Posted by on 7 January 2013 in General, Guest Bloggers, What's in a name?

Authored by Lynn McAlister.   Lynn is a professional genealogist and has been a Macalister historian since 1997.  She researches the Macalister name worldwide as part of the Guild of One-Name Studies and maintains the blog ‘Today in Macalister History’ (www.macalister-history.blogspot.com).

The MacAlister surname is Gaelic in origin: mac Alasdair means ‘son of Alexander’. The name is associated with one of the West Highland clans in Scotland, originally a branch of Clan Donald. Although the origins of Highland clans are more varied than once believed, genetic studies suggest about 40% of Macalister men worldwide are direct descendants of Somerled, a powerful 12th century warlord.

There are nearly as many different spellings for this name as there are people who use it, and most Macalisters will find a variety of spellings in their family history. (It is not true that Mac- is Scottish and Mc- Irish; both spellings have always been used in both places.) Some Alexander families are connected to this clan, having adopted the English name when they settled in the Lowlands, but the name Alexander was common throughout Europe and most Alexander families are unrelated. A hybrid form, MacAlexander, seems to have disappeared.

Like other southwest Highland clans, Macalisters spread into Ireland early on. Some were established there by the 14th century, descendants of Highland mercenaries called gallòglaich; others followed the Macdonalds of Dunyvaig to Antrim after that clan lost its Scottish lands in the early 1600s. Like the Macdonalds, however, Macalisters as ‘uncivilised’ Gaels were not considered appropriate candidates for the Ulster Plantations and so they are not technically among those now called Ulster Scots (or Scotch-Irish).

Before 1707, most Macalisters who went to the colonies did so as transportees. After 1707, however, the British Empire was opened to the Scots and many Macalisters took advantage of the opportunities offered by emigration – either as permanent settlers or as ‘sojourners’ seeking adventure or advancement before returning home. (Some West Indian Macalisters descend from sojourners who established temporary families with enslaved Africans there.) Macalisters were also among the early settlers in Australia, mostly willing emigrants rather than convicts.

Today the name Macalister is found all over the world, but primarily in places once part of the British Empire, especially Australia and New Zealand. Notable Macalisters include Arthur Macalister (1818–1883) twice Premier of Queensland, Australia; John Kenneth Macalister (1914-1944), Canadian war hero executed at Buchenwald; David McAllister (1971-) Prime Minister of Lower Saxony; Mary McAllister (1909-1991), silent film star; Miles D. McAlester (1833–1869), Union general in the American Civil War; and David McAllister (1963- ), artistic director of the Australian Ballet. For more information visit www.one-name.org/profiles/macalister.html.

Lynn McAlister is a professional genealogist and has been a Macalister historian since 1997. She researches the Macalister name worldwide as part of the Guild of One-Name Studies and maintains the blog ‘Today in Macalister History’.

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