Livelihood – Mcneill and Beyond

This is part of Mcneill and Beyond - a Memoir


The Seven Kingdoms

The Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy is the Seven Kingdoms in Britain in the early middle ages. Strathclyde is the Northwestern-most of the kingdoms and includes present day Ayrshire in the Kingdom of Strathclyde.

The earliest Anglian settlement established in Northeastern England and Southeastern Scotland was Bernicia, around 420 CE. It was merged with the teritory of Deira to form the kingdom of Northumbria. Bernicia included the area of Galloway.

Around 603, the Battle of Degsastan was fought between Anglian king Aethelfrith of Benicia and the Gaelic king Aedan mac Gabrain, king of Dal Riada. The Angles won a crushing victory, and the Gaels would not attack them again. However, this was short-lived as a defeat by the Picts in 685 curbed the expansion of the Angles.

The Kingdom of Strathclyde was at the time one of the kingdoms of the Gaelic Britons, and included modern day Ayrshire and Argyll with the capital at Dunbarton Rock. Strathclyde was one of the the Seven Kingdoms (known as the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy) in Britain in the early middle ages. Vikings sacked Dumbarton from Dublin in 870, and the center of the kingdom shifted to Govan.

The Viking invasion of York in 867 severed the Northumbrian kingdom, and the Angles power was diminished, later becoming members of the court of Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland, rather than holding their own kingship. The Norman conquest of England ended in Anglians leaving Northumbria for Scotland, for good.1

Some time between 1018 and 1054 CE Strathclyde was conquered by the Gaelic Scots, though there was likely some amount of immigration of Anglii from Northumbria.

It is a real possibility (based on what evidence we have) that it is at this point when our ancestors established themselves, if not earlier, in modern day Ayrshire, one of the best farming and cattle-raising regions in Scotland. Throughout the Kingdom of Strathclyde there is only limited Anglian place names and changes so this has been predominantly Gaelic Scotland. It is here (or later, in Ulster) where our forebearers may have acquired the name of McNeill, aligning with a clan in this area.

And so, our Anglii ancestors may have left Frisia around 400 CE and landed in Northumbria about that time, and 500 years later or so began or concluded migration West to the Southern Scottish Kingdom. These people spoke Old English at around 900 CE, and Early Scots around 500 years later (1400 CE).

Around 1,000 years ago the people and their language endured, but was reduced as a governing power. At this point the Gaelic Scots ruled over a good section of Southwestern Scotland, having previously conquered the Picts (whose genes are still present in a small part of the population) and having incorporated Anglians.

Warriors, Horses, Cattle and Farmland

There are four themes that run through the geography of our genetic and genealogical adventure:

  • Warriors,
  • Horses,
  • Cattle,
  • and Farmland.

The warring element is present in the early Anglii; the later battles with Gaels, Picts, Vikings and Normans; possibly a martial role in Ulster; and our emigrant ancestor being a military man and Colonel in the militia at the end of his life (qualified on June 17, 17642).

Horses are a part of the warring element, but also the Border Reivers who were adept cattle rustlers and horsemen par excellence. Some excellent horses, and cattle are found in Friesland as well.

Cattle raising (and raiding) is a part of the Anglii for the past 2,000 years. Cattle raising in Ayrshire and in Ulster is continued in the new world.

Some of the best farmland in Northern Europe is in Frisia. Some of the best farmland in Scotland is in Ayrshire. Some of the best farmland in Ireland is in Northern Ireland, including around Coleraine. And of course some of the best farmland in America is around the South Fork of the Potomic, destination of our emigrant ancestor.

Daniel McNeill (1630-1684), Coleraine

Our emigrant ancestor is John McNeill (1680-1765) born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland Ireland during the Plantation scheme. He emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1722. The date of emigration coincides with a large emigration due to financial pressures on Presbyterians that began around 1717/1719. Rents were raised precipitously during this period in time. As John was married in a Presbyterian church in Philadephia in 1744, there is evidence he was Presbyterian in Coleraine.

