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About the study
mac Alasdair: Gaelic, 'son of Alexander'
Alasdair was as widely used in the Highlands as the name Alexander, from which it comes, was used everywhere else. Like Alexander, it produced a surname that was adopted by a number of unrelated families in a variety of places. However, the name is primarily associated with a branch of the Clan Donald, descended from Donald's younger son Alasdair Mor, who died in 1299. (The MacDonalds themselves descend from Alasdair's elder brother, Angus mac Domhnaill.)
Historical occurrences of the name
The MacAlisters originate in Kintyre, Western Scotland. The chiefly family traces its descent in a direct male line from Somhairle (Somerled), a Gall-Gaidheal (mixed Gaelic and Norse) warlord who died in 1164; DNA testing has confirmed this descent. As with all tribal groups, the Clan Alister absorbed unrelated families living on their lands, but Bryan Sykes's exhaustive study of Britain's genetic makeup concluded that about 40% of living MacAlister men, worldwide, are descendants of Somerled - a fairly high percentage.
Like other clans in the southwest Highlands, the MacAlisters spread into northern Ireland early on; some families of this clan were established there by the 14th century, descendants of the famous galloglaich (Highland mercenaries), and a considerable number followed the MacDonalds of Dunyvaig to Antrim after that clan lost its Scottish lands in the early 1600s. Like the Clan Donald from which they sprang, however, MacAlisters as 'uncivilised' Gaels were not considered appropriate candidates for the Ulster Plantations and so they are not technically among the group now known as Ulster Scots (or Scotch-Irish).
Before the Union of 1707, most MacAlisters who went to the colonies did so as transportees, many of them Royalist or Jacobite prisoners of war. (In the 18th century, transportees were more often sent to the West Indies.) After 1707, when the Empire was opened to Scotland, MacAlisters were among those who chose to take advantage of the opportunities offered by emigration - either as permanent settlers with their families, or temporarily as 'sojourners' seeking adventure or advancement before returning home. There were indeed MacAlisters among those evicted in the infamous Highland Clearances (and at least one Macalister landlord did some of the evicting), but that is certainly not the whole story.
The first MacAlisters on record in what became the United States arrived there late in 1651, transported Royalists who had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Worcester. A fair number fled north during the American War, settling in what is now Canada. Among the early MacAlister settlers in Australia was Lachlan Macalister of the Strathaird (Isle of Skye) family, who arrived with the North Hamptonshire Regiment (48th Regiment of Foot) in early 1817. The name appears to have been well established in South Africa before the end of the 19th century: Of the 60 or so listed as British soldiers in the Boer War, more than half appear to have been South African. There are also MacAlisters in New Zealand, Germany & the Netherlands, and quite a few in South America (particularly Brazil and Argentina). The number of Caribbean MacAlisters of primarily African descent suggests that some MacAlister sojourners there followed the custom of establishing temporary families with enslaved women.