Clan MacKay

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Scotland Project > Scottish Clans > Clan MacKay


Welcome to Clan MacKay

Clan Mackay

Clan MacKay Team
Team Leader Amy Gilpin
Team Members Mark Sutherland-Fisher, Laura Bozzay, Alan Watson, Karen Doerr
Clan Chief:
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Clan Team

Team Goals

The focus of this team's work is to identify, improve and maintain profiles associated with the Lairds and Chiefs of Clan MacKay together with members bearing the name MacKay, the related families and those recognised as septs of Clan MacKay.

Team To Do List

This list will be developed by the Team. If you are working on a specific task, please list it here:

  • promoting the entries of those bearing the name MacKay on Wikitree.
  • ensuring entries appearing on Wikitree are as accurate as possible, correcting mistakes once spotted.
  • encouraging interest in and study of Clan MacKay.


Clan History

Clan Branches

Other Names Associated with the Clan

Allied Clans

Rival Clans

Clan Research and Free Space Pages

Source Material

Image Credits and Acknowledgements

Information below this line should be summarized and incorporated into this Team page. Detailed information should be moved to additional Clan pages.

Clan Chief: Aeneas Simon MacKay, 15th Lord Reay. Hereditary Chief of the Name and Arms of Clan Mackay.

Clan Summary

Clan Mackay (Gaelic: Mac Aoidh) is an ancient and once-powerful Scottish clan from the far North of the Scottish Highlands, but with roots in the old kingdom of Moray. They supported Robert the Bruce during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century. In the centuries that followed they were anti-Jacobite. The territory of the Clan Mackay consisted of the parishes of Farr, Tongue, Durness and Eddrachillis, and was known as Strathnaver, in the north-west of the county of Sutherland. However it was not until 1829 that Strathnaver was considered part of Sutherland when the chief sold his lands to the Earls of Sutherland and the Highland Clearances then had dire consequences for the clan. In the 17th century the Mackay chief's territory had extended to the east to include the parish of Reay in the west of the neighboring county of Caithness. The chief of the clan is Lord Reay and the lands of Strathnaver later became known as the Reay Country. [1]

Name and Names

There is controversy surrounding the origin of the name and the name appears in many forms. The records of time suggest the Strathnaver or northern MacKays appear as Makky, Macky, Maky, Mckye, Mckeye, Maekie, Mckie, Mackey, but the commonest form was McKy and later, Mackay. The Islay MacKays, whose Charter in Gaelic, of eleven and a half merk lands from Donald Macdonald, Lord of the Isles, in 1408 appear as McCei, McAy, etc. The MacKays of Garachty in Bute, one of whom, John McGe, witnessed a document, 10th Mar. 1540, as Sheriff of Bute, appear as Makkay, Makkee, and even Makcawe, but from 1515 on appear as Mackaw. The MacKays of Ugadale, who were erowners (position equivalent to sheriff) of north Kintyre held their lands of the Lords of the Isles as is stated in a charter of confirmation by the King, given 11th Aug. 1542, and possessed of the four merk lands of Ugadale and Arnigill in virtue of their office, appear as McKey, MaKKay, MaKKaye, but most commonly as McCay. The Galloway MacKays, of whom there were various families that held considerable estates in Wigton, Kirkcudbrightshire, etc., such as Camlodane, Balgarne, Craichlo, Mertoun, Balmagee, etc., appear as Makke, Makee, Makge, Makgee, Makgie, McGie, McGhie, and Mackghie, but towards the close of the 16th century they appear generally as McKie and McGhie. It is probable, and in the case of Mackays of Ugadale proven, that the various families are not derived from the same original source. It is more probable that the name was used in multiple locations around the same time; that is they are derived from a personal feature rather than a person.

MacKay represents, in English, the Gaelic name MacAoidh, a compound of mac (son), and Aoidh the genitive of the proper name Aodh. Aodh frequently appears in the literature of the Gael as the name of Picts, Scots, and Irish; but its present aspirated form indicates a harder formation, aed, which indeed is found in earlier Irish writings, and is supposed to mean "the fiery or impetuous one". Thus '"the son of the fiery one".

Some authorities have equated Aodh with Hugh, but this is generally no longer accepted. Hugh, which translates from the Gaelic Huistean, is generally represented in Latin documents by Hugo, while Aodh is transformed into Odo, Odoneus or Iye. There are occasions, for example, the family of Donald Mackay, 1st Lord Reay, whose first son was named Iye and his third Hew.

