Hugh MacDonald and the Knock MS by the Editor

Among the principal sources used by our modern Clan Historians and other writers of West Highland history are what are generally known as The Book of Clanranald and the History of the MacDonalds attributed to one Hugh MacDonald. The former was compiled during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by members of the MacVurich family who acted as bards and seanachies, firstly to the Lords of the Isles and later to the chiefs of Clanranald. The latter, the authorship of which forms the subject of this article, is said to have been written in the reign of Charles II but internal evidence shows that it was certainly written after 1628.

The MS. itself is now in the National Library of Scotland and may be consulted in the Manuscripts Room. It is clearly written, in English, although unfortunately, it is not the original MS. but a copy, of which the first and last parts are missing. It covers the period from approximately 1100 to 1500 and although in many cases it is inaccurate, it is, nevertheless, an invaluable record of the traditional customs and history of the Clan Donald as accepted in the Isles in the seventeenth century.

The original owner of the MS. was Sir William MacLeod Bannatyne (1743-1833), the respected genealogist and historian, descended from the MacLeods of Bernera, who has left us the invaluable MS. history of the MacLeods which bears his name. In an introductory note attached to the MS., Bannatyne states: “Copy, fragment History of the MacDonalds from mant. possessed by Major Macdonald Knock, father of the late General Donald Macdonald, the fragment from which this copy was taken beginning with the history of Somerled and ending with the succession of Donald grandson of Austin brother to Alexander Lord of the Isles, in whose person that great family was forfeited, Austin being himself founder of the Sleat family, afterwards Baronets and then Irish peers by the title of Lord Macdonald…” Pencilled above this note, in the hand of Donald Gregory, Historiographer Royal for Scotland is the following: “Belongs to Sir Wm. Bannatyne. lent 11th Augt 1833 to Wm F Skene by Donald Gregory. To be returned to Mr. Gregory when Mr. Skene has done with it.”

The cataloguer’s note attached to the MS. states that Sir William Bannatyne lent it to Gregory and died in November, 1833. Gregory, in turn, lent it to W.F. Skene in 1833 and died in 1836. Skene quoted from the manuscript in 1834 in MS. 14897 (f 119) and in 1837 in The Highlanders of Scotland (vol 2, pp41,58) and printed the complete text in 1847 in Collectanea de Rebus Albanicis (pp. 282,325). The cataloguer suggests that Gregory’s ascription to Hugh Macdonald (History of die Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland, 1836, p.10) may result from a misreading of Bannatyne’s preface, in which “Austin” (Hugh) in fact occurs twice although the words “Austin being himself resemble “written by himself.” He also states that “nowhere does he (Skene) ascribe it (the MS) to more than ‘a highland Sennachie.’ The Hugh Macdonald ascription was followed, without comment, by MacPhail in his edition of the text in ‘Highland Papers,’ vol. 1 (Scottish History Society, 1914), pp 1-102.”

Incidentally, the last section of the MS. is not, in fact, included in Collectanea de Rebus Albanicis. This, however, has been rectified by Sheriff J.R.N. MacPhail in Highland Papers Vol. 1. It is difficult to accept that such a scholar as Gregory would be so easily misled (as the result of a mistrading by him of the words “Austin being himself as “written by himself) into concluding that the author of the MS. was Hugh MacDonald, progenitor of the MacDonalds of Sleat and brother of Alexander, Lord of the Isles and Earl of Ross. The present writer is of the opinion that Gregory may well have been given the information regarding the identity of the author, from Sir William Bannatyne, who in turn may have obtained it from the owner of the original MS. whom he says was Major MacDonald of Knock. This was Allan MacDonald of Knock in Sleat, who served as a major in one of the Independent Companies during the Forty-Five, and who “was particularly inveterate in his severity towards the Jacobites of Skye, and … won an unenviable notoriety in the traditions of the island.” His son, Donald, joined the British Army and commanded the Loyalist force, mainly composed of emigrant Highlanders, including Allan MacDonald of Kinsburgh, husband of Flora MacDonald, which was defeated by the American Revolutionaries at Moore’s Creek, North Carolina, in 1776. It may have been from General Donald MacDonald, that Bannatyne obtained the copy of the MS. If so, one wonders whether the original manuscript may have been taken to America.

Skene, in Celtic Scotland (Volume 3, P.357) refers to the MS. as the Knock Manuscript which, to the present writer at least, seems to be the most suitable title for it.

