MacLean / MacLaine

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About us

We are a DNA project with over 400 members scattered across the world but with the shared aim of using DNA testing to tell us more about our ancestry than we have been able to find by following a paper trail alone. Please join us if you have (or your ancestor had) the surname MacLean, MacLaine, McLean or any of the other variants listed above.  As a surname project it mainly benefits male ancestors because the Y-chromosome is passed from father to son just as a surname is normally passed in the same way.  The maternal line can be followed using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which is passed from a mother through her daughters but as daughters normally take their father’s surname the link to their mother’s surname is broken.

Most people with our surname associate themselves with the Scottish clans MacLean of Duart, MacLaine of Lochbuie or one of their many branches. Recorded history of these clans goes back to 13th century Scotland when Gille eoin (Gillean of the Battleaxe) founded Clan Gillean.  The next main development was in the 14th century when Gille eoin’s great great grandsons, brothers Lachlan and Hector, were independently granted land and titles by the Lord of the Isles and from this act two separate clans were formed – the MacLeans of Duart and of Lochbuie.  Use of the surname MacLean did not begin until about 1350 and interestingly, members of the Lochbuie clan did not adopt the MacLaine spelling until the mid-1700s, and even then it was not adopted universally.

Our clans are traditionally associated with the Isle of Mull but they didn’t have lands there until the 14th century and were also associated with territory in Morvern, Ardgour, Urquhart and islands in the Hebrides such as North Uist, Coll, Tiree, Jura and Islay.  They were a warlike and seafaring clan, at the height of their powers between the 14th and 16th centuries. They then fell into decline due to vast debts and unwise alliances such that by the end of the 17th century many of their former lands had been acquired by the Crown and other clans, particularly the Campbells to whom the MacLeans were in debt. Repercussions for the clans which supported the Jacobite cause in 1745 ensured that the MacLeans would not regain their former powers.

From these early times, clan members spread across the world forming a diaspora which projects such as this can help to bring together once more. As a seafaring clan, the early MacLeans would have traded and fought in Ireland, including a period as mercenaries in support of Irish chiefs in the 16th century and the later Plantation (colonisation) of Ulster. Clan members also settled in North America (particularly North Carolina and Nova Scotia) during the period of colonisation and then others fought with the Highland Regiments during the War of American Independence.  Other factors such as MacLean lands being taken over by other clans, the Highland Clearances, general famine and disease etc all contributed to clan members leaving Scotland for a better life elsewhere.

Both Clan MacLean and Clan MacLaine websites make reference to ‘One Family – Two Clans’ which is a nice concept but misleading in genealogical terms in that everyone with the surname MacLean, MacLaine, McLean or any of the other variants can consider themselves to be a member of one of the clans but they are not necessarily actually related to other clan members.  If you look at our Y-DNA Results page you’ll see quite a wide variation but with a strong concentration on haplotype R1b1a2.  So, if we’re all ‘one family’ why don’t we all have the same DNA?  Three reasons come to mind – firstly, the clan system whereby membership of the clan was extended to supporters and those seeking protection of the powerful clan. Many of these people would have taken the clan surname to identify their loyalty and protector. Then there could have been non-parental events (NPEs) including illegitimacy, informal adoption and rape such as that by raiders such as the Vikings and members of other clans. Finally, although the Y-chromosome is passed from father to son it can mutate in the process with perhaps one or two of the markers changing value.  If this did not happen everyone on earth would have exactly the same Y-chromosome! Furthermore, in addition to descent from one of these highland Scottish clans there is growing evidence for variants of our surname developing independently, for example in lowland southwest Scotland and in Ireland. The clan's surname references Gille-Eoin as their patronymic "Servant of Saint John" but the given-name Gille-Eoin was not rare and translates literally to "John's lad" or "John's boy". So the surname MacGille-Eoin may have arisen and stabilised anywhere in gaeldom.

The spelling of surnames is not necessarily significant as many clan members were Gaelic speaking and possibly illiterate but many official documents such as parish records would have been recorded by English-speaking clerks.  In the 1841 census of Scotland, 82% of entries were spelled McLean, 17% MacLean and the remaining 1% were made up from 5 other variants. This is very different to the current range of surnames on this project which contains 12 spelling variants. McLean is still the commonest at 37%, with McClain at 22%, MacLean 16%, McLain 13% and the remainder 12%. As most of our members live in North America and Australasia this clearly suggests that the spelling of many surnames changed on emigration to the New World with clerks recording names phonetically. Further information is contained in the Files section of our maclean_dna Yahoo discussion group.


