McGee Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McGee Surname Meaning

The Gaelic elements mag, a rendering of mac (or “son of”), and the personal name aodh, meaning “fire,” gave rise to the surnames McGhee, McGee and Magee in Scotland and Ireland.

McGhee is the Scottish spelling for the most part, although this name did spread to Ulster at the time of the Scottish plantations. The McGee and Magee names were also in Ulster. McGee of Irish origin was mainly found in Donegal, Magee of Scottish origin in Antrim.  Often Magee was the Protestant name and McGee the Catholic one.

McGee Surname Resources on The Internet

McGee and Magee Surname Ancestry

  • from SW Scotland and Ireland (Ulster)
  • to America and Canada

ScotlandMcGhees in Scotland may have been Irish in origin, although they do seem to have preceded the Irish McGees. The name in Scotland was first recorded with Gilmighel McEthe of Dumfries at the Ragman’s Ball in 1296 and may have dated back several centuries earlier.  

Gilbert M’Ghie was the first Lord of Balmaghie (meaning M’Ghie’s town) in Galloway around the year 1400. His descendants acquired progressively more influence and importance, especially with Sir John M’Ghie in the 1640’s during the reign of the Stuarts. A branch of the family controlled the Rinns of Islay for several centuries.

However, their prominence was lost with the sale of their estates and an extremely severe lack of male heirs. By the 18th century the McGhee families of Balmaghie, Airie and Airds, and Castlehill were all practically extinct:

  • John McGhee, the last of Castlehill, had six daughters, the eldest of whom had six sons who all died childless.
  • while William McGhee, a merchant in Edinburgh who had inherited Balmaghie with its 4,000 acres of agricultural and sporting land unexpectedly, had no interest in the estate and sold it in 1768. The last of the McGhee line at Balmaghie were said to have been two old ladies who lived and died in a cottage nearby.

By the late 19th century, the McGhee and McGee names in Scotland were mainly to be found in Lanarkshire, in and around Glasgow, rather than in their earlier homeland in SW Scotland.

Ireland.  The Irish McGee and Magee history has been more sketchy.

The old Irish form of the name was Mac Aodha (meaning “son of Hugh.”). Another derivation in Donegal was Mac Gaoithe (“of the wind”). A family of this name served as erenaghs in Donegal in the parish of Condahorkey. The name there became McGee or sometimes McKee. They were to be found along the border with Tyrone.

Tyrone had some early Scottish settlers by the name of McGhee or McGee. Sir John McGhee of Balmaghie died in 1617 and was apparently buried in Leckpatrick cemetery near Strabane. His line extended to George McGhee who was buried there in 1741.

The spelling in county Antrim was generally Magee. It was said that the Magees of Island Magee, a peninsula on the coast near Larne in Antrim, had come originally from the Scottish Rinns of Islay. Other Scots Irish in Antrim also adopted the Magee spelling, although some still kept the old Scottish spelling. Their numbers included:

  • James Magee, born in Belfast in the early 1700’s, who was a newspaper printer and publisher whose business later expanded through his sons to Dublin. This line was covered in F.J. Bigger’s 1916 book The Magees of Belfast and Dublin.
  • Martha Magee, the widow of a Presbyterian minister in Lurgan, who endowed Magee University in Derry on her death in 1846.
  • Richard McGhee, also from Lurgan, who was a Protestant labor union activist at the time of Home Rule.
  • and the Rev. Robert Magee from Belfast who was instrumental in securing the Loyalist ceasefire during the sectarian strife in 1994.

America.  The McGees and Magees who came to America in the 18th century were invariably Scots Irish. Michael McGee who arrived in Brunswick county, Virginia in the 1750’s was thought to have originated from Island Magee in Antrim. His son Michael McGee moved to Abbeville, South Carolina in 1791.

Other Scots Irish who made the journey across the Atlantic were:

  • John McGee who may have been born in 1730 while en route from Ireland to America. He died in North Carolina just before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. His second wife Martha, however, was recognized as a heroine during that conflict. Two of their sons John and William moved to Tennessee in the 1790’s and became prominent Presbyterian ministers there.
  • five McGee brothers from Tyrone who came to Augusta and Botetourt counties, Virginia in the 1750’s. They migrated to Kentucky with Daniel Boone around the year 1775.
  • John McGee who fought with the 12th Virginia Regiment during the Revolutionary War and later made his home at McGee Cove in Warren county, Tennessee.
  • and Patrick Magee from Antrim who came to Georgia in 1779 and later settled in Missouri territory.

