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THE ABERACH-MACKAY BANNER

See Pedigree Table

The earliest reference to the Aberach-Mackay Banner of which we have any knowledge, meantime, is in an article on Tongue parish in the First Statistical Account, written about 1792 by the Rev William Mackenzie, and is as follows: -

"There is a cave in the rock upon which the castle [Varrich, near Tongue] is built called Leabuidh Evin Abaruich, i.e., John of Lochaber's bed, whither he is said to have retired in time of danger. A family of Mackays is descended from him, and are reported still to have in their possession his banner, with the motto wrought in golden letters, Biodh treun - Biodh treun, i.e., Be valiant."

The writer of this article was inducted minister of Tongue in 1769, and laboured in that parish till his death in 1834; but before his settlement at Tongue he was minister at Achness, Farr, 1766-9, as we are informed by his descendant, James Macdonald, W.S., Edinburgh, and as the Presbytery Records show. His long and intimate acquaintance with the Mackays both along the valley of the Naver - where he had a daughter married and settled - and at Tongue, Lord Reay's seat, coupled with his taste for family lore, as we gather from Sage's Memorabilia Domestica, give considerable weight to his passing reference to the Aberach-Mackay banner. When he says that the banner of Ian Aberach was then reported to be in the possession of his descendants, he was but relating what was traditionally believed during the latter half of the 18th century, viz., that this banner was the battle-flag of Ian Aberach, who led the Mackays at the battle of Drum nan Coup, 1433, and who became the progenitor of the Aberach-Mackays. The banner has occasioned a Gaelic proverb, known throughout the north of Sutherland and in daily use among Strathnaver people at the present day. When a Strathnaver man would express in Gaelic the idea conveyed by the English saying, "as old as the hills", he invariably uses the phrase, "cho sean ri bratach nan Abrach", i.e., as old as the Aberach banner. The banner, which is shown to be very old by this Gaelic proverb, is made to date from the earlier half of the 15th century in the tradition recorded by the Rev. William Mackenzie; while both proverb and tradition agree in saying that it was the flag of the Aberach-Mackays.

In The House and Clan of Mackay, at page 258, the historian relates that the Aberach "family-colours" were then in the possession of an Aberach, residing at Thurso, called by the Highlanders Huistean na Brataich, i.e., Hugh of the Banner. Both in the body of the book and in the genealogical account he shows that this Hugh was the lineal descendant of Neil Williamson Mackay, who was killed at Thurso in 1649. He also states that the said Neil obtained possession of the said family colours, which rightly belonged to his uncle, Murdo Mackay, the chieftain, and in consequence of this act of usurpation bad feeling was engendered between uncle and nephew, but that Neil and his descendants continued to retain the banner henceforward. From this it appears that the banner descended lineally from sire to son, and was always possessed by the Aberach chieftain for the time being until shortly before 1649, when it passed into the possession of Neil. This also agrees with traditions among Strathnaver people at the present day.

We offer the following explanation of the transference of the banner from the family of Murdo the chieftain to that of Neil his nephew. The Reay family and its adherents supported the falling cause of the Kings Charles I and Charles II, while the Sutherland family and its adherents adopted the opposite and winning side. As a result of this policy, the estate of Donald, 1st Lord Reay, became so embarrassed that the lands of Strathnaver were practically all appreysed for debt, and charters over them were obtained by adherents of the house of Sutherland. But the Aberach-Mackays, who claimed the lands of Achness, etc., as theirs in virtue of the grant (Earldom of Sutherland, page 66) to their progenitor from his elder brother Neil Vass, about 1437, energetically resisted the filching of what they considered their property. In this struggle, Neil Mackay, nephew of the chieftain, was the leading spirit so long as he lived, and after his fall in 1649 the conflict was continued by his sons. In these circumstances it was but natural that Neil and his sons should possess themselves of the banner, as they were the virtual leaders of the Aberach-Mackays. But it is also quite likely that this caused friction between them and the family of the chieftain.

The writer of this paper was born and brought up at the foot of the Naver valley, was intimately acquainted with old people who had been driven from the heights of the strath, in consequence of the "Sutherland clearances" in the second decade of last century, and was frequently an interested auditor of their tales and traditions. Many of them never read the History of the House and Clan of Mackay, but they were unanimous in saying that the Aberachs had a banner, and that this banner was safely preserved at Thurso during the seventies of last century. To one of these old people, William Mackay, army pensioner, Dalcharn, Bettyhill, we must make more particular reference.