Origin of the Clan The generally accepted origin, of the Strathnaver Mackays, and discussed in the work by Angus Mackay, is derived from the Blackcastle MS which claims that Iye Mackay, 1st chief of the Clan Mackay, who was born in about 1210, was a descendant of Malcolm MacHeth, 1st Earl of Ross who died in about 1168. Malcolm MacHeth, Earl of Ross may well have been related to the early rulers or Mormaers of Moray, thus giving rise to the association with Moray. According to Angus Mackay, sometime in the 1160s, the MacHeths and their supporters, after conflict with king Malcolm IV of Scotland fled northwards over the hills of Ross into Strathnaver, where they were welcomed by the Norse Harald Maddadsson, Mormaer of Caithness. In 1215 the MacHeths along with the MacWilliams retaliated against the king but were defeated by Fearchar, Earl of Ross and the grandson of Malcolm MacHeth, Kenneth MacHeth was killed. According to Angus Mackay it is possible that from this Kenneth MacHeth the Stathnaver Mackays are descended, and that Iye Mackay, 1st chief of Clan Mackay may well have been his son or nephew. According to the Blackcastle MS Iye Mackay's son was Iye Mor Mackay, 2nd chief of Clan Mackay who married a daughter of Walter, Bishop of Caithness in 1263. However, he later contradicts this by providing that Mackay was related to a Clan Morgan, appearing in the Book of Deer, as representing the Mormaer of Moray, around 1170.

The Clan is thought to have been derived from "Clan Morgan" and this name was used by the Mackays of the Reay country who later became Clan Aoidh. Skene suggests they are derived from a Morgan, a British monk, was a follower of the Pelagian heresy in Britain. This name, Morgan, although popular in other parts of Britain, appears only in Aberdeenshire and Caithness. It is not clear whether this suggests they were followers of Morgan or sons of him as there is no use of the MacMorgan, rather Clan Morgan (family of Morgan; Christian family all encompassing). Angus Mackay suggests the name Morgan is derived from the Gaelic Mor, meaning sea; Morgan meaning "bright sea".

The origin is debatable but the appearance, of Clan Morgan, in the Book of Deer in Buchan around 1170 no doubt accounts for the apparent rapid rise of power in the name of Mackay. The same family existed but with another name; Morgan. The piece, in the Book of Deer, provides: "Colbain, mormaer of Buchan, and Eva, daughter of Gartnat, his wedded wife, and Donnachac, son of Sithech, toisech of Clann Morgainn, immolated all the offerings to God and to Drostan and to Columcille and to Peter the apostle from all the burthens for a share of four davochs of what would come on the chief residences [monasteries] of Scotland generally and on chief churches. Witnesses; his Broccin, and Cormac, Abbot of Turbruaid, and Morgunn, son of Donnchad, and Gille Petair, son of Donnchad, and Malaechin and Matne's two sons, and the nobles of Buchan, all in witness hereof in Elan." Ellon was the ancient capital of Buchan; Colbain the Mormaer in right of his wife Eva, the daughter of Gartnait, the previous Mormaer. We can date this to about 1170 as Colbain was in the Scottish army that invaded England with King William I of Scotland in 1174.

The term was in use as late as the 17th Century when the Clan Ranald mss suggests that Donald Duabhail (dark stranger) MacKay was chief of the Clan Morgan. This was Donald, afterwards 1st Lord Reay, chief of the Strathnaver MacKays. He was until very recently known to the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders of Strathnaver as Donald Dughall.

Relationship with Clan MacNeil About 1290, just as Clan Mackay are starting to appear on the records of northern Scotland, the Clan Chief of the day, Donald, marries a daughter of lye MacNeil, son of Neil of Gigha, a relative of the MacNeil of Barra.[1] Gigha is a small island just off the Kintyre peninsula between the mainland and Islay. It would have been held by the MacNeil to the Lord of the Isles.

Angus Mackay provides that "The distance to which Donald went in search of a wife, combined with the neighbourhood in which he found her, seem to indicate that there was at this time a close connection between the Mackays of Strathnaver and those of that name on the west coast of Argyle. We have found Mackays holding land in Kintyre at this early period, and there were others in the same quarter". The Mackay didn't hold land in that region at that time and it seems that Angus Mackay missed an opportunity based on a bias toward proving heritage from families in Moray.