John's father Daniel McNeill was also born in Coleraine, Ireland. There is some question as to the dates of his birth (1629/1630/1658) and death (1683/1684/1743). The current estimate we are using is 1630-1684. At this point the trail goes cold. We do not have any knowledge about Daniels' father. He could have been:

  • Presbyterian Scots Ulster settler (1611-1630) (of the 100,000 Scots settlers)
  • Scottish military quartered there (1642-1650) (of the 10,000 troops under Munroe brought to fight the Irish Confederate war). Some of these were called Redshanks, a particular kind of scottish mercenary from the lowlands and the Islands.
  • Native Irish converted to Presbyterianism (this is not unlikely and sometimes the only thing that needed doing was changing of O'Neill to McNeill).

Other Possibilities

Our Y-DNA does not correspond to any other known population of McNeills (Gigha, Barra, Colonsay, Taynish Argyll) based on current samples (and there are more than a few at this point). That means we are not genetically related patrilineally to those McNeills. And we are not descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages (who was quite otherwise prolific).

Non-Paternity Events are when someone is descended from someone else than they thought. The individual's genetic father is not the same as who raised them as their father. Some researchers put this around 1-5% of each generation, some even higher, depending on the population. And in many cases the offspring are unaware of this fact. We have to take into consideration that this could be the case nearly everywhere along the path back into the past.

Family names can be given to non-genetic offspring either through adoption or other kinds of family affiliation. In the case of Ireland/Scotland, apparently last names were an innovation around the 11th century. Also, they were not consistently spelled one way, but were largely phonetic transcriptions (most people being functionally illiterate and living in a largely spoken culture). Changing one's last name was easier to do, and for various reasons, much different than in the USA today.

In Thailand, it is one of the easiest things to change one's first name, changing a last name requires a bit more work -- and also it has to be unique -- but it can be done. This is actually common, especially if someone starts having a lot of bad luck. The thinking is that some naughty spirit or ghost is causing trouble. These spirits are a little dim-witted, so if you change your name, they lose track of you, and the troubles go away. This is a part of the culture and I personally know people who have done this (adults).

In addition, the genealogical stories themselves that we have are not necessarily accurate. Some are half-truths, wishful thinking, half-remembered or completely forgotten, or outright deceptions.

And so, in sum, one or more of the following occurred:

  • Non-paternity event(s) to some nice McNeill family somewhere
  • Took on the name McNeill from a different name, either to change our origins, fit in with a community, or were adopted into a family or community where that would be common to do. Perhaps even took on the name as a servant to the family, again not uncommon.
  • Lived many or few generations as a McNeill. (We are however conclusively unrelated genetically to the McNeills of various Scottish locations, who have so far been genetically tested for Y-DNA markers.)

Unfortunately, we cannot know at this point the whole story. Indeed we could have had non-paternity events in the US after emigration, and while the genealogy is correct, the genetic history is off. The truth is somewhere out there. When the genealogy and the genetic history match up, then we will have at last a credible family history (or at least a part of it).

The story told so far is plausible but there could be any number of alternative explanations. What I have attempted to do is provide a story that fits the facts and evidence we do have, drawing on genealogy, genetic forensics, history, linguistics and religious history. We may find further evidence, for or against, in future developments and discoveries in genetic genealogy, history, or even some future genealogical research (in Ulster).

Clans, Kilts, and Mottos

Clans in Scotland and Ireland are centered on the Chief and under him were a number of related families as well as unrelated people who took as their patronymic the clan name and often first names of the Chief and his family. The family of Daniel McNeill, father of emigrant John McNeill, may have looked to one of the clans with the name of McNeill/MacNeil of Ireland, or the Islands for protection and as part of the unemployed and landless masses where were forced to move to Ulster Londonderry/Antrim County during the second wave of Plantations. Parts of the (various) McNeill clans were listed as part of the plantation effort to Londonderry. Records of these resettled McNeills don't exist in Northern Ireland until the 1800s -- long after John McNeill left for America.