William Mackay was born at Rossal, near Achness, in 1797, joined the 78th Highlanders in 1823, and after an army service of twenty-two years, settled at Dalcharn in 1845, where he died in 1893. Donald Mackay, father of the said William, married as his first wife Ann Mackay, sister of Huistean na Brataich, but William was a child of Donald's second marriage. As William the pensioner was a near neighbour of ours, we knew him intimately; and he often used to tell us that for two years before he joined the army he resided at Whitefield, near Thurso, with his kinsman, commissary Donald Macleod, a first cousin of Huistean na Brataich. During these years, 1821-3, Huistean na Brataich was a welcome and honoured visitor at Whitefield, and William, as he told us, saw the banner at different times. In 1842 William returned home on furlough, called at Thurso by the way, and was again shown the banner by Hugh Angus Mackay, nephew of Huistean na Brataich, in whose possession it then was. When in 1881 Hugh Angus, the said nephew, died at Thurso unmarried, William the pensioner was very anxious to secure the banner, and solicited our aid to this end, but it passed shortly afterwards into the possession of Alexander Mackay, assessor for the county of Caithness. The assessor died at Thurso, 15th Jan 1895, leaving no issue, and towards the close of 1897 the administrators of his estate handed the banner over into the custody of the Clan Mackay Society, who in turn deposited it for preservation in the National Museum, Edinburgh, where it now (1905) rests.

The Rev. William Mackenzie, writing in 1792 from information gathered no doubt when he laboured at Achness during 1766-9, gave his testimony as already quoted. We are thus warranted in concluding that the banner was treasured by the Aberachs, about the middle of the 18th century, as the genuine flag of Ian Aberach and dating back to the first half of the 15th century. In 1829 the historian of The House and Clan of Mackay states that this banner was then in the possession of Huistean na Brataich at Thurso, and in more recent times the testimony of William the pensioner links us back to that of the historian. Among other traditions William the pensioner told us that this banner was carried, and nearly lost, by the Aberachs in a fierce encounter which they had on the Strath of the Naver with Sliochd Ean Ruaidh, another family of Mackays. This we take to be the battle above Syre, to which Sir Robert Gordon refers in the Earldom of Sutherland; and as it was in revenge of the slaughter of William Beg Mackay, killed at Durness about 1579, it must have taken place not long thereafter. The site of this battle and the trench where the dead lie buried are well known, on the height above the old house of Syre. If this tradition be correct, it carries us back to the days of Neil MacEan MacWilliam, grandfather of Neil who was killed at Thurso, and great-great-grandson of Ian Aberach. On the previous page we gave a key pedigree of the possessors of the Aberach-Mackay banner from the progenitor of the family downwards.

The banner is of cream-white silk - hence the name Bratach Bhan, i.e., Fair Banner, by which it is sometimes known - and is in a tattered condition. It is very evidently a fragment of its former self. Its length is only 36 inches, and its breadth about 20 inches - a size far too small for a battle flag. It will be observed that the shield and crest are not now correctly related to the hoist, or leather strip, sewn along what is shown as the top of the flag in the photographic reproduction. [Omitted in this version]. As related to the hoist, the shield now lies unnaturally on its side instead of facing it, and the lion rampant which it carries is made to appear as a lion passant. Evidently the leather hoist became detached when the flag got tattered, and was then by misadventure sewn to the wrong side. If we imagine the hoist attached to what is shown as the left side of the flag, the shield and crest will appear correctly placed; the flag will be 36 inches broad, or allowing for frayed margins, perhaps 38; while its length may have extended to 50 inches or more. Sir J. Balfour Paul, Lyon King of Arms, in a letter of 14th Mar 1899, writes:

"If it is a banner, the principal armorial charge on it is represented in an unusual manner, as it does not face the hoist of the flag, which is the usual practice, but the bottom of it."
We think we have explained how it came to present this unusual and unnatural, appearance. He proceeds: -
"The charge referred to is evidently intended for a lion rampant; round the lion, at some distance from it and following the shape of a shield, have been at one time two thin lines representing, in my opinion, the outer and inner members of a double trcssure. On the top horizontal line of this tressure, and projecting outwards from it, are five ornamental floreated objects, the centre one of which has a corresponding projection on the inner side of the tressure; in the middle of the vertical line down each side of the bends where the base begins to converge to a peak, and at the peak itself, there are similar objects all projecting both on the outer and inner sides of the tressure. What these objects are intended to represent is difficult to decide definitely; some of them might possibly be classed as thistles, some as fleur-de-lys, but none of them possesses such characteristics as would enable one to put them down distinctly as one or the other The whole flag is evidently the work of some one unacquainted with the principles of heraldic design."

