Clan Mackay Society of the USA

History of Clan Mackay

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The Mackays claim descent from the Royal House of Moray through the line of Morgund of Pluscarden and were originally known as Clan Morgan. The clansmen were removed to Sutherland where they rose to a powerful position, at one time owning lands from Drimholisten to Kylescue. Their later title of MacKay comes from a chief so named living at the time of David II. The first record of the name was in
1326 when Gilchrist M'ay, progenitor of the Mackays of Ugadale, made a payment to the Constable of Tarbert. The Mackays supported Bruce and fought with him at Bannockburn and by 1427 the chief, Angus Dubh Mackay was described as leader of "4 000 Strathnaver men". Their fortunes fluctuated over the centuries and many bitter feuds ensued with the Sutherlands and Rosses. In the troubles of the 17th and 18th centuries the Mackays supported the Hanovarian forces against the Jacobites and helped secure the far north for the government. The Mackays of Strathnaver are especially remembered for the famous "Mackay Regiment" raised for the service of the Dutch and Swedish crowns during the 17th century. As a result of this many clansmen settled in Holland and Sweden and gave rise to a number of noble families there. In 1628, Sir Donald Mackay was raised to the peerage of Lord Reay by Charles I. His grandson, Colonel Aenean Mackay of the Scotch-Dutch Brigade, married the heiress of the Baron van Haefton. The Mackays suffered badly in the Strathnaver clearances between 1815 and 1818 and finally in 1829 the Reay estate was sold to the Sutherland family and in 1875 the chiefship passed to Baron Mackay van Ophermett who became 10th Lord Reay. His nephew Baron Aeneas Mackay, prime minister of the Netherlands was the great grandfather of the present chief.

The surname Mackay (McKay, Mackay) is the English equivalent of the Gaelic "MacAoidh" from Mac (son) and Aoidh (the genitive of the proper name Aodh). Aodh was a popular Celtic name and is said to be a form of Aed which is translated as "The fiery or impetuous one".

With the passing of time, the spelling of "MacAoidh" has taken many forms including Iye, Y, Aytho, MacIye, Makky, Macky, Maky, McKye, McKeye, Mackie, Mackey, McKy, McAy, McCei, MacCay, Mackee, Makgie, Ison, Eason, Easson, and many others. The name MacIsaac is said to be a corruption of MacIye.

Clan Morgan, the old name for Clan Mackay, may be derived from the Moray connection of the clan. Earliest reference to Clan Morgan is found in the "Book of Deer," where the toisheach of the clan is so described. Sir Robert Gordon tells us that the clan was termed Clan-Vic- Morgan from one Morgan who flourished in the fourteenth century.

     [From: "The Clan Mackay", by Margaret O. MacDougall]

Clan MacKay Genealogy

                            - Janet MacKay, Seanachaidh

Is it true that the MacKays can trace their ancestry back to Adam? Alfred J. Lawrence, in his text "The Clan Bain with its
Ancestral and Related Scottish Clans", puts forth a very convincing argument - complete with genealogical lines (generation by generation) back to Japeth, son of Noah. From Noah, we have only to refer to the Bible for the remainder of the names of the paternal line back to Adam and Eve!!

This is possible by tracing the ancestry of Lulach, whose daughter married Aed, Earl of Moray, and the earliest of the MacKay Chiefs on record. No records exist to provide the exact forebears of Aed, but it is known that he descends from a Norse-Pictish ancestry. However, Lulach's descent from the High-kings of Erin is considered to be accurate back to Conn "of the Hundred Battles" - as early as the second century A.D. Mr. Lawrence outlines the line of descent from Japeth, generation by generation, to Conn but cautions his readers that the accuracy of this genealogical line is questionable.

Before the Christian era in Erin, information was passed down from generation to generation by bards with especially trained memories. This system can not be depended upon to be accurate over a long period of time. Early writers, mostly monks, tried to record in Latin the information recited by these bards. Some of these monks, in a conscientious attempt to make their information agree with Biblical record, appear to have developed a list of names which extended the known pedigree backwards to show the line as descended from Japeth. "Caveat Emptor" !!!

An interesting account, told by Rev. Angus Mackay in the Book of Mackay, comes from William Forbes' preface to the "House of Forbes". He says that "Ochonochar, an Irish Lord who came over to Scotland, had a son Ochonochar, and that this second Ochonochar had three sons, who became the respective progenitors of the families of MacKays, Urquharts and Forbes.

A outline of the genealogical origin and branches of MacKays is well beyond the scope of this article. Interested readers are referred to "The Book of Mackay" by Rev. Angus Mackay (1906), and "The History of the House and Clan of Mackay", by Robert Mackay (1829). These texts can be found in the reference section of many libraries.

