History of the Name

Cuindlis, Cuinlis, Cuindilis, Cuindlaes, Cuindleas, or Coinleisc is an Old Irish (Gaelic or Goidelic) name of uncertain meaning. The first element in it seems to mean ‘head’1, and one plausible interpretation of the entire name is ‘Head of the enclosure’. This could indicate anything from ‘owner of the cattle pen’ to perhaps even ‘lord of the fort’, depending on just what sort of enclosure was meant. There is no way of knowing at this late a date. Given that the ‘head’ element in this sometimes also meant ‘hill, promontory’, the name could also have meant ‘[from the] hill fort’.

Derivatives of the name are attested in Scotland (most numerous in Galloway, especially Wigtownshire and Kirkcudbrightshire, later in Ayrshire, Glasgow, Renfrewshire, Edinburgh, and Dundee), and in Ireland (especially in Galway, North Tipperary, Mayo, and in Ulster and Donegal) as what appears to be a family name as early as the 13th century, though not commonly recorded as one until the late 17th century. As a given name, it dates to at least as early as the 8th century in Ireland.

Like other Gaelic names common to both Ireland and Scotland, Cuindlis and its variants were likely among those brought over during the Dalriadic period of the 6th to 9th centuries (see “Timeline” page), after clans of the Irish Scoti (Gaels) invaded Pictland (now named Scotland after those settlers). According to Black (1946)2, the Gaelic patronymic forms like MacCuindlis would have first been used in Ireland, though it is unclear when he considered them to have made their way to Scotland. It is likely that the Irish Gaelic patronymic had been in use in Scotland since the beginning of Irish settlement there, since the given name dates to the same early period and patronymic names were the norm then. Family surnames arose much later, largely as a response to bureaucratization (tax collection, censuses, etc.).

Today, after the anglicization and later modifications of Gaelic names, there are many family names descended from Cuindleas/Cuindlis. The two most-frequent spellings are McCandless and McCandlish, with many sub-variants like Chandlish, McCandliss, McAndless, and McCanles. These are primarily of Scotland, especially Galloway, but also Northern Ireland. The McCandless spelling dominates in Ulster (Northern Ireland), and seems to be confined to that province in Ireland10 (most numerous specifically in Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Armagh, Down, and Donegal). In at least one case, a genealogist found a McCandless family in Pennsylvania going back to McCandless in Northern Ireland and thence to McCandlish in Scotland7. Census evidence strongly indicates that McCandless is not native to Northern Ireland, but an import (probably originally as McCandlish) from Scotland by settlers, who had been coming to Ulster in fairly large numbers since the 13th century. In the 1901 and 1911 Irish censuses, McCandlishes, almost entirely confined to Northern Ireland, were overwhelmingly Presbyterian (i.e., Scottish) and when not were usally Anglican (i.e. British), not Catholic (i.e. native Irish)14.[Image: Two Scottish sisters in their teens or thereabouts, relaxing on an Edinburgh lawn, one in wide-brimmed hat and black dress, the other in tartan skirt and ticked blouse.]
Sisters Mary & Margaret McCandlish,
Scotland, ca. 1845 (by Hill & Adamson9)

The west-central Irish Conliss and Cunlish (or O’Conliss, etc.), most numerous in Galway3 and other parts of Connacht4, represent a less common and more widely-separated branch, with its own sub-variants like Conlish and Conless. Another, somewhat later, Irish variant that survives is Quinlisk or Quinless (among a few other spellings, and which can also take an O’), mostly found in North Tipperary4, bordering on Galway; another probably later set are Conlisk, Cunlisk, and Quinlisk again, of County Mayo, also neighbouring Galway.

Of these Irish variants, Quinlisk and then Conlisk are the most common. Some of the more obscure Irish variants (e.g. Quinlish) may now be extinct in Ireland itself and represented only in the diaspora.

These Irish names all appear to descend from a 14th-century Ó Cuindlis (later Ó Coinleisc) family of brehons – a learned class of judges, arbiters, and scholars – in Uí Maine, a medieval kingdom in what today are Counties Galway and Roscommon. Curiously, Coinleisc was sometimes anglicized to the etymologically unrelated name Grimes in west Mayo.

Most of the other name variations appear to be directly derived from McCandlish and McCandless. K-spelled variants like McKanless, McKanles, etc., have also occurred, but appear to be largely if not entirely extinct.