The design is rudely executed, and the Lyon King is guarded in expressing his opinion as becomes one occupying his high office, but we venture to think that what he states so guardedly is an undoubted fact. The shield is traced out by the two lines of the double tressure, surrounded by thistles and fleur-de-lys, and carries the lion rampant. The heraldic significance of the double tressure and fleur-de-lys is royal descent. This is shown by the following extract of grant (Sutherland Book, iii, page 220) by King George I to the Earl of Sutherland, 14th Jul 1718: -

"George R. Whereas it has been humbly represented to us that our right trusty and well-beloved cousin John, Earl of Sutherland, is lineally descended from William, Earl of Sutherland, and Lady Margaret Bruce, second daughter to Robert the First, King of Scotland therefore and in consideration of the nobleness of his blood, as being descended not only from the ancient thanes and earls of Sutherland, but from the royal family of Scotland, as is aforesaid, we hereby authorise and order our Lyon King at Arms to add to the paternal coat of arms of the said John, Earl of Sutherland, the double tressure circonfleurdelize."

It is now well known that the only son of the marriage between William, Earl of Sutherland, and Lady Margaret Bruce died unmarried, and that the family of Sutherland is descended of the second wife Joanna Menteith. But into that matter we need not go further here. We have shown already that Ian Aberach was a son of Angus Du Mackay by his second wife, a daughter of Alexander Macdonald of Keppoch, and a great-grand-daughter of King Robert II. It was probably because of this royal descent that Ian Aberach put such a charge upon his banner. The sons of Angus Du Mackay, although natives of the then rude north of Scotland, were not unacquainted with the heraldry of the period. Neil, eldest son of Angus Du by his first marriage, was for ten years in the south a hostage of the king, and spent some of that time on the Bass Rock while Ian Aberach is said to have been fostered in Lochaber, and may have sojourned at the semi-royal court of his kinsman the Lord of the Isles. However rudely the designs on the banner may be executed the son of Angus Du had some knowledge of heraldry, and gave expression to what he considered he was entitled to on this flag.

[Footnote: The banner of Huntly captured at Flodden is also rudely done, and its heraldry is not in Accordance with the technical rules laid down by the College of Heralds. We direct our readers' attention to a representation of that banner in Proceedings of the Ant. Soc. Scot., XXXVI, page 251]

Let the reader look again at the flag, and it will be seen that there is a crest above the shield. The crest consists of a hand, erased, appaume, that is with extended fingers showing the palm. Round the hand runs the legend verk visly and tent to ye end. Across the palm of the hand are the Gaelic words be tren, be valiant, as the Rev. William Mackenzie recorded about 1792 in his account of the parish of Tongue. John Mackay of Herrisdale, author of An Old Scots Brigade, etc., states in the June Celtic Monthly, 1893, that Hugh Angus Mackay, the last Aberach hereditary bannerman, told him that his father always understood and read the words on the palm of the hand as Bidh treun, Be valiant. Of course, Mr. Mackay wrote these words adopting the modern Gaelic spelling. The final letter of tren is not well-formed, and this has led some modern students to read it treu = true, but it was intended for tren = valiant, and so understood by the Aberach Mackays.

As is well known among Strathnaver people Bi tren, Be valiant, is the slogan of Mackay, which became Latinised into manu forti, the motto of Mackay since the family was dignified. The old Gaelic motto is neater and pithier than the modern Latin one, a concoction of the College of Heralds. Forti adequately expresses the idea of "be valiant", and the manu with a hand seems to us superfluous. Ian Aberach may not have been well up in the science of heraldry as it is understood to-day, but he knew how to express himself briefly and to the point in his mother-tongue.

As this was not the banner of the principal family of Mackay, now represented by the Lords of Reay, but of the Aberach-Mackays, the oldest cadet line of that family, we naturally expect to find some difference between the arms of the principal family and that of the cadet. The armorial bearings of Donald, 1st Lord Reay were as follows: -
"Arms - Azure on a chevron, or, between three bears' heads, couped, argent, muzzled, gules, a roebuck's head, erased, between two hands holding daggers, all proper.
Crest - A right hand holding up a dagger, paleways, proper.
Motto - Manu forti
Supporters - Two men in military habits with muskets, in a centinel posture, proper."

In our description of the arms above we have copied word for word from a paper among the Reay Papers, in the handwriting of the close of the 18th century. Another document in the said Reay Papers gives the arms of the 5th Lord Reay in the following quainter language: -
"Saphire, on a Chevron Topaz, between three Bears' Heads couped Pearl and muzzled Ruby, a Roebuck's Head erazed Ruby, between two Hands holding Daggers, all Proper.
Crest - On a wreath, a Right Hand couped and erect, grasping a dagger as those in the Arms.
Supporters - Two Men in a Military Dress, with Muskets in a Centinel Posture, all Proper.
Motto - Manu Forti."

