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Clan History

RLM 1974:

Many of you who have read my earlier Epistles and Essays have been nurtured far from Scotland, and have not had the opportunity to learn much about that country in which generations of your ancestors lived. Here, I explain briefly about these distinct races, which, by and around the 12th Century had merged fairly well to form 'The Scottish Highlander'. About this period the Clans began to form. I also mention the places of origin of the several clans from which we spring - Mackays, Murrays, Sutherlands, Mathesons, Macphersons and Macdonalds - and also suggest a reason for the Mackays being concentrated at first into the most remote corner of North-West Scotland, far from the seat of central government.

After the establishment, in the 12th and 13th Centuries of the clan system, somewhat feudal in its form, there followed a period of some five centuries of ever-changing clan alliances, rivalries, warfare, kept going by proud, ambitious, jealous chiefs and their offspring. The clan histories are very much alike in their recording of raids, murders, betrayals, deceits, as well as of diplomatic marriages, occurring, chapter by chapter, in the reigns of successive chiefs. The Mackays and Sutherlands formed no exceptions. Their early chiefs always married into the aristocracy of the times.

Our own family cannot claim or prove or disprove descent, legitimate or otherwise, from any known chief. Traditionally our ancestors were crofters. Emigration with them did not begin until the Highland Clearances of the early 19th Century. They appear to have built their dwellings according to the pattern of the time, all members of the family co-operating in the task. They shared in a subsistence living, with a few sheep and cattle, a horse or two, pigs and fowl. Each croft had a few acres of better land around it, and shared the hill grazing with neighbours. They manufactured nothing, and exported nothing. I found no evidence of any of our forebears following a definite trade or practicing a craft.

The earliest named ancestors only come into written history in the first half of the 18th Century. It may be, when all the papers at Dunrobin Castle have been sorted out that more definite information will be available about them, especially about Murrays, Mathesons and Sutherlands, who lived on the Ducal Estate, before the Clearances. There is scope for a Ph.D. Thesis on this historical subject. The dates which I give in the following pages are all well documented.

Prehistoric Times.

There is much evidence that the County of Sutherland, like the rest of Britain, was inhabited during the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. The one inch to the mile O.S. Map shows a fine array of monoliths, stone circles, burial chambers and vitrified forts.

Most impressive of all are the Brochs, i.e. Duns or Pictish Towers - massive, circular, dry-stone towers, some 30 or 35 feet in height, of much use in defence, and found especially around and near the coasts of Northern Scotland. There are 60 in Sutherland alone, and they are not found elsewhere in Europe. They are probably relics of the Bronze Age. The foundations of one are sited just a few yards below the Matheson croft at Brea, in Strath Carnaig. The iconoclastic Mathesons may well have used the stones of the broch for their early croft.

In the midst of the village of Embo, near Dornoch, is a splendid multi-chambered tomb of about the same period. These should be seen as well as the hut circles in the fields above Bonar Bridge, and those just south of Asdle where John Murray II and Ann Matheson established their home in 1820.

Roman Period

The early inhabitants of Britain became known as the Picts, an alternative name for those in Scotland being the Caledonians. They mostly came from North-West Europe, from Celtic races there, arriving in successive waves in the second and first millennia, B.C.

Picts and Romans fought against each other in Scotland for the first four centuries A.D., their most northerly contests being in the Grampians. The Pax Romana did not extend to Sutherland, but Roman galleys often sailed along its shores, scouting, fishing and landing for water and supplies, possibly doing a little trading.

Ptolemy, about 140 A.D. compiled maps of the then known world, and showed thereon places we recognise today, e.g. the rivers Nabarus (Naver), Ile (The Uillie at Helmsdale) and Alta Riva (the High Bank of the Oykell). Abona represented Bonar Bridge. The Romans named two tribes in Sutherland. These were the Caereni or Sheep People of Assynt and Strathnaver, and the Lugi who lived in the low area between Helmsdale and Dornoch, by the sea. These latter would probably carry on some hazardous trading with small ports along the Moray Firth.

No trace of the Pictish language remains, but it is suggested that the syllable 'pit' which occurs in place names, such as Pitlochry, Pittentrail, Pitleslie, may be a remnant of their tongue.

Arrival of The Scots.

Following the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain around 406 A.D. came an invasion of the Northern and Western shores of Scotland by a tribe called the 'Scots' from Ireland. After fierce fighting these Scots gradually overcame the Northern Picts, and formed in time a Pict-Scot amalgam.

