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Mackay Ancestry

RLM Epistle 5, November 1975:


ROBERT, a retired physician, to his Grandchildren.

The Place of my Father's Ancestry in relation to the Clans and to the History of Sutherland. Some Facts and some Speculation!

I have documentary evidence to show that numbered among my 32 Great-Great-Great Grandparents were:

Hugh Matheson, of Brea (Brae) and Torboll. 1720/5-1805. John Macdonald, of Shin-ness, on Loch Shin. (?dates)

There is presumptive evidence, based on Family Tradition, that three men of the name William Murray, father, son and grandson, lived at the croft Inchure, Acheilidh, in Strath Fleet, a croft still occupied by some of their descendents.

The Military List for the Sutherland Estate, dated 1745, shows a William Murray living at Acheilidh, judged fit for military service and aged between 16 and 60. I assume he was the youngest of these three mentioned above. His Grandfather, William Murray I, was believed to hail from Aberscross, a few miles down Strath Fleet.

There is also documentary proof to show that among my 16 Great-Great-Grandparents are:

John Murray I, of Inchure, Acheilidh. He died there in 1798. Ann Sutherland, wife of the above. She died there in 1839. Donald Matheson, of Craigkilisie, Strath Carnaig. He died in 1793. Helen Macdonald, of Rearchar, wife of the above. Died at Rhoine, 1810.

Our family bible names Andrew Mackay (1781-1836) as one of my Great-Grandparents. He came from Culrain, on the Ross-Sutherland border. In 1815 he married Margaret Macpherson, of Dounie, near Edderton.

There is a great probability that Margaret's father was Alexander Macpherson, a crofter at Dounie from about 1800 to 1824. Mackay tradition was that these Macphersons were a feckless lot, and my visit to Balnagown Estate Office gave some confirmation so far as Alexander Macpherson was concerned.

For the purpose of this essay it must be mentioned that all these places lie within some 18 miles South and South-East of Lairg, except Shin-ness. All are in Sutherland, except Culrain and Edderton. See Ordnance Survey Map, 1 inch to the mile, Bonar Bridge, Sheet 21, and Dornoch, Sheet 22. (Probably in kilometres by the time some of you read this!).

So YOU, my kinsfolk-readers, bearers of so many different and even unusual family names know now where some of your ancestral roots are to be found. If you have the desire "to belong somewhere" then you may rightly claim South-East Sutherlandshire as one of your ancestral places of origin. I cannot at present trace named ancestors further back than those I have mentioned here. These were all humble tenant crofters, pursuing a subsistence type of living more or less successfully until rising rents, evictions, lack of employment opportunities and rising prices forced them to seek another type of life in the cities and colonies.

The next item for consideration is to attempt to describe the state of the Highlands in the times of the progenitors of our named ancestors. For this purpose I submit to you the opinions of several highly disciplined professional historians, men not emotionally involved, (except perhaps the Rev. Angus Mackay), whose first duty was to establish facts before giving a verdict.

Hume Brown: "At the beginning of the 18th Century the Highlanders remained in much the same condition as they had been in for hundreds of years before, still divided into clans with chiefs over them."

Fitzroy Maclean: "In the North-West, beyond the Highland Line, life went on much as it had for 500 years before", (i.e. prior to the reign of James IV, 1485-1513).

Macdonald: "In 1770-1850, economic organisation, at least in the more remote areas, had changed but little from mediaeval times. Feudalism still held sway in certain parts."

John Prebble: "In the 17th Century they lived in crude huts, the floor covered with fern and heather on which they rested with healthy ease, contemptuous of all civilised comforts."

Angus Mackay: "During the time of Donald, First Lord Reay (1614-49), there is some evidence that the people of Strathnaver were growing in culture, rude as it seems from our standpoint. More and more of the leading families were learning to write, as their signatures to wadsets, etc. prove. Many may have learned to write while serving abroad as military officers."

Dickenson: "Even in the middle of the 17th Century and English traveller in Scotland was amazed to see sheep grazing on the roofs of their low houses. A little later another traveller spoke of the houses of the common people as 'very mean, mud walls and thatch'. These primitive dwellings had usually only one room, or two rooms at most, with a floor of beaten earth."

Moncreiffe, on the other hand, in a long description, gives a less depressing picture without disturbing the general impression that change, if any, was painfully slow.

