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Mac vs Mc

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot

© 1998

Synopsis:  This essay describes the reason why other than nineteenth century migration, there are no O' surnames in Scotland, but there are Mac surnames in Ireland. This debunks the myth that Mac is Scottish and Mc is Irish.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

Firstly, it is complete and utter nonsense that Mac and Mc indicate Scottish or Irish origins. They are both EXACTLY the same word, the Mc is actually the abbreviated form of Mac (and sometimes meic) and was usually written M'c (sometimes even M') with the apostrophe indicating that the name has been abbreviated (there are many other characters indicating abbreviation including two dots under the c).

There is however one distinction you can make as far as differentiating between a name being Scottish or Irish. If it is an O' name it is always Irish (those in Scotland are mostly nineteenth century emigrations), but if it is a mac, mc or other variation it can be both Scottish or Irish!

The background:

Kings & Kindreds

Irish legal tracts of the fifth century recognise 3 grades of kingship:

rí túathe - ruler of kindred

rí túath - Overlord of other kindreds

           - also ruire (ro aire)

rí ruirech - king of overkings

              - also rí cóicid - king of a fifth (e.g.. king of Munster) 

The above grades are purely legal, in the Irish annals they are simply described as rí  - you were supposed to know as you read the annal which grade a particular king belonged to. There was no legal office of ard rí (high king), this was a fiction of tenth and eleventh century historians trying to place the Úi Néill as overlords of everybody.

What's In A Name

This early society was anything but static, new kindreds rose as old ones vanished in name. The names given to kindreds were always in two parts, with the first always denoting kinship.

In the early historical period (c.AD400) a new term comes into use for kindred naming Úi. This is in turn replaced by cenél and, around the tenth century in Ireland, by clann (a little later in Scotland - the first being MacDuff in the eleventh century). The sixteenth century saw this replaced in both Ireland and Scotland by cinneadh. 

The second element of a kindred name was always an historical figure and almost always male.

The Úi Néill An Example In Naming Patterns.

Around AD400, the Dàl Cuinn (kindred of Conn) led by Niall Noigiallach (Niall of the nine hostages) began to expand at a rapid rate, as they do so they get a new name the Úi Néill.

The Úi Néill begin to move north and takeover much of northern and middle Ireland. The northern and southern branches then split into new kindreds all said to be named after sons of Niall and each one representing a tuath with a king. As a group one will be overking of the rest and be king of the northern or southern Úi Néill. The king of the northern or southern Úi Néill would also be king of the whole Úi Néill kindred.

Main kindreds of the Northern Úi Néill  Cenél Eogain
Cenél Conaill
Cenél Enda 
& others
Main kindreds of the Southern Úi Néill  Cenél Leogaire
Cenél Maine
& others

What does the term Cenél Eogain mean?

Very few of them at the beginning of the sixth century can be direct descendents of Eogain, therefore they were people from the kindred which Eogain and family ruled over.

What happens to the people into whose territory they expand?

In many cases, they become so weak that they are absorbed into the incoming kindred, in others they remain in being but are subordinated to the incoming kindred. For instance the Airginalla were a subordinate kindred under the northern Úi Néill and were known as the "hostage givers". Some of the kindreds within the Airginalla became professional soldiers, indeed one the Úi macc-Uais were the main fighting arm of the Úi Néill.

So what has this to do with Scotland?

The kingdom of Dàl Riata established by the expansion from the kingdom of Dàl Riata on the Ulster coast across to the west coast of Scotland around the 500s, consisted of three kindreds:

 Cenél  nGabrain (Gabrain died in 558)

 Cenél  Loairn

 Cenél nOengusa  

As you can see there were no Úi kindreds, therefore the expansion of  Dàl Riata into Scotland came after the Cenél naming pattern became productive. 

Addressing your Rí

Around the tenth century there were two forms of address for the rí.

The first structured like Donald son of X son of X in Gaelic was Donald ua Donald. The ua would later become O' in Ireland.

The alternative form of ua was Donald mac meic Donald or Donald son of the son of Donald. Meic Donald would later became the form of address. Both ways existed in Scotland and Ireland, but this latter was most common in Scotland.

By the twelfth century the following structure is seen in the address of the rí:

Kindred Style of rí  Surname 
(last to come into being)
Clann Domnaill macDhomhnaill mac Domhnaill

The use of surnames came very late to Scotland, because of this, the period where the form O' had been productive was past, and the form mac was used instead.