Finding the Rankin Pipers of Mull

Here is another article from my friend Richard Rankin. If you didn’t see his prior article about Rankin Big Y, you missed a very informative goodie. Even if you aren’t a Rankin, you will learn a lot about Big Y. This one is also fun and features good research. Enjoy!


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Talk to any Rankin family researcher, and you’ll likely find them quite eager to talk about the famous Rankins of Mull. These Rankins were the hereditary clan bagpipers, high-ranking officials serving the clan chiefs of the Macleans of Duart, and Lochbuie, and Coll. You’ll hear tales without end, all about the piping college at Kilbreanan, the legendary musical prowess of the Rankin pipers, and how the Rankins come from a proud line of kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing, Maclean loyalists.

It seems like every Rankin wants to claim descent from these Mull Rankins, the historic Clan Duilligh (or alternatively Clan Mic Raing, “Children of the Son of Raing”) [1]. Lord knows, I do too. The Rankins are an officially recognized sept of the Clan Maclean [2]. I have my Maclean tartan. My bucket list includes attending the Maclean Gathering at Duart Castle – someday.

But there’s also a pesky little fly in the ointment. A matter of DNA. Particularly, the male Y chromosome, which passes directly from father to son essentially unchanged, unmixed with the mother’s DNA. Women do not carry a Y chromosome at all. This Y-DNA is inherited only by the line of biological men. By happy chance, Y-DNA also generally follows the line of the family name such as Rankin, at least for the last several hundred years or so.

Notably, that Y chromosome experiences tiny changes every few generations. Such a change, once it occurs randomly in one man, tends to persist in all his male offspring. Those changes are then passed down to that man’s male descendants, ad infinitum. But crucially, that same change would not be found in that man’s brothers, or nephews, or their descendants. This makes it possible to trace the DNA branches back thousands of years. We can decode the genetic background of any Rankin male who takes a sufficiently detailed genetic test — even where the paper genealogy or traditional evidence is unreliable, incomplete, or missing! The Rankin surname project at helps individuals interpret their test results. It sorts those DNA results into distinctive, unrelated Rankin family lines. (Disclosure: I am a volunteer site administrator for this Rankin Y-DNA web site).

Through Y-DNA testing, we have identified eight distinct family lines of Rankins so far. Within each line, the members are proven to be genealogically related to each other (within several hundred years). In contrast, any two members of two different Rankin lines are proven to be unrelated to each other in any genealogical sense. Even though both properly bear the Rankin name. Across any two different Rankin lines, the most recent common ancestor would have lived at least 4,000 years ago. In some cases, far more. Yet the Rankin surname itself only came into common use in the past 700 years or less.

That poses a difficult question – if these eight Rankin lines are not related to each other in the past 4,000 years or more, then which of those lines (if any) are related to the famous Rankins of Mull, of just a few hundred years ago? Asked differently, to which one of the known Rankin genetic lines might the Mull Rankins have belonged?

Answering this question is not as easy as it sounds. To answer it, a proven descendant of the Mull Rankins must take the detailed Y-DNA test. And that’s the real trick. Who among the living today can prove themselves a true descendant of the Mull Rankins?

We know with high confidence that the “Rankins do not appear to have a rent for Kilbreanan in 1679. Possibly the Rankins moved to Kilbreanan when the Macleans of Duart lost their lands to Clan Campbell in the 1690s.” [3]

We know that by 1716 the Rankins are at Kilbreanan on Mull. We know from the 1716 Disarming Act there are in fact eight families of Rankins on Mull, including 10 men of age to bear arms. I don’t have this list yet, but if someone can locate and share it, that would be fantastic.

We know that on that list there is an Ewan Rankin living in Aros on Mull. I have not yet traced his family, if indeed there is one. And we find the famous Kilbreanan piper Condullie Rankin and his sons Hector and John. For this family, “John Rankin seems to have been the family member who stuck to piping as his profession, and in the 1745 event he was piper to the Glenaray Co of the Argyle Militia. The bills for his pipes, clothes and other necessaries are in the archives at Inveraray…. He next appears in 1752 when he took a new nine-year lease on the change house (inn) at Aintorran. Furthermore we also know what happened to his bagpipe after his death when in 1776 ‘MacLaine of Lochbuy’ gave an instruction that John Rankin’s pipes were to be given to young Neil Gillis alias MacLean who was going as piper with Captain Murdoch MacLean.” [4] Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to trace any living descendants of this Kilbreanan family, either. I’m still working on it.

