On Gaelic, this name is rendered as ‘Macaoidh’, ‘son of Hugh’. ‘Aoidh’ was a Celtic personal name associated with a pagan god of fire sometimes rendered as Aed or Heth. Exactly who Hugh was is uncertain. Sir Iain Moncreiffe suggested the name comes from a branch of the ancient Celtic royal house who disputed the throne in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He asserted that the Mackays descend from Aedh, the last Abbot of Dunkeld, first Earl of Fife and elder brother of Alexander I. Aedh’s wife was the granddaughter of Queen Gruoch, wife of Macbeth. Malcolm Macaedh, who married a sister of Somerled of the Isles, became Earl of Ross. He died in 1168. Malcolm’s son-in-law became Earl of Caithness. He was also lord of the lands of Strathnaver where, by the fourteenth century, the clan was seemingly established in its recognised form.
Iye was chamberlain to Walter, Bishop of Caithness, in 1263. Angus Dubh, sixth in descent from the Chamberlain, married Elizabeth, sister of Donald Lord of the Isles and granddaughter of Robert II, around 1415. This indicates the clan’s importance, as such a marriage would not have been contemplated, except on political grounds. Angus is said to have been able to call out four thousand men from his lands at Strathnaver. From this height of power, the clan spent the next five centuries fending off their predatory neighbours, the Earls of Sutherland. They were ultimately to lose the lands to the Sutherlands in 1829. (For a detailed study, see Chief of Mackay, by Dr Ian Grimble, published in 1965.)
In 1556 Iye Mackay, then the chief, was captured by the Sutherlands and sent as a prisoner to Edinburgh Castle. His grandson, Sir Donald Mackay, was created a Baronet of Nova Scotia on 28 March 1627. A year later he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Reay. Lord Reay was a distinguished soldier who fought for Charles I in the civil war. He was to have been created Earl of Strathnaver, but the royal patent was not completed. He went into exile in Denmark, where he died in February 1649. His second son, Angus, became a colonel in the Danish army. He married Catherine of Killernan and is ancestor of the Mackays of Melness. His elder son, John, the second Lord Reay, also fought for Charles I. His second wife was Barbara, daughter of Hugh Mackay of Scouri. Her father was better known as General Mackay, who commanded the forces of William and Mary at Killiecrankie in 1689. John’s second son, Aenas, was Brigadier General of Mackay’s Scotch Regiment in the service of the States General of Holland. The family settled in the Netherlands, where they prospered. Barthold Mackay was created Baron Ophemert in the Netherlands in June 1822.
In Scotland, the chiefly line passed to cousins from time to time, when the chief died without heirs. Eric, the ninth Baron Reay, got heavily into debt. The Earls of Sutherland encouraged him to borrow money, having first had their lawyers ensure that the Mackay lands were pledged as security. The Suther-lands acquired the entire estates when Eric died unmarried in 1875. The succession passed to his cousin, the Baron Ophemert who became tenth Lord Reay. His son, Donald, the eleventh Baron, was Governor of Bombay, Under Secretary of State for India and a Knight of the Thistle. He was additionally created a peer of the United Kingdom, but this title became extinct on his death in 1921. The family maintained their links with the Netherlands, and on the eleventh Baron’s death the title passed to his Dutch cousin, whose father had been Prime Minister of that country. Lord Reay died within months of succeeding to the title, which then passed to his fifteen-year-old son. The new chief became a British subject in 1938 and worked in the Foreign Office during the Second World War. He retained his Barony and Castle of Ophemert which escaped damage during the German occupation, although in 1966 an unexploded shell was dredged up from the moat.
There have been many distinguished Mackays in recent times. James Mackay prospered in business, becoming chairman of the P & O shipping line. He was created Earl of Inchcape in 1929. In October 1987, Donald Mackay, now Lord Mackay of Clashfern, was appointed Lord Chancellor of Great Britain. Formerly a professor of mathematics, he entered the law as a second career. He is the first Scot who is not a member of the English Bar, to be appointed head of the English judicial system.