We must at the outset express our great indebtedness to the indefatigable labours in this field of Mr. Robert MacKay, whose History of the House and Clan of MacKay was published in 1829. His genealogical account of the various branches of the MacKay family, though somewhat brief and lacking in dates, is wonderfully accurate so far as it goes. When he wrote the field of Highland family history was practically fallow, and he had to pick his way over the ground very much under the guidance of Sir Robert Gordon, whose partisan spirit often roused his ire. Since then things are very much altered. Various valuable books have been compiled, and many important old books in MS. have been published, shedding light upon our subject. National documents, which could then be only consulted in MS. either at Edinburgh or London, may now be studied at any good public library in the printed form, and with most helpful indices. With the comparatively scanty material at his disposal, Mr. Robert MacKay produced a book which does him credit, and which has often helped us over a difficulty.
As we were collecting information for many years past regarding our northern history, the theory growingly possessed us that Eric, 7th Lord Reay, who sold the lands of MacKay in 1829, must have left family documents of historical interest, and that, as he died unmarried, these papers might lie in the hands of his factors or lawyers. We brought this theory to the notice of Æneas MacKay, LL.D., lately Sheriff of Fife, who encouraged us to prosecute our search, and made some helpful suggestions. Acting upon his advice, we followed up certain clues without discovering anything of importance. In the spring of 1900, just as we were about to consult the Edinburgh Register House, in order to find out if possible who acted for Lord Reay about the time that he sold the estate, we chanced to discuss the matter with a member of our congregation, at one time a clerk in an Edinburgh lawyer's office. This gentleman, to our surprise and delight, straightway informed us that in the vaults of the office where he had served there were two large boxes with the painted inscription, "Lord Reay," containing documents bearing upon the north, as he had verified for himself during an idle hour.
With this piece of information we set out for Edinburgh, and reported the matter to Sheriff MacKay, who consulted the firm in question, and discovered that our information was correct. Eventually, through the sheriffs influence, the two boxes were entrusted to us for perusal, and but a little examination served to show that they were the Reay Charter Chests, or at least a portion of them. The documents include charters and copies of charters, bonds of friendship, records of transfers of lands, marriage settlements, wadsetts, rent-rolls, etc. There are unfortunately very few private letters among them. They are referred to in the following pages as Reay Papers.
Mr. Thomas Middlemore of Melsetter, in Orkney, and of Hawkesley, near Birmingham, very kindly put at our disposal for the purposes of this work an elaborate Search of Sasines, Deeds, Testaments, etc., pertaining to Sutherlandshire, and having special reference to such as bore the name MacKay in that county, executed for him by the well-known antiquarian, the Rev. Walter Macleod, Edinburgh. To the genealogist this is an invaluable compilation, which we should gladly see published for the benefit of future writers of our northern history.
Through the influence of a Sandwood MacKay - Dr. George MacKay, F.R.C.S.E., Edinburgh - Colonel A. Forbes MacKay of Carskey very generously entrusted to us the Blackcastle MS. book, extending to 574 foolscap pages, compiled by the Colonel's grandfather, Mr. Alexander MacKay, F.S.A., of Blackcastle, near Edinburgh, and finished in 1832. In the following pages it is referred to as the Blk. MS. It gives a succinct historical and genealogical account of the Strathnaver Mackays, together with a genealogical account of its cadet branches. Mr. MacKay of Blackcastle had access to the family papers of Eric, 7th Lord Reay, the title deeds of the MacKays of Bighouse and the MacKays of Strathy, some papers in Dunrobin and Thurso Castles bearing on the history of the MacKays, from all of which he made voluminous extracts. By far the larger part of the book is taken up with these interesting extracts.
Mr. Mackay of Blackcastle had also an old family MS. history, which apparently belonged to the Reay family, and which he worked into his history of that family, but unfortunately it is not now among the Reay Papers. Its chief interest lay in that it gave a very different account of the early genealogy of the MacKays from that given by Sir Robert Gordon. Sir Robert says that a certain Walter Forbes was progenitor of the MacKays, but the Blk. MS. derives them from Malcolm Mac Eth, Earl of Ross. Of this we shall have more to say. In the House and Clan of MacKay the early genealogy of Sir Robert is accepted, and no reference is made to this old MS. account; but neither is there any reference made to, or use made of, the Reay Papers. It does not seem that Eric Lord Reay gave much, if any, assistance to the author of the House and Clan of MacKay by setting at his disposal family papers, and the reason is not far to seek. MacKay's history appeared in 1829, the very year in which Lord Reay sold his Highland estates; and as his Lordship was making arrangements some years previous to this for selling the same, all his family papers were in the hands of law agents. It was after his estate had been sold and MacKay's history had appeared that Lord Eric consulted Mr. MacKay of Blackcastle, and gave him the Reay Papers to peruse.
Mr. John MacKay of Herrisdale, commonly known as Ben Reay, author of An Old Scots Brigade, etc., had a strong desire to write a history of MacKay, but old age and frail health prevented him from carrying out his purpose. His papers are also placed at our disposal, but they are for the most part mere scraps, with the exception of his genealogical account of the Mackays of Melness, to which branch he belonged himself. In our account of the said family we follow Ben Reay closely, but add a considerable amount of new matter discovered by ourselves in the Reay Papers. We have also been studying this subject for some years, and, however imperfect the following pages may be, we have made a careful search of the public records and read as widely as our limited opportunities and means permitted.