Before the family was dignified in the person of Donald, 1st Lord Reay, 20th Jun 1628, the arms were "argent over three mullets, azure, a hand naked, proper". Sir J. Balfour Paul, Lyon King, in a letter of 6th Nov 1899, writes: -
I am much obliged by the Rev. A. Mackay pointing out the entry in Sir James Balfour of the arms of 'Mackay of Strathnaver 1503', as consisting of 'argent over three mullets azure, a hand naked proper.'
This is given immediately before "Mackay of Strathnaver now Lord Reay", who is assigned the present arms of the Baron. The presumption is that they altered their arms on the creation of the Peerage, and this view is rather supported by Nisbet, who, in giving the arms, says that 'since that family was dignified ' their achievement was, etc."

That is to say, according to the Balfour MS., the shield of Mackay of Strathnaver in 1503 bore "a naked hand" without a dagger, just as is represented on the banner. But such a charge is also found on at least two Mackay tombstones known to us. The Kirkton stone bears the initials A.M.K., of Angus Mackay II of Bighouse; and the date 1630 indicates that it was erected over the tomb of his first wife, Jane Elphingstone, niece of Lord Elphingstone, who died that year. The stone was found in 1894 among the ruins of Kirkton Chapel, and is now (1905) fixed on the pillar of the Kirkton Cemetery gate. The shield is peculiarly divided into two halves by a horizontal line. Above the horizontal or fess line, and in the dexter division, there is a roebuck's head pierced by an arrow exactly similar to the emblem on the Tongue stone. In the sinister division there are three bears' heads. Below the fess bar there is a hand with fingers extended, resembling the crest on the banner, and flanked by what appears to be two blades. These flanking daggers may indicate the transition from a "naked hand" to a "hand holding a dagger", for it was shortly before this that Donald Dughall was created Lord Reay.

[Footnote: In 1274, and also in the following year, a collection was raised in this chapel towards the Crusades (Theiner's Monumenta Vetera). It was used as a Protestant place of worship for many years after the Reformation, but it is now (1905) a shepherd's kail-yaid ! This is one of the fruits of the miserable "Clearances".]

Within the ruins of the old church of Durness there is a stone over the tomb of Donald MacMurdo MacIan Mor. The said Donald was a grandson of Ian Mor Mackay - the natural son of John XI of Strathnaver - and not a Macleod as is erroneously stated in the House and Clan of Mackay. There was a family of Macleods in Assynt called Sliochd Ian Mhor, but this was "Donald MacMurdo Maclan Mor, chieftain of the Slaight Ean Woir in Strathnaver", according to Sir Robert Gordon (Earldom of Sutherland, page 254). Now Sir Robert, for reasons of his own, would never allow that Durness and Edderachilis formed part of the country of Strathnaver - he was wrong in this, as we showed in our Introductory chapter - so that the Sliochd Ean Woir of which Donald was chieftain could not possibly be the Assynt Macleods, as the tribe is said to have been a Strathnaver one. Besides, the account which Sir Robert gives of Donald MacMurdo MacIan Mor and his adherents clearly indicates that he was a Mackay. Angus MacKenneth MacAlister, who was slain at Hope about 1605, was a dependant of the said Donald (Earldom of Sutherland, page 253), and laid claim to some lands on Strathfleet.

As John Mackay of Strathnaver, father of Ian Mor, got a grant [Appendix No. 11] of these Strathfleet lands from the Earl of Sutherland in 1518 (Appendix No. II), and had as a dependant Alister, grandfather of Angus MacKenneth MacAlister, we are justified in concluding that the grandson, who clung to these lands, still depended on a descendant of the house from which his grand-father got them. Ian Mor, son of John Mackay, had at least five sons, viz., "Neil M'Ane Moir, Rory M'Ane Moir, Murdoch M'Ane Moir, John M'Ane Moir, and Tormat M'Ane Moir." (Pitcairn's Criminal Trials, I, 352). Murdo M'Ane Moir, the third mentioned, was the father of Donald MacMurdo MacEan Mor, who is buried at Durness. Now the shield over Donald's tomb bore, along with other charges, "a hand" with extended fingers, and a stag's head. There are no daggers associated with the "hand" here, because in 1619 we have not yet reached what we have called the transition period. In 1619 it was simply a "hand" just as on the banner; in 1630 the hand is flanked by two daggers; and after that period, as the tombstones of Strathnaver prove, the hand holds a dagger.

