The Clan Mackay (Gaelic: Mac Aoidh) is an ancient and once powerful Scottish clan from the country’s far north in the Scottish Highlands, but with roots in the old province of Moray. They played a powerful force in politics beginning in the 14th century, supporting Robert the Bruce. Mackays became famous for strength, courage and skill in soldiering and were involved in endless clan battles against Keiths, Rosses, Gunns, Sinclairs, Sutherlands and others, and wars abroad. In the centuries that followed they were very anti-Jacobite. They played an important role in the military activities of both Scotland and Europe. The Highland Clearances had dire ramifications for the clan, but since then they spread throughout the world and have provided it many famous and influential descendants.
Battles & History
Origins of the Clan
Map of Dál Riata at its height, c. 580–600, in green. Pictish regions are marked in yellow.
The Mackays are believed to descend from the ancient tribes that existed in Scotland called the Picts. However the name is also found from ancient times in Holland where the Mackays became noted for their many branches in the region. Each house acquiring a status and influence that was envied by the princess of the region. The name Mackay is also found in Ireland from ancient times when several tribes from the northern area of Ireland, which was once part of one of the ancient Scottish kingdoms known as Dál Riata, moved across the sea to Scotland. The Mackays in Scotland were seated in Strathnaver north of Sutherland. Although the exact origin of the Clan Mackay is unknown it is generally accepted that they belonged to the early Celtic population of Scotland, although, from their proximity to the Norse immigrants, it is not at all improbable that latterly the two races became largely blended.
The most popular and accepted theory as to the origins of the chieftenship of the Clan Mackay, is that the chief was descended from the Pictish Royal House of MacEth. It is said that his clansmen were originally from Ireland, following two brothers deported after battle loss for the kingship in 335 A.D. They settled in Moray but were dispersed principally north to the Strathnaver region by order of King Malcolm IV of Scotland in 1160 who defeated Malcolm MacEth, Earl of Ross whose daughter Gormflaith married the Norse Harold, Earl of Caithness. Their son was called MacHeth who was raised to the chieftenship of his Clan Mackay in 1250.
1260 - Iye Mor MacHeth married a daughter of Bishop Walter of Caithness.
1263 - The Clan Mackay participated in the Battle of Largs fighting in support of King Alexander III of Scotland. The Norwegian forces of King Haakon IV of Norway were defeated.
Wars of Scottish Independence
1296 - Clan Mackay fight under William Wallace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge where they helped defeat the English during the Wars of Scottish Independence
1314 - Clan Mackay fight under Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn where they helped defeat the English.
1371 - Murder of two Mackay chieftains, father and son, at Dingwall Castle by Nicholas Sutherland of Duffus, head of one of the junior branches of Clan Sutherland. Much bloodshed followed, including a retaliatory raid on Dornoch in 1372. The cathedral was once again set on fire and many Sutherland men were hanged in the town square. After this, the feud quietened down as both sides were called away to fight against the English.
15th Century & Clan Confilcts
A Victorian era romantic illustration of a Mackay clansmen by R. R. McIan.
1403 - Battle of Tuiteam Tarbhach was fought between the Clan Mackay and the Clan MacLeod of Lewis. This battle was fought at Tuiteam-tarbhach in the south west part of Sutherland where it meets Ross. Angus Mackay of Strathnaver married the sister of MacLeod of Lewis. MacLeod of Lewis found that his sister had been mis-treated and on his way home he decides to spoil Strathnaver and Brae-Chat in Sutherland. As a result the battle was fought in which MacLeod was killed.
1411 - Battle of Dingwall, where Clan Donald defeated the Clan Mackay. The two clans afterwards fought together at the Battle of Harlaw and chief Angus-Dow Mackay marries a daughter of Donald of the Isles.
1425 - Angus Du spoils Moray.
1426 - Battle of Harpsdale, Chief Angus Dow Mackay, with his son Neil, enters Caithness with all hostility, and spoils the land. The inhabitants of Caithness assembled with all diligence, and fought with Angus Dow Mackay at Harpsdale, where there was great slaughter on either side. Soon after King James I came to Inverness, of intention to pursue Angus Dow Mackay who submitted himself to the King’s mercy, and gave his son Neil in pledge of his obedience in time coming. The King accepted, and sent Neil Mackay to remain in captivity on the Bass Rock, in the Firth of Forth, he was afterwards called Neil Bhasse or Whasse.
