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BADGE: Bealuidh (Sarothamnus scorparius) broom

PIBROCH: Brattach bhan Clan Aoidh and Donald Duaghal Mhic Aoidh

SLOGAN: Bratach Bhau Chlann Aoidh

One of the finest songs by that fine song writer and musician, Dr. John Park, deals in an allusive way with an episode characteristic of the past of the far north-west of Scotland, in the region of Cape Wrath, which was the ancient country of the warlike Clan MacKay.

This howling wind o'er sea and sky
Careers wi' dule and sorrow,
And many a woeful heart and eye
Shall weep the coming morrow;
But yet I dream amid this tide
So furious, wild, and wintry,
Of the fairest eyes on any side
Of the Lord Reay's country.

Now lulls the gale, but upward fly
The roaring surges round us;
Nor e'er could reach a drowning cry
To the wild shores that bound us;
Where soon for us the dirge may rise
From caves, the sea-sprites' chantry
Whose sound now dims the bluest eyes
In the Lord Reay's country.

The moon shines out - Oh ! pale and fair
Is she whose lamp is burning,
Through lonely night and stormy air,
To welcome my returning,
And see, how dearly yonder lies
The well-known bay's old entry,
Where our sail shall greet the fairest eyes,
In the Lord Reay's country !

The district anciently occupied by the Clan MacKay, and known from the name of its chief as the Lord Reay's country, extended along some two-thirds of the broken north coast of Scotland, from Reay itself on Sandside Bay, some ten miles west of Thurso along the wild lochindented coast to Cape Wrath, and as far southward as Edrachills Bay on the West Coast. It is a pathetic fact that this great stretch of country is no longer in possession of its ancient owners; but the story of how the MacKays came into possession of Strathnaver, of how they held it through the stormy middle centuries, and how at last it passed out of their hands, remains one of the most interesting in the Highlands.

On the east the territory of the MacKays marched with that of the Sinclairs and the Gunns, while on the south it marched with that of the MacLeods and the Murrays of Sutherland, and naturally much of the story is of feud and friendship with these neighbouring clans.

According to Skene in his Highlanders, "there are few clans whose true origin is more uncertain than that of the MacKays". But while this origin cannot be altogether definitely ascertained, tradition carries it back to the first Gaelic inhabitants of the country. The Norwegian sagas declare the ancestor of the race to have been a jarl, which is probably a Norse translation of the Celtic Maormor, or governor of a province. From the similarity of badge and armorial bearings, some writers have counted the clan a branch of the Forbeses. According to Sir Robert Gordon, the first of the MacKays who obtained possessions in Strathnaver was named Martin. This Martin, he says, "wes slain at Keanloch-Eylk in Lochaber, and had a son called Magnus. Magnus died in Strathnaver, leaving two sons, Morgan and Farquhar. From this Morgan the whole of MacKay is generally called Clan-vic-Morgan. From Farquhar the Clan-vic-Farquhar in Strathnaver are descended. Nisbet in his Heraldry derives the MacKays from Alexander, a younger son of Ochonochar, the ancestor of the Forbeses, who came from Ireland about the end of the twelfth century; and this theory is followed by Robert MacKay, historian of the Clan, who says the ancestor of the MacKays was Alexander, who lived between 1180 and 1222. When King William the Lion, at the end of the twelfth century, marched northward to repel the Norse invaders, he is said to have had with him one body of men from the province of Moray under Hugh Freskin, ancestor of the Murrays of Sutherland, and another body from Galloway - under Alexander, ancestor of the MacKays. Skene believes the progenitors of the clan to have been the old Gaelic Maormors of Caithness.

