Mackay Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Mackay Surname Meaning

Mackay – or in Gaelic MacAoidha – is a Scottish Highland clan, deriving from mac meaning “son of” and Aoidh, often written in English as “Ive,” meaning “fire” and originally the name of a Celtic god:

  • the Mackay clan came originally from Strathnaver in Caithness and was said to have had Pictish origins.
  • the MacAoidha name also produced the Mackays of Kintyre in the Western Isles (the Mackays and McCays of Ugadale) and the Mackies first found in Stirlingshire.

The MacAoidha name cropped up as well in the Isle of Man and in Ireland.  Cucail Mac Aedha, tracked in Moore’s Manx Names, appeared as early as 1098, from which came MacQuay. The Gaelic O’Macdha sept, to be found in Connacht and Tipperary, was one source of the surname Mackey.

“Mackey may be of either Irish or Scottish origin. Pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, it is Iriah, an anglicized form of the Gaelic O’Macdha, descendant of Macdha (a name meaning “virile” or “manly”). With the stress on the second syllable, it is a variant of the Scottish McKay.”

McKay and its variant McCoy, usually found in Ulster, seem to have been Scottish imports. Other name variants in Ireland have been McKee and McHugh (as Aoidh was often anglicized as Hugh).

Mackay Surname Resources on The Internet

Mackay, McKay and Mackey Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Caithness)
  • to Holland, Ireland, England, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Scotland.  The Mackays descended from the Old Maormors or rulers of Caithness and their homeland, Duthaich Mhic Aoi or “Mackay country,” has been in the far northeast of mainland Scotland. Their clan history over the years has been recounted in the Rev. Angus Mackay’s 1906 book The Book of Mackay.

Early History.  The first chief of whom a written record exists was Angus Dubh Mackay (or Black Angus) in the early 1400’s. His was the land “from Drimholiston to Kylescue” and he could raise a mighty fighting force. In 1431 Angus married Elizabeth, sister to Domhnall the Lord of the Isles, and she brought with her a dowry of 100 fighting men from Lochaber. Their sons were known as the Abrach Mackays and were the earliest sect of the Mackay clan.

The Mackays were renowned for their strength, courage, and skill in fighting and they were involved in endless battles against their neighboring clans during the 15th and 16th centuries.

“In 1542 chief Donald Mackay of Strathnaver invaded and molested the lands of clan Sutherland. He burned the village of Knockartoll and stole many goods from Strathbrora. Clan Sutherland and clan Murray attacked the Mackays at Ailtan-Beath. After the battle the Mackays fled and much of the stolen booty was recovered. Donald Mackay himself was captured and imprisoned at Foulis castle.”

In 1626 Sir Donald Mackay raised an army of over 3,000 men and fought in Europe in the Thirty Years War. He was ennobled as Baron Reay (after the name of the clan territory). The Mackays themselves were anti-Jacobite during the 18th century and thus were saved the Government backlash after Culloden.

Later History.  However, the Mackay chiefs had become increasingly indebted and were being forced to sell off their estates, the last of which went in 1829. Mackays on the land became victims to the Highland clearances.

“The eastern side of Strathnaver, over 20 miles, was cleared in 1814, with houses, outhouses, mills, kilns, and every other structure destroyed in order to form three sheep farms. Some 85,000 acres of land was cleared of the 150 families who had lived there for generations. In 1819 the land from Mudale to the sea, another 28 miles, was made desolate and the inhabitants expelled to form two sheep farms. In less than a week the whole of this area was devastated and denuded of more than 400 families.”

Large numbers of Mackays began to emigrate.

Holland. The Mackays were supporters of William of Orange who took the English crown in 1688 and a Mackay regiment fought in the Dutch service against the French.  Their leader, Aeneas Mackay, died in this service. But his widow, who was Dutch, brought up his family in Holland. It was to this branch of the family to which the Reay title passed in 1875.