There is also Neil Rankin, last of the known pipers to the chiefs. After the misfortunes of Duart, he “first served MacLean of Lochbuy before moving to serve MacLean of Coll.” [5] It would not surprise me at all to find Neil or his parents on the 1716 list also. Neil had several children, not all of which I have traced yet. He may have had sons Hector and Hugh, though not yet proven to my own satisfaction, nor traced to any present-day family if there is one. But Neil’s most famous descendant is Coun Douly Rankin [6], born 1774 at Coll, who as a young man was advised to “put down that chanter” and join the army. He emigrated to Prince Edward Island. Two proven sons were born, half-brothers from different marriages. The first, George H. Rankin was born in Scotland. He arrived in Canada with his parents in 1806, and died in Massachusetts in 1858, apparently without heir. As far as I can find, he may have married in 1840. But on his 1858 death record he is noted as a widower.

George’s half-brother Neil Rankin 1821-1877 was born and died at Charlottetown. He had one proven son, Coun Douly Rankin 1853-1901(+). Again, unfortunately, this Coun Douly Rankin appears to have been single, based on multiple census records. And he too died without any known heirs.

So far, my research into these lines of Mull Rankin pipers has all run dry. Additional research into all the other potential family lines above may help clarify if there were any continuing male lines or not.

Sadly, the present-day Isle of Mull also lacks any male Rankins. According to an email I received in 2023 from Calum Maclean of Tobermory, “The name Rankin is not present on Mull as a surname anymore, but I know of at least one family who are descendants of the Rankins still living on the Island.” Perhaps one of them, or someone else, may one day fill in the gaps and find a proven male descendant of the Mull Rankins. Until then, we can’t prove that any of the known living Rankin lines descend from Mull. It could be, indeed, that the Mull lines have gone extinct. I hope to learn someday that I am wrong about that.

Even so, proud Rankins, wear your tartan. Play your pipes (or don’t!). Join the Macleans for a Gathering. Your genetic heritage, whatever it may or may not be, does not fully define you. There are Highland Gaelic Rankins, Lowland Brittonic Rankins, Saxon Rankins, Viking Rankins, and Stone Age Rankins, whose ancient wanderings around modern Scotland preceded even the Celts. All Rankins can be proud of our Mull kinsmen, even if they turn out to be kin by surname only.

Virtue Mine Honour,

Richard Rankin

Volunteer Rankin Project Administrator

Lineage 5 – Little Scottish Cluster R-CTS2187/S190

Footnotes and Additional Links:

[1] “In the History of the Men of Alba, amongst the Clans supposed to be descended from the Kings of Dal Riada in Scotland, are listed the Macleans whose pedigree includes “Gilleeoin mic Mecraith mic Maoilsruthain mic Neill mic Cuduilig, Abbot of Lismore, (Conduilig i. Ab Leasamoir ) mic Raingee” (each “mic” signifies “son of”). The Macleans named themselves as descendants of this Gilleeoin, while the related family of Rankins took their name from Gilleeoin’s second-great grandfather Cuduiligh, the Abbot of Lismore, and alternatively from Cuduiligh’s father Raing. Clan Duiligh means “the children of Cuduiligh”, while Clan Mic Raing means “children of the son of Raing”. Both appellations refer to the same thing.






[7] Genetic lines of Rankins identified at Family Tree DNA:

Lineage 1: R1a R-L448 “Viking/Scandinavian”

Lineage 2: R1b R-U106 “Germanic”

Lineage 3: R1b L21 Celtic R-L159 “Hibernian”

Lineage 4: I-M170 subgroup 1

Lineage 5: R1b L21 Celtic R-CTS2187/S190 “Little Scottish Cluster”

Lineage 6: R1b L21 Celtic R-M222 “Niall of the Nine Hostages”

Lineage 7: R1b L21 Celtic R-FGC3222

Lineage 8: I-M170 subgroup 2

Plus, there are four other Rankin individuals who have also Big Y tested, but currently do not match any other Rankin tester or any of the known Lineages.