top of page

Clan Mackay

Beginning in the late 1700s, waves of evictions swept through the Highlands of Scotland, as the landlords discovered their land was worth more when used for deer hunting or to raise livestock than was when used for crops. To exploit this new opportunity for capital revenue hundreds of thousands of Scots were expelled from the land.
Clan Mackay (Gaelic: Mac Aoidh) is an ancient and once-powerful Scottish clan from the far North of the Scottish Highlands, but with roots in the old kingdom of Moray. They supported Robert the Bruce during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century. In the centuries that followed they were anti-Jacobite.
The territory of the Clan Mackay consisted of the parishes of Farr, Tongue, Durness and Eddrachillis, and was known as Strathnaver, in the north-west of the county of Sutherland. However it was not until 1829 that Strathnaver was considered part of Sutherland when the chief sold his lands to the Earls of Sutherland and the Highland Clearances then had dire consequences for the clan. In the 17th century the Mackay chief's territory had extended to the east to include the parish of Reay in the west of the neighboring county of Caithness.
The chief of the clan is Lord Reay and the lands of Strathnaver later became known as the Reay Country.

Tales of the North Coast by Alan Temperley and the pupils of Farr Secondary School


For most of its history Scotland has been a poor nation; but its people, raised in harsh conditions, have proved remarkably resilient and enterprising. Scottish names crop up all over the world, often in connection with enterprising and adventurous undertakings. Having thrived overseas, many ex-patriot Scots enjoy returning to the land of their forefathers. They are keen to discover a little of their history – where their family or clan used to live, and what sort of people they were. Inevitably Scotland has changed dramatically and the lands where our forefathers scraped a living may be quite different.


By far the largest clan in the north west is the Clan Mackay and their families have had profuse influences on the area, a mountain race of people bred during many centuries. The name Clan comes from the Gaelic  word for children. The source of the many tales and true origin of the clans are almost lost in the mists of antiquity. From Skene Highlands of Scotland, the Mackays descend from Old Maormors or rulers of Caithness. The first chief of whom there is a record is Angus Dow (Dubh) Black Angus. From him at the beginning of the 15th century later chiefs can be traced. This territory is widely known as Mackay country. The first Lord of Reay the most powerful man in the district was a Mackay and his relations owned vast tracts of land. The earliest sect of the Mackay clan was known as the Abrachs originally from Achness. State documents recognise the chief as proprietor of the entire province of Strathnaver that extended from the western seaboard between Assynt and Cape Wrath  to the Caithness frontier in the east. He was described as the leader of four thousand fighting men.


Formally, the Parish was known as Lord Reay ‘s Country or in Gaelic  Duthaich Mhic Aoi, the Land of the Mackays, extending until 1742, from the river of Borgie near Strathnaver to the Kyle of Assynt, two thousand and seventy one square kilometers. The crest is officially defined as `a right hand holding up a dagger, paleways, proper`. A gold hilt and pommel. The motto is “Manu Forti”- with a strong hand. Before it was Latinised by the College of Heralds in 1628 for the first Lord of Reay it was in Gaelic “Bi Tren” – Be Valiant. An ancient Clan with claims of descent from the Pictish Royal House of MacBeth. The chieftainship is vested in the Lords of Reay who also hold the title Barons Van Ophemert in Holland.


Clan Mackay takes its name from one Aoidh. This Gaelic  name has no exact English equivalent although it is often written in anglicised form in medieval documents as Iye or even as Y. Several clan chiefs bore the name of Aoidh Mhic Aoidh, or Iye Mackay, the most famous of these was killed in a quarrel with the Earl of Sutherland  in 1370. The early Mackay chiefs were supposedly descended from the ancient Pictish rulers of Moray, Morair Maghrath. The Mackays were first established in Durness in the 13th century when twelve davachs of land at Balnakeil were acquired although the ancient seat of the Clan Mackay stands on the edge of the Kyle of Tongue, Tongue House. The chiefs of the clan held lands in north and west Sutherland for almost six hundred years. At the height of their power, they held more than half the County. Continual territorial warfare took place between the clansmen of the Earl of Sutherland and the Mackays. Between 1400 and 1550 there were ten major battles. Early in the 15th century the Mackay army at full strength numbered more than four thousand men. The bloodiest battle between the two clans was fought in 1433 on Druin na Coub three kilometers south of Tongue. In addition to local skirmishes of raiding and looting the MacKay’s fought in the Scottish armies at Bannockburn, Flodden and Solway Moss. Towards the end of the 16th century, the Mackay chieftains became prominent in the religious struggle then prevailing and especially Donald Mackay of Farr, afterwards the First Lord of Reay. Donald Mackay was born in 1590 and succeeded his father Huistean Dhu as chief of the Mackays in 1614. It is not quite clear whether Huistean was the first of the Mackays to become Protestant and that his heir followed his father’s example or whether young Donald took the initiative. In 1616, the honour of Knighthood was conferred upon the young Highland Chief in the presence of the Prince of Wales later Charles I. After the Reformation they were ardent supporters of the Protestant cause and the chief Sir Donald Mackay raised a clan regiment which he took to the continent to fight in the thirty years war. For this service he was raised to the Scottish peerage and took the title of Lord Reay. It was at this point the Mackays suffered the first of a series of financial disasters that led to their downfall. The first Lord Reay had used up most of his resources in the Protestant cause in the service of Charles I. With no compensation he was forced to sell part of his lands to the Earl of Sutherland. This was the first of uncounted sales, the end came in 1829 when the Seventh Lord Reay sold the last of his estates, thus the Sutherland  realised an ambition, which they had failed to achieve in warfare. After a few years of the passing of the Reay Country from Mackay into Sutherland family there was an order passed to have all dogs destroyed. However distasteful this was people had to obey. In 1875 the ninth Lord Reay died without an heir and the succession passed to the Dutch branch of the family.


In 2004 A family in Reay with Clan Mackay Connections contact the Strathnaver museum, about the time the gateway stones were erected and declared that there was still a small portion of Land in Reay that belonged to the Clan Mackay. Further research with the possibility of marking this area are currently underway.

bottom of page