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 Lords Reay

(1614 - )

The son of Hugh Mackay, Donald, was raised to a baronetcy in the year 1627. He applied for and was granted a warrant to raise troops to fight for the Protestant cause in the Thirty Years' War, and led 3000 men, mostly Mackay clansmen. Fighting under the command of the King of Denmark in Holstein, they won for themselves the name "the Invincible Scots." In February, 1628, King Charles I elevated Donald Mackay to the peerage, as Lord Reay. The title itself is a mark of the the superior manipulation of the Crown by Sutherland, in contrast to the simple loyalty of Mackay. As the Book of Mackay observes: "His proper and natural title was Lord Strathnaver, but the Sutherland family picked that up in 1588, when they secured the superiority of Strathnaver from the king." 22

After the Denmark phase of the war, Lord Reay's regiment became a favourite corps of King Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden, during the fighting in Germany. Exemplary among the exploits of the Mackay clansmen was the defence of the Pass of Oldenburg. The Rev. Angus Mackay describes the action thus:

Their next great exploit was at the Pass of Oldenburg, which Sir Donald was instructed to hold at all hazard, in order to enable the Duke of Wiemar to embark his troops at Heiligenhafn. From daybreak to sunset of a late October day, Mackay held the pass with his men against an overwhelming host under Tilly. Torn and stung by shot and ball, they clung to the position with a heroic tenacity which defied the indomitable Tilly. As may be imagined their losses were very heavy. Sir Donald himself was severely wounded by the explosion of a barrel of gunpowder, but he grimly stuck to his post; while Sir Patrick McKie of Largs and other officers had to be carried off the field. When the regiment went into winter quarters shortly after this, of the 3600 men who had embarked at Cromarty, only a twelvemonth before, but 800 whole and about 150 maimed survived. In other words, in a four months' campaign they lost three-fourths of their number. Truly the glory of war is bought at a great price! 23

Donald, 1st Lord Reay, remained loyal to Charles I, opposing the Covenanters, and was a leader in the defence of Newcastle during the siege of 1644:

The defence of Newcastle was the most brilliant military exploit of the Royalists during the Civil war, for the dashing victories of Montrose were but rapid tumultuous Highland charges; and the credit of it may justly be claimed for Lord Reay, whose military experience on the Continent made him the most capable general within its walls. 24

Donald Mackay died in February, 1649, in Denmark, and his body was returned to Strathnaver to be buried.

Donald's son and heir, John, also joined the Royalists, and was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle in 1649. When Cromwell came north, every prisoner except John, 2nd Lord Reay, was released, and parliamentary forces were quartered in Tongue at Mackay's expense. He was released in December, 1650, and subsequently lived mostly in Strathnaver. His eldest son, Donald, predeceased him, but survived to have a son of his own, George. When John died in 1684, his grandson George succeeded him as the 3rd Lord Reay.

Throughout his life, George Mackay supported the Crown unwaveringly, and opposed the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745. During the latter disturbance, Mackay inflicted a severe blow upon the hopes of Prince Charles Edward, the Young Pretender, by capturing a large supply of French money destined to supporting the Jacobite army. George, 3rd Lord Reay, died in 1748.

The son of George, Donald, 4th Lord Reay, lived until 1761, and was a prudent manager of the Mackay estate. In his time, the Gaelic poet Robert Mackay, known as Rob Donne, flourished, patronised by both George and Donald, Lords Reay.

The fifth to succeed to the barony was Donald's eldest son, George. Having no offspring, the title went to his half-brother Hugh, upon his death. When Hugh died in 1797, again without issue, the barony descended upon Eric, son of the Honourable George Mackay of Skibo, who became the seventh Lord Reay. The Mackays showed their loyalty to the Crown yet again by forming, in 1794, the Reay Regiment of Fencibles, which saw service in Ireland, suppressing the rebellion that had been spurred by the threat of French invasion.

The war with France, waged sporadically from 1792 to 1815, indirectly brought about the Highland Clearances, by bringing about a depression in the prices of commodities such as meat, wood, and grain, and hence in the value of estates such as that of Mackay. Believing that giving over land to rearing sheep would bring in more rents, proprietors evicted crofters, and in the ensuing emigration depopulated the Highlands. Nowhere were the the clearances so severe as on the property of Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, and her husband the Marquis of Stafford. These absentee landlords put control of their estate into the hands of factors such as the notorious Patrick Sellar, to the ultimate ruin of the Mackay clan:

In 1814 [Mr. Patrick Sellar] took a lease of the greater part of the valley on the east side of the river Naver, and proceeded to evict the people, burning their houses, peat­stacks, etc. During this process hundreds were rendered homeless, and an old bed­ridden woman was so severely burnt that she died soon afterwards. In due time the west side of the river received similar treatment, and by 1819 Mr. Sellar cleared that populous countryside of all its human inhabitants, burning everything before him. 25

This tragic turn of events was compounded by the profligacy of Eric, 7th Lord Reay. As the result of a lawsuit, Eric secured the Mackay estate in such a way that he could sell it if he chose to do so. He borrowed 100,000 from the Countess of Sutherland and her husband, the Marquis of Stafford, on the security of the estate. Eric's income of 10,000 per year proved insufficient to his spending, and in 1829 he sold the entire estate to the Sutherlands for 300,000. This enormous sum was within the means of the wealthy Marquis of Stafford (afterwards the Duke of Sutherland), and made his family the largest single landlord in Britain.

