Origins of the Clan Maclean

4th Century BCE — 13th Century

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 Stewarts,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 asserts a hereditary line back further naming Gillean’s 34th great-grandfather as Àengus Turmhi-Temhrach,1 a legendary High King of Dál Cuinn who is believed to have lived in 384 BCE.


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.


  1. 1.  MacLean, J. P. A History of the Clan MacLean from Its First Settlement at Duard Castle, in the Isle of Mull, to the Present Period. Cincinnati: R. Clarke, 1889. 1p22-34, 1bp160, 1cp243. Print.
  2. 2.  Sinclair, Alexander Maclean. The Clan Gillean. Charlottetown: Haszard and Moore, 1899. 2p29-42, 2bp50.
  3. 3.  Kennedy, Matthew. A Chronological, Genealogical, and Historical Dissertation of the Royal Family of the Stuarts. Paris: Printed by L. Coignard, 1705. Print.
  4. 4.  N.p. MS 72.1.1. National Library of Scotland. c.1400.
  5. 5.  O’Clery, Peregrine. O’Clery Book of Genealogies. 1632. MS 23 D 17, P33, Col A38; B. Royal Irish Academy, n.p.
  6. 6.  Maclean-Bristol, Nicholas. Warriors and Priests: The History of the Clan Maclean, 1300-1570. East Linton, East Lothian, Scotland: Tuckwell, 1995. p2-12, 6bp162. Print.
  7. 7.  Broun, Dauvit,“Aedán mac Gabráin” in Michael Lynch (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford UP, Oxford, 2001. 7p40-42, 7bp161-162. Print.
  8. 8.  Magnússon, Magnús. Scotland: The Story of a Nation. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2000. p38-40. Print.
  9. 9.  Campbell, Donald. A Treatise on the Language, Poetry, and Music of the Highland Clans. Edinburgh: D.R. Collie, 1862. p211. Print.
  10. 10. McGregor, James, Thomas Maclauchlan, and W. F. Skene. The Dean of Lismore’s Book; A Selection of Ancient Gaelic Poetry. Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas, 1862. p39. Print.
  11. 11. Bannerman, John. Studies in the History of Dálriada. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic, 1974. p 68. Print.
  12. 12. Anderson, Alan Orr, ed. Early Sources of Scottish History: a.d. 500 to 1286. 1922. p61-62.
  13. 15. Robertson, James A. Concise Historical Proofs Respecting the Gael of Alban. Edinburgh: W.P. Nimmo, 1866. Print.

Article by Kane McLean, 21 April, 2014; released under the Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) Unported License.