In 563, Columba from Ireland landed at Iona, and his missionaries (later named the Culdees) spread over much of Scotland, founding churches dedicated to native Celtic or Irish saints, e.g. Fergus, Tristan, Columba, Calum, Caelan. This movement was in contrast and conflict to one from the Anglo-Roman Church in England spreading North into Eastern Scotland with dedications to biblical saints, e.g. James, John, Matthew. This struggle between the Celtic-Roman and the Anglo-Roman churches became one of great historical interest and importance, especially to the people of Scotland.

A Pict-Scot union was finally sealed when Kenneth MacAlpine in 843 became King of all Scotland, with his capital at Scone, near Perth. It is likely that he had little influence over the few inhabitants of Sutherland.

The Viking Invasion.

The success of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, followed by that of the Danes, in invading England, sparked off similar assaults by other tribes from Northern Europe upon the shores of Scotland, especially upon the Northern and Western coasts. For nearly 500 years, the harassing attacks of these warlike Norsemen, or Vikings, continued. At first they came for booty, but local conquests followed, and then inter-marriage produced in Sutherland and neighbouring counties a unity of a loose kind.

A great many Norse words were added to the local Gaelic (Celtic) vocabulary, especially words dealing with the sea and shipping. Norse personal and place names were also absorbed by the inhabitants, more in the sea-girt parishes, less inland.

With their defeat at the Battle of Largs in 1263, Norse power faded, but hardy sea-loving men of Norse-Scot-Pict descent remained on, especially in the Western Highlands and Islands. The lovely lilt and music of the Hebridean Sea Songs and Love Songs, passed down in Highland homes and memories, and only relatively recently recorded in writing, form part of our Highland heritage, now built-in as part of our Being, cheering, strengthening, teaching us to endure.

Malcolm Ceanmore. 1057-1093.

The next important event affecting the Highlands was the 35 year reign of Malcolm Ceanmore. His second wife was Margaret, grand-daughter of Edmund, King of England. For years before, and centuries after Malcolm, the English Kings claimed sovereignty over Scotland. Under Margaret's influence, Malcolm encouraged the immigration of numbers of Saxon and Norman nobles and officials into Scotland, giving them grants of land under the terms of the feudal system. At the same time, Margaret promoted the practice of Roman-Catholic ritual and discipline in the Celtic-Roman church. The immigration of the English into Scotland has continued up to the present day, partly for commercial and social reasons, often for matrimonial and sporting objectives!

Development of the Clan System.

These foregoing paragraphs show the racial factors which preceded the development of the several clans to which some of us belong. They indicate, as a basis, a Pict-Scot-Viking-English mixture, not yet a unity by the 12th Century as far as the Highlands and the county of Sutherland are concerned. The spread of the clan system and the origins of separate clans are well described by many writers, e.g. in Robert Bain's "Clans and Tartans of Scotland", published by Collins of Glasgow, price 1 yesterday, 2 tomorrow?. A first rate book.

What now follows refers more especially to the Mackays, Murrays and Sutherlands in our ancestry. It is unlikely that our Mathesons, Macphersons and Macdonalds were so greatly affected.

The Clan Mackay.

The scholar, Rev. Angus Mackay, in his book "The Book of Mackay", 1906, wrote: "The Strathnaver Mackays were known in ancient times as the Clan Morgan. The earliest reference to the Clan Morgan is to be found in the Gaelic entry in the Book of Deer, dated a few years later than 1132. The name Morgan comes from the Gaelic word 'mor' meaning the sea, or sea-bright. The place name Moray comes from the same root, and means sea-side. There is a connection between the name Moray and the name Murray".

It is an historical fact that the men of Moray for more than 100 years were in continuous revolt against the rule of the Kings of Scotland because of their anglicising, feudalistic tendencies. The Province of Moray was approximately that part of the Highlands between Aberdeen on the East, and Inverness and the Great Glen on the West.

The Diaspora of The Men of Moray.

Again I quote from the Rev. Angus: "King Malcolm IV in sheer desperation determined to remove the Moray supporters of MacEth, and to plant the Province with people loyal to his throne. Fordun thus describes the event in his Annalia, of which we give the English translation: 'At this time, around 1160, the rebel nations of the Moray men, would neither for prayers or bribes, leave off their disloyal ways, or their ravages among their fellow countrymen. So, having gathered a large army, the King removed them all from the land of their birth, as of old Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, had dealt with the Jews, and scattered them throughout other districts of Scotland, both beyond the hills, and this side thereof, so that not even one native of that land abode there, and he installed therein his own peaceful people'".

