuries. One family, the Campbells of Glen Lyon,
however, became very aggressive and domineering. During the 1600’s they
found themselves short of land, short of available wives for their sons, and
deeply mixed up in religion and political turmoil.
To avenge these shortages and difficulties, they apparently decided that the
MacDonalds of Glencoe and of Clan Ronald, which were very progressive and
prosperous clans, were their nearest and easiest targets. Therefore, as
pressing needs arose during the 1600’s, they would usually during the early
spring period plan and carry out small invasions to secure their needed
land, livestock and supplies to satisfy their annual expansion plans and
Although the MacDonalds claimed to have royal blood, they were not warriors.
Therefore during the late 1680’s, anticipating another raid from the
Campbells, they had to develop or engage some military leadership and
The MacDonald chiefs got together and arranged to engage the services of one
“Red Rory” MacIsaac, who had been trained in the arm of Bonnie Prince
Charlie. He must have been a successful military man, as his arms and
military medals were still on display in the military section of Edinburgh
Castle after World War II.
He came to the area of Glen Coe and brought with him his intelligence group
consisting mostly of girls who gradually infiltrated the Campbell clan to
find out their plans. He determined that another invasion was planned during
the early spring of 1690, and when and where it was to be launched.
With this information well in advance, a plan of defense was designed. The
raid was to take place on a certain morning in March from behind a well
known wooded area or hedge adjacent to the MacDonald property. Red Rory them
arranged to assemble hundreds or as many of the mature highland Longhorn
cattle as he could possibly bring together during the preceding nights and
kept them hidden during the day.
On the morning the Campbells were ready to invade, the MacDonalds fed those
longhorns an ample supply of strong, partly brewed barley mash. This had the
effect, as they knew, of making those usually docile brutes both crazy and
courageous. They knew from experience that the only technique to make those
animals charge was lots of noise, so they assembled all the drums, bagpipes,
cannons and noisemakers they could find and, by surrounding them by the
noise on both sides and at the rear, these tremendous, half-drunk and crazy
longhorns charged across the meadow, through the hedge, and scattered, gored
and trampled the Campbell invaders without much loss, apart from the cattle,
to the MacDonalds.
So successful was this defense and so proud were the MacDonalds of it that
they awarded Red Rory MacIsaac and his clan full honors as enjoyed by the
MacDonald chieftains. This meant that after 1690, MacIsaac and all his clan
were entitled to wear the Dress MacDonald tartan as a symbol of recognition
by other Scotsmen. Although never exploited or widely developed by the
MacIsaac groups in many parts of Scotland, it is, nevertheless, recognized
as a right and privilege in Scottish history.
However, the Battle of the Longhorns was only a temporary setback for the
Campbells of Glen Lyon who again carried out their widespread and famous
invasion of 1692 where they soundly defeated and massacred nearly all of the
MacDonalds of Glen Coe and their cousins who had helped them in defense.