McKenzie Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McKenzie Surname Meaning

McKenzie (originally MacKenzie) is a Scottish clan name of the Highlands. In Gaelic the name is recorded as Maccoinnich or Macchoinnich, son of Cionneach or “son of the fair” (suggesting possibly Norse origins). Coinneach is generally anglicized as Kenneth.

They claim descent from Colin, progenitor of the earls of Ross, who died in 1278. Clan tradition (although there is no tangible evidence to support it) is that Colin was awarded lands in Ross-shire for his efforts in repelling an invasion from Norway. While the clan name is MacKenzie, it is the spelling McKenzie which is more common around the world.

McKenzie Surname Resources on The Internet

McKenzie and MacKenzie Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Ross-shire)
  • to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Scotland. The Mackenzie clan is traditionally associated with Kintail and their lands in Ross-shire. The Findon tables, produced by James D. MacKenzie in 1879, recounted their lineage from earliest times. Some old accounts have linked the Mackenzies with the Norman Fitzgeralds in the 13th century. However, this connection seems unlikely. There were apparently Mackenzies at Kintail at the time of Robert the Bruce.

The first actual record of a Mackenzie was that of Alexander M’Kenzocht of Kintail in a document of 1471. This Alexander Mackenzie died in 1488 at the grand old age of ninety. By that time the clan had begun their feuds with the MacDonalds – then Lords of the Isles – which were to continue into the next century. Their biggest pitched battle, which the MacKenzies won, was at Blar-na-Pairc in 1477.

The Mackenzies possibly reached the peak of their powers in the early 1600’s. Kenneth, the 12th chief, was created Lord MacKenzie of Kintail and his son Colin the “Red” became the Earl of Seaforth. It was said that all the lands from Ardnamurchan to Strathnover in the Highlands were in the possession of the MacKenzies or their vassals. They surveyed their possessions from their command at Brahan castle.

However, it was said that the fall of their house – as was predicted by one of their estate workers, the so-called Brahan Seer – began at this time. The MacKenzies had backed the 1715 uprising and had fought against the Government at Glen Shiel (where they were defeated and the wounded MacKenzie chief forced to flee to France as his estates were being seized).

Some MacKenzies also backed Bonnie Prince Charlie; but, unlike the MacDonalds, they did not fight at Culloden. Even so, their old way of life was ending as the Government took reprisals on the clans. And the Seaforth MacKenzie line itself died out in the 1820’s.

Many clansmen had joined their chief in the Seaforth Highlanders and fought for the British in their wars in America and against Napoleon. Others later emigrated, with Canada being a favored destination. Still, large numbers of McKenzies remained in the Highlands, almost half of the McKenzies in Scotland according to the 1891 census. The McKenzies did not incur the Highland “clearances” in the 19th century to the same extent as did other clans.

Place-names associated with the McKenzies in Ross-shire are Strathpeffer, Dingwall, Gairloch, Kilcoy, Balnain, and the remote Applecross peninsula. The clan history was narrated by Alexander Mackenzie in his 1894 book History of the Mackenzies.

Canada. MacKenzies from the Outer Hebrides in Scotland have stamped their mark on the Canadian West.

To start with, there was the explorer Sir Alexander MacKenzie, who became the first European to reach the Pacific coast overland, announcing his arrival by painting the following words on a rock near Bella Coola:  “Alexander MacKenzie, from Canada by land, 22 July, 1793.”

His cousin Duncan was also a formidable fur trader and explorer and other relatives were active in what was to become the Hudson Bay Company. The Hudson Bay Company later acquired Vancouver island and brought Kenneth MacKenzie from Scotland in 1853 to found a colony there. His house Craigflower, now renovated, still stands.

These were prosperous MacKenzies or MacKenzies who prospered. Later came poorer Highland migrants.

There were MacKenzies – one Donald MacKenzie and another Roderick (“Rory Bahan”) MacKenzie – on board the first Highland ship, the Hector, which set sail for Nova Scotia in 1773. William MacKenzie and his family came to Pictou, Nova Scotia on the ill-fated Sarah in 1801. And later MacKenzies headed for Prince Edward Island on the maritime coastline as well as Nova Scotia.

