Gilleain na Tuaighe

1st Chief

The first chief of the Clan Maclean is without doubt the early thirteenth century figure known as Gilleain na Tuaighe.1 Gilleain was born to Rath and Mairiotte2b about the year 12103 and spent most of his life in the areas of Argyleshire,3 Ayreshire, or Galloway. He had at least one brother, Calain Mac-Rath who was the progenitor of the MacRaths,2 and three sons, Bristi, Gillebrìde, and Malise.3

When anglicized from the Scottish Gaelic “Gilleain na Tuaighe” literally means “Gilleain of the Battle-Axe.” The name “Gilleain” means “the Servant of [St.] John.” The spelling of Gilleain’s name varied widely but the oldest and most classical written form of Gilleain’s name is “Gille Eoin.”3 The O’Clery Genealogies indicate that Gilleain is designated the “O ta an slondadh”4 or eponym of his clan, meaning that the clan takes its name directly from his. The name Maclean, or Mac Ghill-Eathain in old Scots Gaelic,4 literally means “Children of Gilleain” or “Children of the Servant of [St.] John.”3

The earliest Macleans would likely have been recognized as one of the hereditary learned families of the ancient Gàidhealtachd4 The Gàidhealtachd was essentially the ancient Gaelic order of society and was an important means of preserving knowledge, language, law, and customs during the transition from Antiquity through the Middle Ages. As part of that ancient tradition, Gilleain’s ancestors had a significant impact on his life by passing down a value for scholarship and providing standing in society.

The evidence that the earliest Macleans were part of the Gàidhealtachd is circumstantial but strong. Gilleain’s third great-grandfather was Cuduiligh, an early Abbot of Lismore.4b This position implies that Cuduiligh was a man of extensive learning and a man of faith, both characteristics of the Gàidhealtachd. Gilleain’s sixth great-grandfather was Old Dubhghall of Scone who was a Judex who is believed to have also served as a Councillor to David I, King of Scots. Old Dubhgall was well born around the year 1050, during the reign of Macbeth, and was noted for his skill in the law.5 The fact that Old Dubhgall was a Judex, and a Councillor to nobility indicate that he was exceptionally educated and strikingly adept with the ancient law. Gilleain’s great-grandson and fourth chief, John Dubh, fostered (educated as his own) the the son of John of Lorn. Clearly the Gàidhealtachd practice of hereditary education was practiced by early Macleans—from Old Dubhgall to Cuduiligh to Gilleain to John Dubh. From this we can safely assume that Gilleain was a reasonably, if not well, educated man for his day, as his family was likely member of the Gàidhealtachd.

Despite oral history surrounding the legend attempting to connect Gilleain to Somerled,1 there is no evidence that Gilleain ever visited Kerrera or Mull, much less owned property on either.3b During Gilleain’s lifetime, his kindred was aligned with the Carricks. Due to this alliance it is far more likely that he lived in Carrick controlled territories such as Ayreshire or Galloway. The Maclean’s future standing with the Carricks would have depended on Gilleain having influence with the Carricks, the kind of subtle influence and trust a Housecarl, or Household Knight, would have had.

The battle-Axe, for which Gilleain was known would have been a two-handed ax, probably in the Danish, Galloglass or Hebridean style which were all common in the Western Highlands. Not only would these styles have been appropriate to a gentleman such as a Housecarl, but it would also explain why the “tuaighe” in Gilleain’s name is always translated as “battle-axe” rather than simply “axe.” Oral tradition1 maintains the legend that during a stag-hunt on Bein ‘Taladh Gilleain lost his way in a heavy mist while stalking game. Being unfamiliar with the mountain, he wandered for three days before he stuck his axe in the ground by its handle at the base of a cranberry bush and laid down exhausted. The evening of the third day Gilleain’s hunting companions spotted the axe blade extending above the bush, and found him exhausted, dehydrated and in a state of delirium.1

A leader in his own right, by 1250 Gilleain was thriving.1 Well born, and educated Gilleain was poised to become the father of his clan. Gilleain’s son and second chief, Malise, was the first to be called “mac Gilleain” or “son of Gilleain,” a name that would later be shortened to Maclean. To this day, the chiefs still live in the region Gilleain called home.


  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. p33. Print.
  2. 2.  Seneachie. An Historical and Genealogical Account of the Clan Maclean. London: Smiht, Elder, and Co. Corrnhill, 1838. 2p4, 2bp220. Print.
  3. 3.  Sinclair, Alexander Maclean. The Clan Gillean. Charlotteown: Haszard and Moore, 1899. 3p39-42 3bp50.
  4. 4.  Maclean-Bristol, Nicholas. Warriors and Priests: The History of the Clan Maclean, 1300-1570. East Linton, East Lothian, Scotland: Tuckwell, 1995. 4p4-7 4bp163. Print.
  5. 5.  Skene, William F. Celtic Scotland: A History of Ancient Alban. Vol. iii. Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1890. p343. Print.

Written 18 August, 2014