Scottish Family History
Interview with Scott MacDougald, President of the Clan MacDougall Society of North America
- Dr. Ephraim McDowell is a descendant of Clan MacDowall. Can you tell me a little about the origins of Clan MacDowall?
Dr. Ephraim’s surname “McDowell” is one of dozens of spellings of the surname with the Clan MacDowall. Clans usually take their Clan Name from their Chiefs’ surnames who in this case use the spelling Macdowall but have decided to use a capital D in their clan name. The current Clan MacDowall Chief is Fergus Macdowall of Garthland who recently celebrated his 95th birthday. Garthland is the name of his ancient family branch of Clan MacDowall and is the place where the Chiefs resided for about 400 years in Galloway, the area of south west Scotland.
The Clan MacDowall traces its origins back to the powerful Fergus, Prince of Galloway, who died in 1161. Prince Fergus’s sons and grandsons in the senior male line were known as the Lords of Galloway and they all did their best to keep Galloway independent of both Scotland and England. One of Fergus’ grandsons was Duegald who died in battle in 1185 fighting for his older brother Roland, Lord of Galloway. Duegald’s own descendants, the Macdowalls (spelled in many ways) became a junior line, or cadet, of the family. When the senior lines died out in the 1200s, they became the successors and leaders of the family kindred. Today Prof. Fergus D. H. Macdowall is the latest in a line of Clan leaders going back to Duegald, the founder of Clan MacDowall. He has written a book called The MacDowalls which explains much about the Clan MacDowall and its history. A review of it is available at https://macdougall.org/2014/02/16/macdougall-and-macdowall-books/ with information as to how to obtain a copy. The book cover is in the color of the Modern MacDowall Tartan which Clan Chief Fergus Macdowall is wearing in this photo.
- Where is Galloway and how were the McDowells important to it? What is Galloway like?
Galloway is the south west corner of Scotland and its coastline is as close as 20 miles from Ireland to its west. The southern and western areas are flatter with rich river valley farmlands but the northern interior is rocky and rugged with rocky hillside pastureland and large forested areas. The area has a warm wet climate because of the warming effect of the Gulf Stream. Chusan Palm trees grow in the Botanic Gardens on the lands of the now extinct MacDougall of Logan branch of Clan MacDowall.
The ancestors of Clan MacDowall were native rulers and local governors of a semi-independent Galloway back to at least the year 1000 in Viking times and likely earlier. From the time of the death of Duegald in 1185 to 1296 the family was called the “Macdougalls of Galloway” until the surname spelling was changed in the Ragman Roll record of oaths. They then revised the spelling to MacDowyl which better reflects the Galloway pronunciation which sounds like “mock dool” to our ears. After Duegald’s death his brothers descendants ruled Galloway as the Lords of Galloway until the senior male line died out about 1234 and Scotland finally obtained control. After that the MacDowall line of the family carried on for centuries as local leaders ruling for powerful Scottish families such as the Douglases who dominated Galloway until the 1450s. Galloway people always had a strong spirit of independence and they accepted their traditional local families like the Macdowalls of Garthland ruling them much better than rulers who were outsiders.
- Who were some interesting members of Clan MacDowall or their close relatives?
In over 850 years there have been may important members of Clan MacDowall. Among them were Sir Dougal MacDowyl who fought long and hard and eventually unsuccessfully against Robert the Bruce who had murdered his relative. The murder occurred during a private meeting of the two men inside a church in Dumphries, Scotland in February 1306. The dead man, John Comyn, was from a leading Galloway family and he and Bruce were both rivals for the throne. Bruce killed him and was hastily crowned Robert I, King of Scots six weeks later. His crimes of sacrilege, murder, and usurpation of the throne turned much of the country against him, especially the numerous families related to the murdered man. That murder restarted a series of English invasions and a long civil war which Bruce eventually won. However, the MacDowalls and some of their allies such as Clan MacDougall of Argyll held out against Bruce and his successor son David I for up to 49 years at tremendous cost.
After the MacDowalls made finally made peace in 1355 with David I, the King of Scots, Dougal MacDowyl’s grandson, Sir Fergus MacDowyll, governed Galloway for the Bruce’s allies, the powerful Douglas family. Robert Bruce had first put in them in charge of Galloway after he conquered it, though Galloway did changed hands a few times after that. In about 1361 Sir Fergus MacDowyll also started another branch of Clan MacDowall at Makerston in south east Scotland near Kelso on lands he had inherited from his Fraser mother. Because his new lands were on the main invasion route from England and because of his importance to the powerful Douglas family, he spent about fifty years fighting the English. Many of his Makerston branch of Clan MacDowall spell their name as Macdougall or McDougall or Mcdougal etc., though the spellings are also found elsewhere within Clan MacDowall as well. Those Clan MacDowall members who bear these Mcdougall surname variations are no relation to the Highland Clan MacDougall from Argyll on the west coast of Scotland, except that the two clans have been allies since they both fought for decades against Bruce over 700 years ago. Nowadays both clans are equal partners in the Clan MacDougall Society of North America which supports and preserves both their heritages. It has a website at www.macdougall.org with information about both clans.
