Guide to genealogy of Clan MacMillan.
The evolution of clans, septs and surnames from memorable individuals with more than one name.
The genealogies of all Highland clans - especially their origins and early history - are matters of continuing doubt and debate, since they are mostly founded on oral traditions only written down relatively late in the middle ages, and relate to a time and place about which there are few surviving contemporary records to check these accounts against. Such chronicles as do exist come from sources reflecting the diverse origins of the Highland clans (Pictish, British and Gaelic Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans and Flemings) and using a number of languages (Gaelic, British/Welsh, Latin and Norman-French) in which not only do the same names appear in a variety of forms; but the same individual may appear with entirely different names in different sources! So, for example, the MacMillans' royal ancestor known in the Scots chronicles as MacBethad mac Findlaech (i.e. Macbeth - meaning "Son of Life" - son of Finlay), appears in the Viking sagas under the name Karl Hundisson (i.e. Karl - meaning "The Hound" - son of Hundi; Hundi being the name by which the Norse knew Finlay king of Moray). Macbeth's great-great-grandson appears in MacMillan genealogies both as Cormac mac Airbertaich (Cormac son of Airbertach), and as Gillespic Mor (Gille-Easbuig Mor, "the Great Bishop"); while his son, whose nick-names Maolan and Gillemaol make him the namefather of the MacMillans, appears in the Book of Deer with his given-name and patronymic as Gilchrist mac Cormaic.
There is thus from the earliest period in the clan's history - the eleventh and twelfth centuries - a confusion emanating from given and nick-names in different languages and from different sources. This is further complicated from the thirteenth century onwards by the very gradual introduction - and at first only amongst clans' chiefly families - of a further sort of name; and again we may find the same individuals bearing more than one of what appear to be, or are later known to be, "surnames". As most clan surnames derive from patronymics the transition from the one to the other is a complicated and long drawn-out process. Thus, while it may at first appear bizarre that the late thirteenth century MacMillan chief who appears in the earliest clan genealogy as Cainn mhic Dubgaill (his patronymic) should only be recorded bearing what appears to be an early form of the surname of another clan (as Cane Mcgillolane - from which comes the modern clan surname MacLellan), one has to remember that at this transitional stage MacGhilleFhaolain - "Son of the Devotee of (Saint) Fillan" - is what might best be called a patronymic-nickname; and that while in due course some of the descendants of Cainn/Cane (which almost certainly stands for the name Cathan) will choose that as their surname, others will prefer to remember their famous tonsured ancestor Gilchrist by calling themselves MacGhilleMhaoil or MacMhaolain.
Cathan's own sons are generally recorded bearing versions of the patronymic name mac Cathain: i.e. MacCane or McKan; and in the English records, fitz Cane, which is the Norman-French equivalent of mac Cane. Some of their descendants in Galloway, where he was one of the greatest lords of his time, chose in due course to bear surnames that remembered him rather than his ancestor Maolan or the saintly cult he espoused; so they called themselves Acanne or Cannan, a well known name in the vicinity of the MacMillan lands in Galloway. Thus from the confusion of names by which the early "sons of Maolan" were known in the middle ages arose kindreds, some of whom became clans in their own rights - and Clan Clannan is on record as early as the fourteenth century - while others became, in effect, the first septs of the Clann an Mhaoil (in exactly the same way as the MacMillans' later septs arose).
Added to these natural sources of confusion from medieval times are those sown in the early modern period by some shennachies and clan chiefs who shamelessly altered their pedigrees for political reasons, or simply to fit the foibles of fashion (which in the 17th century preferred an Anglo-Norman descent to the Gaelic one that has been sought after since the late 19th). The classic discussion of such phenomena is to be found in an article by David Sellar, whose work on the early MacDonalds and Campbells (amongst others) has made him the leading authority on such matters, called "Highland Family Origins - Pedigree Making and Pedigree Faking" which was published in The Middle Ages in the Highlands, edited by Lorraine Maclean (Inverness, 1981). Sellar refers in this article to the collection of pedigrees, commonly called MS 1467, which contains the first surviving account of the MacMillans' genealogy; and the questions that he raises - along with all the above matters - are fully discussed in Graeme Mackenzie's Origins and Early History of the MacMillans and Related Kindreds.
Modern muddles for M'millans. More names, more places, more spellings than most.
The Clann an Mhaoil are one of the oldest of Scottish clans, and therefore in theory one of the largest; but because they broke up into far-flung branches relatively early in their history - before surnames became commonly used in the Highlands - many of the “children of Maolan” ended up bearing names other than MacMhaolain or its alternative Gaelic form, MacGhillemhaoil; as explained above. Some of these are recognised today as septnames of the clan; and amongst these the most important - because the most widespread and numerous - is “Bell”. Though it was widely adopted in the South West Highlands and Islands in the 18th and 19th centuries as an Englished form of MacGilveil/M’Ilvoyle, it’s use as a surname can be traced back to the 13th and 14th century in Perthshire and Galloway, where many bearers of it then were probably also M’millans (Mac-Ghille-mhaoil appears in the second oldest surviving genealogy of the clan - the Leny tree of c.1539 - as Mac-Gili-bile). In certain areas of the Highlands - particularly Argyllshire - Bell and M'millan were used interchangeably as the surnames of the same families, depending on the whims of the Ministers or Session-Clerks making the records, or on the places where the families lived. See the Sept of Bell page on this website.
In addition to having their name “Englished” in this way, some M’millans appear in the 18th, 19th and even the 20th centuries bearing the surnames of other clans, such as Buchanan and Cameron: the first because of the 18th century claim that the clan were a sept of the Buchanans; and the second because the Lochaber branch of the clan followed the Cameron chief. Again there are documented cases in the 18th and 19th centuries of the same families appearing on different occasions, and in different places, as either M'millans or Buchanans; or as M'millans or Camerons. There is even one case in the early 19th century where a set of parents and their children are recorded under all three of these surnames - M'millan, Buchanan and Cameron. Such apparent carelessness about surnames was just that; the Highlander couldn't care less what officials called him, because he was not accustomed to using a surname, though he knew very well what clan he belonged to. It does seem, however, that when emigrating from the Gaidhealtachd (the Gaelic-speaking Highlands) many "Bells", "Buchanans" or "Camerons" realised that their true identity might be lost if they did not insist on M'millan as their surname, so generally speaking the confusion is confined to Scotland; though there are reports of a substantial family of "Camerons" in the Chicago area - sadly unidentified at present - who are really M'millans.
A study of the clan’s history will suggest which alternate names usually apply to which branch in Scotland; and if you are from outside of the old country, from which branch of the M’millans your emigrant ancestor is most likely to have come (since different branches had favoured destinations in the New Worlds).
Even if your ancestors have always, since a surname was first required, used that of the clan, life remains more difficult for the M'millan genealogist than for many others; though all Scottish clans suffer to a greater or lesser extent from the similar problems. Within the Gaelic language there were - as there are today in English - regional variations in accent which led to many different phonetic forms of the same name being recorded over the centuries in different parts of the country. It's important to remember as well that consistency of spelling was not considered a necessary virtue in Scotland - and especially in the Highlands - until our own century; and for these reasons over 210 different spellings of the name M'millan have so far been discovered.