The McCandlish spelling might be older, but is today less numerous than McCandless (in the United States by about a 1:10 ratio)5. The -ish version is mostly Scottish, -ess mostly Northern Irish, though with overlap in both directions. For example, the 1901 census data for Scotland showed 191 McCandlishes, mostly in Wigtownshire, Kirkcudbrightshire, Ayrshire, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Renfrewshire (west of Glasgow); and showed 52 McCandlesses, mostly in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Renfrewshire. By contrast, 1901–1911 data for Ireland demonstrated that McCandless was more favoured there, with 480–552 McCandlesses (almost entirely confined to Ulster counties Derry/Londonderry, Antrim, and Down, and Co. Donegal); versus just 8 McCandlishes (also in Antrim). Current surname distribution maps by country: McCandlish versus McCandless.

Quinlish and its variants, which appear to be exclusively Irish, are actually closer to the original pronunciation of the Cuin[di]lis Gaelic spellings. The Cuin[di]lis and Cuindlaes spellings ended with a /ʃ/ (“sh”) sound, probably giving rise to the Quinlish, McCandlish, and similar versions. Cuindleas ended with an /s/ sound, and may have separately given rise to McCandless, Conliss, and their sub-variants, though there is also evidence of later shifting of McCandlish to McCandless directly. The versions ending in a /k/ sound, including Conlisk, Cun[d]lisk, and Quinlisk, clearly derive from the late Gaelic spelling Coinleisc.

Notably, however, the spellings have been widely regarded as synonymous many times, with genealogies showing a McAndlish whose son goes by McCandless and whose daughter in turn is a McCandlish, as one example. As another, one record book in various volumes used the names McAndlish, Candlish, and M’Candlish interchangeably, for the same individuals just on different pages.11 This bleed-over does not appear to occur between the [O’]Quinlish/Conliss versions and the [Mc]Candlish/[Mc]Candless variants.

There is no direct evidence of more than a coincidental etymological link between the west-Irish Conlisk/Quinlisk and the Scots-Irish McCandlish/McCandless families. It is unlikely that all of the Cuindlis/Cuindleas-derived names are familially related, even when the modern surname spelling matches. More than one person bearing Cuindlis or a variation on it as his given name could have led to patronymic and then family names – either different ones, e.g. McCandlish and McCandless coming from different ancestry, or even multiple instances of the exact same spelling. By way of comparison, the Irish surname Connolly has at least nine known origins in different, unrelated Irish Gaelic families6, without including similar names like Kinelly, etc. Even the anglicized Scottish name Campbell, from Gaelic Ca[i]mbeul, has occurred independently in Ireland, derived instead from Cathmhaoil6. At least we can be fairly certain that McCandlish, McCandless, Quinlisk, Conlisk and close variants all derive from essentially the same original Gaelic personal name.

All the individuals bearing these names have, at least since the 19th century, been commoners, and none appears in extant lists of the peerage and knightage12. At least one was an armiger (had a coat of arms), however; see the “Heraldry” page for details.

The More Common Name Variants

  • [Mc]An[d]lish
  • [Mc]An[d]les[s]
  • [Mc]An[d]lis[s]
  • [Mc]Can[d]lish
  • [Mc]Can[d]les[s]
  • [Mc]Can[d]lis[s]
  • [Mc]Can[d]las[s]
  • [Mc]Can[d]leis
  • Chan[d]lish
  • Chan[d]less
  • [O’]Conlisk
  • [O’]Conliss
  • [O’]Cun[d]lish
  • [O’]Quinlish
  • [O’]Quinlisk

There are over 90 different spellings. See the “Cuindlis Name Variants List” page for full details.

Clan Connections (or Lack Thereof)

Cuindlis with its derivatives in Scotland are family names rather than a clan name, as there is no McCandlish/McCandless/etc. clan. There is as yet no evidence that it ever was a clan (at least in the Highland sense), and it is primarily a Lowlands name since at least as early as the late 17th century2. There is no chief or other recognized family head. At this point, there is not even a family association/organization. If you would be interested in helping form one, please get in touch via the forum or the contact page.

Individual McCandlish families have at various times been associated through marriage with the MacGregors, Buchanans, Gordons, and possibly the Montroses and the MacArthur Campbells, ca. late 1600s to early 1700s onward, and potentially earlier to the beginnings of surnames in Scotland. However, McCandlish/McCandless is not regarded as a sept or cadet branch of these clans or any others.

For example, a MacGregor family historian contacted in the 1990s was unable to find any records indicating a strong link, only some marriages, including a 20th-century McCandlish who married a MacGregor and served as the Clan Gregor Society treasurer for several decades. Documentation of Buchanan, Gordon, Montrose, and Campbell connections is generally lacking, and found primarily as family-memory assertions in amateur and rather speculative American genealogies produced in the early 20th century. These may be memories of a family having been crofters on clan lands, or could conceivably represent closer connections the details of which were lost after the Jacobite Uprisings and the Highland Clearances.