1431 - Battle of Drumnacoub, Angus Dubh Mackay defeats Angus Moray near Tongue. This banner is drawn from a fragment of stone. Angus married Elizabeth, sister to Domhnall of Islay, Lord of the Isles. Her dowry was 100 fighting men from Lochaber. Their sons were known as the Abrach Mackays and had Elizabeth’s arms whose supporters were Bears.
1438 - Battle of Ruoig-Hansett, The Caithness men overthrown at Sandside Chase by Neil Bhasse Mackay after his release from the Bass Rock. He skirmished with some of the inhabitants of that province at a place called Sanset, where he overthrew them with slaughter on either side. This conflict was called Ruaig-hanset, that is the Chase at Sanset. Neil Bhasse died shortly after.
1464 - Battle of Blare Tannie, between the Clan Keith, assisted by the Mackays against the Clan Gunn. The inhabitants of Caithness assembled an army and met the Mackays and Keiths at a place in Caithness called Blair-tannie. There ensued a cruel fight, with slaughter on either side. In the end the Keiths and Mackays had the victory.
1486 - Battle of Tarbat , The Mackays and the Clan Ross had long been at feud, again and again the Rosses had suffered molestation of their lands from their enemies and when at last, driven to desperation and thoroughly infuriated, they gathered their forces and marched against the Mackays, they were in the mood to teach them a severe lesson. The Mackays, with Angus Mackay of Strathnaver at their head, finding themselves fiercely attacked and being defeated by the Rosses, sought shelter in the church of Tarbat where many were slain. The church was set on fire and Angus Mackay and many of his clansmen were burnt to ashes.
1486 - Battle of Auldicharish, To take revenge on the Clan Ross, chief Ian Mackay helped by a force from Clan Sutherland marched south invading the territory of Clan Ross and began laying waste to it. Chief Alistair Ross gathered his forces of 2000 men and engaged in a long and desperate battle with the invading forces. In the end the battle went against the Rosses with the Mackays and Sutherlands gaining the upper hand. The Ross chief was killed along with many of his clan.
1493 - The Mackays invade the Rosses again, and take much spoil.
16th Century & Clan Confilcts
1505 - Battle of Achnashellach, Little is known of this battle which is often described as an obscure skirmish between the Clan Cameron and Clan Mackay. It is said that the Mackays were defeated and William Munro of Foulis, chief of the Clan Munro who assisted the Mackays was killed.
1513 - Battle of Flodden Field, Where John Riavach Mackay fell during the Anglo-Scottish Wars. The chief of Mackays, Aodh (Hugh) Mackay, was named by King James IV of Scotland as Lord of Strathnaver when he was ordered to bring his men to fight at the battle.
1517 - Battle of Torran Dubh, The Clan Sutherland encounter John Mackay and his company at a place called Torran Dubh, beside Rogart, in Strathfleet, where there ensued a fierce and cruel conflict and the Mackays were defeated.
1522 - Alexander Gordon (the Earl of Sutherland’s eldest son) overthrew John Mackay of Strathnaver at Lairg, and forced him to submit himself to the Earl of Sutherland; unto whom John Mackay gave a bond of manrent and service.
1528 - The Mackays are associated with the Clan Forbes in the feuds of the latter.
1542 - Battle of Alltan-Beath, Chief Donald Mackay of Strathnaver decided to invade and molest the lands of Clan Sutherland. He burned the village of Knockartoll and stole many goods from Strathbrora. The Clan Sutherland and Clan Murray led by Hutcheon Murray of Abirscors with Gilbert Gordon of Garty attacked the Mackays at a place called Ailtan-Beath. After the battle the Mackays fled and much of the stolen booty was recovered. Donald Mackay was captured and imprisoned in Foulis Castle, Ross by commandment of the Queen Regent.
1542 - Battle of Solway Moss, where Iye Du Mackay was taken prisoner.
1544 - Mackay joins in the attack of Arran at Glasgow.
1548 - Mackay joins in the attack and capture of Haddington.