Fordun was a secular priest, living near Aberdeen. He died about 1184. On reading his statement one assumes that Mackays (traditionally descended from the old Royal House of MacEth), Murrays, Sutherlands, and 'other tribes' (e.g. Rosses, Bannermans, Munros, possibly) in the Province were scattered North, South, East and West. The great majority of the Mackays went North. At that time they were probably more numerous than their neighbouring clans in the Province.

The Dispersion Continues.

The action of King Malcolm IV was probably not a pitched battle, but rather a process taking several years, in which the King's soldiers steadily evicted the rebels, using fire and sword where necessary, until these awkward folk were well outside the boundaries of his Northern Province. Then the King progressively brought in Lowlanders, English and Normans as replacements.

Meanwhile, in irregular groups, by rough paths, through forests, over moors, streams and hills, the deportees pressed on towards the North-Westering sun, and into the sparsely populated valleys of central Sutherland where they met their fore-runners, the Pict-Scot-Viking amalgam. Some, possibly Murrays, may have fled by sea, landing at Aberscross beyond Dornoch. The King's displaced bannermen, few in number, may also have sailed, in this case towards Helmsdale, to try to establish a foothold in the wilds of Kildonan, near the turbulent long-entrenched Gunns.

In this period, the 12th and 13th Centuries, certain men established themselves as leaders in many areas of the North, and around these gathered relatives, friends, individuals of varied origin, landless men, fugitives. These began to offer a common loyalty to a local leader or chief with whom they had no blood ties, but whose surname (where such existed) they were soon ready to share.

A Query. A possible answer!

I have often wondered how the Clan Mackay came to be settled further away than any other clan from the centres of culture and learning. I offer this as an explanation:

The Clan Macleod was very firmly established in Assynt, with its mountain fastnesses, deep lochs and narrow valleys, long before King Malcolm IV drove the Mackays out of Moray. The Macleods were of Norse origin, their base was the Island of Lewes. The sea was their highway, and Assynt their strongly held outpost in the West of Sutherland. Their motto was 'Hold Fast' and this they did. In the East of the County was the Clan Gunn, mainly around Kildonan, a warlike, aggressive lot, holding their land, not by charter or by title deeds, but by the sword.

The entry of the outlawed Mackays into Sutherland was thus menaced by these two powerful clans, Macleods on their left flank, Gunns on their right. The route of the Mackays was thus inevitably directed towards the centre of the County. They were unable to fan out until well past these two well-organised, watchful clans, i.e. until they came to what was later to be named 'The Reay Forest', or Mackay's Country. Here they established their rule, backs to the sea. They had no sea-faring tradition, nor did they become seafarers. Their landward frontier corresponded roughly on the South-East with Strathnaver, and their territory became known in Gaelic as "Duthaich'ic Aoidh". In a sense, in these early days the attitude of the clan might be regarded as defensive.

As the centuries passed their numbers increased greatly until by 1834 they had spread well over the County, and represented over 20% of the population. But they never succeeded in obtaining a foothold in Assynt. In that Parish, in 1834, (on one list) there were 110 families of Macleods, 50 of Mackenzies, and only 4 of Mackays.


The sources from which I have acquired some knowledge on the foregoing are mentioned later. These sources are of very unequal value. A thoroughly well documented history of the Clan Mackay had yet to be written. The first serious work devoted entirely to the clan written by Robert Mackay, solicitor of Thurso, in 1826 does not mention Malcolm Ceanmore. Robert, like Rev. Angus Mackay in his work, enjoys pointing out grave errors by earlier writers such as occur in Sir Robert Gordon's "History of the House of Sutherland up to the year 1651".

The Name Mackay

The name in ancient days was spelt in a great variety of ways. It represents in English the Gaelic name 'Aodh', a compound of 'Mac' (mac) and 'Aoidh', the genitive of the proper name 'Aodh'. Sometimes it is spelt as 'Iye,' or simply 'Y'. It is a specific name in its own right. Donald, 1st Lord Reay, 1614-49, had two sons, one named Aodh, and the other named Hugh, which seems to show they were different names.

Donald, 1st Lord Reay, and the Historians!

Robert Mackay, Thurso, 1829: "Donald, 1st Lord Reay had five wives, 1st The Hon. Barbara Mackenzie, 2nd Lady Mary Lindsay, 3rd Rachel Winterfield, 4th Elizabeth Thomson, 5th Marjorie Sinclair"... But Angus Mackay, 1906: "Donald had three wives. We do not believe he was married to Mrs. Harrison, and Robert Mackay is certainly mistaken when he says he was married to Mary Lindsay".

Truth! Where?

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