Among the middling sort of immigrants were MacKenzie lawyers, businessmen, clergymen and journalists; and Alexander MacKenzie who immigrated in 1842 and initially plied his trade in Sarnia, Ontario as a stonemason. He entered politics, rose through the ranks, and in 1873 became Canada’s  second Prime Minister (following a MacDonald!).

America. Maryland seems to have been an early outpost. One line starts with Colin Mckenzie in St. Mary county in the late 1600’s. Then there were McKenzies who might have been transported there after 1715. And McKenzies, such as Gabriel McKenzie of Gabriel’s Choice, later featured among Baltimore county families.

One McKenzie family in Georgia traces itself to the Cromartie MacKenzies in Scotland. Another 18th century line was to be found in Marion county, South Carolina. Overall, however, there were and are fewer McKenzies in America than in Canada.

Australia.  The MacKenzies, landowners from Kilcoy in Ross-shire, were at the forefront of the opening up of the Brisbane valley in Queensland to free settlers in 1841, taking over 43,000 acres there for sheep grazing. These Mackenzies developed a reputation for mistreating the Aborigines during their stay. They sold out in 1853.

Earlier McKenzies in Australia were soldiers, such as Alexander MacKenzie who came with the 73rd Regiment in 1809. Then came settlers, such as Neil and Christina McKenzie who arrived on the crowded William Nicol in 1837. These McKenzies were the subjects of Keith Hodgson’s 1998 book, Those People From Skye – the McKenzie Family.

New Zealand welcomed many Scottish McKenzies:

  • including David McKenzie who came to Dunedin in 1853 and whose son Thomas became Prime Minister
  • and at least one family from Canada,  Alexander and Ann McKenzie and their seven children arriving from Breadalbane in Nova Scotia in 1857.

McKenzie Surname Miscellany

Mackenzie Clan Symbols.  The chiefs of Clan Mackenzie (or MacCoinnich in Gaelic) are known as Caberfeidh, from the Gaelic for “deer’s antlers.”   This Gaelic title is derived from the crest of a stag’s head in the old MacKenzie Coat of Arms.  The clan slogan is Tullach Ard, meaning “high hill” or “high hillock.”  This hill was the traditional Mackenzie rallying point in Kintail.

The Mackenzie tartan now used is the regimental tartan for the Seaforth Highlanders, raised in 1778 by the Earl of Seaforth, the MacKenzie chief.

Mackenzies and Fitzgeralds.  Dr. W.F. Skene in his authoritative Highlanders of Scotland wrote:

“The Mackenzies have long boasted of their descent from the great Norman family of Fitzgerald in Ireland and, in support of this origin, they produce a fragment of the Records of Icolmkill and a charter by Alexander III to Colin Fitzgerald, the supposed progenitor of the family.”

The story behind this account is that Colin Fitzgerald saved the life of the King from an infuriated stag whilst on a hunting trip in a forest near Kincardine.  The King supposedly granted Colin a coat of arms, with the crest of a stag’s head, and a charter for the lands of Kintail.

However, this charter has not survived and many doubt the genuineness of the document and the story behind it.  It seems to have been first advanced in the 17th century when there was a desire and ambition in Scotland to fabricate or magnify all ancient and lordly pedigrees.

Alexander Mackenzie and His Family.  Alexander Mackenzie, born around 1400 and the first recorded Mackenzie of Kintail. was married twice.

His first wife was Anna, daughter of John Macdougall of Dunolly, by whom he had two sons – Kenneth and Duncan.  Kenneth, better known as Coinneach a’ Bhlair or “Kenneth of the Battle” because of his prowess in the battle against the Macdonalds, was Alexander’s heir and successor.  He died in 1491 and was buried, like his father, at the Priory of Beauly.  The younger son Duncan was the progenitor of the Mackenzies of Hilton.

His second wife was Margaret, daughter of the Macdonald of Morar, by whom he had a son and a daughter.  The son, known as Eachainn Ruadh or Hector Roy, was the forebear of the Mackenzies of Gairloch and their various offshoots.

The Findon Tables.  The Findon Tables were published by Major James D. Mackenzie of Findon in 1879, based on the earlier work carried out by his brother Lewis Mark.  The tables are in the form of family trees, showing the origin of different branches of the Mackenzie clan, their progression, and their relation to each other.