Ireland. Some Scottish Mackays came to Ireland as gallowglasses or mercenaries to Irish warlords in the 16th century. Others from Kintyre had long-standing links with the O’Donnell sept in Antrim. And others again may have come as a result of the Scottish plantations in Ulster.

McKay, found in Ulster mainly, is probably of Scottish origin, as is McCoy. In fact these two names were often used interchangeably during the 19th century. Mackey in Ireland may be of Irish or Scottish origin.

England. Mackays in England may be Scottish, such as the Mackays who in the late 19th century had invested in and ran the Trowbridge woollen mill of Palmer & Mackay in Wiltshire.  But a large number of the Mackays and Mackeys in Lancashire were of Irish or Scots Irish origin.

America. McKay, Mackie, and Mackey are common names in America, McKay and Mackie from Scotland and McKay and Mackey from Ireland. Among the 18th century arrivals were:

  • Robert Mackay, a Quaker pioneer in America who first settled in New Jersey in 1723 and then moved to Warren county, Virginia.  Family tradition has it that Robert had come from Scotland with his parents as part of the Perth Expedition. The house built by his son Robert in Cedarville, Virginia still stands.
  • John and Ann Mackey, who came from Ireland with their family iin the early 1750’s. They eventually settled in Rowan county, North Carolina where John died at Mackeys creek in 1787.
  • Iver McKay, who came to Bladen county, North Carolina from Argyllshire in Scotland around 1760. His grandson James was an influential Congressman for North Carolina in the 1830’s and 40’s.
  • Robert Mackay from Scotland, who had established himself as a merchant in Savannah by 1760. The Mackays were prominent Savannah merchants and plantation owners up to the time of the Civil War.
  • Donald Mackay, who in 1760 stayed on in the Mohawk valley in upstate New York after having served with the 78th Highland Regiment in Quebec. A Loyalist, he and his family departed for Canada after the Revolutionary War was over.
  • and Thomas McKie from county Tyrone in Ireland who arrived in North Carolina around 1770. He fought in the Revolutionary War, drew land in Georgia, and moved to Elbert county there with his family.

Beatrice Mackey Doughtie’s 1961 book The Mackeys and Allied Families traced Mackeys from Lauderdale county, Alabama.

Heading West  Two McKays made names for themselves in the American West in the 19th century:

  • one was David McKay from Caithness who had come out to Salt Lake City in the 1860’s and was the father of two prominent leaders of the Mormon church.
  • the second was John Mackay from Dublin. He struck it rich in a silver mine in California in 1873. From the proceeds he developed an international cable business, first across the Atlantic and then, continued by his son Clarence, across the Pacific.

“Clarence Mackay was said to have inherited $500 million on the death of his father in 1902. In 1926 his daughter Ellin married Irving Berlin against his wishes and he disinherited her.”

Canada. Some early McKays in Canada were fur traders. William and Alexander McKay were Loyalist sons from upstate New York who had crossed over to Canada in 1792:

  • William fought on the British side in the War of 1812
  • while Alexander headed west and was one of the founders of Port Astoria on the Columbia river.  He was killed there in 1811 during an Indian uprising.

Alexander’s son Thomas worked for the Hudson Bay Company and later settled in Oregon.

James McKay, a trader also with the Hudson Bay Company, became a leading figure in the Red River settlement in present-day Manitoba. Another early Manitoba settler was John Richard McKay who died in Brandon in 1810. His son Charles moved onto Washington county, Oregon in the mid 1800’s.

Maritime Provinces.  McKays in the Maritime provinces could be:

  • Loyalists who had resettled there (many of whom were to be found in St. John, New Brunswick)
  • British soldiers who had stayed on after their period of duty was over, such as the McKays of Jordan Falls, Nova Scotia – from whom came Donald McKay the shipbuilder.
  • or new arrivals from Scotland. One such was John McKay, an early settler on Prince Edward Island.

