Origins of the Clan

Origins of the Clan

Nicholas Maclean–Bristol


THE origins of the Clan Gillean have long been hidden in the mists of time. Modern historical research is gradually dispersing the mist, but there is much to be done.

The meaning of the name Gille-eoin, the eponym of the clan, is the servant of St John, and it seems clear that the ancestors of the first Macleans were in some way connected with service at the saint’s shrine.

As has been pointed out, the status of men with such surnames was frequently far from servile. This statement is supported by the fact that the mother of the first Macleans to appear in the records was probably a daughter of the Earl of Carrick. She was therefore a cousin of King Robert Bruce, and the first Macleans are found in his service.

These first Maclean brothers were on the winning side of the Wars of Independence. As a result they obtained land in Knapdale. Two sons of one of the brothers settled in Mull, under the patronage of the Lord of the Isles, another supporter of King Robert Bruce.

They did so at an opportune moment.

In the middle of the fourteenth century the Black Death struck Europe, including the Highlands of Scotland. It is believed that 25 percent of the population died. There were thus numerous opportunities for ambitious able young men. Hector Reganach, the progenitor of the Macleans of Lochbuie and his brother Lachlan Lubanach seized these opportunities with both hands. Hector obtained a vast estate in the south and west of Mull and Morvern. Lachlan received a smaller property, but he also became the Lord of the Isles’s chamberlain, confidential adviser and son-in-law.

He was also granted the strategically vital Castle of Duart, which dominates the crucial sea-lanes of the Inner Hebrides. It was these grants and his closeness to his master that were the key to the Duart family’s pre-eminence in the clan.

The century that followed the establishment of Hector and Lachlan in Mull and Morvern witnessed the extraordinary expansion of the clan in the Inner Isles and up the Great Glen towards Inverness. Macleans not only became major players in Highland politics as landowners and warlords, they continued to follow their ancient calling as members of the hereditary learned orders of the Gaidheaitachd.

It is an interesting observation that few, if any, medieval societies put such emphasis on scholarship as did the Irish and Scottish Gaelic speaking world. It can be argued that the ancestors of the Macleans were one of these families, and it is possible that the senior branch of the Macleans, the eldest son of Hector Reganach, chose to continue as a scholar allow his younger brother to succeed to the Lochbuie estate.

As medieval scholarship became the preserve of ecclesiastics, so many of these professional families of scholars joined the church. Although these clerical families had no time for celibacy, they had to go through the motions of obtaining dispensations from the Pope to negate their illegitimacy before they could obtain preferment within the church. Recent research shows just how many Macleans were appealing to Rome in the 15th century, the crucial period of Maclean expansion.

It is this new evidence that helps us to confirm the genealogies preserved by the hereditary learned families. It is therefore now possible to be far more certain of how the Macleans developed as a clan, than it was in the past. The latest genealogies of major Maclean families were published in Burke’s Landed Gentry of Great Britain: The Kingdom of Scotland (2001).


Clan Maclean Genealogy

One Family – Two Clans; One Clan or Two?

The Clan Maclean’s early history is still rather a puzzle and it is certainly not as simple as the old clan histories suggest. The amount of research, however, that is going on into that era and the realisation that chiefship did not always go to the eldest son, means that it may soon be possible to come to some firm conclusions about the Maclean descent.

What is certain is that, through the centuries, since early days, there have been six chiefly families in the clan; three descend from Lachian Lubanach and three from Hector Reaganach.

When Nicholas Maclean-Bristol published his book One Clan or Two?: The feud between the Macleans of Duart and the Maclaines of Lochbuie 1100 to 1717, in 2019, he statrd: “This book traces the history of Clan Maclaine of Lochbuie and its feuds and relationship with the Clan Maclean of Duart. The book highlights errors in past oral history, corrects repeated distortions and suppositions and, as importantly, clearly highlights the independence of the Lochbuie Clan. This work will result in the need to correct numerous supposedly factual histories”.

However, not everyone agrees.

The Clan Maclean genealogy project aims to show who begat who, and can be accessed through:

Please note that this is not a Clan Maclean Association project. However, we are happy to refer researchers to the database on the understanding that it will form the basis of further research and not be used an original source.

The Family Tree

The Maclean History, also not a Clan Maclean Association project, aims to portray the clan structure in this chart:

Image here:

The Family Tree is available to download here:

Please note that this is a very large file (110mb) and may not be suitable for tablets or phones, or where you do not have a fast internet connection.

Clan Maclean DNA Project

The MacLean/MacLaine DNA Project which has the objective of using DNA testing to help project members to identify where their ancestors originated and to put them in touch with others whose DNA profile matches them most closely.

We are the project for anyone with a connection to our surname and an interest in the use of DNA testing for family research.

We are hosted by Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) but the project is run by volunteers who have no connection with this or any other testing company. Our aim is to advise our members on the benefits of DNA testing as part of personal family tree research and to guide them with interpretation of results and possible further testing.

The MacLean/MacLaine DNA Project is not a Clan Maclean Association project.



Nicholas Maclean-Bristol

Nicholas Maclean-Bristol was born in London in 1935 into a military family, who were the senior cadet branch of the Macleans of Coll. He was brought up with stories of the Macleans, who had been forced to sell the island, after owning it for four hundred years, when the potato famine of the 1840s devastated the Highlands. The main male line of the family died out forty years later.

When he was nine years old, Nicholas decided that he would regain Breacachadh Castle the ancient fortress of the Macleans of Coll, but first he would follow his forbears into the army. In 1955 he became a second-lieutenant in the family regiment the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. He served in Northern Ireland, Malaya, Berlin, Aden and Borneo, retiring from the regular army in 1972. His last job as a regular soldier was to be Training-Major of 1st Battalion, 51st Highland Volunteers. He was then invited to command its D (Argyll & Sutherland) Company, which enabled him to reform the Isle of Coll detachment of the company.

In the early 1960s Nicholas purchased Breacachadh Castle. Before he could begin its restoration, he organised archaeologists to carry out excavations and a field survey of the castle. In 1967, when he was serving at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, he founded The Project Trust, which sends young volunteers to serve overseas for a year. All candidates spend a week living with local families in Coll as part of their selection before they go overseas. He moved to Coll permanently with his young family in 1972.

Nicholas Maclean-Bristol has also written several books and numerous articles about the West Highlands. He is President of The Society of West Highland & Island Historical Research and past-Chairman of the Clan Maclean Heritage Trust.

Compiled by William Douglas

June 2021