Select Mackay Miscellany

Here are some Mackay stories and accounts over the years:

Pictish Origins and the First Mackay Chief

The most popular and accepted theory as to the first chief of the Mackays is that he was descended from the royal house of the Picts.  These Picts had settled in the province of Moray, but had then been dispersed northward towards Strathnaver in Caithness by King Malcolm IV of Scotland after his victory over Malcolm MacAoidha, the Earl of Ross, in 1160.

Malcolm MacAoidha's daughter Gormflaith married the Norse Harold, Earl of Orkney, whose territory then included Caithness.  Their son was called MacAoidha (or in English documents Ive Mor MacHeth) and he it was who was raised to the chieftainship of his clan in 1250.

The clan allied itself at that time with the Scottish crown against the Vikings and later, under Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, with the Scots against the English.

The Real MacKay

The "real MacKay" is a Scots phrase that first appeared in 1856 as "a drappie o' the real MacKay" in the Scottish National Dictionary.  The dictionary said that the phrase was later adopted as a slogan to promote G. Mackay & Co Ltd's whisky.  Another source has suggested that the term is in fact much older and arose from a dispute between two branches of the Mackay clan as to who was to be the rightful leader.  Lord Reay headed one branch and he came to be known as the Reay Mackay. 

In Scotland the phrase is always "the real MacKay" (with the "ay" pronounced as in the word "eye").  In Ireland this changed to "the real McCoy" as the real thing.  It was "the real McCoy" that got popularized in America during the Prohibition era. 

Mackie Origins

Mackie like Mackay originated from the Gaelic
MacAoidha.  The name appeared in this guise first in Stirlingshire.   William Makke was a charter witness in 1491 in the records of the monastery at Scone and Andrew Makky was a burgess of Stirling in 1574.

The Galloway family of Mackies enjoyed prosperity and influence in the 16th century and the first half of the 17th.  They were enthusiastic supporters of the Covenanters, the defenders of Presbyterianism.

However, the main number of Mackies, about 40 percent in the 1891 census, were and are to be found in Aberdeenshire.  Mackies of Scotland, purveyors of ice cream, is based on a farm in Aberdeenshire that has been in the hands of four generations of Mackies.  Another Aberdeenshire farmer, Maitland Mackie, was an agricultural innovator, as well as the father of three sons who each had remarkable careers in business and politics.  

McKays, Mackies and Mackeys to America

Great Britain

Mackay generally became McKay in America.  The numbers today come out roughly 15 percent Mackay, 40 percent McKay, 10 percent Mackie, and 35 percent Mackey.

Mackeys in North Carolina and Tennessee

John Mackey had married Ann Alexander in Ireland in 1751 and soon afterwards they emigrated to America with John's brothers William and Thomas.  They landed in Philadelphia and settled first in Chester county, Pennsylvania, moving to South Carolina in 1767. 

By 1776, according to family accounts, "John Mackey and members of his family were living on the frontiers of Rowan (now McDowell) county, North Carolina."  Records show that John furnished supplies to Continental troops during the Revolutionary War.  He died at his home on Mackeys creek in Rowan county in 1787.

His son William, born in Rowan county, died of exposure in Sumner county, Tennessee on "Cold Friday" sometime in the 1840's.  Family legend recounts that William was seen to have ridden his horse into a barn. When he did not come into the house, someone went looking for him and found him astride his horse frozen to death.  His wife Mary had already died in North Carolina, killed and scalped in an Indian massacre near Ashville in 1820.

The Mackay Pipers of the Highlands and Nova Scotia

In June 1805 John MacKay and his family shipped out of Stornoway on the Sir Sidney Smith for Canada.  The Atlantic crossing was perilous at that time due to the presence of a French fleet serving as a decoy to Admiral Nelson.  But the Sir Sidney Smith was able to land its passengers safely at Pictou, Nova Scotia some nine weeks later.

John had come from a long line of Mackay pipers who had become famous throughout Scotland during the 17th and 18th centuries.  The first of the line - Ruairidh MacKay - when a young lad had cut off the hand of a man who had been trying to impede the MacKay chief at a ferry point.  Because of the deed, Ruairidh had to flee Sutherland and MacKenzie of Gairloch asked him to become his piper.

