Origins of the Clan Maclean

The Clan Maclean is one of the oldest Gaelic1 clans of Scotland, settling primarily in the inner Hebrides and the Western Highlands. The Clan Maclean takes its name from its first chief, Gilleain na Tuaighe.1 when anglicized means “Gillean of the Battle-Axe.“ “Gilleain” means“the Servant of [St.] John.” The name “Maclean” literally means “Son of Gillean” or “Son of the Servant of [St.] John.”2


The direct lineage of the Maclean Chiefs can be traced with confidence as far back Gillean’s 5th great-grandfather, Old Dugald of Scone.1 Born around 1050, during the reign of Macbeth, Dugald of Scone served as a Judex (or Judge) and was believed to be a Councillor to David I, King of Scots.

Prior to Old Dugald, the genealogical records are somewhat uncertain, however there are some consistencies in the various genealogical accounts. Dr. John Beaton, the last official seneachie of the Clan Maclean,2 Dr. Matthew Kennedy who wrote the definitive Dissertation on the Royal Line of Steuarts,3 and a manuscript recognized by the Lord of the Isles listing the pedigrees of the important clans4 all agree in recognizing Ferghuis Abhraruoidh (or Fergus Mór, a Dálriadic king) as the Gillean’s 16th great-grandfather. Alexander Maclean Sinclair asserts that the books of Ballymote, Leccan, the Skene Manuscript, and MacFirbis’s Genealogies all trace the Maclean’s back to Loarn mac Erc,2 a king of Dálriada who lived in the 6th century and for whom the Lorn kindred was named. Beaton, Kennedy and the O’Clery, in his Book of Genealogies5 carry the genealogy further back to include Erc as Gillean’s 19th great-grandfather. Beaton alone provides a hereditary line back further naming Gillean’s 34th great-grandfather as Tuirmhich teainrich righ Eran, a supposed King of Ireland.


Although the certainty of ancient origins from which the Clan Maclean descended are lost to history, the clan’s senachies, or historians, have maintained traditional claims of descent from the Dálriadic kindred of Lorn6 through Loarn mac Erc.2

The Lorn kindred, or Cenél Loairn, was likely the largest of the three kindreds of Dálriada, a kingdom which extended along the western coast of Scotland to the northern coast of Ireland.7b Two carns on the high mountain separating the Isle of Mull, Carn Cul ri Allabyn and Carn Cul ri Erin,9 & 10 noted in the year 503AD are believed to have established an ancient boundary between the Dálriadic Scots and the Cruithne of Alba.1 Cenél Loairn was centered in Lorne and controlled the northern Argyll, including Mull and Morvern11 by the sixth century.1 Norse Vikings relentlessly invaded the northern territories8 of Dálriada beginning in 795AD and by 888AD Harald Harfagr briefly annexed the Isle of Mull to his Kingdom of Norway.1 The Norsemen were driven out of Argyll and surrounding regions by 1156,1 and ultimately out of Scotland at the Battle of Largs in 126312 which it is believed Malise mac Gilleain, the second Chief, participated in.1 It has been speculated that the period of Norse control of Mull may have provided the origin of the Clan. While the potential for a Viking origin exists due to their fleeting control of Mull, the fact that Malise mac Gilleain helped drive out the Vikings at the Battle of Largs1 not only lessens the likelihood of a Norse origin but further strengthens the Dálriadic claim of clan origin.

Origin of Influence

Although best remembered as warriors today, the earliest Macleans would likely have been recognized as one of the hereditary learned families of the Gàeltachd.6 Old Dugald’s position and designation as “judex,” along with his frequent change of dwelling coupled with the fact that his great grandson, Cuduiligh,6b born c.1130,14 was a learned Abbot of Lismore would have been common in the context of the Gàeltachd.6 As the Gaels and the Picts came together to define themselves as a single nation of Scots8 the early ruling houses of Scotland were essentially a dynastic continuation of Dálriadic line of kings.8 Before the Wars of Scottish Independence began the Macleans made powerful alliances both through well-timed strategic marriages6 and educating the children of allied leaders.1 Seapower would also come to figure heavily into the Macleans’ fortunes.

Possibly the most important marriage in the early history of the Macleans was between Malcolm mac Giliosa, third chief, and Rignach.6 Marrying the daughter of Gamail, Mormaer (or Earl) of Carrick (a relation of he Bruces17), established Malcolm in both society and land.6 This marriage couldn't have happened at a better time, as it was at the beginning of the transition of Scotland’s crown from the House of Balliol to the House of Bruce.1 The Carricks enjoyed great influence with the Scottish crown under the Balliol; however despite readily swearing allegiance to the Bruce they would never again have any meaningful influence with the crown. Malcolm’s sons used their new influence established control and command of ships and shipping in the region.6 The rise of the House of Bruce put Scotland on a path to the Wars of Scottish Independence; a path that would rely heavily on seapower which the Macleans were ready and eager to provide.

Rise to Prominence

While being an influential family in the Gàeltachd may have helped establish Malcolm’s favor with the Earls of Carrick, it was the sea power commanded by his sons that the Bruce needed and helped accelerate their rise to prominence. Having the favor of both the outgoing and incoming ruling houses enabled the Macleans to thrive in the transition.

Oral tradition of the Clan Maclean insists that Malcolm fought with the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn on June 24th, 1314.1 Although not historically documented, this assertion is both logical and reasonable due to the facts that the Carricks were known to have fought with Bruce that day and the stood with the Bruce afterward.13 Strong ties to both the Carricks and Bruce would have made it difficult for the Macleans to avoid being avoiding being drawn into the conflict.6

The first official mention of a Maclean is in a papal dispensation issued by Pope Urban V on May 3rd of 136716 permitting the marriage of Lachlan Lubanach Maclean, fifth Chief, to Mary Macdonald,15 daughter of the Lord of the Isles and granddaughter of Robert II, King of Scots. It appears the families were close enough that the approval of the Pope was necessary for the marriage to proceed. This marriage included a dowry of Duart Castle, whose custody and constableship was granted to Lachlan Maclean in 1390 in the earliest known charter from the Lords of the Isles.1 King James IV confirmed the charter of Duart Castle on July 13, 1495 having annex the Lordship of the Isles to the Scottish Crown.1

Shortly before 1395 Charles Maclean of Lochbuie, the First Maclean of Urquhart, became the first Maclean to be ennobled. He was knighted by King James III for his “many daring exploits in the service of his soverign.”1c A vassal of the Lord of the Isles, Sir Charles held the farthest point both north for the Lordship. In 1631 Lachlan Maclean, seventeenth chief, made his first appearance at the court of Charles I, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. During Lachlan’s time at court Charles I made him a baronet of Nova Scotia “with remainder to his heirs male whatsoever.” Lachlan was styled, “Sir Lachlan Maclean of Morvern.”1b And thus the chiefs of both the Macleans of Lochbuie and Duart, descendants the ancient Gaels, were now landed members of the peerage.


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