The branches of Mackays, as outlined in the "Book of Mackay", are as follows: Aberach Mackays, Scoury Mackays, Bighouse Mackays, Strathy Mackays, Melness Mackays, Sandwood Mackays, Dutch Mackays, Swedish Mackays - now von Key, Galloway Mackays, Argyle and Western Mackays, Erchar or Vic Farquhar, Polson, Achmonie Mackays, Mackie, Mack, and the three different forms of the name Iyeson or Mackay: Ison, Eason, and Esson.

The MacKays in Argyllshire and Galloway became a sept of the Lords of the Isles (MacDonald of the Isles). In these areas, the name MacKay is derived from Morgan's grandson, Aodh, whose mother was a MacNeil of Gigha. MacKays in the Western Isles of Scotland also form a sept of the Lords of the Isles. MacKays or MacAys of Clan Chattan, from Inverness-shire eastward, are really a sept of Clan MacDhai, or Davidson.

A number of Clan MacKay members in Nova Scotia can trace their ancestry back to The Book of Mackay. One MacKay family group is known to descend from the marriage of Aed, Earl of Moray, and his wife - the daughter of Lulach - which took place circa 1085. Then, if one chooses to follow the maternal line, back to Adam!!

Clan MacKay Genealogy Project

 A number of Clan MacKay members in Nova Scotia can trace their ancestry back to The Book of Mackay. One MacKay family group is known to descend from the marriage of Aed, Earl of Moray, and his wife - the daughter of Lulach - which took place circa 1085. Then, if one chooses to follow the maternal line (accounting of course for caveat emptor), back to Adam!!

The Clan MacKay Genealogy Project centres around the original MacKay emigrant, and from that generation backwards into Scottish history and forward in the line of direct descent to clan members and/or their cousins. We acknowledge with humble appreciation the work of Dr. Allan Marble (Genealogical Consultant for the Clan MacKay Society of New Scotland) in his extraction of the names of the people noted in records held at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia as having emigrated to Nova
Scotia. These MacKays form the base of the ongoing search for every emigrant MacKay - a project that in itself is never ending, we fear!!

Bit by bit, leap by leap, advances are being made. It is a group project to be shared by all clan members. MacKays are encouraged to submit their genealogy to the permanent holdings of the Clan MacKay Society of New Scotland. Those wishing to have their genealogy held in confidentiality, are encouraged to indicate this when it is submitted. It is perhaps a game of "Russian Roulette" to expect one's ancestry can be immediately "served up" by Clan MacKay on submission of one's known forebears. Sometimes this is the case - and the discoveries are exciting! Other genealogies must bide their time until more is
revealed to tie the ancestors with other MacKay families. However, the law of probability increases with the amount of information available in the Clan MacKay genealogical files.

Genealogical accounts and/or enquiries are always welcomed by the Clan MacKay Society of New Scotland. It is through genealogical research and discovery that one finds new cousins, and in meeting them an almost instant bond of kinship develops.

Septs of Clan MacKay

 Crest of Clansfolk of Clan MacKay


Notes re Septs of Clan MacKay

The Bains, or Baynes

 The Bains or Baynes are descendants of the son of Neil, brother of Angus Dubh, Chief of the Clan Mackay in the early 15th century. Their progenitor was John Bain or Fair. A branch of these Bains settled near Dingwall in the 16th century. They acquired Tulloch, afterwards the property of the Davidsons.

MacPhail, Macvail, Paul, Polson

All are synonymous names. Paul, another descendant of Neil, the ancestor of the Bains, was the progenitor of the Siol-Phail sept of the Mackays. Paul MacTyre was the name of a famous Sutherlandshire freebooter who lived in the 14th century, and was Lord of Strathcarron, Strathoykell, and Westray. His fortress was Dun Creich, commanding the Kyle of Sutherland (Tongue?). The Polsons of Creighmore were said to be descendants of the Paul or Pol. Alexander MacBain, in his notes to Skene's "Highlanders of Scotland" (2nd ed.), says: "Tyre was not his father, as usually is supposed, but Mac-tire (meaning `Wolf.' a common name in his day and earlier); the name is Paul Mac-Ic-tire."


     This sept is descended from Neil MacNeill Mackay. King James I gave him lands in Creich and Gairloch in 1430.


Robert Mackay, historian of the clan, writes (in 1829): "During the last two centuries there have been a respectable family of Williamsons of Banneskirk, in Caithness, of the Shiol Thomais Mackays, descended from Thomas, brother of Neil Mackay, slain at Drimnacoub.

MacCay, MacQuey, MacQuoid

The name Mackay in another form - the last an anglicised rendering of Mac-Aoidh.

MacKee, MacKie, MacCrie

These forms of Mackay are found in the Hebrides and Galloway. The clan historian says:

Alexander (progenitor of the Mackays) was succeeded by his son Walter, and he by his son Martin, who was slain in Lochaber, from whom, it is supposed, the MacKies, MacGhies and MacCries of Galloway and Ireland, and Mackays of Argyle are descended.


