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Issue 64 - The Clan MacMillan

Scotland Magazine Issue 64
August 2012

 

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The Clan MacMillan

James Irvine Robertson looks at one of Scotland's great families

Clan histories tend to begin in myth or mist. The MacMillans are no exception but at least their ancestor was human rather than god, seal, merman or fairy. He was Airbertach, a prince of the royal house of Moray and believed to be a part of the kindred of King Macbeth who, despite Shakespeare's misrepresentation, was one of the greatest of Scotland's early kings.

Airbertach had close links with Somerled, the Lord of the Isles. Airbertach's son Cormac was the first recorded Bishop of Dunkeld in the days when that was the headquarters of the Scots church and bishops wielded power both temporal and spiritual. His son Gilchrist was also a churchman and, as a priest of the Celtic church, shaved his head. One of the strange points of contention in the early church was the way that clerics wore their tonsures. Celts shaved from the front backwards.

Maolin means the tonsured one from which is derived Millan and thus his descendants were the Sons of Millan or MacMillan.

The clan never had one territory. Various families obtained land and built up power bases but they always eventually lost them to more powerful neighbours in the ruthless Darwinian politics of the Highlands. Bands of MacMillans became scattered across Scotland.

The traditional tortuous journey of one of the most powerful branches of the clan has them originating in Moray from where, in the mid 1100s, they were placed on Loch Tayside on crown lands by Malcolm IV. From there they were driven out some time after the Battle of Bannockburn and made their way west. From the Lords of the Isles, Alexander MacMillan obtained the extensive lands of Knapdale in Argyllshire, north of Kintyre on the same pensinsula, through a marriage to an heiress of the Macneills. Alexander was constable of Castle Sween where a tower carries his name but his greatest memorial is MacMillan's Cross in Kilmory chapel on one side of which is a hunting scene and the other a crucifixion. On the beach at the Point of Knap was a tide-swept boulder on which was carved in Gaelic 'MacMillan's right holds good to Knap so long as wave beats upon the rock.'

One escape from Campbell dominance was Lochaber. 'A stranger, it appears, known as Marallach More, established himself in Knapdale and proceeded by his overbearing disposition to make himself objectionable to the MacMillans. He made himself especially obnoxious, it would appear, to one of the chief’s sons, who lived at Kilchamag. The affair came to an open rupture, and at last, either in a duel or in a general fight, Macmillan killed the aggressor, but in consequence had to leave the district. With six followers he migrated to Lochaber.' Under the wing of the Camerons, this section of the clan were granted land on the north side of remote Loch Arkaig and prospered. They repaid this consideration with their swords and could turn out 100 warriors who fought as a crack unit within the Cameron army, often against the Mackintosh captains of Clan Chattan who claimed dominence of the territory.

An indication of the respect held by Lochiel, the Cameron chief, to these MacMillans came in the late 17th century when a fracas took place between them and a dozen men belonging to one of the Cameron septs, the MacGhilleonies, and a MacMillan died. Lochiel's job was to prevent dissent amongst his followers and one would have expected him to forbid any subsequent action by the MacMillans. But he gave them permission to hunt down the gang.

These MacMillans the amongst the greatest practitioners of the ancient sport of the Highlands - cattle theft, preferably from Lowlanders. One government official reporting on social conditions on the forfeited estates soon after Culloden remarked that 'The side of Locharkeg is a den of Thieves..instructed in this Villanous trade from their Cradles.' At Culloden itself, Captain Ewen MacMillan along with two officers commanded his clansmen in Lochiel's Regiment. In 1802 two chieftains of the clan in Lochaber organised a mass emigration of MacMillans to Canada. They were not cleared but, faced with overpopulation, poverty and the collapse of the old Highland way of life, they sought a better life for their families.

From the island of Arran came the eponymous publishing company, founded by Alexander and Daniel MacMillan in the 1840s. Their descendant, Harold MacMillan became the Earl of Stockton when he retired as UK prime minister in 1963 and took over as chairman of the company. And in Minnesota, the MacMillans and their relations own the largest private company in the world in the shape of the agriculural conglomerate Cargill.

Another large group of the clan left Knapdale for Galloway. Two of their number were particularly notable. In about 1840 Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a blacksmith, is credited with the invention of the modern bicyle by coming up with the idea of connecting the pedals to drive the back wheel.

1703, the Rev John MacMillan took on the leadership of the Presbyterian purists, the Covenanters, so persecuted by the authorities both religious and secular during the previous century. He battled all his life for the freedom of the church and for congregations to rule themselves, so much so that the nickname of his followers became MacMillanites instead of the Cameronians.

Some of those in his congregations sought freedom in Northern Ireland, joining their fellow clansmen who had immigrated from Galloway a century earlier. From there many left for the United States.

Today, with George MacMillan of MacMillan and Knap, as its chief, the clan flourishes with branches across the world.