Mackay-Scobie: "The population was kept down by constant visitations of smallpox, and by other diseases attributable to defective accommodation and insanitary conditions, while the generally hard conditions of life prevented any but the strongest children from reaching maturity. On the other hand, owing to the climate being bracing and salubrious, longevity was common. The physique was of a high order, and the height above average."

These authoritative opinions, taken at random from the books on my shelves, agree in stating that in the period, say, 1200-1700, there was no significant change in the style of life in the Scottish Highlands. This comment would doubtless apply more strongly in a distant and sparsely occupied area such as Sutherland. Here, communications were very poor, the main 'road' being along the East coast, and in places more or less a dirt track. There was in 1800 only one substantial bridge in the County, namely over the river Brora. In that year the best way to reach Edinburgh would be by sail from Invergordon.

If one looks at a map, of say 5 miles to the inch, then our named ancestors lived in a very small area indeed, represented by some seven contiguous squares of 25 square miles each, say 175 square miles. This was bounded by the Rivers Shin and Fleet, and by the Dornoch Firth, making for a somewhat compact population. Although clan raids and forays were frequent, and counter-attacks inevitable, up to 1745, there were no great changes of population. In spite of clan feuds, intermarriage among the clans was quite common. I hazard the guess that among the humbler tenantry first cousin marriage was unusual, but more frequent among the families of chiefs.

The Military List quoted earlier and dated 1745 shows that in the four parishes of Dornoch, Rogart, Creich and Lairg (wherein our named ancestors lived) there were registered 1091 men able to bear arms for the Government. Among these were 190 Mackays (17.4%); 73 Sutherlands (6.7%); 63 Murrays (5.8%); 62 Macdonalds (5.7%) and 30 Mathesons (2.7%). These Mathesons were rather late-comers to this district, and their origins are still a matter of debate among Mathesons themselves. I observed only two Macphersons on the List. There were a great many family names which one associates with the Lowlands of Scotland.

So far I have been dealing only with the origins of our family, and not with the origins of the clans in our ancestral tree. These six named clans, Mackay, Sutherland, Murray, Matheson, Macdonald and Macpherson all had their beginnings outside the County of Sutherland. On the origins of these six clans I have had two essays accepted, in February and May 1975, by the Editor of Mankind Quarterly, in Edinburgh, for publication. The fact that our nation is in the midst of an economic crisis just now may explain the delay in printing. D.V. you may receive copies in due course!

From all the evidence available I am disposed to assume it as probable that most of my father's ancestors lived in and around South-East Sutherland for some six or more centuries. My father was George Mackay, born at Bonar Bridge in 1866. The stock from which he sprung was an amalgam of Picts, Scots or Gaels from Ireland, Angles, Vikings, with through all this time a continuing immigration of Anglo-Normans from the South. This last group brought the English Language to rival the native Gaelic, and ultimately to supersede it.

The facts of geography, of climate, flora and fauna upon our distant ancestors may be guessed at. These determined the character of the Scottish Highlander, in our case, more specifically the Highlander of Sutherland. The last to merit that description would be my grandfather, William Mackay, (1826-1907). All his ten children left home for Glasgow City. Of these ten, two proceeded to U.S.A. None married in Sutherland. All but one married Lowlanders.

But History seems whiles to reverse its course. In War I, my cousin, Frank Gordon Macdonald and I became Sutherland Highlanders for a time, each serving, by choice, with the successor to the County Regiment, in the 8th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders!

References: Hume Brown. A short History of Scotland. Edinburgh 1906. pps 508/9. Maclean. A Concise History of Scotland. London 1970. p 66. Macdonald. Scotland's Shifting Population. 1770-1850. Jackson and Co. 1937. p 3. Prebble. The Lion in the North. Penguins. 1973. p 226. Mackay. The Book of Mackay. 1906. p 141. Dickenson. Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603. London 1961. p 372. Moncreiffe. The Highland Clans. London 1967. pps 9-42. Mackay-Scobie. An Old Highland Fencible Corps. Edinburgh 1914.

I am grateful to The Countess of Sutherland, and to R.J. Adam of St. Andrews University for kindly giving me the opportunity to study a contemporary copy of the Military List of 1745.

R.L.M. 14 November 1975.

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