“The British brigandine ship Edinburgh had a complement of seventy passengers and their register showed the McKay family names and the payments for their passage. The vessel set sail from Campbelltown in Argyllshire and reached Prince Edward Island on September 17, 1771.”

John’s son Archibald lived and died in Malpeque, Prince Edward Island. John was followed in 1773 by Roderick Mackay on the Hector, the first Scottish emigrant ship to Pictou, Nova Scotia. In 1805 another John Mackay, the last of a long line of Mackay pipers, arrived in Pictou.

There were also McKays escaping the Highland clearances, such as:

  • William Mackay who came to Prince Edward Island around 1832
  • and Alexander and Katherine McKay who departed for Lanark township, Ontario at around the same time.

Australia.  The Mackay name is best known in Australia through John Mackay, the son of Scottish immigrants, who explored the northeast coastline of Queensland in the 1860’s. The town of Mackay was named after him.

More recently the Mackay name in Queensland has been more associated with bananas. Stanley Mackay first began growing bananas in Queensland in 1945 and his family’s banana plantations are now the largest in Australia.

New Zealand.  The MacKays were a wealthy family who arrived in New Zealand on the Slains Castle in 1844.

“The MacKay family even brought a prefabricated home which took a week to unload and servants, including a shepherd and a blacksmith.”

They were a Mackie Aberdeen merchant family, not the MacKay lairds as they had depicted themselves in the painting The Emigrants.

Meanwhile, poorer Highland emigrants to New Zealand usually had assisted passage. That was the case with Angus MacKay who had arrived on the Henrietta in 1860 and settled, as did many other Scottish Highlanders, in Otago, South Island. Robert Mackay was a shepherd at the Rakaia Gorge station outside Canterbury, his daughter Jessie a well-known New Zealand writer and poet.

Mackay Surname Miscellany

Pictish Origins and the First Mackay Chief.  The most popular and accepted theory as to the first chief of the Mackays is that he was descended from the royal house of the Picts.  These Picts had settled in the province of Moray, but had then been dispersed northward towards Strathnaver in Caithness by King Malcolm IV of Scotland after his victory over Malcolm MacAoidha, the Earl of Ross, in 1160.

Malcolm MacAoidha’s daughter Gormflaith married the Norse Harold, Earl of Orkney, whose territory then included Caithness.  Their son was called MacAoidha (or in English documents Ive Mor MacHeth) and he it was who was raised to the chieftainship of his clan in 1250.

The clan allied itself at that time with the Scottish crown against the Vikings and later, under Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, with the Scots against the English.

The Real MacKay.  The “real MacKay” is a Scots phrase that first appeared in 1856 as “a drappie o’ the real MacKay” in the Scottish National Dictionary. The dictionary said that the phrase was later adopted as a slogan to promote G. Mackay & Co Ltd’s whisky.

Another source has suggested that the term is in fact much older and arose from a dispute between two branches of the Mackay clan as to who was to be the rightful leader.  Lord Reay headed one branch and he came to be known as the Reay Mackay.

In Scotland the phrase is always “the real MacKay” (with the “ay” pronounced as in the word “eye”).  In Ireland this changed to “the real McCoy” as the real thing.  It was “the real McCoy” that got popularized in America during the Prohibition era.

Mackie Origins.  Mackie like Mackay originated from the Gaelic MacAoidha.  The name appeared in this guise first in Stirlingshire.   William Makke was a charter witness in 1491 in the records of the monastery at Scone and Andrew Makky was a burgess of Stirling in 1574.

The Galloway family of Mackies enjoyed prosperity and influence in the 16th century and the first half of the 17th. They were enthusiastic supporters of the Covenanters, the defenders of Presbyterianism.

However, the main number of Mackies, about 40 percent in the 1891 census, were and are to be found in Aberdeenshire.  Mackies of Scotland, purveyors of ice cream, is based on a farm in Aberdeenshire that has been in the hands of four generations of Mackies.  Another Aberdeenshire farmer, Maitland Mackie, was an agricultural innovator, as well as the father of three sons who each had remarkable careers in business and politics.