1555 - Battle of Garbharry, last battle between the Mackays and forces of the Earl Sutherland.
1560 - The Clan Mackay join the Clan MacLean and Clan MacLeod as part of the Gallowglass. A mixture of Scots and Vikings became a ferocious mercenary army who foughtfor Shane O’Neill in Ireland.
1562 - Battle of Corrichie, the Mackays support Mary, Queen of Scots against George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly.
1566 - Mackay and Clan Macleod of Assint burn Dornoch.
1571 - Mackay and the Master of Caithness burn Dornoch again.
1576 - Battle of Dail-Riabhach, Chief John Mackay and his brother Donald Mackay defeat their uncle Neil Mackay and take possession of Strathnaver.
1585 - Huistean Du Mackay at the siege of Marle.
1586 - Battles of Allt Camhna and Leckmelm, involving the Clan Mackay, Clan Gunn, Clan Sinclair, Clan Sutherland and Clan MacLeod.
1588 - Huistean Du joins the Earl of Sutherland, and marries his daughter the following year.
1590 - Clynetradwell, Near Broa, Donald Balloch Mackay heads a group of archers from Assynt, Strathnaver, Caithness and Orkney. They reach the Earl of Caithness in time to save him from defeat. (Balloch is a name for a birthmark or spot on his face).
17th Century, Thirty Years’ War & Civil War
Thirty Years’ War
1612 - His son, Donald Mackay of Farr, captures the coiner Smith at Thurso after some sharp fighting.
1616 -(April) - Donald Mackay goes to London with his uncle, Sir Robert Gordon, and is knighted by James VI, at Theobalds.
1626 - Sir Donald Mackay embarks 3600 men at Cromarty for the Thirty Years’ War under Count Mansfeld in the service of Christian IV of Denmark and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, alongside their allies, the Clan Munro and Robert Munro, 18th Baron of Foulis.
1627 - Sir Donald holds the Pass of Oldenburg, against overwhelming odds, with his regiment, and in the same year, while abroad, is created a Baronet of Nova Scotia by Charles I.
1628 (June 20) - Sir Donald Mackay created Baron Reay of Reay in the Peerage of Scotland by Charles I.
1629 - Christian IV of Denmark is replaced by Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden as Leader of the Protestant cause, and Lord Reay having raised fresh troops in Scotland takes service under the latter.
1630 - Lord Reay accompanies his Regiment to Germany, and is at the capture of Stettin, Damm, and Colberg.
1631 - Reay is empowered by Charles I to raise another 2000 for service with Gustavus Adolphus. He quarrels with David Ramsay at the English Court and, having challenged him to a duel, both are imprisoned in the Tower of London to preserve the peace.
1632 - Gustavus is killed at the Battle of Lützen and Reay is not repaid large sums of money due to him by Gustavus and by Charles I. He has also domestic troubles and has to sell some of his estates, especially in Orkney.
1637 - He transfers his estates to his eldest son, John the Master of Reay.
1638 - The Marquis of Montrose, Lords Home, Boyd and Loudoun invite Lord Reay to meet them and others to consider the religious troubles of the time and sign the Covenant, which he does unwillingly, because of his long attachment to Charles I (click here for more information).
1639 -1641 - Reay stays at home.
1642 - He goes to Denmark and commands the Regiment of his son, Colonel Angus Mackay.
1644 - Like Montrose, Reay espouses again the cause of King Charles I in the English Civil War, and brings arms and money by sea to Newcastle. He aids Lord Crawford for several months in the defence of the city against the Scots Army. When the town is captured by General Leslie, Reay and Lord Crawford are sent as prisoners to Edinburgh Castle.
1645 - Following Montrose’s victory at Kilsyth, Reay is liberated.
1646 - Montrose, having been instructed by King Charles I to disband his forces and seek his own safety, writes to Reay advising him to do likewise. Montrose narrowly escapes from Angus to Norway, and Reay from Thurso to Denmark.