MacGhie/MacGhhie are not "Mackays," and the old family of MacGhie of Balmaghie, which for about 600 years possessed estates in Galloway, used completely different arms from any arms of the Chief of Mackays. They continued in possession of their lands until 1786, and presumably derived from Isle MacGhee in Ulster.

The Mackays of Argyll

The Mackays of Argyll are frequently alluded to as MacGhees.

[From: "The Clans, Septs and Regiments of the Scottish Highlands,"
by Frank Adams. 1908]

Clan MacKay Pipers

Let us begin our story of the MacKay pipers in the year 1626. It was in that year that Sir Donald MacKay (also known as Donald Duaghal) raised two thousand men from the MacKay country to go and fight for King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (who was the champion of the Protestant cause). Religious wars were raging in Germany in the same way as they are going on in Ireland today. The Scots' troops were used as shock troops for the Protestant cause. They made a great name for themselves but the casualties were extremely high. After eight years of fighting only one piper of the original thirty-six remained. In that year, 1634, all the mercenaries from Scotland, France, Holland and Germany were brought together to form one regiment under the command of Sir John Kepburn, himself a Scot. When Hepburn arrived to take over his new command, the remaining MacKay piper blew long and loudly a note of welcome on the Great Highland war pipes. Sir Donald MacKay's regiment remains today as the Royal Scots.

Gairloch is the ancestral home of the MacKenzies of Gairloch. Hereditary pipers to the MacKenzies were the  MacKays who came from Sutherland. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these MacKay pipers were almost as celebrated as the MacCummons of Skye. The first of the family, Ruairidh, came to Gairloch in rather a strange fashion. The chief of the Sutherland MacKays was on his way south to visit the land of Gairloch. At the ferry at the Kyle of Sutherland a dispute arose between MacKay and his followers and another party over which group had priority for the crossing. Ruairidh MacKay, a young lad of seventeen, cut off the hand of a man who  was trying to impede his chief. Because of this deed, Ruairidh had to flee from Sutherland. MacKenzie of Gairloch asked him to become his piper. Ruairidh was over sixty when his only son, Iain, was born.

When he was seven years old, Iain lost his eyesight after contracting smallpox. Iain was a piper of renown and became known as Iain Dall (Blind John) or Am Piobair Dall (The Blind Piper). At an early age he was sent to the MacCummon College of Piping at Dunvegan in Skye. Jealous of the Blind Piper's skill, pupils of the college planned to kill him. They chased him over a rock causing him to fall between twenty and thirty feet below.  Miraculously he escaped serious injury. Iain Dall was piper to Sir Kenneth MacKenzie, the first baronet of Gairloch. He was a gifted poet as well as a piper. He had the rare distinction of combining the office of bard with that of piper. Iain Dall's stature in the Gaelic music world was immense and the stories of his skill are still repeated. His compositions of ceol more (great music) and ceol bag (little music) were not written down until after his death. When he died at the age of ninety, his only son Angus succeeded him as MacKenzie's hereditary piper.

One story told of Angus is that there was to be a great competition in Edinburgh. Angus was expected to win. As there was always jealously among pipers, just before the competition was to begin, one of his rivals pierced his pipebag with a knife. A friend, whose name was Mary, came to his aid by finding him an undressed sheepskin. Working throughout the night, Angus fashioned it into a bag for his pipes. The next day he won the competition and later composed the well-known piobaireachd Maladh Mairi (Mary's Praise for Her Gift). The last of these Gairloch pipers was John, son of Angus. He had a very large family - ten daughters (three of whom were  married) and two sons. He thought there would be a better future for them in America.

In June 1805 on the Sir Sydney Smith, John MacKay and his family shipped out of Stornoway. The Atlantic crossing was perilous, owing to the presence of a French fleet serving as a decoy to Admiral Nelson, as part of the naval cover for Napoleon's planned invasion of Britain. The MacKays must have been anxious to emigrate as they couldn't have chosen a more dangerous time to leave. The Sir Sydney Smith landed its passengers at Pictou, Nova Scotia some nine weeks later. John MacKay brought his family to settle along the East River. In July 1811,  he petitioned the government for a grant of Crown land at East River having already purchased a holding there when he had arrived in 1805. John's two sons were proficient pipers. Angus, the elder, was presumably trained in Scotland with a view to taking his father's place as Gairloch piper. He continued to pipe in Nova Scotia and he also taught. Squire John, the younger son, quit piping at the age of eighteen.

