McMillan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McMillan Surname Meaning

Macmillan is the anglicized form of the old Gaelic word Macghillemhaoil, later shortened to Machmaolain. The Gaelic mac means “son of,” gille “a servant” and maol “the tonsured one.”

The progenitor of the Macmillan clan was said to be Airbertach, a Hebridean prince of the old royal house of Moray. Airbertach had a son named Cormac and his son Gilchrist, or in Gaelic Gille Chrisosd, was the forebear of the clan an Mhaoil. He was a religious man like his father and wore the tonsure (done by cutting his hair from the scalp) which gave him the nickname Maolan or Gillemaol.

Gillemor Macmolen was recorded as a juror in Lanarkshire in 1263. The 15th century saw Macmolane and Macmilane spellings and Macmillan gradually emerged.

Macmillan may be the older spelling today. But the McMillan spelling is more common in the UK and elsewhere.

McMillan Surname Resources on The Internet

McMillan and MacMillan Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Western Highlands)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), England, America, Canada, and Australia

Scotland.  The Macmillan clan had established themselves at Lochaber in the western Highlands in the 14th century. They became the MacMillans of Murlagan and remained there for several centuries until dispersed by the Camerons. Some MacMillans under Alexander MacMillan had moved further south to Knapdale where they built Castle Sween and entrenched themselves. They proudly boasted:

  • “MacMillan’s right to Knap shall be
  • As long as this rock withstands the sea.”

But that position too was lost and MacMillans moved further south again, to the Isle of Arran and Galloway.  Many of the Macmillans in Galloway became Covenanters, to such an extent that Covenanters there were often called “Macmillans.” And there were still later migrations to Ayrshire and to the new industrial centers like Glasgow.

Ireland. McMillan links with Ireland began with the Scottish plantations of the 17th century. One of the leading planters in Ulster at that time was Robert McLellan of Galloway. Many McMillans from his estates were among the tenants of the new lands he was granted in Ireland.

Later in the century, during the “killing times” in Galloway when the restored monarchy attempted to impose an Episcopalian church on an unwilling populace, many Presbyterians fled across the water to join their cousins in Ulster. Prominent among them were the “McMillanites” – followers of the Rev. John McMillan of Balmaghie, the founder of the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

England. Daniel and Alexander Macmillan – two brothers from Ayrshire with family roots as crofters in the Isle of Arran – came to England in the 1840’s and started a bookshop in Cambridge. The brothers soon started publishing books as well as selling them.

Daniel was the business brain, while Alexander laid the literary foundation. After Daniel’s death in 1857, Alexander moved to London to run Macmillan & Co, soon expanding it into a worldwide publishing organization. Daniel was the grandfather of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

America. Scots and Scots Irish McMillans came to America in the 18th century. The McMillans were particularly notable in North Carolina and North Carolina still has the largest number of McMillans in the country. Among the early arrivals were:

  • Malcolm McMillan, who came from Scotland in 1774.  His descendants moved to south Georgia. Robert McMillan’s 1973 book Record of McMillan and Allied Families described this line.
  • Neill McMillan, who was born in Bladen county in 1788. He fought in the War of 1812 and then moved onto Alabama and Missouri.
  • and John McMillan who was the first clerk of the court for Ashe county, North Carolina. These McMillans were farmers and merchants there for more than a hundred years.

Donald L. Jones’s 1966 book McMillan/MacMillan Family covered two Scots Irish McMillan brothers who came to South Carolina around the 1770’s.

Meanwhile John and Mary McMillan left Scotland for Ireland and then departed for America in 1758. They settled in Washington county, New York. Their story was narrated in W.F. and C.E. McMillan’s 1908 book McMillan Genealogy and History.

Canada. MacMillans began to emigrate to Canada by the late 1700’s after the Revolutionary War. Nova Scotia came to be favored by the Glen Urquhart and Hebridean branches of the Macmillans; while Ontario, or what was then Upper Canada, became the destination for many Lochaber MacMillans. In 1802 Glengarry county, on Ontario’s border with Quebec, received a particularly large influx of MacMillans in their mass exodus from Loch Arkaigside.

Some of these new McMillan immigrants were to make names for themselves:

  • Angus McMillan, who had arrived in Prince Edward Island with his parents in 1834, was a merchant, built ships, and participated in local politics.
  • while two McMillans headed West to make it in Winnipeg: Daniel McMillan who became rich from his milling and grain business; and Hugh MacMillan a successful property developer who later took his family to Florida during the land boom there in the 1920’s.

