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MacIsaac


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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 record.

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 channel.

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 brewing whiskey.

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 chieftains.

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 Scottish life.

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, “Prove it!”

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 programs.

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 strategy.

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.


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