McKays, Mackies and Mackeys to America

from- McKays Mackies Mackeys Total Percent
Scotland    548  238    49     835    39
Ireland    407    46   317     760    35
England    195    74    87     356    16
Great Britain    124     9    37     170     8
Elsewhere     37    21     –      48     2
Total   1,301   338   490   2,169 100

Mackay generally became McKay in America.  The numbers today come out roughly 15 percent Mackay, 40 percent McKay, 10 percent Mackie, and 35 percent Mackey.

Mackeys in North Carolina and Tennessee.  John Mackey had married Ann Alexander in Ireland in 1751 and soon afterwards they emigrated to America with John’s brothers William and Thomas.  They landed in Philadelphia and settled first in Chester county, Pennsylvania, moving to South Carolina in 1767.

By 1776, according to family accounts, “John Mackey and members of his family were living on the frontiers of Rowan (now McDowell) county, North Carolina.” Records show that John furnished supplies to Continental troops during the Revolutionary War.  He died at his home on Mackeys creek in Rowan county in 1787.

His son William, born in Rowan county, died of exposure in Sumner county, Tennessee on “Cold Friday” sometime in the 1840’s.  Family legend recounts that William was seen to have ridden his horse into a barn. When he did not come into the house, someone went looking for him and found him astride his horse frozen to death.  His wife Mary had already died in North Carolina, killed and scalped in an Indian massacre near Ashville in 1820.

The Mackay Pipers of the Highlands and Nova Scotia.  In June 1805 John MacKay and his family shipped out of Stornoway on the Sir Sidney Smith for Canada. The Atlantic crossing was perilous at that time due to the presence of a French fleet serving as a decoy to Admiral Nelson.  But the Sir Sidney Smith was able to land its passengers safely at Pictou, Nova Scotia some nine weeks later.

John had come from a long line of Mackay pipers who had become famous throughout Scotland during the 17th and 18th centuries.  The first of the line – Ruairidh MacKay – when a young lad had cut off the hand of a man who had been trying to impede the MacKay chief at a ferry point. Because of the deed, Ruairidh had to flee Sutherland and MacKenzie of Gairloch asked him to become his piper.

Ruairidh passed his skill onto his only son Iain, born when he was sixty.  When Iain was seven years old, he lost his eyesight after contracting smallpox.  Even so, Iain was a piper of renown and became known as Iain  Dall (Blind John) or Arn Riobair Dall (the Blind Piper).

When he died at the age of ninety, his only son Angus succeeded him as MacKenzie’s hereditary piper.  It was Angus MacKay who pioneered in the art of putting pipe music on paper.  Without the scholarly records left by him, modern knowledge of the classical music of the Highland bagpipe would be very fragmentary.

And the last of these pipers was John, the son of Angus.  But he thought there would be a better future for him and his family across the Atlantic.

When the Rev. Donald MacKay, a former area representative in Pictou East, was preaching in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, he started a pipe band in which all members wore the ancient MacKay tartan.  That year was 1963. And the Rev. MacKay and his wife Jean returned to Summerside in 1998 to attend the 25th anniversary of this band.

The McKays of Prince Edward Island.  The McKays had come to Prince Edward Island in 1771 and their son Archibald was born there ten years later.  At the time of his death in Malpeque in 1872, not far from the spot where he was born, he was said to be the oldest British subject born on PEI.

Archibald married an English/Scottish settler and they had twelve children, seven sons and five daughters. Sons William and Lemuel became sea captains and daughter Margaret left for Boston.  The eldest son Archibald moved to New Brunswick in 1847, staying initially at Bathurst and then heading for Moncton in 1852.  At that time there were no steamers between the island and the mainland, crossing of the straits being entirely by sailing vessel.