Australia.  Angus MacMillan from Lochaber emigrated to Australia in 1837 and explored the region of Victoria now known as Gippsland. Archibald and Flora McMillan came out to Victoria with their family on the New Zealander in 1853.  Archibald lived to be ninety five. He died in 1871 after having been hit by a bolting horse at the races.

New Zealand.  There was a Highland McMillan contingent who had settled initially in Nova Scotia under Norman McLeod and then migrated again in 1851 with other Highlanders to Waipu in New Zealand. They had remained Gaelic in Nova Scotia. But once in New Zealand they became New Zealanders.

William McMillan had arrived with his brothers from Ayrshire in 1865. He farmed at Lyttleton near Christchurch. John and Catherine McMillan were in Christchurch at around the same time.  They ended up in Hokitika.

McMillan Surname Miscellany

Macmillans at Lochaber.  Tradition has it that Clann ‘ic ‘illemhaoil Abrach (clan Macmillan of Lochaber) is the oldest branch of the clan.  It seems that some of the earliest descendants of Maolan were indeed “captains of clan Chattan” when that ancient clan still ruled Lochaber.

The Macmillans of Murlagan and Glenpean held their lands on the north and west of Loch Arkaig from at least the mid-16th century until the end of the 18th century. Captain Ewen Macmillan of Murlagan led the Macmillan company in Lochiel’s regiment at Culloden in 1746.

In 1802 Archibald Macmillan of Murlagan, together with Allan Macmillan of Glenpean, organized the mass emigration of Lochaber Macmillans to Glengarry in Canada.

“That July, with more than 400 of his people in three ships, Archibald McMillan sailed from Fort William to Montreal, which was reached in September.  During the crossing the passengers had been given poor quality subsistence and at Montreal they had been forbidden by the ships’ captains to take with them what provisions they had saved.  McMillan successfully sued on their behalf.”

Macmillans at Knapdale and Dunmore.  Alexander MacMillan is said to have built the square tower at Castle Sween when he was Constable there in the 1470s; and it was his name that appeared on a late 15th century cross at Kilmoray Knap.

“There is a stone cross in the old churchyard of Kilmoray Knap, upwards of twelve feet high, richly sculptured, which has upon one side the representation of an Highland chief engaged in hunting the deer, having the following inscription in ancient Saxon characters underneath the figure – ‘Haec est crux Alexandri Macmillan.'”

A second cross bore the names of Alexander’s son Malcolm and grandson Duncan.

When the Campbells were installed as the lords of Knapdale in the early 16th century the MacMillans there entered a period of relative obscurity.  One tradition handed down was that the MacMillan line ended with a chief who had a tragic experience.  In order to defend the honor of his wife from the advances of a too powerful admirer, he attacked and slew the man.  In consequence he was forced to abscond.

The MacMillans re-emerged in 1666 as the lairds of Dunmore by Loch Tarbert (which may well have been the clan’s principal seat in Knapdale in centuries past).  One of the MacMillan branches, having been engaged in the cattle-droving business, was able to purchase the lease of part of the clan’s old lordship from the Campbells.  In 1742 Duncan MacMillan of Dunmore was recognized as “the representative of the ancient family of MacMillan of Knapdale,” in other words chief of the clan.

Macmillans in Ireland.  Macmillan links with Ulster developed in the 17th century when the Scottish government started encouraging the settlement of Protestants in that hitherto predominantly Roman Catholic province.  When William Buchanan of Auchmar wrote his account of the Macmillans in 1723 he reported that:

“There are a great number also of Macmillans in the parishes of Leud and Armuy in the County of Antrim and other places of Ireland. The persons of best account of them in that kingdom is Lieutenant John Macmillan of Killre in the county of Derry, having an estate of five hundred pound sterling per annum; also Doctor Macmillan in Lisburn, a person of good repute and circumstances; and Macmillan of Glenseise and others.”

Kirkpatrick Macmillan and His Pedal Bicycle.  Kirkpatrick Macmillan was born in Dumfriesshire, the son of a blacksmith.  As a young boy he saw a hobbyhorse being ridden along a nearby road and decided to make one for himself.  Upon completion, he realized what a radical improvement it would be if he could propel it without putting his feet on the ground. Working at his smithy, he completed his new machine in 1839.

This first pedal bicycle was propelled by a horizontal reciprocating movement of the rider’s feet on the pedals.  This movement was transmitted to cranks on the rear wheel by connecting rods; the machine was extremely heavy and the physical effort required to ride it must have been considerable.

Nevertheless, Macmillan quickly mastered the art of riding it on the rough country roads and was soon accustomed to making the fourteen-mile journey to Dumfries in less than an hour.  His next exploit was to ride the 68 miles into Glasgow in June 1842.  The trip took him two days and he was fined five shillings for causing a slight injury to a small girl who ran across his path.

He never thought of patenting his invention or trying to make any money out of it, but others who saw it were not slow to realize its potential, and soon copies began to appear for sale.

Daniel and Alexander Macmillan.  Daniel and Alexander Macmillan, who went on to found the Macmillan book publishing empire in London, came from humble Scottish Highland stock.  Their father was a peasant farmer – deeply religious, strong-willed and hard-headed – who died from overwork and exposure when the brothers were still young.

Daniel recalled his upbringing in later life in a letter written in 1850:

“Next September 13th I shall be thirty seven.  It is now nearly thirty seven years since I made my first appearance on the stage of this world.  The scene was laid in a most humble house on the brow of a hill overlooking the sea and getting, on clear days, a clear view of the Ayrshire coast.  High mountains covered with snow lay behind this little house.

The flocks of sheep with the hoggets were gathered into the fold by the shepherd’s care and the Almighty Shepherd watched over my mother and me.  He allowed her to train and help the formation of my spirit for twenty years. She is gone from this world but her influence will never die.”

Macmillan and McMillan.  Macmillan may be the older spelling today.  But the McMillan spelling is more common in the UK and elsewhere.

Numbers (000’s) Macmillan McMillan
UK    6    16
Elsewhere    9   33

The Story of John McMillan and His Two Brothers.  The family legend has it that in 1758 John McMillan, with his brothers Donald and Arthur, sailed from Ireland bound for the New World.  The vessel on which the brothers sailed was wrecked in mid-ocean.  The brothers were separated, but were all eventually picked up and carried to land, each supposing the others lost.

John landed at New York, and travelling on the Hudson came to Charlotte (now Washington) county, making his home in what is now the town of Salem.  The next year he returned to Ireland for his wife and children and brought them to his new home in the wilds of America.

One brother Donald landed at Philadelphia and his descendants were later to be found in points south.  The other brother Arthur was carried to Quebec and made his home there.  However, more recent investigation seems to demonstrate that the legend of the shipwreck and the three brothers was not founded upon fact.

Daniel McMillan in Winnipeg.  Daniel McMillan from Whitby in Ontario served as a young man with the Canadian Volunteers on the Niagara Frontier during the troubles of 1864.  He then came west as a Captain of the 1st Ontario Regiment in the Wolseley Expedition at the time of Red River Rebellion.

However, he soon left the army to build a milling and grain business in Winnipeg with his brother William.  The Winnipeg City Mill was operating in 1877 and ten years later he was running the first steam-powered mill in the town.  He was the first President of the Winnipeg Grain Exchange and subsequently started the Dominion Grain Elevator Company.

Like other successful businessmen, he turned his attention to politics and served as the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba from 1900 to 1911.  He died – as Sir Daniel McMillan – in 1933 at the age of 87, after suffering a fall at his home in Winnipeg a few days earlier.

McMillan Names

  • The Rev. John McMillan of Balmaghie was the founder of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland.
  • Kirkpatrick Macmillan was the Scottish blacksmith credited with the invention of the pedal bicycle in 1839.
  • Daniel and Alexander Macmillan, two brothers from the Isle of Arran, founded Macmillan Publishers in 1843.
  • Harold Macmillan was British Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963.
  • Whitney MacMillan was the American businessman from Minnesota who by 1995 had developed Cargill into being the largest grain company in the world and the largest privately held company.

McMillan Numbers Today

  • 22,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 16,000 in America (most numerous in North Carolina)
  • 29,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

McMillan and Like Surnames

The Scottish Highlands were Gaelic-speaking and their clan names appeared first in Gaelic and only later in an English version.  Each clan controlled its own local territory and frequently fought with neighbors.  Many, however, took the clan name in order to receive clan protection.

The clan downfall came following the 1715 and 1745 uprisings with the Battle of Culloden when the clan culture was broken up and clan tartans banned (although they came back into fashion with Queen Victoria a hundred years later).  The Highland clearances, supplanting people for sheep, was a further blow and many Highlanders were forced into emigration, still speaking their native Gaelic, to Canada and then to Australia and New Zealand.

Here are some of the clan surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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