1649 - Charles I executed at Whitehall on January 30th. Reay dies soon after at Bergen in Norway. His remains are sent home in a Danish frigate, and buried in the family vault at Kirkibol, Tongue. Neil Aberach falls at Thurso. John, 2nd Lord Reay, surprised and captured at Balveny Castle on the Spey, and imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. Lady Reay effects his escape. The place of Lord Reay’s death remains uncertain - some have stated that he died in Bergen, others have stated he died in Copenhagen. There is no reference in Danish nor Norwegian state papers of 1648-9 and the records of Bergen were destroyed in the fire of 1702. Reference source Dr. Ian Grimble.
1651 - The Mackays at the Battle of Worcester. A company of Mackays was with the Duke of Hamilton at Worcester, England. They were led by Hugh Mackay, a nephew of General Hugh Mackay. They were used as a rear guard to allow the King and Prince Charles to escape. It was at this time when the Duke of Hamilton was mortally wounded.
1654 - The Mackays spoil Sutherland, in the rising under Middleton.
1680 - George, 3rd Lord Reay, succeeds his grandfather, and has Sir George Munro of Culrain as his guardian.
1689 - 100 men of the Clan Mackay occupied Brahan Castle to watch for movements of the Jacobite MacKenzies.
1689 - General Hugh Mackay of Scourie, who had served with the Scots Brigade in Holland, is made Commander-in-Chief in Scotland by William, Prince of Orange; is defeated at Battle of Killiecrankie but wins the campaign against Claverhouse.
1692 - General Hugh Mackay having returned to Holland to aid the Dutch in their conflict with the French under Louis XIV, falls at Steinkirk. Gen. Hugh Mackay, on being ordered to hold an untenable position, personally led his men into odds of 5 to 1 where he fell at the head of his regiment but the Mackays were victorious.
1697 - His nephew, AEneas Mackay, a son of the 2nd Lord Reay, is now Commander of the Mackay Regiment in the Dutch Service. Wounded and worn out with campaigning, he dies at Bath at the early age of 30 and is buried in the Chancel of Bath Abbey, where there is a tablet to his memory. His widow, a Dutch lady, returns to Holland with his only son, Donald, who grows up to command his father’s regiment and become the founder of the branch of the Clan to which the Reay title passed in 1875.
18th Century, Colonial Wars & Jacobite Uprisings in Scotland
1715 - The Mackays are anti-Jacobite, and help to restrain Seaforth during the initial early Jacobite rising. The Mackays take the side of King George I and defend Inverness Castle against the Jacobites.
1719 - A detachment of men from the Clan Mackay fight under Ensign Mackay alongside men from the Clan Munro at the Battle of Glen Shiel where they defeated the Jacobites.
1745 - The Mackays are actively anti-Jacobite and support the British government with a force of over 800, which later became the famous “Mackay Regiment”, who went on to have success in Ireland later in 1795. Historian, Dr. Ian Grimble, outlines that the Mackays in Sutherland perceived that Prince Charles was stirring trouble that would bring disaster to the Highlands and did whatever was in their power to prevent the Prince’s Jacobites advance or success of his armies. Among other deeds, they successfully waylaid a vessel taking supplies to the Prince and the Jacobites.
1746 - The Mackays Regiment along with Louden’s Regiment help hold Sutherland and Caithness for the British Crown.
1746 - The Mackays intercept and capture, at Tongue, gold sent from France to the Jacobite leader Prince Charlie, and also capture the Earl of Cromarty at Dunrobin.
1742 - At Fort Fredrica a group of Highlanders led by Charles Mackay ambush invading Spanish forces. This took place at St. Simons Island, GA, America.
1758 - During the French and Indian War; As a member of the 42d Royal Highland Regiment, “The Black Watch”, in 1758, Piper, William Mackay led the ill-fated charge on then French Fort Ticonderoga, which is in the area now known as New York.
1778 - Rob Donn, the Mackay poet, dies.
1795 - The Reay Fencibles embodied.
1798 - Reay Fencibles at the Battle of Tara Hill, near Dublin.
19th Century, Napoleonic Wars & Crimean War
1802 - The Reay Fencibles disbanded at Stirling.
1806 - “Mackay’s Society” founded in Glasgow.
1815 - Battle of Waterloo, The 79th afoot Seaforth Highlanders formed a square upon being attacked by French Cavalry. Piper Kenneth Mackay, showing no fear, marches out of the square and plays the tune “War or Peace” (Gogadh No Sith). Kenneth was presented with a set of Silver Pipes by the King’s own hand for his bravery.