As the Mackay chronicler accurately observes: "Thus what the Mackays held through sunshine and through storm for about twenty generations, was at last miserably frittered away in 1829 by a degenerate son, who accidentally got the power to do so." 26

Eric Mackay was a bachelor, and on his death in 1847 the title passed to his brother, Alexander. Alexander, 8th Lord Reay, died in 1863, and was succeeded by his son, Eric. When Eric, 9th Lord Reay, died in 1875, the title devolved to a distant branch of the family, the Dutch Mackays, who descend from John, the 2nd Lord Reay. The head of this family is, today, "The Mackay" to clansmen, and Lord Reay.

22  Rev. Angus MacKay, The Book of MacKay. (Edinburgh: Norman MacLeod, 1906). p. 134.
23   Ibid. p. 133.
24   Ibid. p. 140.
25   Ibid. pp. 230-1.
26   Ibid. pp. 232-3.

                  Key Pedigree: The Mackays of Strathnaver,
                               now Barons Reay.27


     Barbara, dau. of = Donald Dughall, = Elizabeth Tomson  = Marjory Sinclair
       Lord Kintail   | 1st Lord Reay   |   (2nd wife)      |   (3rd wife)
        (1st wife)    | d. 1649         |                   |
                      |                 |          ------------------------
                      |                 |         |       |        |       |
                      |                Ann     Charles  Rupert  Margaret  Mary
                      |                           |
                      |                           v
                      |                    SANDWOOD MACKAYS
 |                           |                         |     |     |
Iye  Isabella Sinclair = John, 2nd = Barbara Mackay  Angus  Jane  Mary
        (1st wife)     | Lord Reay |   (2nd wife)      |
                       | d. 1680   |                   v
                       |           |            MELNESS MACKAYS
      -----------------|           |
     |                 |           |
   Robert            Jane          |
                        |            |          |          |      |        |
   Ann, dau. of = Donald, Master   Aeneas   Robert, a   Joanna   Anna   Sibylla
   Sir G. Munro | of Reay            |
   of Culrain   | d. 1680            v
                |               DUTCH MACKAYS
Margaret, dau. of = George, 3rd  =  Janet Sinclair  =  Mary Doull
General Mackay    | Lord Reay    |    (2nd wife)    |  (3rd wife)
  (1st wife)      | d. 1748      |                  |
                  |              |                  |
                  |         -----------             |
                  |        |           |            |
                  |       Hugh        Ann           |
                  |                                 |
 Marion    = Donald, 4th = Christian                |
Dalrymple  | Lord Reay   | Sutherland               |
(1st wife) | d. 1761     | (2nd wife)               |
           |             |                          |
           |             |             ------------------------------------
           |             |            |      |     |      |        |       |
           |             |         George, Alexr. Mary Harriet Christian Marion
           |             |         m. Ann
           |         --------     Sutherland
           |        |        |        |
           |     Margaret  Mary       |
           |                          |
      ------------------------        |
     |                        |       |
George, 5th = Elizabeth   Hugh, 6th   |
Lord Reay   | Fairley     Lord Reay   |
no issue by | (2nd wife)  d. 1797     |
1st wife    |             s.p.        |
d. 1768     |                         |
            |                         |
    --------                          |
   |                                  |
   |        ----------------------------------------------------------------
   |       |       |          |        |       |        |      |      |     |
   |    George Eric, 7th Alexr., 8th Donald Patrick Elizabeth Mary Harriet Anne
   |    d. s.p.Lord Reay Lord Reay
   |           d. 1847   m. Marion
   |           s.p.      Gall
   |                     d. 1863
   |                          |
  ---------------             |
 |      |        |            |
Jane Marianne Georgina        |
                   |         |           |        |     |       |         |
                 George  Eric, 9th  Anne, m. Mr. Mary Clara Elizabeth Charlotte
                         Lord Reay  Aylmer
                         d. 1875
               On his death the title passed
                   to the DUTCH MACKAYS

27  Rev. Angus MacKay, The Book of MacKay. (Edinburgh: Norman MacLeod, 1906). p. 197.

These pages written and maintained by Michael MacKay.

Last updated: September 20, 2011.

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