Another clan member was Colonel William Macdowall the 5th son of the family of Garthland. He left Galloway in the 1690s to make his fortune in the sugar plantations of the West Indies and was extremely successful. He owned a ship which he called The Macdowall. When he returned home thirty years later, he was the richest commoner in Scotland. He bought the lands of Castle Semple located at Lochwinnoch in Renfrewshire, to the south west of Glasgow, where founded a Castlesemple line of the Clan MacDowall. His line of the family started the first bank in Scotland. Unfortunately the American Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812 did much to disrupt trans-Atlantic trade causing the bank to fail. Much of the Castlesemple fortune was lost which forced the sale the lands of Garthland which the senior branch of Clan MacDowall had held since 1413. However, the line of succession of the Clan MacDowall Chiefs has continued uninterrupted to this day.
- How and why did some Clan MacDowall members leave for Ireland? How and why did Ephraim McDowell’s ancestors leave for America?
MacDowalls and their ancestors have probably been crossing the 20 mile wide North Channel dividing Ireland from Galloway for thousands of years. Scottish soldiers crossing there found employment during the Irish fighting season for centuries, particularly from about 1250 to 1600. Many of them were MacDowalls. When the English finally conquered the Gaelic Irish Lords about 1600, they put a stop to the employment of Scottish mercenaries but many of the northern Irish lands were now depopulated from the wars. King James I decided that Ireland was his to do with as he wished. Beginning in 1606 he sold off lands in the north of Ireland to English and Scottish land companies on condition that they populate them with Protestant Scots and English who would hold them for the crown against the majority native Irish Catholic population. This was known as the Plantation of Galloway; plantation being an old word meaning colonization. Some of the leading managers of these land companies were Macdowalls from nearby Galloway. At the same time there was famine in Galloway. Macdowall and Macdowell families joined in the emigration to nearby Ireland where over time the surname spelling MacDowell became predominant.
Those settlers who were Scots Presbyterians were caught in an uncomfortable position beneath the English rulers and above the Irish natives. Wars, unrest, crop failures, and rebellions including the siege of Londonderry were common and religious differences among the three groups were often a large factor in them. However, the Scots settlers and their descendants had no option to go elsewhere and had to side with their Protestant English rulers against the native Irish. During this period the Scots settler families acquired a reputation for self-reliance and ability to fight as well as a dislike of being ruled over.
Then in 1707, the three separate Kingdoms of Ireland, Scotland and England were united together under the single crown as one country, the “United Kingdom”. Until each country had set rules and barriers about who could trade, travel or settle there. Now, suddenly people from the formerly separate countries of Ireland and Scotland could go to England or freely move to its colonies in North America. Those colonies offered them opportunity to own their own land and to escape the political climate, crop failure years, and repressions of Ireland. By 1715 many MacDowells, and other families of Scots descent, who had been living in the north of Ireland for up to a century or more were crossing the Atlantic ocean during the summer sailing season to North America.
The Quakers would now accept them into their colony of Pennsylvania where they settled them on the frontier as close as 20 miles west of Philadelphia to serve as a perimeter defense buffer against Indians. From there it was merely a matter of time before the followed the Great Wagon Road, an up to 50 mile wide Indian trail, southwards, or later move north into New York. However, by then many of those MacDowells who were of Scots descent now thought of themselves as Irish because that is where they had been living prior to leaving for North America. When the other Irish began to arrive later, these earlier immigrants began to call themselves Scotch-Irish or Ulster Scots to distinguish themselves. Even today many of these Macdowells, MacDowells, MacDouals, etc. do not know of their ancient Galloway, Scotland origins or about Ireland being a stepping stone for their ancestors on their journey to the New World.
- What is Clan MacDowall like today? Where do they live? How can our readers learn more or meet their family members?
Today Members of Clan MacDowall are spread around the world but the largest population is now in the United States.
In 1994 Clan MacDowall became a full partner with Clan MacDougall in the Clan MacDougall Society of North America. The Chief of Clan MacDowall, Dr. Fergus Macdowall of Garthland, a retired Agricultural scientist is an Honorary President of the Clan MacDougall Society of North America. This is very helpful because the two clans have been allies for over seven centuries and because we share so many of the same surnames and spellings. The Society web site address is www.macdougall.org and the membership page is at https://macdougall.org/membership-information/ Membership in the Society is open to anyone who wishes to support and preserve the heritage of Clan MacDowall and Clan MacDougall. In December 2016 the Society devoted a complete issue of its newsletter, The Tartan, to Clan MacDowall. If readers of this article would like to have a pdf copy of that December 2016 issue, the Clan MacDougall Society has made copies available to McDowell House for distribution upon request.