The starting point is Donald's 1887 death certificate, which records his parents as being John Cameron, farmer, and Ann McDonald. Case closed! Well, not quite ... there is no baptism record for a Donald Cameron born to such parents, and no such parents coinciding with the time and place for our Donald or any possible further family. The information was provided on the death certificate by Donald's son-in-law, Charles McGregor, and we might presume it could have been confirmed before-hand by Donald's widow, Catherine, who would survive him by another 19 months.
A number of Cameron family genealogists have attributed various parents to Donald, and I'd like to go through these to see if they stand up to falsification. But first, a couple of basic facts: Donald Cameron appears on census returns for 1841-1881 with a consistent place of birth, Little Dunkeld, and the year focusing on 1810, give or take a year or so - if accurate.
There are a handfull of Donald Camerons born and baptised in Little Dunkeld who have been associated with our Clunie Donald. The earliest is Donald born to Donald Cameron and Janet Black of Tomgarrow in June 1807. But this Donald can be identified in the census returns, living for a while with his widowed mother, then as a single man into old age, dying at Tomgarrow in 1897 - so he's not our Donald.
The next one is interesting thanks to the mother's surname, Donald Cameron born at Little Trochrie in 1808 to Alexander Cameron and Clementina McDonald. But although these parents appear on many trees for Clunie Donald, they can be discounted too - their son married Catherine Duff in Little Dunkeld in 1840, and he died there in 1881.
We're taken quite a way out of our expected birth time-zone for the next possibility, namely Donald Cameron born at Tomgarrow to Donald Cameron and Lilias Duff in 1816. This Donald, too, can be crossed off the list as records show he married an Ann McDonald in 1851 and died in Pitlochry in 1899.
This one shouldn't really be a candidate, but I have seen him on a tree or two - Donald Cameron born in 1825 to John Cameron and Catherine McNaughton, again at Tomgarrow. If this were correct then our Donald would have married at the age of 12. Anyway, this Donald can be accounted for in a rather macabre way - in 1858 he went insane and murdered his two-year old son, then died in Perth prison from cholera in 1866.
It's interesting that so many of these Little Dunkeld Camerons are of Tomgarrow. This tiny village does not exist any more, but was thought at one time to be the home of tens of Cameron families, with the tale that in times long past the village was famous for its sword-makers. Certainly Tomgarrow should be considered a possible place of origin for our Donald, especially with the Little Dunkeld parish register being "not very regularly kept" according to records.
Another place of interest would be Caputh, where Donald and Catherine were resident and married in 1837. There is one Donald Cameron here that is sometimes picked up - the son of John Cameron and Catherine McDonald, but he was born in 1795 and for that reason remains an outsider in our list of candidates. It should be noted that the Caputh John and Catherine are not the same as the Inverness couple with the same names, the first married in 1792 and the latter in 1807, though they are sometimes amalgamated as their marriages are hard to find (search for Ketrin and Ketherin rather than Catherine).
A couple with the same names had a 'lawful son', Allan Cameron, in Clunie in 1811, and a Peter Cameron was also born there in 1829 to similarly-named parents - but these are different couples as Peter was a 'natural child' (illegitimate).
Some researchers have discovered a Donald Cameron born to a John Cameron and Ann McDonald and attributed them as our Clunie Donald's parents. The birth date is not quite right - with a likely baptism record of 1817 and census returns indicating the early 1820s. Also his place of birth is Sleat, Inverness, a long way off. But this Donald did actually die in Perthshire, and, remarkably, does have a connection to our Donald - though he is not our Donald.
John Cameron and Ann McDonald appear to have married in Inverness in 1807, and I can find only two children that may be theirs - Donald (1817) and Lachlan (1821). Donald went on to marry Helen Stewart in Blairgowrie and they had seven known children, including a Daniel Cameron in 1859. This Daniel married Sarah Cameron in Largo in 1891 - and this Sarah is a granddaughter of our Clunie Donald, through Margaret (born Caputh in 1841). Daniel and Sarah went on to have seven children of their own before emigrating to Canada around 1930.
That covers the majority of candidate parents most often cited from the old parish records, though I've decided not to include my notes on various other theories (illegitimacy, Ann McDonald remarrying, etc.). But let's look at some other families of interest I've found through other routes ...
In 1911 Agnes Craig Wallace, one of Donald Cameron's grandadughters, who ran a confectionary shop in Birnam, Little Dunkeld, had as a boarder the daughter of a Dundee medical practitioner, one Alice Jane Gray. Alice was a music teacher, and while she may have just been lodging with the Wallaces, it seems she stamped some kind of impression as Agnes gave birth to a daughter six months later who she named Margaret Jean Gray.
What was Alice Jane Gray to Agnes, was she a relative? If we look into her family history we find she was descended from two Cameron families of Blair Atholl, Perthshire - that of Finlay Cameron and Christina McDonald (on her maternal grandfather's side), and of Alexander Cameron and Margaret McDonald (on her maternal grandmother's side).
