A Brief History of Clan MacKay

  1. The Irish Kings of Dalriada (to 501 A.D.)
  2. The Tribe of Loarn (501 to 736)
  3. The Royal House of Moray (736 to 1215)
  4. The MacKays of Strathnaver (1215 to 1614)
  5. The Lords Reay (1614 - )
  6. Appendix A: Kings of Scots (844 to 1290)
  7. Bibliography

Return to MacKay Family & Connections in the Maritimes.

The Royal House of Moray

(736 to 1215)

The history of Scotland as a unified kingdom begins with the reign of Kenneth MacAlpin (circa 834 to 858). Kenneth may have succeeded to the throne of the Picts through his mother, as the Picts followed the custom of matrilinear succession to kingship. At any rate, he made good his claim by conquering the Picts, becoming the first King of Scots. From Kenneth MacAlpin are descended all the Kings of Scotland, save for the interlude of Macbeth and Lulach, as we shall see.

Sometime in the century after the reign of Kenneth, the branch of the Tribe of Loarn headed by Ruadri moved into the province of Moray. Moray is the land south of the Moray Firth, around the present-day town of Elgin. The leader of the Moraymen was called a mormaer, which is a Celtic title equivalent to the Anglo-Scandinavian earl, which we use today.

The descent of the MacKays through the mormaers of Moray begins as follows: Ruadri was the son of Aircellach, king of Dalriada; this Ruadri had a son Cathmail, who had a son Donald, who had a son Morgan, who had a son Donald, who had a son Ruadri. 5

This latter Ruadri had three sons: Findlaech, Maelbrigte, and Donald. It is Donald who is believed to be the male ancestor of what was to become the Clan MacKay. The only evidence concerning Donald which we have is an addition to the mediæval Book of Deer. In it, we find written the following: "Donald, Ruadri's son, and Malcolm, Culen's son, gave Biffie to God and to Drostan." 6 What this means is that Donald gave title to land over to the Abbey of Deer, along with the younger son of Culen, the King of Scots from 967 to 971. This incident is referred to in Burke's Guide to the Royal Family, where the author notes "Malcolm, co-benefactor with Donald MacRuadri of Moray of the Abbey of Deer ca [around] 1000." 7

Concerning the brothers of Donald there can be found more information. Findlaech was the father of Macbeth, who became King of Scots. Maelbrigte was the father of Malcolm and Gillacomgain. Up until 1020, it seems that Findlaech was mormaer of Moray. In that year, the following event is noted in the Tigernach Annals: "Findlaech, Ruadri's son, mormaer of Moray, was slain by the sons of his brother Maelbrigte."8 Malcolm, eldest of the sons of Maelbrigte, succeeded to the title of the uncle whom he had murdered, but he subsequently was killed in 1029. Gillacomgain then became mormaer of Moray. Gillacomgain made a very advantageous alliance when he married Gruoch, grand-daughter of Kenneth III, the King of Scots from 997 to 1005. This advanced the claim of the House of Moray to the throne of Scotland. Gillacomgain and Gruoch had a son, Lulach. The mormaer himself did not long enjoy this heightened influence, for in 1032, the following befell him: "Gillacomgain, Maelbrigte's son, the mormaer of Moray, was burned, along with fifty of his men."9