That there was a Hugh MacDonald who wrote a history of the MacDonalds can be proved beyond all reasonable doubt. Martin Martin, tutor in Sleat, writing c.1695 refers to “the Genealogist Mack-Vurich and Hugh Mack-Donald, in their Manuscripts” (A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, 2nd., 1716 ed., P.212; 1934 ed., P.250). Although the identity of this Hugh MacDonald cannot now be ascertained with certainty it is worthy of consideration that among the Family Papers of Lord MacDonald now held in the library at the Clan Donald Visitor Centre, Armadale in Skye there is a deed executed in 1686 by “Captain Hugh Mconal Lawfull son to umq.” Alexr. Mcdonal of pabelscary,” and among the witnesses thereto was “Mr. Martin Martin governour to the Laird of Mcdonal younger.” Paiblesgarry is in North Uist and as William Matheson has already stated: “The author (of the MS.) certainly shows a marked familiarity with the oral tradition of North Uist, and, in particular, with the traditions relating to the ancestors of the MacDonalds of Paiblesgarry” (Hugh Macdonald’s Manuscript, in The Society of West Highland Historical Research, Notes and Queries, XXI, August, 1985, P.16).

According to The Clan Donald (Vol. Ill, P.471) by the Rev. Angus J.N. MacDonald, D.D., and the Rev. Archibald MacDonald, D.D., Hugh MacDonald was the son and heir of Alexander MacDonald of Paiblisgearry, in North Uist, fifth son of Sir Donald MacDonald, 1st Baronet of Sleat. He succeeded his father in Paiblisgarry and also appears on record as of Duistill (Duisdale), in Sleat. He was brought up under the Reay influence (his mother being the sister of John MacKay, Lord Reay), which was anti-Jacobite, and favourable to the Orange movement. He held the rank of Captain in the regiment of General MacKay, his relative (and may therefore have been present at Killiecrankie, in 1689, on the government side), and had the freedom of Montrose conferred on him inl692. Much of his military life was passed in Flanders, where he fought in the army of the States General in the war with France. He died before 1721, when he was succeeded by his son, John Macdonald of Paiblisgarry, who appears that year in an enumeration of the gentlemen of North Uist. There is no record of when he died but with him the male line of Paiblisgarry terminated.

Duisdale, which, as already stated, was possessed by Captain Hugh MacDonald of Paiblisgarry and Knock, the ancestral home of Major Allan MacDonald of Knock, are both situated in Sleat, within a few miles of each other. It is not impossible, therefore, that there may have been intermarriage between the two families and it is worth noting that there appears to be no surviving record of whom Captain Hugh MacDonald married. It seems reasonable, therefore, to suggest that, if Captain Hugh MacDonald was the author of the MS., it may well have come into the possession of the Knock family either after his death or that of his wife or son. The present writer along with Mr. John Macdonald, Genealogist at the Clan Donald Visitor Centre Library and Study Centre, had occasion to compare from a photocopy, the handwriting from the MS. with that of Captain Hugh MacDonald of Paiblisgarry from letters written by the latter which are contained among Lord MacDonald’s Papers from which comparison it was concluded that the writer of the MS. was not Captain Hugh MacDonald. This was not surprising since the MS. is stated to be a copy of the original. A similar comparison between the handwriting of the MS. and that of Major Allan MacDonald of Knock, from a letter written by the latter, carried out by Miss Margaret Macdonald, Archivist and Mr. John Macdonald, Genealogist at the Library and Study Centre, at the present writer’s request, showed also that Major Allan MacDonald of Knock, was not the writer of the MS.

Dr. John Bannerman in his excellent book on the Beatons, hereditary physicians in the Western Isles has, apparently, proved that the bulk of the so-called Black Book of Clanranald is in the hand of a member of this talented family, one Christopher Beaton, whom he concludes from the book’s contents, was tutor to a family of the Clan Donald of Antrim in Northern Ireland. Dr. Bannerman puts the question as to whether the author of the MacDonald History, i.e. the Knock MS., may have been a Beaton. He concedes that the author was not Christopher Beaton, on the grounds that specimens of his English in the Black Book of Clanranald are quite different instyle and orthography but states that Christopher’s facility in English may be itself a pointer to a relationship between him and the author of the MS. He suggests that it could be argued that the way in which the author of the MS. referred to “our Highland shenakies” indicates that he did not consider himself to be one and therefore that he was not a member of the professional learned orders, or that as a member of a family whose profession had always, in the past, been medicine, he may have regarded himself as an amateur in historiography.

