The surname itself is rendered in Gaelic as ‘Mac Coinnich’, from the personal name meaning ‘fair bright one’, given in English as ‘Kenneth’. The Mackenzies were one of the clans who held lands in Ross between Aird on the east coast and Kintail on the west. They are believed to share a common ancestry with Clan Matheson and Clan Anrias, all three descending from the Celtic dynast Gilleoin of the Aird, who lived at the beginning of the twelfth century. He seems to have been a scion of the ancient royal house of Lorn. By 1267 the family seem to have been settled at Eilean Donan, the great Mackenzie stronghold at the mouth of Loch Duich.
By the fifteenth century the earldom of Ross formed part of the patrimony of the Macdonald Lords of the Isles, and at that time the Mackenzie chief could call out two thousand warriors to do his bidding. Alexander Mackenzie of Kintail attended the Parliament at Inverness summoned by James I, at which the king imprisoned the Lord of the Isles with some of his important chiefs. The Mackenzie chief was too young for this fate, but he quickly learned to whom he should pay allegiance, a lesson which succeeding Stewart monarchs were to hammer home to the other Highland chiefs, and he obtained royal charters to his lands of Kintail in 1463. The Mackenzies weathered the storms which the Stewarts unleashed on the Macdonalds, so that their fortunes waxed as the Macdonalds’ waned. Alasdair of Kintail raised his clan against the last Earl of Ross and was rewarded by James III, who granted him extensive lands taken from the defeated earl. The splendid tomb of his son, Kenneth, in the full armour and panoply of a knight, can still be seen in Beauly Priory. The monument is an outstanding work of its time and testimony to the importance of the chief it commemorates. In 1508, Kintail was erected into a free barony.
The feudal obligation of the chief was to render up a stag to the king, and this may account for the stag’s head in the Mackenzie chiefs’ coat of arms, and the old motto ‘Cuidiche an righ’, ‘The king’s tribute’. By the beginning of the seventeenth century the Mackenzie territory extended from the Black Isles to the Outer Hebrides. They gained the island of Lewis from its former Macleod rulers and Lochalsh from the Macdonells. Their western stronghold was at Eilean Donan Castle where they installed the Macraes as hereditary constables. The Macraes were fierce in defence of their Mackenzie overlords, becoming known as ‘Mackenzie’s shirt of mail’. In 1609 the chief was raised to the peerage as Lord Mackenzie of Kintail. Fourteen years later, his son was created Earl of Seaforth. Lord Mackenzie’s brother, Sir Roderick Mackenzie of Coigach, was to found the line created baronets in May 1628 and, in 1702, Earls of Cromartie. They made their chief seat at Castle Leod, a name chosen to demonstrate their connection with the Macleods of Lewis.
The Seaforth Earls embraced the reformed church and were signatories of the National Covenant in 1638. They fought against Montrose during his campaigns in 1645–46, the chief’s standard being taken at the Battle of Auldearn. The execution of Charles I appalled Seaforth, who hurried to join Charles II in exile in Holland. He died before Oliver Cromwell’s final victory at Worcester in 1651. His heir joined in the rising against the Commonwealth in 1653, which ended with the defeat of the royalists by General Monck at Loch Garry. Seaforth made his peace with Cromwell in January 1655.
The family did not waiver in their support of the Catholic James VII, and Seaforth fought at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. He was already a Knight of the Thistle, but the exiled king made him a marquess. The fifth Earl was charged with treason for his participation in the rising of 1715, and his titles were forfeited. Although his grandson was made Earl of Seaforth again, the male line came to an end in 1815. The Earls of Cromartie were also Jacobites, and George, the third Earl, fought at the Battle of Falkirk in 1746. He and his son, Lord Macleod, were surprised and captured at Dunrobin Castle in April 1746. The earl’s titles were forfeit. His son, John, was pardoned in 1748 and in 1777 he raised two battalions of Highlanders and served in India with the rank of major general. For his services the forfeited estates, but not the title, were restored to him. His descendant, Anne, was created Countess of Cromartie in her own right in 1861, with a special destination of the earldom in favour of her second son, Francis. The present Earl of Cromartie is her descendant. Throughout the nineteenth century the right to the chiefship was disputed. However, this was put to an end when the father of the present earl matriculated his arms in June 1980. He was officially recognised by the Lord Lyon as ‘Cabarfeidh’, chief of the Mackenzies.