In any case from an early period the MacKays played a striking part in Scottish history. Magnus, the great-grandson of Alexander, fought on the side of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. It was from Morgan, the son of this Magnus, that the clan took its appellation of Sial Mhorgain, the race of Morgan. Donald, the son of Morgan, married the daughter of MacNell of Gigha on the Kintyre coast, and from the son of this pair, named Aodh, the clan derives its patronymic of MacAodh, or MacKay. The clan seems rapidly to have become very powerful, and from an early date to have been engaged in feuds with its neighbours. In 1395, at Dingwall, in the course of one of these feuds, the Earl of Sutherland killed the MacKay chief and his son with his own hand; and a few years later, in the course of a family quarrel with the MacLeods of Lewis, a bloody battle was fought in Strathoykell on the marches of Ross and Sutherland, from which, it is said, only one solitary Lewis man escaped, seriously wounded, to tell the tale in his native island.

In 1411 the chief, Angus Dubh, was able to muster no fewer than 4000 men to oppose Donald of the Isles in his campaign to seize the earldom of Ross, which ended at the battle of Harlaw. MacKay was bold enough to face Donald single-handed at Dingwall, but was defeated and taken prisoner. After a short time, however, he was released, and the Lord of the Isles gave him his daughter Elizabeth in marriage, with certain lands by way of tocher. In the charter of these lands he is called "Angus Eyg de Strathnaver".

This alliance with the Lord of the Isles proved disastrous to MacKay, for when, to curb the disturbances raised by the island prince, King James I marched into the north, he arrested Angus MacKay and his four sons, and only set the Chief free on condition that one son became a hostage for his father.

There was trouble again when Thomas, one of the MacKays, for an act of outrage and sacrilege, was outlawed by the king, and his lands in Sutherland were offered to any person bold enough to kill or capture him. With the help of MacKay's own brothers, Angus Murray of Cubin seized the outlaw and executed him; but when Murray came further, at the instignation of the Earl of Sutherland, to invade Strathnaver, his force was defeated, and he and the two MacKays who had helped him were slain. This was the battle of Druim na cuip, at the top of a pass near Ben Loyal. The leader of the MacKays was young Iain Aberach, a son of Angus MacKay by his second wife, a Macdonald of Keppoch in Lochaber. From him descended the Aberach MacKays. After the fight old Angus MacKay had himself carried to the field to view his son's victory, when a lurking Moray man shot him with an arrow.

Later, in 1437, when the hostage Neil MacKay returned from his captivity on the Bass, the MacKays invaded Caithness, defeated the Sinclairs, and plundered the country. A later feud among the MacKays of Strathnaver, the Earls of Sutherland and Caithness, and the Gunns, brought about a pitched battle in 1517 at Torran Dubh, in which hundreds of men on both sides were slain, and the MacKays were routed. After several further struggles the MacKay chief made his peace with the Earl of Sutherland in 1522. Twenty years later Donald MacKay again invaded Sutherland, but was captured and imprisoned, and in 1549 gave his bond of service and manrent to the Earl.

These were only a few of the feuds, excursions, and alarms in which the MacKays were engaged for 150 years, and something of their warlike temper may be guessed from the fact that they fought no fewer than ten pitched battles, between that of Tuttumtarmhich in 1406 and Garuarrai in 1555. Part of the reason for this turbulence of the MacKay chiefs is probably to be found in the fact that they were among the last in Scotland to hold their lands as allodial or entirely independent territory. They did not come under the feudal system and accept a charter to hold their lands of the King till 1499.

Among notable events in the story of that time Aodh or Hugh MacKay fell at Flodden with James IV, and his second son and successor Donald MacKay, "a great general and a wise and political gentleman", took part in the battle of Solway Moss, and, returning to Edinburgh with James V three days after the conflict, had certain fortified lands bestowed upon him by the King. In the feuds of the days of Queen Mary and James VI between the Earls of Caithness and Sutherland, the MacKays took an active part. One day in 1586 while returning from a raid on the Macleods of Assynt the MacKays found themselves pursued by the Sutherland men, who, with the Sinclairs, had set out to harry the Gunns. Just before dawn, they met the Gunns and the two clans joining in onset first overthrew the Sinclairs and then drove off the Sutherland men, an the field of Aultgawn.