The mormaership then passed to Macbeth, cousin of Gillacomgain and son of Findlaech. Macbeth quickly strengthened his rule by marrying the widow of Gillacomgain, Gruoch, in that same year, 1032. But Macbeth aspired to greater things than the leadership of the Moraymen. He became a commander in the army of Duncan I, King of Scots from 1034 to 1040. What happened next differs in the accounts put forward by the supporters of Macbeth, or by the supporters of Duncan. The ultimately victorious Duncan camp has largely succeeded in putting over the view that Macbeth murdered Duncan in an infamous act of betrayal, at Bothnagowan (which is now called Pitgaveny) near Elgin, on the 14th of August, 1040.10 After Duncan's death, though, Macbeth ruled Scotland for seventeen years, a fact which shows that he had widespread support, and was an able king. His position was so secure, that the Annals show he made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he distributed alms to the poor. Macbeth may have gained legitimacy through his wife Gruoch, the grand­daughter of Kenneth III, but he also had pretensions in his own right. He was the mormaer of Moray, a House which claimed the throne of Scotland by the Celtic law of tanistry. His mother may have been Donada, the second daughter of Malcolm II, King of Scots from 1005 to 1034. 11 If this was the case, then Macbeth's claim was on a par with Duncan I's, who was the son of Bethoc, eldest daughter of Malcolm II. In any event, the interlude of the House of Moray on the throne of Scotland was not to last long. The son of Duncan I, Malcolm Canmore, took revenge for the murder of his father, and slew Macbeth in battle at Lumphanan, Aberdeenshire, on the 15th of August, 1057.12 Macbeth was buried on Iona, alongside the Kings of Scots and Dalriada.

The Moraymen did not give up their claim to the throne, or cease from pressing it. They put forward Lulach, the son of Macbeth's wife Gruoch by her first husband Gillacomgain, setting him upon the Stone of Destiny at Scone, and proclaiming him king in 1057. The tide was against them, though, and the reign of Lulach was a brief one. We find Lulach referred to as "The Simple" --- again, by the victors in this struggle, so he may only have been ill-fated. Once again, Malcolm Canmore revenged himself upon the House of Moray, and killed Lulach in battle at Essie in Strathbogie on the 17th of March, 1058. 13 Lulach had reigned for a mere seven months. Malcolm Canmore became Malcolm III, King of Scots, and the House of Moray was never again to lead the Scottish kingdom.

The fight continued, though, in various guises, for almost two hundred years. Lulach had two children: a son, Maelsnectan, and a daughter. Maelsnectan became mormaer of Moray on the death of his father in 1058, and must have continued the rebellion against Malcolm III, for we find that in 1078 he was expelled from his mormaership by the king. Maelsnectan subsequently became a monk, and died in 1085. The daughter of Lulach married Aedh, and it is with this Aedh that the male descent of the MacKays continues.

As in the case of Donald, Ruadri's son, there is scant evidence concerning Aedh. The Reverend Angus MacKay, in his invaluable work, The Book of MacKay, has this to say about Aedh:

The next Earl* of Moray was Aed, who married the daughter of Lulach. Little is known of Aed. He is identified as the Earl Aed who witnessed charters by King David I, son of Malcolm III. Whatever he may have been during the chequered years which immediately followed the death of Canmore [in 1093] the fact that he witnessed royal charters later on may indicate that he lived at peace with King David. He also appears to have become Earl of Moray in virtue of his marriage with Lulach's daughter, and may have sprung from a collateral noble family of Moray.14

*  about this time the old Gaelic title Mormaer was replaced by the Saxon title Earl

Rev. MacKay's speculation in this last sentence is borne out by Burke's Guide to the Royal Family, which has the following entry for the issue of Lulach: "A dau[ghter], m[arried] Aedh (or Heth), Mormaer of Moray in 1078, possibly great-grandson of Donald, yst [youngest] son of Ruadri, Mormaer of Moray." 15 In the lack of contrary evidence, Table 3 shows Aedh as the great-grandson of Donald. Aedh became mormaer, or Earl, in 1078, when Maelsnectan was expelled; in that same year he married the daughter of Lulach, who was Maelsnectan's sister. If he signed charters of David I, then Aedh must have remained Earl until after 1124.

Aedh had three children: two sons, Angus and Malcolm, and a daughter, Gruaidh. Angus was Earl of Moray after his father. He revived the Moray claim to the throne, and raised an army against King David I in the year 1130. At the time, the king was absent at the English court, and the safety of the kingdom was in the hands of his constable, Edward, the son of Earl Siward. Battle was joined at Stracathro in Forfarshire, and the Moraymen were defeated by the royal army. Angus, the Earl, was slain, along with 4000 of his men. The title passed to his brother, Malcolm, who carried on with the struggle.