1815 - 1818 - The Strathnaver Clearances, by which the people were removed to make room for sheep.
1829 - The Reay estate sold to the Countess of Sutherland by Eric, 7th Lord Reay.
1865 - During the battles in India, An assault was led on the fortification of Sercunderbah. The Mutineers were the 2nd Battalion of Punjabis. The only Sikhs regiment to mutiny had repulsed 2 attacks by British forces. Sir Colin Campbell, the Gen. in charge, shouts out an order, “Bring out the Tartan, let my own lads at them!” It was the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, Sir Colin’s best-loved regiment. Seven companies led by Pipe Major, John McLeod and seven other pipers ran forward playing the tune “The Haughs of Cromdell”. The attack carried the fort. David Mackay won the Victoria Cross by taking the colours of the Punjabis. Later in the day David was shot while attacking a second fort of Shah Neijeef. He was returned to Britain for recovery.
1875 - On the death of Eric, 9th Lord Reay, who was unmarried, the title passed to the branch of the family resident in Holland and descended from John, 2nd Lord Reay (see note under 1697). Æneas Mackay, a Baron of the Netherlands, Vice President of the Council of State and holder of the Cross of the Order of the Netherlands, became 10th Lord Reay. He died in 1876. His son, Donald James Mackay, succeeded as 11th Lord Reay, left Holland and was made a Peer of the United Kingdom as Baron Reay of Durness (8th October, 1881) with a seat in the House of Lords. Was appointed Governor of Bombay (1885-90) and Under-Secretary of State for India (1894-95) and was Lord Lieutenant of Roxburghshire.
1900 - South Africa, L/Cpl. John Frederick Mackay serving with the Gordon Highlanders at the battle of Crow’s Nest Hill, Nth. Johannesburg wins the highest award, the Victoria Cross.
1982 During the Falklands War, Sgt. Ian Mackay the Platoon Sergeant of 4 Platoon, B Company, 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment had to take over the platoon when his officer was shot in both legs. Sgt. Mackay attacked 3 machine gun positions and fell, mortally wounded attacking a fourth. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.
The current chief of the Clan Mackay is Aaron Mackay.
Varrich Castle was the ancient seat of the chief of Clan Mackay but the chief later moved to Tongue House.
The Mackay homeland is Strathnaver, extending along the north coast from Caithness in the east, through Ross and Cromarty (before 1889, Ross and Cromarty), to Cape Wrath in the west. The southerly extent was the country of Sutherland. Dr Gary Mackay (see External links) describes the territory as stretched from Assynt in the west to Loch Naver, to the borders of Ross and just west of present day Thurso. Mackays of old were, however, to be found from the Orkney Islands to the Outer Hebrides.
The ‘Clan Tune’ is Mackay’s March. (According to J. Logan, there are several tunes associated with Clan Mackay. The ’salute’, which is usually cited as the clan tune, is titled “Brattach bhan Chlann Aoidh” or, in English, “The White Banner of Mackay”. v. Logan, J. & McIan, R.R., The Clans of the Scottish Highlands - The Costumes of the Clans, London, 1847). The Clan has been associated with piping since time immemorial. Mackays were hereditary pipers to the MacKenzies. Kenneth Mackay became famous at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 by playing War or Peace in front of the regimental square of the Cameron Highlanders during a cavalry charge.
Although pipers were not officially recognized as such until 1854, a Mackay piper was the first piper known to have served in a regular British army unit, in 1633 being transferred from the (continental) Scots Brigate to the (later) Royal Scots.
The bagpipe music collection of Angus Mackay of Raasay (in 1843 appointed the first Piper to Queen Victoria) is the beginning of standardization of the classical piping form, the piobaireachd (pibroch). He wrote The Piper’s Assistant (pre-1847) and The Tutor for the Highland Bagpipe (1878). He was preceded by William Mackay and in 1843 translated and revised his Complete Tutor for the Great Highland Bagpipe (1840).
