Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page

ORIGIN OF THE MACKAY FAMILY

There is a pretty general agreement that the MacKays and Forbeses sprang from the same stock, or were closely connected in the distant past. Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonston, son of Alexander, 11th Earl of Sutherland, and tutor of John, 13th Earl, during his minority, wrote a history of the Earldom of Sutherland about 1630, which gives a vast amount of information, not only about the Sutherland family, but about the MacKays, Sinclairs, and many other northern clans. Sir Robert, however, is notoriously unjust to every family who did not happen to be on friendly terms with his own, and particularly so to the MacKays, whom he bastardizes with great freedom. His hostile spirit towards this family is nakedly shown in the Farewell Letter of Advice, of which we give extracts in our Appendix No 36. Sir Robert says that the MacKays sprang from "one called Walter, reported by some to have been the bastard sone of the Lord Forbese his predicessour, who at that time was not yet of the surname of Forbese". [Earldom of Sutherland page 302]. This Walter, he proceeds, became chamberlain to the Bishop of Caithness, married his daughter, and obtained from the said bishop church lands in Strathnaver. From the long genealogical account which follows, Walter must have lived about 1150 - a period sufficiently remote to preclude any knowledge of his legitimacy or otherwise, we should say. The only fact which interests us presently in this account is the statement that the MacKays and Forbeses were supposed to have had a common origin.

In 1652 the eccentric Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty wrote the True Pedigree and Lineal Descent of the most Ancient and Honourable Family of Urquhart, in the House of Cromarty, from the Creation of the World until the year of God 1652. He solemnly tells us that in the 8th century of the Christian era Vocompos, head of the House of Cromarty, "had to his second brother one named Phorbas Urquhart, and Hugh to the third; of whom, some few hundred years after that, the names of Forbes and Mackay had their beginning". We laugh at Sir Thomas' crazy genealogies, but note the fact that he records the MacKays, Urquharts, and Forbeses were of the same stock.

In 1667 William Forbes edited and drew up a preface for the House of Forbes, compiled by Mathew Lumsden in 1580. In this preface he says Ochonochar, an Irish lord who came over to Scotland, had a son Ochonochar, and that this second Ochonochar had three sons, who became the respective progenitors of the families of Forbes, Urquhart, and MacKay. He proceeds: -

"Ochonochar's third son, called Walter Forbes, went to Kaitness, and attended the Bishope thereof, and he being familiar with the Bishope's daughter, begate her with child, with whom, fearing the Bishop's wrath, he fled to Strathnaver, and possessed himself of the twelve davoch and land of Dromesos [Durness], then belonging to the Bishope; whereupon the Bishope, raising a number of men, went to Strathnaver, and possessed himself again of the said lands. Walter and the Bishops's daughter being fled, left behind them their little sone; and it being told the Bishope that the child was his daughter's, begotten by Walter Forbes, the Bishope caused immediatlie fenss the court in the name of the child, who was called John Forbes, of whom is descendid the house of MacKay who is now Lord Rea. This narratione of the originall of the houss of MacKay, the first Lord Reay did relate to credable gentlemen who related the same to the writer hereof, etc."

These three writers - others also might be quoted to the same effect - [Fraser, in the Wardlaw MS., e.g., writes, "A pretty fellow called Alexander Buys, killing a boar by singular manhood. Bruce called him Fear Buys, whence is the original of the Forbes, and his son Ihe gave origin to the McKyes".] - agree in saying that there was an original connection between the Strathnaver Mackays, who live in the extreme north of Scotland, and the Forbeses, who live in the old provinces of Moray and Buchan. Sir Robert Gordon and Forbes expressly state that they had had their information from the MacKays themselves. Sir Thomas Urquhart, no doubt, obtained his from the same source, as he was on very intimate terms with the MacKays, who, like himself, were staunch supporters of the two kings Charles. They were associated in the northern campaign of 1649 when Inverness was captured by the royalists, and again at the battle of Worcester, in 1651, Captain MacKay of Borley, at the head of some MacKays, fought alongside the Knight of Cromarty. But what these writers assert is borne out by the warm friendship existing between the two families for some centuries. As shall be afterwards shown, Donald MacKay of Strathnaver helped the Forbeses in their Aberdeenshire feuds about 1534; his son Iye Du MacKay lived in close amity with them up to his death in 1572, as various documents show, while the sons of Iye Du went even the length of calling themselves " MacKay-Forbes". That is to say, Huistean MacKay of Strathnaver, Donald of Scourie, and William of Bighouse, are styled in various documents "Mackay-Forbes". Donald, afterwards, 1st Lord Reay, sometimes put this addition to his surname, and at least two of his sons were so styled. In the days of John, 2nd Lord Reay, Forbes bishop of Caithness, a cadet of the house of Forbes, befriended the MacKays with regard to church lands which the Sutherland family managed to get a hold of; and even in the days of Lord George, grandson of Lord John, the friendship of Mackay and Forbes was maintained. Thus from about 1500 down to the time of the Marr rebellion in 1715, there is documentary evidence of such a close friendship existing between these two families, living so far apart, as to strongly confirm the common tradition that they were of a kindred stock.