Malcolm was known as MacEth; "Eth" or "Heth" is the equivalent of the Gaelic "Aedh": Malcolm's father. After the defeat in 1130, Malcolm MacEth fled to the Western Isles of Scotland, where his cause was taken up by Somerled, the powerful Regulus of Argyll (later to become Lord of the Isles). Malcolm married Somerled's sister, and the two men raised an army to press the Moray claim to the throne. To resist this force, King David called for help from the English barons of the border district. The threat of this army advancing northwards proved sufficient to thwart the Moraymen, and Malcolm MacEth was betrayed into the hands of King David by his own adherents in 1134. For the next twenty-three years, Malcolm was imprisoned in Roxburgh Castle.

The daughter of Aedh, Gruaidh, married William, the only son of Duncan II, King of Scots in 1094. The Earldom of Moray was forfeited by Malcolm MacEth when he was imprisoned in 1134, and King David I bestowed it upon his half-nephew William. If he hoped by this measure to end the rebellion of the Moraymen, he was quickly proved wrong, for the children of William showed that their loyalty lay with their mother's House, and they took part in the coming rebellions alongside the son and grandson of Malcolm MacEth.

The male descent of the MacKays follows Malcolm MacEth and his descendants. Malcolm MacEth had a son named Donald, who found himself head of the Moraymen when his father was imprisoned in 1134. Donald MacEth retained the support of his uncle, Somerled, and together they fought the royal forces until 1156. In that year, King Malcolm IV, who reigned from 1153 to 1165, decided to recognise the conquests which Somerled had made, amongst which was the Isle of Man. Somerled, in turn, showed how little the claims of his nephew meant to him by handing him over to King Malcolm. Donald MacEth was captured at Whithorn, and was sent to join his father in Roxburgh Castle. No more is recorded of Donald MacEth, and presumably he died in prison. His father, though, was released the following year, in 1157, and given the Earldom of Ross, a lesser title than that of Moray. Malcolm MacEth did not stay long in the favour of King Malcolm IV, for the records show he was recaptured in 1160 and blinded.16 The unfortunate Earl Malcolm died in prison on the 23rd of October, 1168,17 having spent thirty years of his life as a prisoner.

Beginning in 1160, Malcolm IV and his brother and successor William the Lion expelled the Moraymen from the province of Moray. Most of them fled over the mountains of Ross, north into Strathnaver. From this group came the Clan MacKay. These exiles were befriended in Strathnaver by Harold, the Norse Earl of Caithness. The wife of Harold was Gormlath, who was the daughter of Malcolm MacEth. She was a staunch enemy of the Scottish king who had imprisoned her father and brother, and she helped to carry on the rebellion in the far north of Scotland.

The last member of the Royal House of Moray to press his family's claim to the throne of Scotland was Kenneth MacEth. Kenneth was a grandson of Malcolm MacEth,18 and so he was a son or nephew of Donald MacEth. By this time, though, the line of MacEth was not powerful enough to even lead the dispossessed Moraymen. That honour went to Donald Ban Macwilliam, a grandson of Gruaidh, Aedh's daughter. The King of Scots, Alexander II, who reigned from 1214 to 1249, sent an army under Ferquhard Macintagart to fight the Moraymen. To this Ferquhard had gone the title of Earl of Ross, when it was taken from Malcolm MacEth upon his recapture in 1160. The royal army defeated the last rebellion of the Moraymen in 1215. Both the commander, Donald Ban Macwilliam, and Kenneth MacEth were killed in battle.

At one time, the mormaers of Moray were effectively independent princes in their province. Two centuries of rebellion, though, against the royal house of Kenneth MacAlpin's descendants, had destroyed their power. The Earldom of Moray was lost in 1134, and even the minor fief of Ross was taken away in 1160. By 1215, the House of Moray was both exiled and defeated. Once the hopeless dream of kingship was given up, though, the descendants of Aedh began to thrive in their new home of Strathnaver.