Ruairidh passed his skill onto his only son Iain, born when he was sixty.  When Iain was seven years old, he lost his eyesight after contracting smallpox.  Even so, Iain was a piper of renown and became known as Iain  Dall (Blind John) or Arn Riobair Dall (the Blind Piper).

When he died at the age of ninety, his only son Angus succeeded him as MacKenzie's heridary piper.  It was Angus MacKay who pioneered in the art of putting pipe music on paper.  Without the scholarly records left by him, modern knowledge of the classical music of the Highland bagpipe would be very fragmentary.

And the last of these pipers was John, the son of Angus.  But he thought there would be a better future for him and his family across the Atlantic. 

When the Rev. Donald MacKay, a former area representative in Pictou East, was preaching in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, he started a pipe band in which all members wore the ancient MacKay tartan.  That year was 1963.  And the Rev. MacKay and his wife Jean returned to Summerside in 1998 to attend the 25th anniversary of this band.

The McKays of Prince Edward Island

The McKays had come to Prince Edward Island in 1771 and their son Archibald was born there ten years later.  At the time of his death in Malpeque in 1872, not far from the spot where he was born, he was said to be the oldest British subject born on PEI. 

Archibald married an English/Scottish settler and they had twelve children, seven sons and five daughters. Sons William and Lemuel became sea captains and daughter Margaret left for Boston.  The eldest son Archibald moved to New Brunswick in 1847, staying initially at Bathurst and then heading for Moncton in 1852.  At that time there were no steamers between the island and the mainland, crossing of the straits being entirely by sailing vessel.  

The McKays of Lanark Township, Ontario

Fleeing the Highland Clearances and a cholera epidemic, Alexander and Katherine McKay set off for Canada in 1832.  According to family accounts they had five sons and two daughters.  Of their first two sons, it seems that Donald had died as a baby and Thomas died possibly enroute to Canada.  Katherine herself did die on the ship during the hard fourteen week trip.  But the eldest son Alexander (Sandy) McKay survived, as did his young wife Esther. 

The family arrived at Brockville and then still had a long and weary trip to their Lanark settlement.  They were seven miles from their chosen lot when Esther delivered her first child in a brush shack belonging to Mrs. Jock Herron.

Eventually the family arrived at their new homestead in Lanark township.  Six generations later this homestead is still with the McKay family. 

The Emigrant - James MacKay or James Mackie?

The painting The Emigrants by William Allsworth commissioned in 1844 shows a wealthy family by the name of MacKay gathered on the shores of their Scottish Highland home – Drumdruin in Sutherlandshire.  They are surrounded by luggage and are ready to immigrate across the world to New Zealand.  The ship they have chartered to take them – the Slains Castle – sits on the water in the background.  James MacKay Senior, the brother of the local laird, is the leader of this family group.  He stands at the back.  His wife Anne is seated near him.  Also in the painting are their six children – James Junior, Robert, Anne, Janet, Isabella, and Erica - and two of their nephews, Alexander Tertius MacKay and James Tertius MacKay.

The MacKay family pictured there commissioned the painting to commemorate their emigration.  Or so the usual story goes.  In fact, it seems that this painting is not a faithful record of their departure, but rather the family’s attempt to build a mythical history for themselves.

There is no doubt that the family in the picture did arrive in Nelson, New Zealand, on the Slains Castle in 1844, calling themselves the MacKays.  They were certainly very wealthy and brought with them vast amounts of luggage.

However, if you took a closer look at the painting, you might find that some of the tartans worn by the family may be linked to the MacKay tartan.  But most are completely unrecognisable.  Documents have recently come to light that suggest that James MacKay Snr. was probably not the brother of a laird or even a MacKay from the Scottish Highlands at all.  Evidence suggests his real surname was Mackie and that he came from an Aberdeen merchant family.  He spent most of his life in London, and all his children were born there.

As for the Slains Castle, there is no record of it having ever sailed from Scotland.  In 1844, when the ‘MacKays’ left, it sailed from Plymouth in England.  And what of the family’s claim that they had exclusively chartered the ship?  The passenger list shows that there were a number of other passengers on board too, so it is unlikely that it had been hired exclusively for their use.

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