FAQ – Genealogy & DNA

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
MacAulay Genealogy and DNA

This page is “under construction”.  Check out the Q&A below and help our Clan Genealogists and DNA specialists build out the page by asking your questions HERE.  Come back often to find the answers and watch new videos as we add them!
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My ancestor’s name is not spelled “MacAulay”.  Am I related?
Answer:    The Clan MacAulay doesn’t represent any singular/specific Macaulay family. There are dozens and dozens of completely distinct and unrelated families in Ireland and Scotland with the surname Macaulay or any of its variants.  Anyone from any of these families is welcome to join the Clan MacAulay Association and participate in various activities and events. We look to help understand the unique origins of each and all the families as well as try to show links to people who have migrated away from their specific origin point. This is being done with Y DNA testing to reveal the true story of the family, as opposed to many of the inaccurate stories found in old books (often not based on actual records) or incorrect genealogies/accounts that litter the internet. That’s why it’s so important to have a male Macaulay cousin available to test.

Question:  What is the history of the MacAulay surname?
Answer:    It’s important to understand that surnames in Scotland and Ireland didn’t become common until the 1400s-1600s (depending on the exact location…those further north tending to be named later). Most arose simply because of patronymics and those families would have had an Aulay as head of the family. Other times various unrelated men in the same location took on the same surname as a local landowner in a sense of fealty or loyalty. It is very common to have multiple unrelated families of the same surname from the exact same region/location/parish.  As an example, Y-DNA testing has now proven that there were at least 5 separate Macaulay families living on the Isle of Lewis alone, and very likely more will be found as we continue testing MacAulay men. There are unrelated Macaulay families living on neighboring North and South Uist, and unrelated families of MacAulays living just across the straight in mainland Scotland (yet we have now also proven that some MacAulays from Gairloch, Ross-shire, are descended from a MacAulay from Uig on Lewis). It’s just simply a very common name due to the naming patterns of people living there well before surnames began. Very few of these families are connected, and the common surname is simply a coincidence.

Question:  What is a “Sept”?
Answer:     A sept is an English word for a division of a family, especially of a Scottish or Irish family.[1] The word may derive from the Latin saeptum, meaning “enclosure” or “fold”,[2] or via an alteration of “sect”.[3] The term is used in both Ireland and Scotland, where it may be translated as sliocht, meaning “progeny” or “seed”,[4] which may indicate the descendants of a person (for example, Sliocht Brian Mac Diarmada, “the descendant of Brian MacDermott”).  In the context of Scottish clans, septs are families that followed another family’s chief. These smaller septs would then comprise, and be part of, the chief’s larger clan. A sept might follow another chief if two families were linked through marriage; or, if a family lived on the land of a powerful laird, they would follow him whether they were related or not. Bonds of manrent were sometimes used to bind lesser chiefs and his followers to more powerful chiefs.

Question:  What is a “tartan”?
Answer:    In many countries today, the pattern of interlocking stripes called a tartan is often mistakenly known as “plaid.” Plaide actually comes from the Gaelic word for a blanket, and is specifically used in the context of Highland dress to refer to a large length of material.  The original kilt was known as the “belted plaid” and consisted of a length of cloth (basically a large blanket) that was gathered and belted at the waist. The plaids were most often made from a tartan cloth, and so the confusion between the two terms is understandable.

Tartan refers to the pattern of interlocking stripes, running in both the warp and weft in the cloth (horizontal and vertical), or any representation of such a woven design in other media (printed, painted, or otherwise rendered).  Typically today one thinks of “clan tartans” — that is, tartan designs that represent certain Scottish clans and families.  While this is typical, it was not always so.

Tartan has an ancient history.  The earliest known tartan in Scotland can be dated to the third or fourth century AD.  In other parts of the world, tartan cloth has been found dating to approximately 3000 BC.  Virtually everywhere there was woven cloth, people created tartan designs.  Yet only in Scotland have they been given such cultural significance.

Question:  Will DNA testing help me with building out my Family Tree?   DNA seems complicated.
Answer:     Perhaps the best answer to this question is found in the following quote:
“Always remember that you don’t need to know about the technicalities of DNA to get the maximum use out of it, because DNA is just a pointer. All it’s saying is that ‘You and you. You’re related. Now, go away, compare your family trees to find out where the connection is.’ You will always go back to your family trees. You will always go back to the genealogical data.” — Dr. Maurice Gleeson, Genetic Genealogy Ireland

Below is a link to a YouTube video by Maurice Gleeson from Genetic Genealogy Ireland. Some aspects might be a little out of date, but the basic concepts are still valid. The video is about an hour long and covers traditional genealogical research tools, as well as some info on using DNA to help with your family history research: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emgc6NgVN-w