The more markers you test the more accurate will be any information on suggested matches to other people. If you are able to, please consider upgrading the level of your Y-DNA testing to at least 37 markers and ideally to 67 or 111 markers.  Tests such as Y67 compare the values of eg 67 STR (Short Tandem Repeats) markers against the same markers of other men and are essential to get you started and identify who else has a similar DNA profile to yourself and may therefore share an ancestor with you at some time in the past. STR testing to 67 or more markers will get you into the right area but in order to refine the quality of your testing you will need to test for a different type of Y-DNA marker, the SNP (Single Nucleotide Polymorphism) which like STRs are passed from father to son but unaltered and with new SNPs added every few generations. So SNP tests look to see which SNPs are present (and which are not) in the Y chromosome. Family Tree DNA offer tests for individual SNPs but offering much better value are SNP packs where typically around 150 different SNPs are tested at the same time. These tests only look for SNPs which have been previousy detected in other men so best of all is the 'Big Y' test which is a discovery test and will find all the testable SNPs in your Y chromosome, those which have been found elsewhere but also those which have not yet been found in anyone else who has tested. These will be your most recent markers and in at least one part of our project we are already seeing SNP markers representing a common ancestor who lived less than 500 years ago. The name of the subgroup that we have placed your kit results in on the project DNA results pages may provide guidance on further testing. Otherwise, contact one of the project administration team for advice.

A Plea to Project Members

As one aim of this project is to link DNA to recorded family histories it is particularly important to identify your most distant ancestor in as much detail as possible – on your myFTDNA Home Page go to My Account > Most Distant Ancestors.  Full name, dates and location (not just ‘Scotland’ or ‘Ireland’) where you know them please, for example ‘John McLean, b.1752, Campbeltown, Argyll, Scotland’. 

If you have a family tree please upload the relevant parts to your personal profile as a GEDCOM file at My Account > GEDCOM/FamilyTree. If you have the information but need help in producing a GEDCOM file this please contact Duncan McLean directly.

Please keep your Personal profile details up to date, in particular your email address as this is the project’s only way of getting in touch with you.

Discussion Forum

There is a discussion forum for the project at Yahoo Groups called maclean_dna (note the underscore character) which currently has over 60 members and you can find it at 

Apply to join the forum by sending an email to identifying yourself, your interest in our surname and your kit number. You are given the option of having all forum messages emailed to you or just a digest of recent ones.  At this stage I would advise receiving all messages - you can always switch to a digest later if the forum gets really busy. Once your forum registration has been approved you do not need to go the web site to post replies as long as you are a member. When you receive an email message from the group, just "reply" to it in your email program.Yahoo Group software will automatically use the subject line to classify your posting under the current topic (as long as you don't change it!). To post a new message you can also just compose and email from your email system and send it to   That's the email ID for the group. If creating a new topic, the topic will be based on the subject line you use.

If you join the forum with a Yahoo Id (eg email address on or another domain hosted by Yahoo) you will also be able to access a growing library of Files and Links relevant to genealogy and DNA research into MacLeans, MacLaines, McLeans, McLains and all the rest.

Further Information

Further background information on the clans and their associations can be found on the official clan websites :

Clan MacLean of Duart          

Clan MacLaine of Lochbuie     

McLean of Coll                      

A number of clan histories were published in the 19th century and as these are now out of copyright they are available on the internet as free PDF downloads.They include :

A. Maclean Sinclair, The Clan Gillean, (1899)

J.P. Maclean, History of the Clan Maclean, (1889)

‘a Seneachie’, A History and Genealogical Account of the Clan MacLean, (1838)

However, recent studies by Nicholas MacLean-Bristol suggest that all of these books, and others too, were based heavily on a 1734 manuscript by Dr Hector Maclean which he believes to have been less than objective. His own books are more recent and include sources not available to earlier authors, but unfortunately are out of print. Second-hand copies can be found though.

Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, Warriors and Priests : A History of the Clan MacLean 1300-1570  (Tuckwell Press, 1995)

Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, The Macleans from 1560-1707: A Re-appraisal  (essay in The Seventeenth Century in the Highlands, Inverness Field Club, 1986)