There are twelve main sheets, a supplementary sheet, and a booklet:

Sheet 1 gives the “Main Stem” of the Kintail, Seaforth and Cromartie families, with the details of their immediate offshoots.  The other eleven main sheets look more closely at the individual families that branched off from the main stem, with their cadets.

The supplementary sheet gives the descent of some ancient families deriving from the early rulers of the country where the possessions of Clan Kenneth afterwards became fixed, and with whom it was connected by marriage ties.

The 24 page booklet gives an introduction by Major Mackenzie and extensive notes about the tables with references, a list of Kintail or Seaforth charters, and an index of families and names. 

The Brahan Seer.  For all the power of the Seaforth Mackenzies, it was the mysterious power of one of the estate workers, Kenneth Mackenzie, which made the Brahan estate world famous.  Better known as the Brahan Seer, this shadowy figure from the 17th century was renowned for the many prophesies which, for generations following his execution, continued to come true.

It was the Brahen Seer who foresaw in detail the downfall of the Seaforth Mackenzies and that their possessions would be “inherited by a white-coiffed lassie from the east and she is to kill her sister.”  That indeed was the fate of Lady Caroline Mackenzie in 1823 in the hands of her sister (who was dubbed the “hooded lassie”).  A monument on the estate marks the exact spot where she died.

When Isabella, the wife of the third Earl of Seaforth, asked the Brahan Seer for news of her husband who was away in Paris, he described the man’s infidelities with a Frenchwoman.  When she demanded to know more, he told her everything that he saw.  This earned the oracle the traditional reward for the bearer of bad tidings – execution by being pitched alive into a barrel of boiling tar at Chancery Point.

An inscription there reads:

“This stone comemorates the legend of Coinneach Odhar better known as the Brahan Seer.  Many of his prophesies were fulfilled and tradition holds that his untimely death by burning in tar followed his final prophecy of the doom of the house of Seaforth.”

Legend has it that the Brahan Seer was living near Loch Ussie when he was apprehended.  Before being taken to Fortrose on the Black Isle to be tried for witchcraft, he threw his oracle stone into the loch and said it would one day be found in the belly of a fish.  So far as is known, it has not yet turned up!

MacKenzies and McKenzies.  While the clan name is MacKenzie the McKenzie spelling has generally taken root, even in Scotland.

MacKenzie McKenzie
Scotland (1901 census)   35%   65%
Ireland   15%   85%
USA   25%   75%
Canada   40%   60%
Australia   30%   70%
New Zealand   30%   70%

Alexander MacKenzie and the Pacific.  Alexander MacKenzie was a Scot who grew to become a Canadian hero.  A fur trader and explorer, he became convinced that Cook’s river, in present day Alaska, could provide a water route from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Such a route – the mythical Northwest Passage – would provide a gateway to the vast trading markets of the Orient.

In 1789, MacKenzie’s crew – which included French Canadian voyagers, his wife, and several others – paddled off in a birchbark canoe from Fort Chipewyan in central Canada.  Other canoes, navigated by Indian hunters and interpreters, followed on behind.  Over a hundred days later, they returned, however, with details of a route to the Arctic, not to the elusive Pacific Ocean.  Mackenzie remained determined to find the “Western Sea.”

Therefore, on May 9 1793, MacKenzie set out with nine others, packed into a 25 foot canoe at Fort Fork along the Peace river for a second voyage.  This time he succeeded.   With the guidance of native Indians, he became the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean on an overland route, beating the American explorers Lewis and Clark there by a full twelve years.

Agnes McKenzie’s Craigflower Dream House.  On May 1, 1856, Agnes McKenzie finally moved into her new house.  It was only a few yards from her first Craigflower house, little more than a shack where she and her family had lived in crowded discomfort for their first three years in the colony of Vancouver Island.

Kenneth McKenzie was hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company to manage one of their large agricultural enterprises around Fort Victoria.  He and his family were led to expect living quarters suitable for a person in charge of a 900 acre establishment, but found only a solid plank floor where the house should have been.

The timber foundation of Craigflower farm house was built by Hudson’s Bay Company workmen in the early 1850s.  The two-storey frame house was built on the older foundation by Kenneth McKenzie’s Scottish carpenters between 1853 and 1856.   It is thought to have been designed to resemble the Georgian style architecture of his family home in Scotland. Inside, the rooms are not large, but would have been considered grand compared to the modest cottages of most settlers in the 1850s.

