Mackay Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select Mackay Meaning
– 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
    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
The MacAoidha name cropped up as well
in the Isle of Man and in Ireland.
Cucail Mac Aedha, tracked in Moore’s Manx
, 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


Resources on

Mackay Ancestry

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.

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.

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.

However, the Mackay chiefs had
become increasingly indebted and were being forced to sell off their
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.

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, Vurginia.
    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
    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
  • 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
  • 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

  • one was David McKay from Caithness who had come out to
    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
“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.”

. Some early McKays in Canada were fur
traders. Alexander and William 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). Son
Thomas worked for the Hudson Bay Company and later settled in

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.

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
    McKay the shipbuilder.
  • or new arrivals from Scotland. One such was John McKay, an
    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
Alexander and Katherine McKay who departed Scotland for Lanark township,
in 1832; and William Mackay who came to Prince
Edward Island around the same time.

Australia and 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.

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.


Mackay 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

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

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

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.



Select 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.

Select 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).


Select 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

Leave a Reply