To summarise the descent of the MacKays from the time of Ruadri: as we have seen, Ruadri was the mormaer of Moray; he had a son Donald, the co-benefactor of the Abbey of Deer around 1000; Donald had a great­grandson Aedh, who married the daughter of Lulach, King of Scots, and became mormaer of Moray in 1078; Aedh had a son Malcolm MacEth, who became Earl of Moray on the death of his brother Angus in 1130, was imprisoned and deprived of Moray in 1134, released and given the Earldom of Ross in 1157, recaptured and deprived of Ross in 1160, and died in 1168; Malcolm MacEth had a son Donald MacEth, who led the Moraymen after his father's capture in 1134, and himself was imprisoned in 1156. Donald had a son, or perhaps nephew, Kenneth MacEth, who was killed in battle in 1215. Table 3 gives the genealogy of the House of Moray. Appendix A is the pedigree of the Kings of Scots from 858 to 1249.

5  from the genealogies in the Books of Leinster, Ballymote and Leccan, as quoted in William F. Skene, Celtic Scotland: A History of Ancient Alban, v. III, (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1890). p. 476.
6  Book of Deer, pp. 91-95, as quoted in Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, vol. II, p. 176.
7   Burke's Guide to the Royal Family, (London: Burke's Peerage Limited, 1973). p. 312.
8  Tigernach Annals, year 1020, as quoted in Anderson, Early Sources.
9  Annals of Ulster, vol. I, p. 564 sub anno 1032, as quoted in Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, vol. I, p. 571.
10  Sir Archibald H. Dunbar, Scottish Kings: A Revised Chronology of Scottish History. (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1899).
11  Ibid.
12   Burke's Guide to the Royal Family, p. 313.
13  Ibid.
14  Rev. Angus MacKay, The Book of MacKay. (Edinburgh: Norman MacLeod, 1906). pp. 21-22.
15   Burke's Guide to the Royal Family, p. 313.
16  MacKay, The Book of MacKay.
17   Burke's Guide to the Royal Family, p. 313.
18  MacKay, The Book of MacKay.

                                   Table 3
                           The Royal House of Moray

                                  circa 736
                                mormaer of Moray
             |                         |                       |
         Findlaech                Maelbrigte                 Donald
      mormaer of Moray                 |                    circa 1000
      murdered 1020          ---------------                   |
             |              |               |                  |
             |           Malcolm            |                  |
             |     mormaer of Moray 1020    |                  |
             |       killed 1029            |                  |
             |                              |                  ?
             |       2nd      1st           |                  |
          Macbeth   =   Gruoch   =   Gillacomgain              |
   mormaer of Moray 1032         | mormaer of Moray 1029       |
     King of Scots 1040          |    killed 1032              |
       killed 1057               |                             |
                               Lulach                          ?
                          King of Scots 1057                   |
                             killed 1058                       |
                                 |                             |
                            ------------------------           |
                           |                        |   1078   |
                      Maelsnectan               daughter  =   Aedh
                mormaer of Moray 1058-78               Earl of Moray 1078
                       died 1085                          |
   |                   |                                  |
 Angus           Malcolm MacEth            William  =  Gruaidh
Earl of Moray  Earl of Moray 1130-34   Earl of Moray
killed 1130    Earl of Ross 1157-60                 |
                   died 1168                        |
                       |                            |
      =================------          -------------+---------------
     |                       |        |             |               |
Donald MacEth   Harold = Gormlath   Donald      Gosptrick        William
     |      Earl of Caithness      Macwilliam  Lord of Airton Lord of Egremont
     |                 |           killed 1187  died 1208
     |                 |              |
     |                 |              |-----------------------------
     |                 |              |              |              |
Kenneth MacEth  John Haroldson     Godfrey        Donald Ban     daughter
 killed 1215       died 1231      Macwilliam      Macwilliam        |
                                 executed 1213    killed 1215       |
| anscestry of the MacKays                                   executed 1228

Continue to The MacKays of Strathnaver

These pages written and maintained by Michael MacKay.

Last updated: July 26, 1998.

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