In Scotland, a clan or family is a legally recognized group, a so-called noble incorporation with a recognized head, a clan chief (i.e., director or ceo). Membership in the clan had a genealogical component, but the chief could adopt or expel individuals, families and groups of families. As well, individuals could claim allegiance to a clan and be accepted (provided the chief did not disapprove). At some point the wearing of a clan kilt (though specific design or colors may or may not have been important) signaled clan membership. This is the source of a clan chief being the only one who has the right to give permission of who can wear the clan kilt. As well, the clan seal of arms is similar to the seal of a corporation, and only legally usable by the clan chief.3

The word clan is derived from the Gaelic word clanna, meaning children. However, the need for proved descent from a common ancestor related to the chiefly house is too restrictive. Clans developed a territory based on the native men who came to accept the authority of the dominant group in the vicinity. A clan also included a large group of loosely-related septs – dependent families – all of whom looked to the clan chief as their head and their protector. 4

And so, even though there are lovely Clan kilts, seals, and mottos, they are from a bygone era when there was, along with our name McNeill, a membership in clan or family structure, previous to the departure of our emigrant ancestor from Ulster in the early 18th century.

If we want to reconnect with the original kilt, it would be what is known as the Border tartan or Northubrian tartan. This style of dyed wool cloth predates the modern kilt styles, which owe more to modern manufacturing processes and colors than any historical sources.

Northumbrian Tartan

In any case, the modern kilt is more or less an invention of the imagination of Sir Walter Scott in the 19th century. As one commentator puts it:

Sir Walter Scott invented Scotland as we know it. Kilts were first made fashionable by Scottish peacocks prancing around the French Court.

Even with this provisio, clan membership, and the origin of the naming of our ancestral line was likely important and possibly life-saving, granting protection and membership in a community. However, we McNeill's of today do not have the firm evidence to which specific clan or group our emigrant ancestor belonged. It is possible to find this with more genealogical and genetic research. I believe this research will need to be done in Ulster, as that is where our genealogical story stops. Genetic genealogy points to Ulster as a place where common ancestors may be. I imagine we may need to skulk around cemetaries and dig into archives.

Next Steps: Genealogical Research in Ulster

In terms of a place to visit (ancestral home), the Northern part of Northern Ireland is pretty neat. Ballycastle, Antrim and Colleraine, Londonderry are quaint towns and roughly between them is The Giant's Causeway which looks fascinating. Also there is Bushmills' distillery and other forms of Northern Irish beverages, and nearby Rathlin island for viewing seabirds.

In terms of places we may likely have been from at some point (as Scots), my betting would be on the areas of Argyll and Ayrshire, Southwest Scotland (lowlands/inland, not islands). One can see Ulster from the Mull of Kintyre on a clear day, so these areas are not so far away.

A possible relation: Mrs Mary McNeill Ramage, 31 Gortamaddy Drive, Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland, BT54 6RZ

Next Steps: Genetic Research at FamilyTreeDNA

There is a new test called Big Y from FTDNA, current cost is $575. MT-DNA Full Sequence is another $199. These are the next logical steps to take to track our genetic inheritence. Since these are large investments, a piecemeal approach may be useful for now, such as testing R-Z8 SNP for $39.

One challenge on both fronts is that we have some of the oldest genealogical references (Daniel McNeill, b.1630) and are a Y-67 report (the earlier reports are Y-12, Y-25, Y-37). Only the latest Y-111 yields more data and few people have taken that test (we could upgrade to that for an additional $129).

Eventually more and more people will take these tests and there will be a critical mass achieved which makes the data more interpretable.

It turns out that I fortunately made a good choice of FTDNA back in 18 February 2007 when I ordered the first kit. There were a few competing projects/companies at the time but FTDNA looked to be the best, and it is still pretty much the leader. It has been eight years and I've continued to invest in additional tests as the came available, trying the right combination of information and affordability. Over the years I have ordered the following tests:

  • Y-DNA25
  • Deep Clade-R
  • Y-DNA37
  • Y-DNA67
  • Z2

There are several stages to this kind of research: First is the discovery of SNPs and Haplotypes, usually done statistically. Second is the availability of those those tests to individuals. And third is enough related people taking those tests to make those relationships visible and plot them against genealogical information (names, dates, and places).

Over time the information found in tests become more valuable as more people take them. Taking tests earlier help the project gain momentum.


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