Highlands History?

[Image: Woodcut showing militia in Highland dress at the 1745 Battle of Prestonpans.]
Highlanders in 1745
The documentary evidence available and examined so far firmly places McCandlish, among many other spellings, in the Lowlands, specifically Ayrshire and Kirkcudbrightshire (in the region now known as Dumfries and Galloway), and has McCandless and similar spellings primarily in Northern Ireland. But it only goes back to the late 17th century. Some genealogies report family memories of a western Highlands origin, and some are quite certain of it, e.g. that published in 1918 by Sarah Adeline McCandless7, and another more dubious volume published some time later by C.E. McCandless13; both home in on the Loch Lomond area, perhaps around Callander, Sterlingshire. See the “Unverified Claims” page for details.

A Scottish Highlands background is certainly plausible, as the Highland Clearances of 1750 to 1860 (or 1886, depending on definition) resulted in many Highlanders relocating south to Lowland areas (or leaving for further pastures, including Northern Ireland and the overseas colonies; see the “Timeline” page for details). This was incidentally the same overall time period in which family surnames came into more established use in Scotland, so we have records of McCandlishes (etc.) in and around Ayr and Kircudbright first appearing in the 18th century (at least in surviving and published records). There is nothing to suggest that all these McCandlishes and related had always been there; they might well have been recent arrivals from the Highlands. It is presently unclear how to establish this, short of going to Scotland to do primary research on original parish and other records.


[Image: Overlapping samples of McCandlish green, red, and arisaid grey tartan]
Selection of McCandlish tartans
Despite lack of a clan, there is a suite of McCandlish/McCandless tartans.

Full details on the tartans are available on the “Tartans” page.

In summary, they are proportionally based loosely on the Black Watch tartan, using colours inspired by the known McCandlish coat of arms. The main one is predominantly red, though it also exists in green and grey variants. The designs are recorded with both the Scottish Register of Tartans and the Scottish Tartans Authority. For kiltmaking, they are unlikely to be kept in stock by any woolen mills, but can be special-ordered from any reputable kiltmaker.

Like most family tartans and even some clan tartans, these date to modern times, though are more recent than most, being registered in 1992. Most clan tartans date to the early 19th to early 20th centuries, and many family tartans to the mid-to-late 20th century, along with district tartans, and Irish and other non-Scottish tartans. For more background, see the “Frequently Asked Questions” page.


[Image: McCandlish coat of arms with lion crest; see text for descriptive details.]
McCandlish coat of arms
with motto and lion crest
Known from reliable sources are at least one blazon (coat of arms), crest, and motto.

For details, see the “Heraldry” page.

The known McCandlish blazon features a hint at Highlands origin, in the form of a rowed galley of a type used in the Islands and the coastal Highlands, and mostly found in the heraldic devices of Highland clans. The crest features a fanciful green lion.

Migration and Diaspora

Ian McCandless of Ireland estimated in the 1990s that there were perhaps 20,000 people with Cuindlis-derived names in the world – making the variants of this old Gaelic name fairly rare. The Cuindlis families are most numerous in Galloway (Scotland), Galway (Republic of Ireland), and Ulster (Northern Ireland), as well as the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in modern times.

  • Medieval Northern Ireland > Scotland
  • Scotland > Northern Ireland (the Plantation of Ulster)
  • West-central Ireland > Britain, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand (colonial era to present)
  • Scotland > US, Canada, Australia, NZ, England, and N. Ireland again
  • N. Ireland > US, Canada, Australia, NZ, England, and back to Scotland again
  • Plus many instances of migration between the colonies (e.g. Canada > NZ, Aus. > US) – the invention of powered travel really stirred the pot, with all family lines, not just ours.

There was a lot of jumping back and forth across the Irish Sea. The name (at least the Mc forms) could be regarded as thoroughly Scots-Irish in the broad sense8, rather than either Scottish or Irish alone.


1: From cond or conn, literally meaning ‘head’, which could also imply ‘headship’ or ‘supremacy’. David Sproule, “Origins of the Eoghnachta”, Eiru no. 35, 1984, pp. 31–37. The word also occurred in Old Irish as ceand, cend, can[n], ceann, cenn, cind, and cinn. Examples of all of these (sometimes lenited as chinn, etc., and sometimes with prefixes or suffixes, depending on the grammar) in original Old Irish manuscripts are recorded and annotated here: “Search results: head”, Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (eDIL), 2019, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy; https://dil.ie/search?q=head, accessed 2022-05-13. In Modern Irish it is ceann or (as a modifier) cinn, and in Scottish Gaelic it is cheann. Usage in the OI sources shows that, in combining form, it could also refer to headlands. This pattern precisely matches the use of the cognate Welsh term pen[n] ‘head, chief, or top’: in Pendragon it indicates ‘chief dragon’, i.e. ‘leader of warriors, warlord’; and in placenames like Penmaenmawr, Penarth, Torpenhow, and Pen y Garn, it means ‘headland, top, hill, summit’; while in everday usage it simply means ‘head (body part)’. The same pattern is found for the ancient Gaulish cognate pennos from Proto-Celtic root *kwenno-. See: Delamarre, Xavier; Dictionnaire de la langue Gauloise; Paris: Editions Errance; 2003.

