A Case for the ‘Big D’ by Donald F. MacDonald

Mr MacDonald suggests that Clan Donald take a stand for a capital “D” and begins a campaign by asking editors to adopt an upper case “D”. If you don’t agree, let’s hear the case for the small “d”.

At the risk of being ostracised by fellow Clan Donald members, I’d like to put before you a controversial subject – the spelling of our clan surname, originally “MacDhomhnuill,” son of Donald. I’ve long been a champion of “Big D” MacDonalds, even more so now that I’m attempting to study Gaelic.

Gaelic is no weird, barbaric language without spelling rules or without the respect which all languages afford to proper names. Therefore I believe that any reference to Donald, the clan’s progenitor – regardless of whether the bearer can prove he is a blood descendant of Donald – deserves a capital “D”.

Many Gaelic scholars agree. I can cite the late Dr Alexander Carmichael, the late Professor W.J. Watson, Celtic Honours graduate Miss Kitty MacLeod; as well as the Reverend Doctor Donald Mackinnon, former editor of the Clan MacLeod Magazine, who has successfully convinced Clan MacLeod members that they should honour Leod, their clan progenitor by always using a capital “L”.

I was born in Carolina. This land received even more Highland emigrants and Gaelic speakers during the eighteenth century emigrations than did Nova Scotia, although the latter’s association with Gaeldom has been far better publicised.

You see Carolina’s Gaelic has long since died out. But not one MacDonald descendant of those eighteenth century emigrants in the Carolinas today – and there are hundreds – would think of spelling his surname with a lowercase “d”. Any Carolina MacDonald found with a small “d” can immediately be identified as a first or second-generation emigrant.

Back home, it always made my blood boil to have native Scots, freshly arrived in Carolina, tell me that “Macdonald” was the proper way because it was the Old Way, the Scottish Way. Where did they think my MacDonalds came from, Pakistan?

Dr MacKinnon assures me that the lowercase “d” has become firmly entrenched in Scotland only in relatively recent years – perhaps at about the same time it became fashionable to join together the names of glens, lochs, streams, mountains, etc, as one word: Bannockburn, Glenalmond, Lochcarron, Benalmond.

Having allowed “Glengarry” and “Clanranald,” I suppose eventually we will see ourselves referred to as “Clandonald”.

Which reminds me of the first time I ever saw “Burntisland” and “Lochlomond” so spelled. I hadn’t a clue as to how to pronounce them!

Here’s what Dr MacKinnon says about MacDonald v. Macdonald:

“Only clan names derived from proper personal names like Donald, Leod, Kenneth etc, were written with a capital, thus MacDonald, MacLeod, MacKenzie; and the possessors of these names were proud of the fact that they, as descended from great and illustrious heroes, had the right to use a capital in their names.

“Thus, they could distinguish themselves from such clans or families which were descended from mediaeval clerics or from tradesmen, like joiners, turners, wrights etc, all of whom wrote their surnames with a small letter – such as Macvicar (the son of the vicar), Macpherson (the son of the parson), Macintyre (the son of the carpenter), Macleay (the son of the physician).

“There were not many clans in the Highlands and Islands who had the proud distinction of being able to write their names with a capital letter and those were very jealous of the right to do so.

“You may ask: How was it that MacDonald came to be written with a small ‘d’? My answer is – through English influence. From the time of Queen Margaret and especially from 1603 when James VI became King of England there was a powerful influence exerted to make Scotland conform to English ways and usages in everything.

“The Stuart kings were anti-Gaelic. It was James IV who smashed the Lordship of the Isles, the last bulwark of Gaelic Culture in Scotland; and the writing of Gaelic names was made to conform to English ways.”

Gaelic was proscribed as the language of rebels, or denounced as a “Papist tongue”. It became necessary for Scots to get as far removed from Gaelic as possible. Even our Highland blood was suspect, and we began to bow to the wishes of a “more civilised” people – the Lowland Scots and the English!

I know my critics will be able to point to many ancient spellings – everything from “Mackdonul” to “McGoanul” to “M’Donell” – which were merely attempts at phonetic spellings of old Gaelic. I’m not advocating a return to any of these other phoneticisms, although they may appear to be closer to the original Gaelic than “MacDonald.”

I merely maintain that if we are to respect Gaelic as a bona fide language, a language with rules, then we should capitalise any and all references to a proper name, no matter the degree of Anglicisation.

While on the subject, let’s examine “Mc” and “Mac”. Since the latter is the original Gaelic for “son,” the use of “Mc” is in a sense purely a contraction, although it was first begun in Irish Gaelic through the use of “macron”, a short line above the “c”. This macron was simply a vowel.

Through misuse, the macron became a line beneath the “c”. Not knowing why, some people added a second line; others put two short perpendicular lines beneath the “c”.

Still another contraction appears as M’Donald. This came through misuse of the aspirate sign in Old Gaelic – a dot above the “M”‘ to signify the genitive or vocative cases and the missing letter “h”.

Sheer laziness comes into the matter as well. Before her marriage, my wife’s mother (who is bi-lingual) was a teacher in Gaelic-speaking Lewis. Here of all places, she expected to see MacDonald spelled with a “Big D.” But when she cautioned the children to honour the clan’s patriarch with a capital “D” in script, she invariably heard this complaint: “But, Miss. When we write ‘Mac’, it’s so much easier just to carry on without changing to a capital ‘D’.”

Oddly enough, it is this very same ease in writing script which ensures that a capital “D” is used when “Mc” is the prefix. Most “Mc” users write the “c” near the top of the line, and it’s quite a natural process to swing from this position into an upper case “D”. Try it yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.

Finally, etymologists such as Dr George Black try to tell us that since all MacDonalds are not blood descendants of Donald, the name can therefore no longer mean “son of Donald.”

What rubbish. It meant this originally. How has anyone the right to try to change its original meaning?

I say it’s time we fought these anti-Gaelic, anti-Highland, anti-patriarchal influences which for so long robbed our ancestors of both their language and their homeland. This is the twentieth century. We will not be persecuted for honouring a great Gaelic hero.

Or must the English and Lowland Scots control even the way we spell our own name?