Amid such exploits, Aodh, the son of Donald, mentioned above, was imprisoned for a time in Edinburgh Castle because of his turbulence, but his son, another Hugh, married first Lady Elizabeth Sinclair, daughter of the fourth Earl of Caithness, and secondly Lady Jean Gordon, daughter of the fifteenth Earl of Sutherland, and lived in prodigal fashion on his ancestral estates.

The MacKay chiefs were zealous supporters of the Reformation, and in the beginning of the seventeenth century the chief, Donald MacKay of Far, son of the above Hugh, raised 3,000 men, mostly of his own clan, and sent half of them, under the command of Colonel Robert Munro, to the help of the Protestant King of Bohemia. On the death, almost immediately, of that monarch, the company entered the service of Gustavus of Sweden, and its exploits and famous deeds of valour were made the subject of a notable book, Munro's Expedition with the Scots' Regiment, the MacKeyes, published in 1637. The chief himself, Donald MacKay, after some trouble with the Sutherland family at home, carried a reinforcement to the regiment in Germany, and won a high reputation there, while his territory at home enjoyed an unwonted period of repose. After the death of Gustavus, MacKay returned to this country, where, as a reward for his loyal services to Charles I, he was first of all created a Baronet of Nova Scotia in 1627, then raised to the peerage by the title of Lord Reay in 1628. The King also gave him a patent, creating him Earl of Strathnaver, but the title was never completed, owing to the Civil War and the refusal of Parliament to homologate the creation. Unfortunately the MacKay Chief gained his honours at considerable cost, for the enterprise of raising the company which he sent abroad, and the losses which he sustained in support of Charles I, plunged him into money difficulties, which in the end forced the family to part with all its great territories in the North.

Lord Reay himself was one of those excepted from pardon in the treaty between the Covenanters and the King, and was forced to retire to Denmark, where he died in 1649. His wife was the daughter of Lord Kintail, and their son married a daughter of Lieutenant-General Hugh MacKay of Scourie, the famous leader who commanded the troops of William of Orange against the Highland Jacobites under Viscount Dundee at Killiecrankie in 1689.

General MacKay was a sterling soldier if not a brilliant general, and his overthrow at Killiecrankie was perhaps as much the result of the rawness of the levies he commanded as of his own rashness in attempting an almost impossible task. The soundness of his ideas as to the best means of pacifying the Highlands may be judged from the fact that, after wellnigh insuperable difficulties, he found the means, by private enterprise, of erecting a fort at Inverlochy, which, in honour of the King, he named Fort-William, and which is represented by the town of that name to the present day. And it was owing to MacKay's activity in the months which followed that the efforts of the Jacobite generals, Buchan and Cannon, were again and again rendered futile. By sheer ability he made himself military master of the Highlands, and did so with the least possible bloodshed and without sullying his success by vindictive measures of retaliation. He fell at the battle of Steinkirk in 1692.

During Mar's rebellion in 1715 the MacKays took arms for George I, kept the castle and town of Inverness from capture, and held the Jacobite clans of the North in check. Again, in 1745, there were 800 of them under arms on the side of the Government. Still later, in 1795, the Reay fencible regiment, or MacKay Highlanders, were embodied, and on being sent to Ireland, distinguished themselves by a gallant defeat of the rebels at the Hill of Tara.