The second element in the name is less certain, and bears further research.

2: Black, George F.; The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History; New York Public Library; 1946; pp. 131, 464.

3: Despite the anglicized name similarity, there is no particular connection between Galloway and Galway. The former is from Gall-Ghàidhealaibh, ‘Norse-Gaelic’; the latter from Gaillimh, of unknown meaning.

4: MacLysaght, Edward; The Surnames of Ireland, 6th ed.; Dublin: Irish Academic Press; 1997 [1957]; pp. 35, 36, 252.

5: Hanks, Patrick (ed.); Dictionary of American Family Names, Vol. Two: G–N; Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press; 2003; p. 545. Using census data, Hanks found 2,068 McCandlesses versus 209 McCandlishes in the US in the available data.

6: “Christian Names and Surnames in Irish”; IrishIdentity.com; accessed 2021-11-11.

7: McCandless, Sarah Adeline; “Some Annals of the West Branch of the Highland Family of McCandlish-Buchanan”; A Ready Reference Sketch of Erin and Alban; Pittsburgh: self-published; 1918. Reprinted, Salem, Massachusetts: Higginson Book Co.; 2006; pp. 119–154. This work is based almost entirely on family interviews and letters as well as some correspondence with a N. Ir. clergyman, and makes some claims that cannot so far be verified by documentary research, and a few that are not tenable at all (like the idea of McCandlish deriving from a MacKindlay/McKinley or Mac Fhionnladh family that was a branch of the Campbells). See the “Unverified Claims page for details. However, at the time of its writing, its author was in communication with relatives in both Scotland and Northern Ireland and so is presumptively reliable on the particular point it is cited for here.

8: In the narrow sense, Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish refers only to the Ulster Scots – Presbyterian families of Scotland who settled in Northern Ireland. In the broader sense, it refers to families of mixed or indeterminate Scottish and Irish provenance, and is basically synonymous with Gaelic as a demonym.

9: Hill, David Octavius; Adamson, Robert; “Mary McCandlish and Margaret Arkley née McCandlish”; Edinburgh; ca. 1843–1847; calotype, in the National Galleries of Scotland.

10: Matheson, Robert E.; Special Report on Surnames in Ireland; Dublin: HM Stationery Office; 1894; p. 57. Based on 1890 birth-record data, it shows all McCandless (and related spellings, like McCanless and McAndless) in Ulster, without being more specific. The other Irish forms of the name, like Conlisk and Quinlisk were too uncommon to rate entries in this book.

11: Paton, Henry; Register of Marriages for the Parish of Edinburgh, Vol. 35: 1701-1750; Edinburgh: Scottish Record Society / James Skinner & Company; 1908; pp. 126, 333.
Grant, Francis J. (ed.); Register of Marriages of the City of Edinburgh , Vol. 53: 1751-1800; Edinburgh: Scottish Record Society / J. Skinner & Co.; 1922; pp. 445, 695.

12: E.g.:

  • Dod, Charles Roger; The Peerage, Baronetage, and Knightage of Great Britain and Ireland; London: Whittaker and Co.; 1844. And editions of 1854, 1855, 1856, 1864, 1865, 1866, 1872, 1904, 1905, 1908, 1920, 1921, and 1923.
  • Debrett’s Illustrated Peerage and Titles of Courtesy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; London: Dean & Son; 1876.
  • Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles; Armorial Families: A Complete Peerage, Baronetage, and Knightage; Edinburgh: T.C. & E.C. Jack; 1895.
  • Debrett’s Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage, and Companionage; London: Dean & Son; 1903.
  • Paul, James Balfour; The Scots Peerage; Edinburgh: David Douglas; 1904.

13: McCandless, C.E.; The McCandless Clan; High Point, North Carolina: self-published; undated, ca. first half of 20th century.

14: Griffin, Barry; Irish Surname Maps for the 1901 and 1911 Census of Ireland, https://www.barrygriffin.com/surname-maps/irish/ (accessed 2023-03-11).

Last modified 2023-05-13 by SMcCandlish.