There was, certainly by 1320, Mackays living in and around Mull and Kintyre. They appear on record prior to those of Strathnaver, and, evidence suggests, that they formed part of the force at Bannockburn in 1314 under the Lord of the Isles and Bruce's reserve. They owned (?), lived close to the lands of MacNeil and it clearly illustrates a relationship between the two families. The name itself, Mackay, is derived from MacAoidh, son of Iye, a name popular amongst the MacNeil. It is noticeable that the name Mackay does not appear on record, in Strathnaver, prior to the son of the marriage between Donald and a daughter of Iye MacNeil.

It does illustrate that there was a relationship between The MacNeil of Barra and the Mackay of Strathnaver just when the Mackay are starting to appear on the record of Strathnaver and Sutherland. This relationship becomes pronounced when, in 1430, Neil Neilson obtained from King James I., 20 Mar 1430, a charter of the lands of the Mackay lands of Creich, Gerloch, Daane, Moyzeblary, Croinzneorth, Tutumtarwauch, Langort and Amayde, in the Earldoms of Ross and Sutherland, escheated from his deceased brother, Thomas.[2] In this Charter he is called Nigello Nelesoun. Legends of the clan suggest him to have been tha grandson of a chief of the Mackay but he may not have been. He will lead a coup, on the basis of title to the lands, against Clan Mackay which leads to the Battle of Drumnacoub where he, and his brother, are killed and his claims defeated. The justification for this war was a claim to the title and lands of, what we would now recognise as, Clan Mackay. This claim, not explored in any source material noticed, was on the basis of birth right. It seems possible that the relationship between the MacNeil and the Mackay may be closer than previously believed and is one that could be explored further.

It may be that the Mackay of Strathnaver came from the Mackay of Kintyre and thus from Ireland, rather than from Moray.

The origin of the Clan Mackay remains uncertain but what is known is that the Clan went from no records of that name in the 13th Century to one of the most powerful clans in the Highlands in 1411 when Angus Du Mackay was prepared to take on the might of Donald MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, in his invasion of Scotland. He is said to have had 4000 men in the field at Dingwall and is often recorded as the most powerful Highland Chief after the MacDonald.

Of Men and Wars The Clan was to produce men of considerable military genius. They will fight in nearly every European War. Starting with Donald Mackay, 1st Lord Reay, he raised a regiment of fifteen hundred men of his clan, which he carried over to Germany to the assistance of the king of Bohemia; taking a distinguished part in all foreign service of the time. He supported Charles I., during the Revolution and led 3600 men in support of King Christian IV. of Denmark at the battle for the Pass of Oldenburg. His Regiment, primarily made up of men of the Clan, earning themselves the name "the Invincible Scots" after suffering heavily and where he was wounded.

They would appear in the service of the Denmark/Norwegian Alliance, service to the United Netherlands, where they form a large component of The Scots Brigade, and in service of Sweden. Members of the Clan still remain within these territories.

Source Material There are many sources for material relating to the genealogy of the early MacKay families. The two key main sources are:

  • History of the house and clan of Mackay, containing for connection and elucidation, besides accounts of many other Scottish families, a variety of historical notices, more particularly of those relating to the northern division of Scotland during the most critical and interesting periods; with a genealogical table of the clan; by Robert Mackay, published 1829.

Of these the former was written at a time when Lord Reay, single and without children, was in the process of selling his estates and, as such, much of the material needed to complete the genealogical picture was lacking. Angus Mackay, with access to this material, called the "Reay Papers", tends to be a more reliable source.

The early genealogy of the family, notably its origin from a certain Walter Forbes as progenitor of the MacKays, is sourced to the work by Sir Robert Gordon "Genealogical history of the Earldom of Sutherland from its origin to the year 1630. With a continuation to the year 1651", written at a time when the families were at war with each other. This supposition was included in Robert Mackay's work for the lack of any other material. Gordon's work tends to be disparaging and often completely false towards the Mackay and should only be used as a source for surrounding events.

There is discussion regarding the Mackays that held lands to the Lord of the Isles, including those of Ugadale, in the work by Donald Gregory; "The history of the Western Highlands and Isles of Scotland, from A.D. 1493 to A.D. 1625". The Mackays of Ugadale are sourced to a Gilchrist MacImar Mackay who received his lands in Kintyre from Robert Bruce.

Skene provides much of the discussion regarding Clan Morgan as being the source of Clan Mackay in his early work; "The Highlanders of Scotland; Volume 2". Skene wrote this work when young (1836) and many of his views expressed in that work would change.

  1. the source of this information being Sir Robert Gordon; page 303
  2. Register of the Great Seal; vol 2, Charter no 147, page 32.

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