It was a grand house for its time, second only to the Douglas mansion on the shores of James Bay, torn down in 1906.  Craigflower was spared the fate of this first Government House, surviving 150 years of various tenants and threats of demolition to become a National Historic Site.

A careful restoration to its 1856 configuration was completed in the 1970s by the of the BC Government’s Heritage Properties Branch, owners of the site.  The Land Conservancy, which now manages the historic site, has furnished the house as Mrs. McKenzie might have liked in the 1860s.

Alexander MacKenzie and Ann Clarke in Australia.  Alexander MacKenzie, known as Sandy, had enlisted with the 73rd Regiment at Inverness in 1808 and his regiment arrived in Sydney a year later.  Alexander was there until the early part of 1814 and it was during that time that his Australian daughter Mary MacKenzie was born.  The mother Ann Clarke (a convict from Liverpool) was probably living with him at that time.

When Mary was six months old Alexander was ordered to leave New South Wales with an advance party of his regiment which was being sent to Ceylon.  He completed his term of service there and was discharged at the end of 1815.  Instead of returning home to Britain he went back to NSW, first writing to Ann with the apparent intention of rejoining her in Sydney.

However, things did not work out for them at that time.  Alexander had received approval to select a grant of land in Tasmania.  He moved there and began to develop the land while he worked as well in Launceston as an overseer of convicts.  It was from this occupation that he became known as ‘Sergeant MacKenzie’ (although his rank in the army was never higher than private).

When he had left Ann was no longer ‘on stores,’ that is, no longer being supported by the Government.  She moved to Newcastle and formed a new partnership with a convict named James Wells with whom she had a child.  At about the same time she received the letter from Alexander which prompted her to go to Tasmania to join him.  She went almost immediately, arriving there in October 1818 with her three children.

Now things started to get complicated.  A few months before Ann had left James Wells in Newcastle to join him, Alexander married a 14 year girl named Elizabeth Murphy.  Not only that but when Ann arrived in Launceston she was already pregnant with another child by James Wells, which she might not have known about when she had left Newcastle.

Ann’s four children were all listed with Alexander’s surname in the population muster for the area of 1819. So Alexander and Ann might finally have settled down!  However, before the end of the year Alexander was dead.  And six months later Ann Clarke married Thomas Brennan.

Reader Feedback – The Writer Donald Mackenzie.  Donald Alexander Mackenzie was a Scottish journalist and a prolific writer on religion, mythology, and anthropology in the early 20th century.  His penned well over 50 books, his works including Indian Myth and Legend, Celtic Folklore and Myths of China and Japan.

He was born in Cromarty in the Scottish Highlands and began his career in Glasgow. Between 1903 and 1910 he owned and edited The North Star in Dingwall and then moved to the People’s Journal in Dundee. From 1916 he represented the Glasgow paper, The Bulletin, in Edinburgh.  As well as writing books, articles and poems, he often gave lectures, and also broadcast talks on Celtic mythology. He was the friend of many specialist authorities in his areas of interest.

He died in Edinburgh in 1936 and was buried in Cromarty Old Gaelic Kirk, along with many of his Mackenzie forefathers.

Maggie Goodman (

McKenzie Names

  • Alexander MacKenzie of Kintail was the first recorded chief of the MacKenzie clan.
  • Kenneth MacKenzie was the 12th chief of the Mackenzies, leading the clan at the peak of the powers in the early 1600’s.
  • Alexander MacKenzie was the fur trader and explorer who discovered the overland route to the Pacific in 1793. The Mackenzie river is named after him.
  • Alexander MacKenzie was in 1873 Canada’s second Prime Minister.
  • Thomas MacKenzie served as Prime Minister of New Zealand in 1912.
  • Compton MacKenzie was the Scottish author of works such as Whisky Galore and Monarch of the Glen. 
  • Julia McKenzie is a popular British actress.

McKenzie Numbers Today

  • 51,000 in the UK (most numerous in Highlands)
  • 24,000 in America (most numerous in Florida).
  • 56,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).

McKenzie 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.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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