It was in the time of the seventh baron, Sir Eric MacKay, that a serious change came over the fortunes of the family. During his sail round the coasts of Scotland in the yacht of the Lighthouse Commissioners in 1814, Sir Walter Scott paid a visit to Cape Wrath, where the Commissioners had to fix the site for a lighthouse. It was the day when sheep-farming was being introduced to the Highlands, and in the diary of his voyage Scott makes an interesting entry. "Lord Reay's estate", he says, "containing 150,000 acres, and measuring eighty miles by sixty, was, before commencement of the last leases, rented at £1,200 a year. It is now worth £5,000, and Mr. Anderson says he may let it this ensuing year (when the leases expire) for about £15,000. But then he must resolve to part with his people, for these rents can only be given upon the supposition that sheep are generally to be introduced on the property. In an economical, and perhaps in a political point of view, it might be best that every part of a country were dedicated to that sort of occupation for which nature has best fitted it. But to effect this reform in the present instance, Lord Reay must turn out several hundred families who have lived under him and his fathers for many generations, and the swords of whose fathers probably won the lands from which he is now expelling them. He is a good-natured man, I suppose, for Mr. A. says he is hesitating whether he shall not take a more moderate rise (£7,000 or £8,000), and keep his Highland tenantry. This last war (before the short peace), he levied a fine fencible corps (the Reay fencibles), and might have doubled their number. Wealth is no doubt strength in a country, while all is quiet and governed by law, but on any altercation or internal commotion, it ceases to be strength, and is only the means of tempting the strong to plunder the possessors. Much may be said on both sides".

The Reay estates, however, as has been already mentioned, were in difficulties, and in the upshot, Eric, seventh Lord Reay, disposed of the whole property to the Earl of Sutherland, by whom were carried out the great "Sutherland clearances", of which so much has been said and written since.

On the death of this Lord Reay the title and chiefship reverted to his cousin, Eneas MacKay, a descendant of the second baron. That second Baron's second son Eneas had followed the first baron's example, carried his sword to the Continent, and become a Brigadier-General and Colonel-proprietor of the MacKay regiment in Holland. His son Donald succeeded him in command of the regiment, and fell at the siege of Tournay in 1745. Each generation had married a daughter of a noble house of the Netherlands, and the family had attained the title of Baron MacKay d'Ophemert. Among his other honours in the Netherlands, Baron MacKay was Minister of State, Vice-President of the Privy Council, and Grand Cross of the Netherland Lion. His wife was a daughter of Baron Fagel, also a Privy Councillor. The new Lord Reay, who remained a Dutch subject, died in 1876, and was succeeded by his son Sir Donald James, the late peer.

Lord Reay was naturalised as a British subject in 1877, and played a highly distinguished part in the affairs of this country. Among his honours he was a Knight of the Thistle, G.C.S.I., G.C.I.E., LL.D., D.Litt., and a Privy Councillor. He was Lord-Lieutenant of Roxburghshire, and Rector of St.Andrews University. He was also Governor of Bombay from 1885 to 1890, Under Secretary for India from 1894 to 1895, and Chairman of the London School Board from 1897 to 1904. He was President of the Royal Asiatic Society, and of University College, London, and was the first President of the British Academy. Besides Lady Reay's seat of Carolside at Earlston in Berwickshire, he retained Ophemert in the Netherlands; but his chief interest throughout lay in this country, and his warmest pride was in the fact that he was Chief of the ancient and honourable Clan MacKay.

Not least famous of the name in the eighteenth century was the poet, Rob Don MacKay. Born in the year before Sheriffmuir, he earned his living as herd, gamekeeper, and boatman, and was a member of the Reay Fencibles from 1759 till 1767. His poems are chiefly satires and elegies.

In modern times the Clan has led the way in a movement which promises, more than anything else, to perpetuate the old clan spirit and comradeship. On 21st July, 1806, there was instituted a "M'Kays Society", which was probably the first genuine clan organisation ever formed in the Lowlands. Its purpose was "to raise a fund for the mutual help of each of us in the time of afflictive dispensations", and as "a happy means of establishing unity and good order amongst us". That Society carried on its useful work for fifty years. The present Clan MacKay Society was founded in 1888. It carries on a highly useful benevolent and educational work, has a fund of over £1600, and counts its influential membership in every part of the world.


Bain Bayne MacCay MacCrie Macghee Macghie Mackee Mackie
MacPhail Macquey Macquoid Macvail Neilson Polson Paul Williamson

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