[The stone which covers his grave bears the following inscription, said to have been composed by the 1st Lord Reay in a frolicsome moment -
"Donald Mak-Murchon heir lyis lo:
Vas il to his friend, var to his fo:
True to his maister in veird and vo."]

The crested hand on the flag is clearly Mackay, and so also is the motto be tren, the slogan of the clan. Indeed, the peculiar use of the word treun by Strathnaver people in daily conversation strikes one from other parts of the Highlands at once. Everything superlative they describe as treun. A fine day is la treun, a good horse each treun, and so on the whole round of the gamut. We are strongly inclined to believe that the frequent use of this vocable may be ascribed to the place which it had in their war-cry, in the old days when the war-cry rang out so often. Of the legend round the crested hand we can offer no explanation.

The charge on the shield, a lion rampant surrounded by the double tressure and fleur-de-lys, is altogether different from that of the principal family of Mackay. In crest and motto the charges practically agree, in shields they are far apart. On the Tongue stone, however, the shield is supported by two lions surmounted by pendant thistles. This stone is built into the wall of Tongue House, and bears the initials, D.M.R., of Donald Master of Reay, who rebuilt the house in 1678 after it had been completely destroyed by fire. The said Master of Reay, who predeceased his father, was fostered among the Aberachs, and probably out of compliment to that family adopted as the supporters of his shield the lions, surmounted by thistles, which are found on the Aberach flag. We cannot imagine any other reason for diverging from the "armed men" which his grandfather, father, and successors used.

As the Aberach chieftains never recorded arms at Herald's Office nor put them on tombstones, so far as known to us, the flag alone tells what they took the liberty of using. But this we may say, they have a better title to carry "the double tressure circonfleurdelize" than the house of Sutherland, notwithstanding the grant of King George I already referred to.

The tinctures which characterise the armorial bearings of the Lords of Reay are azure, or, and argent, or in other words blue, gold, and white; and these are the colours in which the design on the Aberach banner is worked. The flag or Bratach Bhan is white. The body of the design is in blue thread, the outwards are in gold now considerably faded. The lion and outer portion of the floreated objects round the double tressure are strongly blue, so are the bars on the wrist and the letters, but the extended fingers are in gold. There are no red threads in the design, so far as we can judge, although there is a little red in the bearings of the Reay family. With this exception the Aberach tinctures are exactly those of the principal family of Mackay. Though the banner has little artistic merit, it claims to be one of the oldest clan banners now existent in Scotland, and we are glad that it is safely preserved in the National Museum, Edinburgh, after its long and stormy career of close upon five hundred years.

The sinister hand which is so characteristic of Mackay arms is not a common device on Highland coats of arms. It seems, however, to have been a charge borne by M'Neil of Gigha, one of whose daughters married Donald Mackay III of Strathnaver in or about 1300 A.D. "Lauchlan M'Neil of Tearfergus, descended of the family of M'Neil of Geigh", as Nisbet informs us, bore "a sinister hand couped fesse-ways in chief". The Neilsons and O'Neil of Ulster also carried a somewhat similar hand. The arms of O'Neil, according to Woodward and Burnett, were "Argent, a hand appaume [i.e., open, showing the palm] couped, gules". It is just possible that the hand passed from O'Neil of Ulster to M'Neil of Gigha, and from the latter to Mackay.

As for the three stars or mullets on the shield of "Mackay of Strathnavern, 1503," they may indicate the Moray connection, for it is generally supposed that the old family of Moray bore three stars, and that these charges are now borne by the Douglasses, Sutherlands, Inneses, Brodies, etc., because they have entered into the ancient inheritance of that family. Something of the same kind happened when the family of Macdonald of the Isles stepped into the shoes of the Norwegian earls of Caithness and the Isles. On the outside board of the Book of Clan Donald the old arms of Macdonald are stamped, viz., a galley with a crowned mast. We beg to tell the Macdonalds that they "lifted" this device. We have been permitted to examine a number of plaster-casts at Thurso, taken by the late Dr. Sinclair, about sixty years ago, from seals attached to ancient documents lying in Barrogill Castle, and belonging to the old earls of Caithness. Among these casts there is one labelled of the 13th century, and representing the seal of the Earl of Caithness, which is an exact fac-simile of what appears on the Book of Clan Donald to the minutest detail. The explanation is simple. When the Lords of the Isles obtained the sovereignty of the western seas, after the disappearance of the Norse earls of Caithness, they took the seal and arms of their predecessors, a galley with a crowned mast. In a similar fashion, perhaps, the Douglasses, Sutherlands, Brodies, etc., took the three stars of Moray.

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