In referring to the fact that Donald Gregory names Hugh MacDonald as the author of the MS., Dr. Bannerman suggests that he may have got his information from Sir William Bannatyne and that either Gregory or Bannerman could have deduced the author’s identity from Martin Martin’s reference to the manuscripts of the genealogist Mack-Vurich and Hugh Mack-Donald, aforementioned. It may be significant that Martin Martin did not describe Hugh MacDonald as a genealogist which might suggest that the latter was, indeed regarded as an amateur, or at least less competent as a genealogist or historian than MacVurich.

Dr. Bannerman, also, claims that internal evidence suggests that the particular professional source from which the material (of the MS.) derived was the Beatons; for example, the author, describing the seating arrangements at a Wmquet held by Alexander, Lord of the Isles, specifically places “Beatton, the principal physician” above “MacMurrich, the poet” in order of precedence, more space is devoted to the surname Beaton than to any other in the list of surnames of those who came over to Scotland in the retinue of Aine Ni Chathain (i.e. the Irish wife of Angus Og), that the specific family of Beatons (to which Christopher belonged) involved was the one domiciled in North Uist is suggested by the knowledge displayed of local conditions in North Uist being more detailed than for any of the other territories belonging to the MacDonalds of Sleat and that the attitudes of Christopher and the author of the MS. towards the surname Beaton and the implications of its use are exactly similar, that is that the Beatons were an off-shoot of the Irish O’Neals, it may also be argued that since Captain Hugh MacDonald of Paiblisgarry (of whom Dr. Bannerman makes no mention) was a Sleat MacDonald and a native of North Uist that he may well have chosen to give more prominence to the Beatons than to the MacVurichs since in his time, the former, or at least a family of them, were prominent as physicians in North Uist and in the employ of MacDonald of Sleat while the MacVurichs served Clanranald and resided in the territory of the latter, in South Uist. There may even have been some rivalry between Hugh MacDonald and MacVurich.

Finally, Dr. Bannerman states that there is evidence from the seventeenth century that a servitor, in whatever capacity, was sometimes given his employer’s surname and cites as an example a contemporary MacRae genealogical tract which names Maol-Domhnaich O Muingheasain, poet and seanachaidh to the MacLeans of Duart in the second half of the seventeenth century as Mildonich MacLean. The present writer, however, is not alone in taking the view that persons of such a high social standing as the Beatons in North Uist at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries would be unlikely to use the surname MacDonald in preference to that of their own. It is also worth remembering that the author of the MS. repeatedly refers to Hugh of Sleat as Austin, obviously an Anglicised corruption of Uisdean, the Gaelic name of the progenitor of the MacDonalds of Sleat but as Dr. Bannerman shows in his book, the Gaelic name used by the Beatons of the Outer Hebrides was not Uisdean but Aodh which is also rendered in English as Hugh. The Gaelic Christian name used by the MacDonalds which, in English, is rendered Hugh has always been Uisdean, never Aodh.

The true identity of the author of the Knock MS. , will, due to insufficient evidence, probably never now be established but it would perhaps be appropriate to let the Rev. Angus J.N. MacDonald, co-author of The Clan Donald and a native of Benbecula, have the last word on the subject. In his unpublished history of North Uist, Dr. MacDonald states: “…Alexander Macdonald son of Sir Donald Macdonald of Sleat had Paiblisgarry and other lands. He died before 1657, and was the father of Hugh Macdonald, as I believe the Sleat Seanachie, and author of the manuscript that bears his name.”


The Beatons – a medical kindred in the classical Gaelic tradition (1986), by John Bannerman.
Celtic Scotland, Vol III (1890) by W. F. Skene.
The Clan Donald, Vol III (1904), by the Revs. A & A MacDonald.
Collectanea de Rebus Albanicis (1839), ed. by D. Gregory and W. F. Skene.
A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (1716 and 1934 edns), by Martin Martin.
The Highlanders of Scotland, vol II (1837), by W. F. Skene.
Highland Papers, Vol I (1914), ed. by Sheriff J.R.N. MacPhail, K.C.
History of North Uist (unpublished), by the Rev. Angus J.N. MacDonald, D.D., in Special Collections, University of Edinburgh Library.
History of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland (1836), by Donald Gregory. Hugh MacDonald’s Manuscript, by William Matheson, in The Society of West Highland Historical Research, Notes and Queries, XXI (Aug., 1983).
The Knock MS – History of the MacDonalds attributed to Hugh MacDonald, Gaelic MS CVII -Ref. ADV 73.1.12, in National Library of Scotland.
Lord MacDonald’s Papers, located at the Clan Donald Library and Study Centre, Armadale, Sleat, Isle of Skye.
Relique Celticae, Vol II (1894). Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, Vol XXXVIII (1962).