Skene, in his Highlanders of Scotland, suggests that the MacKays were descended of the ancient Caithness Maormors. He writes: -

"It happens unfortunately for the solution of this question, that the Clan MacKay is not contained in the manuscript of 1450 [a Gaelic genealogical MS. in the Advocates' Library]; and in the absence of direct testimony of any sort, the most probable supposition seems to be that they were descended from the ancient Gaelic inhabitants of the district of Caithness. If this conclusion be a just one, however, we can trace the early generations of the clan in the Sagas, for we are informed by them that towards the beginning of the twelfth century "there lived in the Dolum Katanesi (or Strathnaver) a man named Moddan, a noble and rich man", and that his sons were Magnus Orfi, and Ottar, the Earl in Thurso. The absence of all mention of Moddan's father, the infallible mark of a Norwegian in the Sagas, sufficiently points out that he must have been a native; but this appears still more strongly from his son being called an earl. No Norwegian under the Earl of Orkney could have borne such a title, but they indiscriminately termed all the Scottish maormors and great chiefs earls, and consequently Moddan and his son Ottar must have been Gaelic Maormors of Caithness, and consequently the MacKays, if a part of the ancient inhabitants of Caithness, were probably descended from them."

As regards Moddan and his son Earl Ottar of Thurso, we venture to suggest that they were descended of an earlier Moddan, who fell at Thurso about 1040. In the Orkneyinga Saga we read that King Karl Hundi (whom Dr. Skene identifies as King Duncan, son of Crinan, abbot of Dunkeld, by his wife, a daughter of King Malcolm MacKenneth) gifted Caithness to Moddan, his sister's son, conferring upon him at the same time the dignity of an earl. As Caithness was at this time under the sway of the Norsemen, to secure the royal gift meant stern fighting. Earl Moddan is reported to have marched north with a large army, and taking up his quarters at Thurso, was there surprised and slain. We hear no more of this Earl Moddan, but it is not at all likely that his family would lightly relinquish their claims to lands which the king gifted, and consequently we think that "Moddan the noble man of Dolum Katanesi", who flourished about 1100, was the son or grandson of Moddan, nephew of Duncan, king of Scots. Skene, in the extract quoted above, gives substantial reasons for believing that the Moddan family was Celtic, and not Norse. This view is further strengthened by the fact that the name Moddan is purely Celtic. It is a compound of Mo-Aodh-an, and means "a votary of St. Aidan", while the name Aidan is a Gaelic diminutive of Aodh. This we state upon the authority of Professor Mackinnon, Celtic Chair, Edinburgh. From the account given in the Sagas this family appears to have latterly lived on more friendly terms with the Norse Earls of Orkney, who were overlords of Caithness, than with the Scottish kings. But there is nothing surprising in this. In course of time they may have found it better policy to court the favour of the Norseman, rather than maintain a struggling allegiance to the distant and unstable Scottish throne.

Moddan, who lived in the "Dales of Caithness" [Torfæus], had two sons, Earl Ottar of Thurso and Magnus "the generous"; he had also two daughters, Helga and Frakork.

[Footnote: On an island in Loch Hakon, a considerable sheet of water about three miles south of Tongue House, may be seen the ruins of a house called Grianan (sunny), which is traditionally reported to have been the summer resort of a Hakon and his lady. Was this Earl Hakon and his wife, Helga, the daughter of Moddan ?]

Helga married Earl Hakon, Paul's son, and bore to him Ingibiorg, who married Olave the Red, King of Man and the Isles, whose daughter Ragnhild became the wife of Somerled regulus of Argyle. [Orkneyinga Saga Introduction]. Frakork, the other daughter of Moddan, married Liot, "a great man and chieftain in Sutherland", says Torfæus. The two sons of Moddan may be the "da mac Matni" (the two sons of Matan), who are said, in the Book of Deer, to have witnessed at Ellon, along with the nobles of Buchan and others, the solemn mortmaining of offerings by Colban Mormaer of Buchan to the monastery of Deer, shortly after 1132. Distant though Caithness be from Buchan, there is nothing unreasonable in this surmise, for there was in ancient times a close ecclesiastical connection between the province of Caithness and the territories of Moray, Buchan, and Aberdeen, as Dr. Stuart, editor of the Book of Deer, observes.

