Clan Donald's Cross
It is important to understand the difference between displaying a Coat of Arms which by definition belong to an individual and a Clan Crest which anyone may appropriately display to show pride in their ancestry. The Crests of the major branches of Clan Donald are on the left of the screen. The crest is displayed "on the crest of the helm" (top of the helmet) of a full coat of arms in Scottish Heraldry. For example, the ancient coat of arms of Donald of Harlaw as displayed to the right and the crest displayed to the left. Both feature a distinct cross described in Scottish Heraldry as a cross, crosslet fitchee, gules found featured on several Scottish Crests and Heraldic Coats of Arms. Until recently I followed the logical explanation that this cross represented either St. Còllum cille, St. Moluag (Mo Lugaidh), or St. George's cross, but none of these Saint's crosses are exactly like the cross, crosslet fitchee, gules found on most Clan Donald's crests.
St. Molugg's Cross
It is understandable why St. Moluag would be high on the list of explanations for the cross, crosslet fitchee gules. St. Moluag was a contemporary of Còllum cille (St. Columba). St. Moluag has long been identified as the Patron Saint of the Lords of the Isles. The crosses of Còllum cille and St. Moluag are very similar if not identical, but both are very different from the cross crosslet fitchee gules. It is significant to note that the head of the Finlaggen cross, the Kildalton cross, the clach clann 'ic Ailean (Clanranald stone), and the Glencoe Memorial cross are all patterned after St. Muluog's or Còllum cille's cross. They all have the circle around the cross' head rather than the cross with crosslets. The clach clann 'ic Ailean (Clananald stone) is a 17th century carving that is the only known example of a left hand holding a cross of St. Moluag. Every other Clan Donald seal or coat of arms displays the right hand with or without a cross. A probable explanation for this "reversed" coat of arms is that is the way it would have appeared on the actual seal or signet ring of the chief so that the impression left in the wax seal (such as the Sleat seal at the top right corner) would be a reversed image. The Glencoe Memorial cross (erected in the 19th century) has a Celtic Trinity knot engraved into the crest of the cross. The Kildalton cross has engravings of scenes of death such as Cain slaying Abel, David slaying a lion, and Abraham preparing to slay his son as a sacrifice. But the 14th century Finlaggen Celtic standing cross actually has the cross, crosslet fitchee engraved at its highest point (i.e. crest)! This archeological discovery places the use of the cross, crosslet fitchee by Clan Donald more than a century before the establishment of Scottish heraldry. Clan Donald displayed the cross, crosslet centuries earlier than other clans or septs who adopted it often in blue, white, or black rather than Clan Donald's red. George Eyre-Todd's classic work "The Highland Clans of Scotland" 1923, had a cover plate showing 37 prominent clan chiefs' coats of arms, 8 of which included the cross, crosslet fitchee in various colors. Some septs include this cross to show affiliation with Clan Donald, but not exclusively so. One Scottish heraldic tradition links the blue cross, crosslet fitchee to the Irish Abbotts of Lismore, but the Finlaggen discovery establishes the cross, crosslet fitchee as a symbol of Clan Donald predating its use by other clans in Scottish Heraldry by several hundred years. This archeological discovery justifies our designating it as "Clan Donald's cross".
The shape of Clan Donald's cross is unlike any of these Saints' crosses. Clan Donald's cross is a red, Latin style cross, with a Latin style cross on each end, and a pointed shaft. The pointed shaft is a characteristic of the warrior's cross from the Crusades. Both Còllum cille's cross and St. Moluag's cross do not have the pointed shaft and both included a circle around the head of the cross instead of the cross, crosslet of Clan Donald's cross. Standing crosses all over Ireland & Scotland take the form of Còllum cille's and St. Moluag's cross, the oldest surviving being at Kildalton on Islay (800 AD). Standing crosses are considered missionary crosses because they have the same shape in four directions signifying Christ's instructions to "Go ye therefore and teach all nations". St. Còllum cille and St. Moluag were both early missionaries who brought Christianity to Scotland so these standing crosses are a fitting tribute to their shaping of Scotland into a Christian nation.
Warrior's Cross or Crusaders' Cross
Clan Donald's cross, crosslet fitchee gules was a warrior's cross rather than a missionary cross. It is important to say "Latin style" cross because there were several shapes of Crusader crosses such as St. James' cross with a fleur de lis at each end, St. John's cross flared out at each tip, or the Jerusalem cross which had a bar at the end of each tip (like a capital T instead of a small t). St. Moluag's cross had a keystone at all four tips linked by a circle in the missionary style. The Crusaders believed they were fighting in God's army (as did their opponents). The Crusading knight or warrior used the pointed shaft of the warrior's cross to plant the cross in the earth as he said his prayers before each battle. The cross was left during the battle and the warrior returned to claim his cross when his prayers were answered. If not, the cross remained as a memorial that he had said his prayers before he died. A few exemplary knights of the first Crusade were elevated to Sainthood by the Pope. Those Sainted Knights' crosses were adopted by different orders of knights who wore the cross of their Saint upon their shield and embroidered upon their surcoat & cloak or cape.
The Significance of the Color of the Cross
Because several European nations participated in the first Crusade the Pope assigned various colors of the cross to identify from which nation the knight, or order of knights, hailed. A red cross on white originally indicated France, green on white indicated Flanders, blue on white indicate Galicia, yellow on white indicated Italy, and white on red indicated they were from England. Ironically St George's red cross (signifying the knight was from France) was chosen by England's King Richard in the 3rd Crusade and became England's flag (and the flag of Northern Ireland) prior to the union of the crowns. But King Richard actually ruled England from what is now France. He didn't even speak English! He left the rule of England to his unpopular brother John (of Robin Hood fame). And Richard chose to wear the French red cross when he entered the Crusades. I have understood why some have jumped to the conclusion that Clan Donald's cross, crosslet fitchee, gules came from St. George's cross. Many Irish associate the flag of Northern Ireland with 17th century British plantations. Thousands of Scottish McDonalds came to Northern Ireland during the 17th century, but the cross, crosslet fitchee gules predates the British plantation of Northern Ireland by at least 300 years. The cross displayed in crests of Clan Donald is unlike St. Georges' cross. While searching for a Crusader's cross closer to the cross, crosslet fitchee, gules I found an article about one of the orders of the Crusades, that provided protection to Christian pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land. They chose the cross of St. Julian, patron Saint of pilgrims & warriors, as their emblem.
Exactly Like St. Julian's Cross
The cross featured on Clan Donald crests is exactly like St. Julian's cross held by a Right Hand, usually wearing a gauntlet. St. Julian was the patron Saint of warriors and hospitallers (hosts of feasts or innkeepers) which were both important functions of Celtic clan chiefs. But there are much more personal reasons Donald of Islay would have adopted this symbol. Becoming familiar with the Legend of St. Julian will give each member of Clan Donald a greater appreciation for not only this symbol of our clan, but also for Donald of Islay from whom we get our surname, MacDonald. This legend provides a logical explanation of why a French Crusader's cross was carved on the head of the 14th century standing cross on a Scottish island. The Finlaggen Celtic standing cross was discovered during a 1990 archeological dig on the island of Islay (pronounced eye-la), the original "eilean nan comhairlidh" or council isle that was the ruling seat of the Lords of the Isles.
The Legend of St. Julian fits into known Clan Donald history like a long missing puzzle piece and gives us a plausible explanation for how a French Crusader Saint's cross found its way to Finlaggen. The cross, crosslet fitchee, gules has become one of the most recognizable symbols of our clan for over 700 years, yet no logical explanation of why this particular cross has symbolized Clan Donald through the centuries has been offered until now.