This John MacKay from Gairloch was not the first piper in Nova Scotia. The story is told that a piper arrived at the Hector when it was due to sail from Loch Broom. He didn't have any money for passage and was refused permission to board the ship. The other passengers prevailed upon the captain to permit him to join them. They agreed to share the food with him if permission was granted. On September 15, 1773 the Hector dropped anchor in Pictou Harbour. The passengers were piped ashore to beloved music of John MacKay's pipes. Alice Bardsley, Director of Publicity for the Clan MacKay Society of Nova Scotia, can trace her family back to John MacKay.

Another John MacKay was pipe major of the King's Own Borderers from 1856 - 1869 after transferring from the 78th Regiment. He is known for a number of pipe tunes.

Angus MacKay pioneered in the art of putting pipe music on paper. Without scholarly records left by him, modern knowledge of the classical music of the Highland bagpipe would be fragmentary. Angus MacKay's brother, John, did quite an extensive manuscript collection. This manuscript collection dates before 1848.

Kenneth MacKay, piper in the 79th Highlanders, earned immortal fame by playing the piobaireachd Cogra no Geth ('Peace or War') round the squares between the changes of the French Cavalry during the Battle of  Waterloo.

Pipe Major John MacKay, Liverpool Scottish Pipe Band from 1903-1925, was a very accomplished player, particularly of piobaireachd.

Neville MacKay, from New Zealand, spent several years in Scotland in the late 1940's and into the 1950's. While in Scotland he received tuition from Pipe Major John MacDonald and Pipe Major Robert Brown. He was in the prize list of the Northern Meeting and for a time was pipe major of the Aberdeen Police Pipe Band. Upon his return to New Zealand, he adjudicated some of the major competitions. He was a studious piper and was considered one of New Zealand's authorities on piobaireachd. Neville's brother, Iain, became one of New Zealand's leading solo pipers. He also spent some time in Scotland     where he learned a tremendous number of piobaireachd from Pipe Major Donald MacLeod and Robert Brown. He won the New Zealand Commna Piobaireachd medal at the Hastings Highland games and at least two clasps to this coveted prize. He was largely responsible for the lecture tour visits of Pipe Major Donald MacLeod and Pipe Major Robert Brown to New Zealand in the 1960's and 1970's.

The original constitution of the Clan Mackay Society in Scotland provided for the "appointment of pipers in such numbers as the Council may think fit". Two were appointed in 1888 - Pipe Major John Macdonald, a member of  the Sutherland Highlanders of Paisley, Scotland, and Donald Mackay, piper to the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). Today, in 1988, this Society also has two pipers - Alexander Mackay, a member from the West of Scotland, and young Kenneth Mackay from Altnaharra, Sutherland.

In the records of meetings held by the Clan Mackay Society in Scotland, the piper is always mentioned. In the account of a ceilidh in Edinburgh in 1905, we find that "Pipe Major Mackay of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, who had distinguished himself at the Battle of Magersfontein and was a Boer War veteran, gave a stirring selection on the bagpipes".

The Mackay pipers were made of stern stuff - in 1919, the Secretary was instructed to "write a letter of
congratulation to Piper John Robert Mackay as he 'had served throughout the Great War, often under arduous conditions, though well over 50 years of age when he had enlisted'!!"

In 1979 when the Clan MacKay Society of Nova Scotia was formed, Douglas MacKay of Earltown became the first clan piper. Doug enjoyed music and was a member of the group who organized the Pipers' Picnic in 1965. This picnic is still enjoyed each August in Earltown.

When Rev. J. Donald MacKay, former area representative in Pictou East, was preaching in Summerside, P.E.I., he started a pipe band, in which all members wore the Ancient MacKay tartan. The year was 1963. This summer, on 24 July 1988, Rev. MacKay and his wife Jean returned to Summerside to attend the 25th Anniversary of this band.

On May 18, 1980 Dr. Kenneth MacKay resigned as Chairman of the Board of the Institute of Piping. About thirty years previously he had proposed the idea of certificates for pipers. His project began with a meeting in the old Highlanders Institute on Elmbank Street. It was attended by representatives from all over Britain. After many  meetings, the Scottish Pipe Band Association decided to opt out and initiate their own certificates. This caused the abandonment of the idea for a short time. The College of Piping, however, with Dr. MacKay as Chairman of its Executive Committee took up the idea and offered certificates which were eventually gained by pipers all over the world. The third step was the formation of the Institute - this combined the Piobaireachd Society, the Army School of Piping and the College of Piping in one joint-body for the awarding of certificates to pipers and teachers of piping.

Malcolm Mackay from Motherwell, Scotland visited Nova Scotia in 1987 during the International Gathering of the Clans. Malcolm Mackay studied piping under John MacKenzie who had been pipe major for the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders before teaching at Queen Victoria School in Dumblane. Malcolm's brother is piper to the Clan MacKay Society in Scotland.

Another MacKay served as pipe major of the 48th Highlanders of Canada in the person of Reay MacKay.

     Copyright (C) 1988; Barbara Stewart
Official Piper, Clan MacKay Society of New Scotland


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