Finlay and Christina had a son, Donald in 1799, and he can be accounted for as dying in Edinburgh in 1870. Of more interest is Alexander and Margaret. Our Clunie Donald named his first son Alexander (it's perhaps notable, or not, that he didn't name any of his known children John), and his second daughter was Margaret (the first was Ann, so that may have significance).
Alex and Margaret Cameron had a son, Donald, in Blair Atholl in 1807 - close enough to the date we're looking for and I have not yet been able to find any trace of him after his baptism. The splinter in the theory is his birthplace, as Clunie Donald is very insistent he was born in Little Dunkeld, not Blair Atholl (20 miles north). If these Donalds were the same person, then that would make Agnes Wallace (b.1869) and Alice Gray (b.1868) second cousins - they also lived in the same quarter of Dundee through the 1880s and 90s.
It's a tenuous theory with not a lot to back it up - but then Agnes Wallace was partially responsible for me breaking down the Catherine Campbell brick wall a couple of years ago, after researching her husband's first wife, Sarah Sim. Many family connections seem to gravitate around Agnes.
Agnes Wallace can also lead us to another theory, this time discovered through her younger brother, James Wilson. When he married, at age 30 in Birnam in 1906 to Jessie Campbell, one of the witnesses was James Crockett. James was the son of Frank Crockett and his wife Janet, and a family story involving visits to her claims that she may have been "a relative". This becomes more interesting when we find that Janet was indeed a Cameron, the daughter of Alexander Cameron and Helen Anderson, and born in Caputh in 1864.
The Crocketts lived in the Little Dunkeld village of Inver (Frank would abandon the family and disappear in 1894), and that's where Alexander Cameron died in 1904. His death certificate reveals his parents to have been John Cameron, soldier, and Ann Auld - names tantalisingly close to our Clunie Donald's John Cameron and Ann McDonald.
Unfortunately nothing can be found of this couple. The military connection is interesting because Donald married Catherine Campbell, the daughter of a sergeant in the 42nd Foot - I note there is a John Cameron of Dunkeld also in the 42nd Foot from that era - but there were, as we know, a lot of Camerons from the area at that time.
Alexander was born in Caputh in 1826, some years after the supposed birthdate of Donald, and 11 years before he was married in the same place (Alexander would marry there in 1852). Another link of curiosity is that while Agnes Wallace and her husband ran the sweet shop in Birnam, Janet Crockett's sister-in-law, Helen Cameron, ran one in Dunkeld, less than a mile away across the Dunkeld Bridge.
All these historical whispers leave fairly loose ends and nothing at all concrete, but do seem to have at least some significance worth keeping in mind. The last strand I'd like to look at is DNA, and with such a lack of records I feel this perhaps offers the most hope for an answer to the problem of Donald Cameron's parents.
Currently I have 13 Cameron DNA matches who I can definitley place in the known Donald Cameron/Catherine Campbell family, but there are a handful of less certain matches that contain Cameron families, with a couple worth looking into.
One of these has a John and Alexander Cameron born at Little Dunkeld in 1810 and 1813, right in our zone of interest. Their parents were John Cameron, carpenter, and Catherine Kennedy, resident at Tomgarrow. Confusingly, this turns out not to be the Cameron hotspot of Tomgarrow at Little Dunkeld, but a place some 20 miles to the west in Kenmore, where their first son, William was born in 1806. The Little Dunkeld births were at Ballinrich, a farm on the banks of the River Braan. Not much else stands out from this family in relation to our mystery. The family mainly stayed in Kenmore, with son John becoming a teacher and moving to Argyllshire.
The most fascinating DNA link contains no Cameron name at all. I have about 15 matches, a handful quite meaningful (28cM), with Isle of Sky ancestry - notably Lamont - that emigrated and settled in Prince Edward Island, Canada c.1803. The Cameron connection exists because these matches are shared by at least four of my definite Cameron cousins, with our common ancestors being Donald and Catherine Cameron.
I've spent many months looking into this connection with no obvious linking point as yet. It centres on shared DNA in chromosome 13 (with over 70 matches so far) and brings in a number of other Scots families as well as the Lamonts, including McDonalds, McLeods, McGregors, McLeans and McLellans, among others ... it would be another article in itself to try and present it all.
While these matches could theoretically link to Catherine Campbell's forebears, I managed to break down her brick wall a couple of years ago (see Finding Mrs Keir) and her family points largely to Caithness, which leans towards the likelihood of the match linking to our unknown Donald Cameron parents, perhaps the "McDonald" mother. Maybe Donald was illegitimate, or his mother came from outside of Perthshire, and keeping an eye on this DNA puzzle could well be the key to any future breakthrough, and I'd be especially interested to hear from any fellow Cameron descendants who have DNA links to Prince Edward Island in the early 1800s.
I present this little article as a waypoint in my research (all errors my own, please feel free to correct anything), and to share the load with my fellow Camerons in the hope that an answer is somewhere out there. We'll keep digging!