Descended from the Pictish Royal House of MacEth, the progenitor of the clan is Iye (MacEth), grandson of Earl of Ross, raised to Chiefship in 1250. Iye in Gaelic is AOIDH, meaning "fire" and anglicized as "ay" or "y" and pronounced "eye" - hence Mackay is properly pronounced "mhuc eye" not "mah kaay".
His people were originally from Ireland, following two brothers deported after battle loss for kingship in 335 A.D. These Moray men were dispersed principally north to Strathnaver Region by order of King Malcolm IV in 1160 who defeated Malcolm MacEth, Earl of Ross whose daughter Gormalth married the Norse Harold, Earl of Caithness.
Argyll Mackays, linked with House of Strachnaver, fled south. Similarly, McGhies of Galloway. Mackays became famous for strength, courage and skill in soldiering and were involved in endless Clan battles against Keiths, Rosses, Gunns, Sinclairs, Sutherlands and others, and wars abroad.
Donald, son of Iye Mor, married the daughter of Iye, son of Neil of Gilgha of Kintyre and supported Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314. In 1329, Robert the Bruce gave lands in Kintyre to Gilchrist McCay for service of archers. Mackies of Largs received a land charter from Bruce in Kirkcudbright.
The Morgan name has always been an integral part of Mackay since the 13th Century and there is some argument which name came first - Morgan or Mackay. The 2nd Chief, Iye Mhor had a brother Morgan and another brother, Martin from whom come Septs Mackie, McKie, McKee, etc. Iye Mhor married the daughter of Bishop of Caithness and was given large tracts of lands around Durness.
Other chiefs followed - Donald, Iye (again), Donald, (both murdered by Nicholas of Sutherland), Angus and finally Farquhar, son of murdered Iye (the third) who was King Robert II's physician and obtained lands of Melness, Hope and other Strathnaver properties.
Angus Dhu (the black) 1380-1429 married Elizabeth, sister to Donald, Lord of the Isles. There is thus royal blood in the veins of Mackays. In 1415, Donald chartered lands of Strathnaver to Angus Dhu and his son Neil.
In 14th C and 15th C many Septs appeared - Bain (from Gaelic "ban" - white or fair), descended from Neil, brother of Angus 6th Chief of the Mackays. He also provides the Neilson branch and thru his son, the Septs of Paul, Polson, Paulson, etc. and MacPhail with various spellings.
Stories of imprisonment of Neil at Bass Rock, of constant feuds, battles with names like Sandside Chase, Tarbet Church, Tuiteam Tarbach, Dingwall, Aldicharrish, Stoway Moss or Castle Borve make fascinating reading for the history buff.
So do the stories of some of the Chiefs and related families - William of Bighouse, Huistean Du, Ian Aberach, Hugh Scourie and many more.
In 1795 The Reay Fencibles were embodied and served admirably in Ireland. The unit was disbanded at Stirling 1902.
One of the most glorious moments of Mackay military history occurred when the famous Thin Red Line, of the 93rd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders composed of many Mackays defended Crimea.
Over succeeding years, however, Mackays lost most of their lands, once so nobly defended by skill at arms, because of heavy debt and financial mismanagements, to the Dukes of Sutherland.
The glory days of Mackay country was told by the last of the great Poets, Robert MacKay known as Robb Donn whose insightful, frequently humorous accounts of life in the real Highlands would delight any reader. He died in 1778. His importance cannot be underestimated because he described conditions prior to the time of The Clearances.
The most devastating period of Mackay history is related to that dreadfully uncomfortable time of The Clearances, which peaked at about the time of Napoleonic Wars. Primarily absentee English landlords, through their factors or farm managers - most famous of whom was Sellers - forced thousands of Mackays off the lands they had tilled successfully for hundreds of years, replacing Clansmen in their lush valleys with sheep.
The crofts and all that Mackays owned were burned, destroyed or confiscated. Many died cruel and torturous deaths. They were forced to the edge of the sea, where lack of natural good harbours made a life as fishermen impossible. Their hardships were unbelievably cruel. Despite lack of financial resources, thousands managed to escape to America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa where today their descendants enjoy the fruits of their courage, strength, perseverance, work ethic, religious zeal and world-renowned honesty -
"If you cannot trust a Mackay, who can you trust?"