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Issue 16 - The clan of the gods? (Mackenzies)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 16
September 2004


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The clan of the gods? (Mackenzies)

In the latest in our series on great clans of Scotland James Irvine Robertson considers the Mackenzies

In England the aristocracy, if grand enough, may be able to claim some ancestor who came over in 1066 with William the Conqueror. The Highland clans routinely trace back another 500 years to the kings of Dalriada or Columba and thence back to the kings of Ireland. But the Mackenzies reckon they can do better still. They go back to the gods. This will prove most interesting when put to the test of modern DNA research.

The god was the pagan Celtic deity Cernunnos, the Horned One, whose Gaelic name was Coinneach, the Bright One. The Chief of the Clan is called Caber Feidh, Stag Antlers, which refers back to this divine progenitor.

Amildly less intimidating descent would have the clan trace itself no further than the Karnones, the tribe of Picts who were the first people to ‘make smoke’ in the ancient earldom of Ross in the North, and the royal house of Lorne. The likelihood is that the family come from a son of the ancient earls of Ross.

The first charter to their heartland, the beautiful lands of Kintail now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, came in 1266 and was a reward given for joining King Alexander III in repelling the invasion of Haco, King of Norway.

The third baron of Kintail was Coinneach MacCoinneach (Kenneth, son of Kenneth) and this became Mackenzie in English. The ‘z’ should actually be a ‘y’ representing a consonant which gave an ‘ing’ sound. Acouple of centuries ago the name would be pronounced Mackingie. The same letter appeared in the surname Menzies which is still pronounced ‘Mingis’ by Scots.

Even before the final downfall of the Lords of the Isles who latterly held the earldom of Ross, the Mackenzies were one of the most powerful clans in Scotland. In 1427 the seventh chief, Alexander, was said to have an army of 2,000 and this was the instrument which defeated the last Earl of Ross.

The clan had fought with Bruce at Bannockburn and survived the catastrophe of the battle of Flodden in 1513 when James IV and much of the aristocracy of the nation died. By the 17th century their lands stretched from coast to coast across Northern Scotland as well as the great Isle of Lewis and, in 1623, the chief became the Earl of Seaforth, taking his title from a sea loch on the island.

By the 18th century Seaforth could field 2,500 men and was one of the four great magnates who ran the Highlands on behalf of the state; the others were Huntly in the east, Argyll in the west and Atholl in the south.

In general, the clan was loyal in its support to the Stuart kings and received many charters to new lands from them. Unlike some Highland families, the Mackenzies knew the value of the law and their forces were followed by lawyers who secured their conquests by charter. The clan remained loyal to the Stuarts after James VII & II lost the British throne in 1688. The Earl of Seaforth was exiled after the Rising of 1715 and was one of the leaders of the rebels in 1719 when a force landed in Kintail. That most romantic of Scottish island castles, Eilean Donan, was the Mackenzie stronghold in the west but, alas, although virtually impregnable to land-based forces, it crumbled before a British frigate and its battery of 32 pound guns.

In 1745, Seaforth kept largely out of trouble and the clan’s forces were led by the Earl of Cromartie. They stayed in the north guarding the Prince’s flank against the Sutherlands and other clans who supported the government.

Cromartie was sentenced to death for his part in the Rising. His wife fainted away as she pleaded with the King for his life. A reprieve was granted but his estates were forfeited. They were returned to his heir in 1784.

The Seaforth family are inextricably linked to the most famous of all those who possessed Second Sight, that unlucky ability to predict the future. Kenneth Odhar, the Brahan Seer, lived in the late 16th century and had already built a formidable reputation for the accuracy of his prophecies when he was summoned to Brahan Castle by the Countess of Seaforth. The earl was in France and she feared for his safety. Her husband was in good health, said the seer, and when further pressed by the Countess added that he was making love to another woman.

The enraged Countess burned him alive in a barrel of tar, a possibility one would have thought the seer might have foreseen, but before he died Kenneth cursed the family.

The curse was remarkable in its detail and said to have been well-known throughout the Highlands and believed.

“I see a chief, the last of his house, both deaf and dumb. He will be the father of four fair sons, all of whom he will follow to the tomb. He will live careworn and die mourning, knowing that the honours of his line are to be extinguished for ever.

And as a sign by which it may be known that these things are coming to pass, there shall be four great lairds in the days of the last deaf and dumb Seaforth – Gairloch, Chisholm, Grant and Raasay – of whom one shall be buck-toothed, another hare-lipped, another half-witted, and the fourth a stammerer. Chiefs distinguished by these personal marks shall be allies and neighbours of the last Seaforth; and when he looks around him and sees them, he may know that his sons are doomed to death, that his broad lands shall pass away to the stranger, and that his race shall come to an end.”

Born in 1754, the last Lord Seaforth had scarlet fever as a boy and became stone deaf. His speech was seriously impaired. Yet he raised a regiment for the British Army in 1778 – the 72nd – and the clan produced another regiment, the 78th in 1793.

Both had distinguished records fighting against Napoleon and in wars throughout the 19th century. Today they have been amalgamated into the Queen’s Own Highlanders. Lord Seaforth was a enthusiastic patron of the arts and sciences. In 1800 he went out to Barbados as Governor, and in 1808 he was made a Lieutenant-General.

He had his four sons – and six daughters. He saw his neighbouring lairds – buck-toothed, hare-lipped, half-witted, and stammering. He saw his sons die one by one, the last, the member of parliament for Ross-shire in 1814 a few months before his broken father followed him to the grave.

The Chief of Clan Mackenzie is the 5th Earl of Cromartie who, along with the Mackenzies of Gairloch, still owns estates in clan country.


Scottish Clan and Family Names:
Their Arms, Origins and Tartans by Roddy Martine
Published by Mainstream £9.99
Tel. +44 (0)131 557 2959
An invaluable guide covering the history, areas of family lands, castles and tartans (ancient and modern) associated with Scottish clans

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