The McKays of Lanark Township, Ontario.  Fleeing the Highland Clearances and a cholera epidemic, Alexander and Katherine McKay set off for Canada in 1832.  According to family accounts they had five sons and two daughters.  Of their first two sons, it seems that Donald had died as a baby and Thomas died possibly enroute to Canada.  Katherine herself did die on the ship during the hard fourteen week trip.  But the eldest son Alexander (Sandy) McKay survived, as did his young wife Esther.

The family arrived at Brockville and then still had a long and weary trip to their Lanark settlement.  They were seven miles from their chosen lot when Esther delivered her first child in a brush shack belonging to Mrs. Jock Herron.

Eventually the family arrived at their new homestead in Lanark township.  Six generations later this homestead is still with the McKay family.

The Emigrant – James MacKay or James Mackie?  The painting The Emigrants by William Allsworth commissioned in 1844 shows a wealthy family by the name of MacKay gathered on the shores of their Scottish Highland home – Drumdruin in Sutherlandshire.  They are surrounded by luggage and are ready to immigrate across the world to New Zealand.  The ship they have chartered to take them – the Slains Castle – sits on the water in the background.

James MacKay Senior, the brother of the local laird, is the leader of this family group.  He stands at the back.  His wife Anne is seated near him.  Also in the painting are their six children – James Junior, Robert, Anne, Janet, Isabella, and Erica – and two of their nephews, Alexander Tertius MacKay and James Tertius MacKay.

The MacKay family pictured there commissioned the painting to commemorate their emigration.  Or so the usual story goes.  In fact, it seems that this painting is not a faithful record of their departure, but rather the family’s attempt to build a mythical history for themselves.

There is no doubt that the family in the picture did arrive in Nelson, New Zealand, on the Slains Castle in 1844, calling themselves the MacKays.  They were certainly very wealthy and brought with them vast amounts of luggage.

However, if you took a closer look at the painting, you might find that some of the tartans worn by the family may be linked to the MacKay tartan.  But most are completely unrecognizable.

Documents have recently come to light that suggest that James MacKay Snr. was probably not the brother of a laird or even a MacKay from the Scottish Highlands at all.  Evidence suggests his real surname was Mackie and that he came from an Aberdeen merchant family.  He spent most of his life in London, and all his children were born there.

As for the Slains Castle, there is no record of it having ever sailed from Scotland.  In 1844, when the ‘MacKays’ left, it sailed from Plymouth in England.  And what of the family’s claim that they had exclusively chartered the ship?  The passenger list shows that there were a number of other passengers on board too, so it is unlikely that it had been hired exclusively for their use.

Mackay Names

  • Angus Dubh Mackay (Black Angus), who lived in the early 15th century, was the first recorded chief of the Mackay clan.
  • Sir Donald Mackay in 1626 raised an army of over 3,000 Mackay men and fought with them in Europe in the Thirty Years War.
  • Donald McKay was a Canadian-born American designer and builder of sailing ships in Boston in the mid 19th century.
  • John Mackay was an American capitalist who developed an international cable business. When he died in 1902 he was one of the richest Americans of his day.
  • James Mackay of Arbroath, later Lord Inchcape, was a British colonial administrator in India and a diplomat in Asia in the early 1900’s.

Mackay Numbers Today

  • 46,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 30,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 62,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada).

Mackay and Like Surnames

The Scottish Highlands were Gaelic-speaking and their clan names appeared first in Gaelic and only later in an English version.  Each clan controlled its own local territory and frequently fought with neighbors.  Many, however, took the clan name in order to receive clan protection.

The clan downfall came following the 1715 and 1745 uprisings with the Battle of Culloden when the clan culture was broken up and clan tartans banned (although they came back into fashion with Queen Victoria a hundred years later).  The Highland clearances, supplanting people for sheep, was a further blow and many Highlanders were forced into emigration, still speaking their native Gaelic, to Canada and then to Australia and New Zealand.

Here are some of the clan surnames that you can check out.


Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *