In Scotland the name Bell is
the English-language equivalent of Mhaoil - the genitive form of Maol
("bald" in modern Gaelic, but originally "shaven-headed" and
thus "tonsured") - which forms the stem of the two Gaelic forms of the
surname MacMillan: Mac-Mhaol-ain and Mac-Ghille-Mhaoil.
This is because the Gaelic "mh" - the aspirated form of the letter
"m" - is pronounced like the English "v"; as is the
aspirated form of the letter "b". So MiIl / Mell / Maol / Mhaoil =Vaoil
= Bhaoil / Baol / Bell / Bile and the proof of what seems to the modern
English speaker a rather incredible nominal transmogrification can be found in
the second oldest genealogy of the MacMillans where the clan's eponymous, whose
Gaelic nickname was Gille-maol, appears as Gili-bile.
The gill of the name M'gill is another version of the same, and at least one example can be found of the equivalent form McBell (Malcolm, Daniel and Alexander McBell appear on a tax list for 1795 in Richmond Co., North Carolina). America also retains examples of the old Scottish spelling Beall, most notably in a prominent family from Fifeshire who were early owners of parts of Georgetown, in what is now the city of Washington DC (though recent DNA evidence suggests this particular Beall family were not MacMillan-Bells).
Historically the name Bell can be traced back to the 13th century in the diocese of Dunkeld, where Cormac, the father of Gilchrist Maolan / Gillemaol, had been bishop between 1116 and 1132. A Master David Bell was a canon there in 1263, and Thomas de Perth, dictus Bell was an “Official” of the diocese in the same year. William Bell, Dean of Dunkeld in 1329 was actually elected Bishop of St.Andrews (the Primate of the Church of Scotland) in 1332, though his appointment was never ratified by the Pope due to English pressure at the papal curia. Another Thomas dictus Bell was a canon of Dunkeld in 1340. In the circumstances it seems extremely probable that these religious “Bells” were in fact all MacMillans. While most Bells north of the Highland Line may be MacMillans, those further south - particularly in the Borders - claim to be a separate clan. It seems likely however that some at least of those in Galloway - who lived adjacent to the MacMillan lands - may also have been MacMillans, since the earliest Bell on record there is one Gilbert fitz Bel, which is the Norman-French equivalent of Gilbert mac Mhaoil; and the earliest recorded MacMillan in Galloway, who was a contemporary of this “Bell”, was also called Gilbert (for the implications of which see below the "Border Bells").
Incidental heraldic evidence comes from a seal attributed to a Bell which predates any known Bell coat of arms, showing mullets/stars where later there were bells (as above). This makes it the same design as un-attributed MacMillan arms recorded in England (Burke, 1884, page 645) and the base for the MacMillan arms recorded in Scotland by Alexander Nisbet in 1722, which are later associated with the MacMillans of Brockloch in Galloway - i.e. with three plates put on the chevron of the basic design (as shown below).
Bell seal 1427
MacMillan arms recorded in England
MacMillan in Scotland 1722
Tradition records that one of the
MacGilbiles/MacGilveils in Lochaber left there and settled in Argyllshire near
the head of Loch Fyne, at a place called Badokennan. His descendants colonised
the nearby Glens Shira and Aray, and the records of Inverary parish are rich in
references to the Clann ‘ic ‘illemhaoil under a variety of spellings.
The tenants of Drimfern in Glen Aray appear in the Register of Inventories in
1690 as McIlveill, while their neighbours at Tullich can be found in the
Hearth Tax records of 1694 as McIlvoyle. Both families are recorded in
the Old Parish Registers (from their start in the 1680s) as McIlvoils,
along with many others so named; and many MacMillans too; a distinction being
traditionally kept in the area between the MacGhillemhaoils from Lochaber, and
the MacMhaolains from Knapdale and Kintyre.
The Old Parish Registers indicate a remarkable fading of this hitherto flourishing clan in the 1700s; which after two entries in the 1760s, disappears altogether. Even the most ruthless clearances of the next century failed to achieve so complete a wiping out of an ancient tribe. The records also reveal, however, an equally extraordinary blooming of Bells at exactly the same time; a name hitherto unknown in this Parish Register. The explanation is not far to find. The first of these Bell entries is the baptism in 1743 of a daughter Mary to Archibald and Christian Bell - a couple whose marriage can be found fourteen years before under the name of Mcllvoile. Other Bell families of the 1760s also appear in these registers in the 1750s bearing the ancient Gaelic form of MacMillan. The sudden nature of the name-change indicates an arbitrary decision by the Minister or Session Clerk to do away with the old Gaelic name in the church records. The above evidence suggests, however, that this new name was by no means as alien to the old one as others that were "Englished"; such as MacDhunnshleibhe (more usually found as MacLeay), which became Livingstone. In neither case was this likely to have been of much concern to the contemporary clan members so re-christened, as Highlanders did not normally use surnames in the mid-eighteenth century. The most concrete evidence of these Bells' connection with Clan MacMillan is to be found in the burial ground at Inverary. Among the many Bell gravestones there is one - pictured left - commemorating Angus and his wife Ann Munro, farmers at Tullich. At the top of this handsome monument, erected in 1897 when Angus died in the 96th year of his age, the family have engraved their ancient clan name MAC ILLEMHAOIL.
The Reverend Somerled's MacMillan-Bells
The clan's historian, the Reverend Somerled MacMillan, makes a reference in the Bell section of his book "The MacMillans and their Septs" to distant cousins of his in Oban who were called Bell rather than MacMillan. In researching Somerled's family one discovers that the Bell connection was a lot closer to the late clan historian than he perhaps realised; he, no doubt knowing his own descent so well, probably never bothered to look at the records regarding his immediate ancestors. Somerled's great-great-grandfather Donald, as a MacMillan living in the late 1700s on the borders of Lochaber, would probably have called himself - in so far as he ever used a surname - Mac'illemhaoil. The two children of Donald that we know of - Dugald and John - are both recorded in Oban in the mid 19th century with the name Bell; having been born, according to the census record, on the nearby island of Lismore. John's descendants continued to be called Bell, and are the cousins in Oban to whom Somerled MacMillan refers in his book. Dugald's first two children however, who were born in Torosay on the island of Mull, were baptised there with the name McMillan; though back in Oban his younger son Donald was registered as a Bell. We don't unfortunately have a record of the surname with which his fourth son John was baptised - Somerled MacMillan's grandfather - but we do know that he was married in Oban in 1872 as a Bell; five years before Dugald himself died there, also as a Bell. When John emigrated to Glasgow, however, he preferred to be known by the name of MacMillan; presumably because he realised that his true clan identity would not be understood under the name Bell, as it would be back in Oban and Lismore. Somerled's father was, therefore, christened Samuel McMillan in 1880, as was Somerled himself in 1909 (he later preferring to use the Gaelic form of his Christian name). The final twist in this septname saga - so far discovered anyway - is that one of Somerled's uncles was married in the Lowlands in 1920 under the name of Bell, though the indexes enter him as McMillan (of which name there is not a trace on the certificate).
An appreciation of Reverend Somerled MacMillan's family history is important because his own brief references to it have been erroneously used by some Bells in America to suggest that Somerled was always a Bell and never really a MacMillan; and indeed that no Bells were ever MacMillans! A proper understanding of the use of, or more to the point the non-use of, surnames in the Gaidhealtachd might suggest quite the contrary conclusion: that in fact all Bells are really M'millans. Such a simplistic claim would, however, be equally absurd, given the mystery that still surrounds those early Bells whose modern descendants - while admitting a lack of evidence to prove anything about their ancestors' origins - so vehemently denounce what they call "the MacMillan-Bell myth". A considered approach to the whole question of what a clan is and how it evolves might allow a more acceptable light to be shed by a M'millan historian upon the origins of at least some of these "Border Bells".
The "Border Bells"
The recognition of the likelihood that many of the southern Bells may also have been in origin M'millans (as suggested by the record of the 14th century Gilbert fitz Bel) would not in any way harm the Border Bells' claim to have become a separate clan - as they do indeed appear in the royal records of the sixteenth century - any more than the universal acceptance of the MacAlisters' descent from the MacDonalds derogates from their recognition as a clan in their own right. All modern clans evolved from earlier clans - the Clann an Mhaoil (the MacMillans) from the Clans Cormaic and Aibertaich (from whom come the surnames MacCormack and MacAverty) and Clan Donald (the MacDonalds) from Clann Somerhairle (surname, MacSorley) - and the same process of surname evolution/choice would have happened in the middle ages in the then Gaelic speaking Southern Uplands of Scotland as in the Highlands. This is not to deny that some "Border Bells" may have come from England - and would therefore have had nothing to do with the MacMillans - but a French origin for any Scottish Bells looks extremely dubious. It is clear, for instance, that the patronymic appellation "fitz", which appears in English records relating to Dumfries and Galloway in the fourteenth century, is simply the Norman-French version of the Gaelic patronymic "mac"; and no more indicates a French origin for the fitz Bells than it does for their contemporaries the fitz Canes, who are simultaneously to be found recorded as McKans.
Bells who can prove that their ancestors came from the Borders, and particularly from the Middlebie and Kirkconnel areas of Dumfries-shire, may indeed look to the successors of the Bells of Blackethouse as their chiefs; but in doing so might care to distance themselves from the insulting claims put forward by some that Bells who accept a connection between their own name and that of MacMillan have been fooled and are perpetuating a myth. The truth has long been clear in the Highlands of Scotland, as it is to genealogists and Gaelic scholars throughout the home country today, whatever may be thought elsewhere in the world.