Clan History

The summary below is a very brief look at the rich history of the Clan Maclean. For more in-depth studies, please refer to our books and articles pages.

There are at least three theories regarding the origin of the clan, all of them fanciful:

  1. According to some authorities it is of Norman or Italian origin, descended from the Fitzgeralds of Ireland. English historians derive the genealogy of the Fitzgeralds from Seignior Giralde, a principal officer under William the Conqueror.
  2. According to Celtic tradition, the clan descends from Gill-eoin (Gillean), a name signifying a servant or follower of John, who some claim lived so early as the beginning of the 5th century, but in fact flourished in the 13th century. He was called Gillean-na-Tuardhe, (“Gillean of the Battleaxe”), from his skill with the weapon in battle, and his descendants bear a battleaxe in their crest.
  3. According to a history of the clan Maclean published in 1838 by “a Seneachie“, the clan is traced up to Fergus I of Scotland, and from him back to an Aonghus Turmhi Teamhrach, “an ancient monarch of Ireland”.
Gillean fought at the Battle of Largs when the army of the Norwegian King Haakon was defeated in 1263. Perhaps it was his son who signed the Ragman Roll as Gillemoir Macilyn in 1296, swearing fealty to Edward I of England. Gillemoir’s great-grandson, Iain Dhu Maclean’s sons, settled in Mull. These sons were Lachlan Lubannach (Lachlan the Crafty) who was progenitor of the Macleans of Duart and Eachainn Reaganach (Hector the Stern) who founded the Maclaines of Lochbuie. The other major cadets, the Macleans of Ardgour and Coll, descend from Lachlan, and the Macleans of Dochgarroch and Kingairloch descend from Hector. Lachlan Lubannach Maclean married into the family of John of Islay, the first Lord of the Isles, and from this connection the Macleans gained great power and prestige, especially Lachlan who was granted the strongest fortress on the island, Duart. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Macleans owned most of Mull, Tiree, and Coll and much of Islay, Jura and Knapdale, with Morvern in Argyllshire and Lochaber.
According to Duart Castle historians:

“The first recorded mention of the Macleans of Duart is in a papal dispensation of 1367 which allowed their Chief Lachlan Lubanach Maclean to marry the daughter of the Lord of the Isles, Mary Macdonald.

This it is said, was a love match, and her father was persuaded to allow it only after he had been kidnapped by Lachlan (an incident in which the Chief of the Mackinnons was killed). Thus the Macleans came to own much of Mull, [most of] the Mackinnon lands being granted to them by the Macdonalds as a dowry. Almost certainly, Lachlan built the keep[at Duart] that stands today though the great curtain walls were probably of the previous century.”

Hector built the keep at Lochbuie, and other castles associated the the Macleans are at Carnaburg in the Treshnish Isles, Breacachadh on Coll, Castle Urquhart and Glensanda. 
Sir Lachlan, 16th Chief, was created a baronet by Charles I in 1631 to reward his loyalty. Ironically this unswerving loyalty of the Macleans to the House of Stewart over the following century ultimately led to the loss of all Maclean lands. 
Sir Lachlan Maclean died in 1649, after which his son, Sir Hector, took up the cause, losing his life at the Battle of Inverkeithing in 1651. This left Hector’s ten-year-old-brother, Allan, as the heir. He died young, leaving his four-year old son, John, as chief. The estates were by now heavily in debt. The rising power of the Campbells by the late sixteenth century brought them into opposition with the Macleans and by 1679 the Campbells gained possession of Duart and most of the Maclean estates. The Earl of Argyll, pressing for repayment of considerable debts, took possession of the castle and what was left of the Maclean lands in 1691. 

The Macleans took part in the uprising of 1715, and Sir Hector Maclean was exiled to France. Sir Hector returned to Edinburgh in 1745 to pave the way for the rising of that year, but he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London until 1747. The clan was led through the 1745 uprising by Maclean of Drimmin, who was killed in the Highland charge at Culloden.

The Castle, although in a fairly ruinous condition, was used as a garrison for Government troops until 1751. It was then abandoned until 1911 when it was purchased by Sir Fitzroy Maclean, 26th Chief. He then set about the enormous task of restoring the building. In 1991, Sir Lachlan Maclean, Sir Fitzroy’s great-grandson and the present Clan Chief began his efforts to repair the castle. The main repairs were completed in 1995, but the work is ongoing. Duart remains one of the few original clan seats that has survived as the home of the Chief and his family while also being open to the public. 

The loss of clan lands, the Highland Clearances, and years of generally poor conditions in Scotland caused Clan members to seek their fortunes throughout the world  As an island clan, the early Macleans traded, fought, and lived in Ireland. They served as mercenaries in support of Irish chiefs in the 16th century. Later they took part in the Plantation of Ulster. Clan members began settling in the U.S. and Canada long before the Revolutionary War. Others came to fight in that war with the Highland Regiments. Besides Scotland, Ireland , Canada, and the U.S., Macleans of all spellings are found in many countries including Australia, New Zealand and France.