[Footnote: According to the Aberdeen Breviary, St. Fergus, who came from Ireland, after founding three churches in Aberdeenshire, crossed over to Caithness, where he also reared some churches, one of which is at Wick. St. Drostan, one of the founders of the Deer monastery, has various dedications in Caithness, at Canisbay, Westfield, and Westerdale, at which latter place there is a noted holy well, called Tobair Trostan (well of Trostan). St. Moddan, who also laboured in Aberdeenshire, as many place-names show, has dedications in Caithness at Bower and Olrig.]

And if the Moddan family came originally from the north-east shoulder of Scotland, as we suspect, the surmise is all the more reasonable.

The Highlanders of Scotland, in which it is suggested that the MacKays are descended from the Moddan family, was written by Skene when a young man, in 1836; but before the conclusion of his great work, Celtic Scotland, in 1880, some of his earlier and immature views underwent considerable change. Dr. Æneas Mackay, lately lecturer on Constitutional Law and History in the University of Edinburgh, afterwards Sheriff of Fife, and the author of various learned historical works, informs us that Dr. Skene, in his later years, was inclined to believe that the MacKays, formerly called Clan Morgan, passed over from Moray and Buchan to Strathnaver when King Malcolm cleared that part of Scotland of its rebellious inhabitants, about 1160. This also seems to have been the view of the well-known Gaelic scholar, the late Rev. Dr. Maclauchlan, Edinburgh, who, when discussing the MacHeth claimants to the earldom of Moray, writes: - "The race of Mac-Heth may appear among the Mac-Heths or Mac-Aoidhs, the Mackays of Sutherland, nor is this rendered less probable by the Morganich or sons of Morgan, the ancient name of the MacKays, appearing in the Book of Deer as owning possessions and power in Buchan" [Early Scottish Church]. Curiously enough, this is exactly the position taken up by the Blk. MS., which claims that the MacKays of Strathnaver are descended from Malcolm MacEth, first Earl of Ross.

The Strathnaver Mackays were known in ancient times as the Clan Morgan. In the Earldom of Sutherland, Sir Robert Gordon repeatedly applies this epithet to them. In one of the Clan Ranald MSS., commonly called Little Book, the writer gives the names of various Highland chiefs who flourished during his youth, when "Charles, son of James sixth, was king;" and among them mentions "Donald Duabhail MacKay, chief of the Clan Morgan" [Skene MSS XVI 2]. This was Donald, afterwards 1st Lord Reay, chief of the Strathnaver MacKays. He was and is still known to the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders of Strathnaver as Donald Dughall. To the old Highlanders the Danes were Du-Ghalls, "black strangers", and the Norwegians were Fion-Ghalls, "white strangers", for what reason we cannot say. It was because the first Lord Reay served for some time under the King of Denmark that he came to be nicknamed Dughall. That the Clan MacKay was once called Clan Morgan has never been disputed by competent authorities. The earliest reference to the Clan Morgan, of which we have any knowledge, is to be found in a Gaelic entry in the Book of Deer, dated a few years later than 1132; and in this entry we find the toisheach of the clan, his two sons, and the two sons of Matan, witnessing a legal transaction at Ellon, the old capital of Buchan. We proceed to give a literal translation of the entry -

"Colbain, mormaer of Buchan, and Eva, daughter of Gartnait, his married wife, and Donnachadh son of Sithig, toisheach of Clan Morgan, immolated all the offerings given to God and to Droston and to Columkill and to Peter the Apostle, free from all the burdens for a share of four davachs of what would come on the chief monasteries of Scotland generally and on the chief churches. Before these witnesses: Broecin, and Cormac abbot of Turbruaid, and Morgan son Donnachadh, and Gilli-Petair son of Donnachadh, and Malaechin, and the two sons of Matan, and all good ones of Buchan in witness hereof in Elon."

[Footnote: The entry itself: Robaid Colbain mormaer Buchan 7 Ena ingen Gartnait abenphusta 7 Donnachae mc Sithig toesech clenni Morgain nahuli edbarta ri Dia 7 ri Drostan 7 ri Columcilli 7 ri Petar apstal onahulib dolaidib archuit cetri dabacb do ni thissad ar ardmandaidib Alban cucotchenn 7 ara hardcheliaib. Test, his: Brocein 7 Cormac abb Turbruaid 7 Morgunn mc Donnchaid 7 Gilli Petair mo Donnchaid 7 Malaechin 7 da mc Matni 7 mathe Buchan huli naididnaisse in Helain. - See Book of Deer].

