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Issue 31 - With a strong hand (Clan MacKay)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 31
February 2007


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With a strong hand (Clan MacKay)

James Irvine Robertson reveals the history of the once powerful Clan MacKay

You were a Clan Chief who owed money. So what? The traditional way to deal with a dun was to welcome him, show him a gibbet, and say that the strawstuffed effigy swinging there was the last debt collector who had the temerity to ask for payment.

If that did not make him run away, then your clansmen would forcibly expel him and his escort from your territory.

But this admirable system went awry once the clansmen lost their weapons, and the Chief his influence over them. The MacKays once owned the north west corner of Scotland.

Now no longer. A foolish Chief, gambling, and owing money to the richest man in the Britain cost Clan MacKay its land – all of it.

But go there, to the north west of Scotland, and look in the local phone book, and you still will see columns of MacKays.

More so, perhaps, than anywhere else in the Highlands.

The descendants of the original aboriginal population still inhabit what has been their country since the dawn of history.

In Gaelic, MacKay does not mean ‘Son of Kay,’ but ‘Son of Aodh,’ a word that stops any English speaker in their tracks. It was frequently anglicised as Hugh, but, in the surname, the word is Son of Aodh, the Gaelic genitive. So it becomes ‘Mc Ooie’ as in Huey, Dewy and Louie. But the name is generally pronounced to rhyme with ‘McFly’ More significantly, it shows the family as claimants to the 12th century throne of Scotland through descent from the eldest son of Malcolm Canmore, who was disbarred from the throne for being a cleric. His son, Aodh,was King of Moray, centred on Inverness, one of the seven great provinces of Scotland.

David I established his dynasty through his grandson Malcolm IV (1153-1165) who expelled Aodh’s kindred to the far north west and Strathnaver. But their power was not destroyed.

They came south in defence of the nation to take part in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and, a century later, in 1427, Angus Dubh McAoidh, whose wife was granddaughter of Robert II and sister of Donald, Lord of the Isles, commanded 4,000 men. He was known as Angus the Absolute and his troops were certainly kept busy.

When James I took control of his country after 18 years of English captivity, he needed to assert his authority. In 1428, after executing his Lowland opponents, most of them his Stewart cousins, he summoned a parliament at Inverness. Along with the 40 other chiefs who turned up, Angus and his four sons were arrested and jailed. Three chiefs were decapitated and the rest released, but Angus’s eldest son, Neil, was imprisoned on the bleak Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth as a hostage for nine years before he was freed to become chief.

By the beginning of the 1500s, a new family appeared on the MacKays’ doorstep as earls of Sutherland – the Gordons, who built up a reputation in the Highlands for ruthless expansionism second only to the Campbells.

Already earls of Huntly, James IV appointed the head of the family his Lieutenant in the north. The Earl of Huntly fled the field of Flodden and used the instability of the country immediately afterwards to seize the earldom of Sutherland.

The MacKays were well aware of the dangers they faced from these acquisitive neighbours, and took enormous trouble to ensure that they maintained a personal relationship with the King, and that their legal title to Strathnaver and their other lands was unimpeachable.

Clan MacKay fought for James V at Solway Moss in 1542. His death and the accession of Mary Queen of Scots led to dynastic and religious strife.

The MacKays plumped for loyalty to the throne and the Protestant cause. The Gordons decided otherwise and received a check when the Earl of Huntly rebelled and lost his head. But this was but a temporary setback. After a bewildering series of machinations, the new Gordon Earl of Sutherland obtained the feudal superiority of Strathnaver and, in 1587, the MacKay chief had to swear fealty to him.

Nonetheless, Clan MacKay and its chiefs remained steadfast to their cause. In 1626, Sir Donald MacKay raised an army of 3,000 to fight for the Protestants in the Thirty Years War in Germany. After service with King Charles’s brother-inlaw, Frederick, Elector Palatine, MacKay joined King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, the Lion of the North, who described him as his right hand in battle. MacKay was created Lord Reay by Charles I and the Clan remained loyal to the Throne throughout the Civil War and joined Glencairn’s rebellion against Cromwell. But their Protestant convictions could not stomach the Roman Catholicism of James VII.

After the religious wars of the 17th century, many of the Clan settled on the Continent, and a permanent link was established with the Netherlands through Clan members fighting in the Dutch Service. When William of Orange took the British throne in 1688, he appointed Hugh MacKay of Scourie Commander-in-Chief in Scotland, and he was the losing General at the Battle of Killiecrankie. Clan MacKay supported the British Government in all the Jacobite Risings.

After the ‘45, the far north west of Scotland did not face the oppression suffered by most of the Highlands and clan life continued with little change for at least a generation. But the spendthrift 7th Lord Reay succeeded in 1797 and disposed of his estate to the Marquis of Stafford, later to become 1st Duke of Sutherland. In 1806, Stafford leased the Clan lands to English sheep farmers at three times their previous rental, and this marked the beginning of the infamous Sutherland Clearances. That same year, Mackay’s Society was founded by clansmen in Glasgow as a Benevolent Society to provide help for their kinsfolk in need, predating most such societies by half a century.

The title of Chief and the Reay peerage passed to the senior Dutch line and, remarkably, the 11th Lord Reay was both Chief of Clan MacKay and Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Today’s Chief, the 14th Lord Reay, has been both a Government Minister in the United Kingdom and a Member of the European Parliament.