Select Mackay Surname Genealogy

Mackay - or in Gaelic MacAoidha - is a Scottish Highland clan, deriving from mac meaning "son of" and Aoidh, often written in English as "Ive," meaning "fire" and originally the name of a Celtic god:
  • the Mackay clan came originally from Strathnaver in Caithness and was said to have had Pictish origins.
  • the MacAoidha name also produced the Mackays of Kintyre in the Western Isles (the Mackays and McCays of Ugadale) and the Mackies first found in Stirlingshire. 
The MacAoidha name cropped up as well in the Isle of Man and in Ireland.  Cucail Mac Aedha, tracked in Moore's Manx Names, appeared as early as 1098, from which came MacQuay.  The Gaelic O'Macdha sept, to be found in Connacht and Tipperary, was one source of the surname Mackey:

"Mackey may be of either Irish or Scottish origin.   Pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, it is Iriah, an anglicized form of the Gaelic O'Macdha, descendant of Macdha (a name meaning "virile" or "manly").  With the stress on the second syllable, it is a variant of the Scottish McKay."

McKay and its variant McCoy, usually found in Ulster, seem to have been Scottish imports.  Other name variants in Ireland have been McKee and McHugh (as Aoidh was often anglicized as Hugh).
Select Mackay Resources on The Internet
Select Mackay Ancestry

Scotland.  The Mackays descended from the Old Maormors or rulers of Caithness and their homeland, Duthaich Mhic Aoi or "Mackay country," has been in the far northeast of mainland Scotland.  Their clan history over the years has been recounted in the Rev. Angus Mackay's 1906 book The Book of Mackay.

The first chief of whom a written record exists was Angus Dubh Mackay (or Black Angus) in the early 1400's.   His was the land "from Drimholiston to Kylescue" and he could raise a mighty fighting force.  In 1431 Angus married Elizabeth, sister to Domhnall the Lord of the Isles, and she brought with her a dowry of 100 fighting men from Lochaber.  Their sons were known as the Abrach Mackays and were the earliest sect of the Mackay clan.

The Mackays were renowned for their strength, courage, and skill in fighting and they were involved in endless battles against their neighboring clans during the 15th and 16th centuries.

"In 1542 chief Donald Mackay of Strathnaver invaded and molested the lands of clan Sutherland.  He burned the village of Knockartoll and stole many goods from Strathbrora.  Clan Sutherland and clan Murray attacked the Mackays at Ailtan-Beath.  After the battle the Mackays fled and much of the stolen booty was recovered.  Donald Mackay himself was captured and imprisoned at Foulis castle."

In 1626 Sir Donald Mackay raised an army of over 3,000 men and fought in Europe in the Thirty Years War. He was ennobled as Baron Reay (after the name of the clan territory).  The Mackays themselves were anti-Jacobite during the 18th century and thus were saved the Government backlash after Culloden.

However, the Mackay chiefs had become increasingly indebted and were being forced to sell off their estates, the last of which went in 1829.  Mackays on the land became victims to the Highland clearances.

"The eastern side of Strathnaver, over 20 miles, was cleared in 1814, with houses, outhouses, mills, kilns, and every other structure destroyed in order to form three sheep farms.  Some 85,000 acres of land was cleared of the 150 families who had lived there for generations.  In 1819 the land from Mudale to the sea, another 28 miles, was made desolate and the inhabitants expelled to form two sheep farms.  In less than a week the whole of this area was devastated and denuded of more than 400 families."     

Large numbers of Mackays began to emigrate.  

Holland.  The Mackays were supporters of William of Orange who took the English crown in 1688 and a Mackay regiment fought in the Dutch service against the French.  Their leader, Aeneas Mackay, died in this service.  But his widow, who was Dutch, brought up his family in Holland.  It was to this branch of the family to which the Reay title passed in 1875. 

Ireland.  Some Scottish Mackays came to Ireland as gallowglasses or mercenaries to Irish warlords in the 16th century.  Others from Kintyre had long-standing links with the O'Donnell sept in Antrim.  And others again may have come as a result of the Scottish plantstions in Ulster. 

McKay, found in Ulster mainly, is probably of Scottish origin, as is McCoy.  In fact these two names were often used interchangeably during the 19th century.  Mackey in Ireland may be of Irish or Scottish origin.

England.  Mackays in England may be Scottish, such as the Mackays who in the late 19th century had invested in and ran the Trowbridge woollen mill of Palmer & Mackay in Wiltshire.  But a large number of the Mackays and Mackeys in Lancashire were of Irish or Scots Irish origin. 