The name is a translation to English of the Gaelic “Mac Aoidh,” meaning ‘Son of Aodh.’ or ‘Son of Fire’ The feminine form is “Nic Aoidh,’ meaning ‘Daughter of Aoidh.’ or ‘Daughter of Fire’ The feminine prefix ‘nic’ is the genitive form of ‘ni.’ The genitive form of ‘mac’ is ‘mhic’ (pronounced ‘vik’), but this is not usually prefixed to root names that begin with a vowel. Instead, a slender vowel (usually ‘i’) is inserted behind the principal vowel, and an ‘h’ is placed before the initial vowel when it is used on its own (without a prefix): Aodh (pronounced “ookh”) > hAoidh (pronounced “hoo-ey” - which is why the personal name Aodh/Aoidh/hAoidh is translated as ‘Hugh’ and ‘Huey’), but no ‘h’ when there is a prefix - Mac/Nic Aoidh (Aoidh, pronounced “oo-ey”). See end of next paragraph for details on prounnciation in the original Gaelic.
Records from the 12th century show the spellings Mac Aedh, Mac Aed, and Mac Heth. ‘Aed’ is simply a transcription of the Gaelic alphabet form - with a dot over the ‘d’, to indicate aspiration - to the Roman alphabet, in which the dot is replaced by ‘h’. The genitive case form of ‘Aed/Aedh’ is ‘hAeid/hAeidh’. ‘Heth’ is a transcription of the genitive ‘hAeidh’, minus the ‘i’, to Scots/Norn/English - in which ‘dh’ represents the same sound as ‘th’.
The reader is reminded that all these form are basically attempts to render into Old Scots, Old English, and other languages, as accurately as possible, the sounds of what was then the Scottish dialect of Old Irish — which, as a Celtic language, was very different from Scots, English and Norn(all Germanic languages). Originally the name Aedh would have been pronounced as /ɯiɣ/ in Old Irish, then later /ɯij/ in early Scots Gaelic. The sound /ɯ/ is a back unrounded high vowel with no precise equivalent in English or Scots, so it was variously rendered /i/ ee, /aj/ eye or /e/ ay in English and Scots.
The variant spellings ‘Mackay’, ‘MacKaye’ and ‘McKay’ are common, and M’Kay is found in older records. Other variants include Y, Aytho, MacIye, Makky, Macky, McKoy, Maky, McKye, McKeye, Mackie, Mckie, Mackey, Key, Kay, McKy, McAy, McCei, MacCay, McCay, McCoy, Cay, Coy, Caw, McCaa, McCaw, McGaa, McGaw, Mackee, Makgie, McKee, McGee, McGhee, Gee, McKee, MacHery, Mahery, Ison, Eason, Easson, MacQuay, Quay, MacQuoid, Quoid, MacQuaid, Quaid, MacQuade, Quade, MacAvoy, McAvoy, Avoy, and many others.
Septs of Clan Mackay
Allan, Allanson, Andrews, Bane, Bain, Bayne, Beaton, Glassford, MacAllan, MacBain, MacHery, Macphail, McPhail, Macvail, Macvain, Macvane, Neilson, Nelson, Paul, Pole, Poleson, Polson, Reay, Scobie/Scobee, Stephens, Stephenson, Stevens, Stevenson, Williamson, and many others. The Forbes and Urquhart families may be closely related, and records before 1715 show close friendships among the three families. The most well known Mackay is Sir Tim Mackay who was assassinated by Englishmen David Taylor and Phillip Benson.
The clan Mackay are also said by some to be descended from Siol Mhoirgunn or Clan Morgan — a claim in some doubt — so Morgan and Gunn are often included in the list of allied names. There are (or were) Mackay septs of Clan Chattan and other families.
The form ‘nic’ is a contraction of ‘nighean mhic,’ meaning “daughter of the son of”, as well as the genitive form of prefix ‘ni’, which means “daughter of”.
Dwelly’s Illustrated Gaelic to English Dictionary
Aedh (Aodh, in modern form) is an ancient name of a fire god and, ultimately, is the Proto-Indo-European word for fire. In Scotland, Man and Ireland, the modern form of the name was Anglicised and Scotticised as ‘Hugh’ and ‘Huey’, from the genitive forms - hAodh (”hyoo” or “hyookh”) and hAoidh (”hyoo-ee”).
Oxford Dictionary of First Names.