Yet another Tennessee line began with Barclay McGhee, Scots Irish from North Carolina, who was a merchant and successful land speculator in Blount county, Tennessee.

His son John built up a large property base of former Indian land along the Little Tennessee river. This land remained in his descendants’ hands until the 1960’s. John’s son Charles, who based himself in Knoxville, was responsible for much of the railroad construction that took place in east Tennessee during the 1870’s and 1880’s.

David McGee from Scotland enlisted in the Continental Army in 1777 and fought in the Revolutionary War. Afterwards he too moved to Tennessee and then onto Alabama. He was said to have had six wives. The McGee in the song Me and Bobby McGee was in fact a Tennesseean, although her real name was Bobby McKee.

Fibber McGee was a fictional American, from a long-running radio comedy series. One McGee family history in America, together with the story of the McGees in Scotland and Ireland, was traced in James McGee’s 2007 book A Branch of a Tree: A McGee Family in History.

Canada. Thomas D’Arcy McGee, born into an Ulster family in Louth, came to North America in 1842 and eventually made his home in Montreal. He was Catholic and a passionate advocate of Irish and Canadian nationalism who was gunned down on the streets of Ottawa in 1868, one year after Confederation.

D’Arcy’s family was originally from county Down. His grandmother Elizabeth Magee had in fact immigrated to Canada in 1823, settling in Lanark county, Ontario. John Wellington McGee, born there in 1863, considered himself a descendant of D’Arcy McGee. He had been born Magee but on converting to Catholicism changed his name to McGee.

McGee Surname Miscellany

McGees, Magees, and McGhees Today

Numbers (000’s) McGee Magee McGhee Total
Ireland     2     3     –     5
UK (incl. N. Ireland)     7   10     5    22
America    19     9     6    34
Elsewhere*     8     4     2    14
Total    36    26    13    75

*Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

The McGees of the Rinns of Islay.  The MacGees of the Rinns of Islay go back to the 14th century and possibly earlier.  A commentary in the Annals of Islay reveals:

“The MacGee family was the most important family in Islay under the Lords of the Isles. A local tradition has it that McAodha na Renna (MacGee of the Rinns) was known as the Islay seer and was buried beside the ancient chapel on Orsaig island.  When he died and what his Christian name was is uncertain.”

In 1493 the Scottish King James IV defeated the MacDonalds and their leadership of the Isles.  The MacGees were still landholders in Islay during the 1500’s but may have later dispersed for Antrim.

The Last McGhees of Balmaghie.  After William McGhee had sold the Balmaghie estate in 1768, the last of the direct line from Balmaghie were apparently two old cronies who were recorded as follows in Malcolm Harper’s 1876 book Rambles in Galloway:

“Burnside Cottage is about a mile from the Lochenbreck Hotel, on the right of the road to Lauriston.  Its interior was a very good specimen of the general character of the Galloway cottage of old times.  Up to the time of their deaths it was the abode of Tibbie and Maggie McGhee who were well-known characters in the district.  They were said to have been the last representatives of the once powerful race of McGhees of Balmaghie.”

Michael McGee of Abbeville, South Carolina.  Michael McGee was born in Virginia in 1759 and died in South Carolina in 1834.  He was buried in the Turkey Creek Baptist church cemetery near Ware Shoals in Abbeville. His tombstone read as follows:

“Sacred to the memory of Michael McGee who departed this life the 21st of June 1834 aged 74 years and 4 days.  He was a soldier in the Revolutionary War and had been a member of the Turkey Creek Baptist church upward of forty years.  Peace was his theme in life.  And he died in peace with all men and his God.

Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, from henceforth yea saith the spirit that they may rest from their labors and their works do follow them.”

Michael McGee was said to have come into this section of South Carolina in 1791 on horseback.  His wife Anne also rode a horse.

He had courage and he began to buy up the cheap land which the state was offering to sell at very low prices per acre and on easy terms to induce settlers to come.  It was said that Michael was very thrifty and saved his money. Soon he became a sort of community banker who would lend cash to neighbors of his own selection. He never required security, only a plain note, but he picked his borrowers.

All that remained of his home in 1999 was a tall crooked chimney.  His descendants lived there until Jesse McGee removed himself to Greenville.

The Murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.  Nine months after becoming a country, Canada was rocked by a national trauma that was on the emotional scale of the Lincoln assassination three years earlier. Well after midnight on April 7, 1868, one of the fathers of the new nation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, was murdered by a single bullet fired at close range, steps away from Parliament where he had just delivered a passionate defense of the fragile federation.

Later that day, a shaken Prime Minister Sir John Macdonald (who had personally carried McGee’s body into his rooming house after the murder), reported the news to a hushed House of Commons. Fighting back tears, he described his friend as a “hero who died a martyr to the cause of his country, whose hand was open to everyone, whose heart was made for friends and whose enmities were written in water.”

A week later, on what would have been McGee’s 43rd birthday, 80,000 Montrealers — in a city of only about 100,000 — lined the streets to watch another 15,000 mourners march in his funeral procession. It remains the largest funeral in Canadian history.

Pierre-Joseph Chaveau, the first premier of Quebec, also addressed the Commons on the afternoon of the murder. He described McGee as the “prince of orators” and his death as “the baptism in blood of the Confederation he did so much to bring about.”

Reader Feedback: My mother’s maiden name was McGee. She always said she was related to Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Her father was Patrick McGee who also had relatives that lived in Lanark county, Ontario.  Mary Pritchard Nixon (,

Reader Feedback – Magees in the Toronto Area.  My great grandfather Earl Magee was a farmer at Don Mills in the early 1900’s.  With buildings being built around him he farmed the land with his horse Ned until the 1960’s beside the Flemington family farm that is now Flemington Park.

Donald Magee (

John Magee the Boy Hero.  On August 18, 1941 a teenager named Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr. lifted his Spitfire Mark I from an aerodrome in Wales and climbed “sunward” up into the “long, delirious, burning blue.”

He had a tank full of petrol and a heart full of expectant joy. The result of the next two hours was the visceral inspiration for the literary world’s finest expression of the exhilaration and spirituality of flight – the poem we all know as High Flight.

By the time the young Magee had unstrapped, dismounted and debriefed, he had penned in his mind major sections of his iconic poem. He died a few months later during his eightieth flight in a Spitfire.

The poem reads:

  • “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
  • And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings:
  • Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
  • Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
  • You have not dreamt of – wheeled and soared and swung
  • High in the sunlit silence.  Hov’ring there
  • I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
  • My eager craft through footless halls of air.
  • Oh, oh, the long, delicious, burning blue
  • I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
  • Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
  • And while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
  • The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
  • Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

John had been born in Shanghai and educated in England.  His father, the Rev. John G. Magee, was from Pittsburgh.  He had been a missionary in China for the Protestant Episcopal Church for many years.  He was in Nanking when the Japanese occupied the city.

Me and Bobby McGee.  Kris Kristofferson wrote the song, Janis Joplin made it a hit in 1971, and it has remained a classic.   

The song is essentially a road story about two drifters.  The narrator speaks of travelling as vagrants and hitching a ride on a diesel truck through the American South, ending up in California.  As Janis belts out: 

  • “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,
  • Nothing don’t mean nothing honey if it ain’t free, now now.
  • And feeling good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues,
  • You know feeling good was good enough for me,
  • Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.”

However, Bobby gets tired of life on the road and decides to settle down “up near Salinas” and parts ways with the narrator.

Who was Bobby McGee?  The title in fact came from Kristofferson’s producer Fred Foster and Bobby McKee, a secretary in his building in Nashville.  But Kristofferson misheard the name and Bobby McGee was born.  Bobby was a woman in Kristofferson’s song but a man in Janis’s version.

McGee Names

  • Gilbert M’Ghie was the late 14th century first Lord of Balmaghie in Galloway in SW Scotland.
  • D’Arcy McGee was an Irish publisher and politician in Canada in the mid-19th century who is sometimes considered as the father of Canadian Confederation.
  • The McGee Brothers – Sam with guitar and Kirk with banjo – were one of the most enduring country acts on the Grand Ole Opry stage in Nashville since its opening in 1926.
  • Alan McGee from Glasgow was a prominent British record producer in the 1990’s.

McGee Numbers Today

  • 22,000 in the UK (most numerous in Northern Ireland)
  • 41,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 19,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

These numbers include McGhees and Magees.

McGee and Like Surnames 

These are surnames from the Scottish Lowlands.  Some are clan names; some – like Gordon, Graham and Hamilton – have Anglo-Norman antecedents that crossed the border into Scotland; and some – like Douglas and Stewart – were very powerful in early Scottish history.  Stewart in fact became the royal Stuart line.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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