  McKay, Mackie, and Mackey are common names in America, McKay and Mackie from Scotland and McKay and Mackey from Ireland.  Among the 18th century arrivals were:
  • Robert Mackay, a Quaker pioneer in America who first settled in New Jersey in 1723 and then moved to Warren county, Vurginia.  Family tradition has it that Robert had come from Scotland with his parents as part of the Perth Expedition.  The house built by his son Robert in Cedarville, Virginia still stands.
  • John and Ann Mackey, who came from Ireland with their family iin the early 1750's.  They eventually settled in Rowan county, North Carolina where John died at Mackeys creek in 1787.
  • Iver McKay, who came to Bladen county, North Carolina from Argyllshire in Scotland around 1760.   His grandson James was an influential Congressman for North Carolina in the 1830's and 40's. 
  • Robert Mackay from Scotland, who had established himself as a merchant in Savannah by 1760.   The Mackays were prominent Savannah merchants and plantation owners up to the time of the Civil War.
  • Donald Mackay, who in 1760 stayed on in the Mohawk valley in upstate New York after having served with the 78th Highland Regiment in Quebec.  A Loyalist, he and his family departed for Canada after the Revolutionary War was over. 
  • and Thomas McKie from county Tyrone in Ireland who arrived in North Carolina around 1770.  He fought in the Revolutionary War, drew land in Georgia, and moved to Elbert county there with his family.
Beatrice Mackey Doughtie's 1961 book The Mackeys and Allied Families traced Mackeys from Lauderdale county, Alabama.

Heading West  Two McKays made names for themselves in the American West in the 19th century:
  • one was David McKay from Caithness who had come out to Salt Lake City in the 1860's and was the father of two prominent leaders of the Mormon church.  
  • the second was John Mackay from Dublin.  He struck it rich in a silver mine in California in 1873.  From the proceeds he developed an international cable business, first across the Atlantic and then, continued by his son Clarence, across the Pacific.
"Clarence Mackay was said to have inherited $500 million on the death of his father in 1902.  In 1926 his daughter Ellin married Irving Berlin against his wishes and he disinherited her."

.  Some early McKays in Canada were fur traders.  Alexander and William McKay were Loyalist sons from upstate New York who had crossed over to Canada in 1792.  William fought on the British side in the War of 1812; while Alexander headed west and was one of the founders of Port Astoria on the Columbia river (he was killed there in 1811 during an Indian uprising).  Son Thomas worked for the Hudson Bay Company and later settled in Oregon. 

James McKay, a trader also with the Hudson Bay Company, became a leading figure in the Red River settlement in present-day Manitoba.  Another early Manitoba settler was John Richard McKay who died in Brandon in 1810.  His son Charles moved onto Washington county, Oregon in the mid 1800's.

McKays in the Maritime provinces could be:
  • Loyalists who had resettled there (many of whom were to be found in St. John, New Brunswick)
  • British soldiers who had stayed on after their period of duty was over, such as the McKays of Jordan Falls, Nova Scotia - from whom came Donald McKay the shipbuilder.
  • or new arrivals from Scotland.  One such was John McKay, an early settler on Prince Edward Island.
"The British brigandine ship Edinburgh had a complement of seventy passengers and their register showed the McKay family names and the payments for their passage.   The vessel set sail from Campbelltown in Argyllshire and reached Prince Edward Island on September 17, 1771."

John's son Archibald lived and died in Malpeque, Prince Edward Island.  John was followed in 1773 by Roderick Mackay on the Hector, the first Scottish emigrant ship to Pictou, Nova Scotia.  In 1805 another John Mackay, the last of a long line of Mackay pipers, arrived in Pictou.

There were also McKays escaping the Highland clearances, such as Alexander and Katherine McKay who departed Scotland for Lanark township, Ontario in 1832; and William Mackay who came to Prince Edward Island around the same time.

Australia and New Zealand.  The MacKays were a wealthy family who arrived in New Zealand on the Slains Castle in 1844. 

"The MacKay family even brought a prefabricated home which took a week to unload and servants, including a shepherd and a blacksmith."

They were a Mackie Aberdeen merchant family, not the MacKay lairds as they had depicted themselves in the painting The Emigrants. 

Meanwhile, poorer Highland emigrants to New Zealand usually had assisted passage.  That was the case with Angus MacKay who had arrived on the Henrietta in 1860 and settled, as did many other Scottish Highlanders, in Otago, South Island.  Robert Mackay was a shepherd at the Rakaia Gorge station outside Canterbury, his daughter Jessie a well-known New Zealand writer and poet. 

The Mackay name is best known in Australia through John Mackay, the son of Scottish immigrants, who explored the northeast coastline of Queensland in the 1860's.   The town of Mackay was named after him. More recently the Mackay name in Queensland has been more associated with bananas.  Stanley Mackay first began growing bananas in Queensland in 1945 and his family's banana plantations are now the largest in Australia.

Select Mackay Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select Mackay Names

Angus Dubh Mackay (Black Angus), who lived in the early 15th cntury, was the first recorded chief of the Mackay clan. 
Sir Donald Mackay in 1626 raised an army of over 3,000 Mackay men and fought with them in Europe in the Thirty Years War.
Donald McKay was a Canadian-born American designer and builder of sailing ships in Boston in the mid 19th century.
John Mackay was an American capitalist who developed an international cable business.  When he died in 1902 he was one of the richest Americans of his day.
James Mackay of Arbroath, later Lord Inchcape, was a British colonial administrator in India and a diplomat in Asia in the early 1900's.

Select Mackays Today
  • 46,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 30,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 62,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

Click here for reader feedback
Click here for return to front page