Friday, March 02, 2007


Call of the Wild

Dear Mr. Gilleland,

Reading your excellent blog I was intrigued by your surname, which shares a common element with my own. Given your fondness for Thoreau and the wilderness, I wonder if you have ever been reunited with your inner wolf?

Gilleland must come from Scottish Gaelic ‘Mac Gill’Fhaoláin’ - son of the servant of Fillan, an 8th century Scottish saint. The ‘mac’ has been dropped and an intrusive <d> added after ‘n’ (like the ‘d’ in ‘thunder’ (< OE thunor)), probably a hanger-on supplied by analogy with English ‘land’. ‘Gill’ would be Scottish Gaelic ‘gille’ (from Irish ‘gilla’), - ‘boy, servant’. Zimmer (Glossae Hibernicae, 1881) relates ‘gilla’, fancifully or not, to Old Norse ‘gildr’ – ‘stout, brawny, full of worth’ in which case it would derive from the Proto-Germanic root *gelda. Fillan - the initial fricative is lost by lenition in the genitive ‘Fhaolain’ - is Old Irish ‘Failan’ = ‘fael’, now ‘faol’, (‘wolf’) + ‘an’, a diminutive suffix from Old Irish *agnas – ‘issuing from’, cognate with Latin ‘-gnus’, ‘genus’. As regards ‘fael’, here is the entry in Mallory and Adams' Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture (1997, p.647):
*uailos ‘wolf’- OIr. ‘fael’, Arm. ‘gayl’ - ‘wolf’. Perhaps from as ‘the woeful one’ (either from the mournful cry or because the animal induces woe in the human). Though not widely attested, the geographical distribution of those attestations strongly suggests PIE status.
Forgive me if I’ve only rehearsed what you already knew but I thought that as an avowed pessimist you might be quite taken with the ‘woeful one’ root.

I'm sorry I can't use the OE thorn or a couple of diacritics, but they're not important.

Here's the entry in Black's 'The Surnames of Scotland' (p. 307):
GILLILAN, Gilliland. From G. Mac Gill'Fhaoláin 'son of the servant of (S.) Fillan,' through one of the early forms McGillolane or M'Gillelan, with omission of the 'Mac'. There was also an Old Irish family of the name Mac Ghiolla Fhaoláin, extant at the beginning of the seventeenth century , but which apparently has since died out. The surname at the present time is common in Ulster (where it is of late Scottish origin), mainly in the form Gilliland, but also as Gelland, Gilelin, Gillan, Gilland, Gilleland, Gillilan and Guilliland. The late Sir Samuel Ferguson, the distinguished Irish poet and scholar wrote a poem immortalizing one Willy Gilliland, which I have not seen.
St. Fillan is also at the root of the surname MacClellan. He's also the patron saint of the mentally ill if that's any consolation.

Kind Regards,

Andrew MacGillivray

For more on *uai ‘woe’, see J. Pokorny, Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, pp. 1110-1111.

Samuel Ferguson's poem on Willy Gilliland can be found in The Ballads of Ireland. Collected and Edited by Edward Hayes, vol. 2 (London: A Fullarton & Co., 1855), pp. 261-264, available on Google Book Search.

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