The name Morgan or Morcunn comes from the Gaelic word Mor, "the sea", and is said by the author of the Gaelic Etymological Dictionary to mean "sea bright". The place-name Moray, which appears in the older forms Murev, Murav, etc., comes also from the root Mor, and means "the sea side" [Shaw's Moray]. As Catuv, the locative case of Cat, denotes Catland or Sutherland, and Galluv, the locative case of Gall, denotes the Norseman's land or Caithness, so Moruv, the locative case of Mor, denotes the sea-side land or Moray. And just as the inhabitants of Sutherland are called in Gaelic to this day Cattich, and those of Caithness Gallich, so probably did the name Morgan arise to denote Moraymen in general, or a certain section of that people. We are justified in concluding that there was some connection between the names Morgan and Murray, as both sprang from the same old Gaelic root Mor, the sea.

The editor of the Book of Deer is perplexed over grants of land by Moraymen, such as Malcolm the son of Maelbrigte and Maelsnechte the son of Lulach, to a monastery in the rival province of Buchan. We fail to appreciate his difficulty, for the church was not a provincial institution. To us it seems most natural that officials in Moray should help a neighbouring monastery of such standing as that of Deer. As Toisheach, first or leader, is supposed to have been the official next in order after the Ri, petty king, or the Mormaer, overlord, it may be that Duncan of Clan Morgan appeared at Ellon on this occasion to represent the Moraymen, seeing that they were without a Mormaer since Angus fell at Strathcathro in 1130. Indeed, this solemn assembly on the moot-hill of Ellon, where representatives from Caithness and Moray, as we believe, were present with the nobles of Buchan, may have been due to the anxiety of the Deer officials to secure their church-lands by as legal and binding a title as possible, in view of the then distracted state of the country, owing, among other factors, to the growing feudalism of the Scots kings.

Dr. Macbain, in a note to his edition of Skene's Highlanders of Scotland, says: - "It is remarkable that the Sutherland Mackays claim kinship with the Forbeses of Aberdeenshire, and about 1608 actually adopted Lord Forbes' arms, with cadet differences, but it is also remarkable that the name Morgan exists, or in historic times existed, nowhere else than in Aberdeenshire and among the Sutherland MacKays". Of course he is speaking of Scotland; but he is not justified in strictly limiting the south Morgans to Aberdeenshire alone - a portion of the province of Buchan in olden times. They also meet us in Moray. About 1226 King Alexander gave in excambion to Andrew, bishop of Moray, some forest-lands, a part of which was "dimidiam daucham in landa Morgund" (half a davach in the Morgan-lands) [Cart. Mor. No 29]. These lands were in the neigbourhood of Pluscardine, between Forres and Elgin, and probably became the Crown's property through escheat from the former owners. Not less remarkable than those which Dr. Macbain points out is the fact that, in the early genealogies of the Highland Clans given in the Advocate's Library MS. of 1450, and in the still earlier Irish MSS., the name Morgan is never found in a Highland family except that of Moray !

Let us now see where we stand. We found that, about 1039, King Duncan gave Caithness to his nephew Moddan, who lost his life at Thurso soon thereafter endeavouring to wrest the king's gift from the Norsemen. About 1100 we saw that Moddan, "a noble and rich man", occupied the "Dales of Caithness" (or Strathnaver), on friendly terms with the Norsemen, and concluded that he was a son or representative of the earlier Moddan thus endeavouring to secure the king's gift. As the province of Caithness had been then for about two centuries in the possession of the Norsemen, we presumed that the earlier Moddan was not a native of that part of the country, but a Celt of Moray or Buchan, and for that presumption we got some support from the fact that two sons of a Moddan witnessed a very solemn legal transaction in Buchan about 1133. We also found that the Clan Morgan was located in these north-eastern parts about this time, that its toisheach acted in his official capacity along with the mormaer of Buchan, and that the name Morgan in Scotland was peculiar to Moray and Buchan, but reappeared in Sutherland at a later period. The question we have now to face is, how did the Clan Morgan, of whom we got a glimpse in the north-east of Scotland, about 1133, reappear afterwards in distant Strathnaver, and there continue to be known by exactly the same title ? We believe the solution of the problem is to be found in the transportation of the Moraymen about 1160, in consequence of their continued rebellion culminating in that of Malcolm MacHeth, 1st Earl of Ross, their leading representative, of which more anon [Fordun's Annalia]. This also is the position taken up in the Blk MS., which we shall consider immediately. And if our surmises be correct, it can easily be understood how the MacKays, who now live in the north of Sutherland, are kindred with the Forbeses of Aberdeenshire, for the MacKays once dwelt in that neighbourhood and formed one of its leading families.

Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page


e-mail to:fnsnclr@btinternet.com
.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

e-mail to:fnsnclr@btinternet.com