The Mackay country was the most remote from the seat of government of any part of the Scottish mainland. It extended from Cape Wrath along the north coast to the Caithness border, and varied between sixteen and twenty miles in depth, its southern frontiers defended by bleak uplands and splendid mountains. In 1427 it was estimated that the Chief of Mackay possessed 4,000 fighting men with whom to defend this province.
This region was called Strathnaver, after the largest river that flows through it. Both Gaelic and Norse derivations have been offered for this name, but it is more likely that it has survived from some earlier language. The Gaelic still spoken in Strathnaver gas many affinities closer to the Munster Gaelic of southern Ireland than to any Scottish dialect. The patronymicAodh dates back to the earliest pre-Christian Irish folk tales and is not easily rendered in English spelling. In its genitive form, Mac Aoidh, Son of Aodh, is pronounced in Strathnaver in a way best represented by the modern Irish spelling "Magee".
Until the 17th century every known marriage of a Chief of Mackay was with a member of the Scottish Gaelic aristocracy and one of them was with a sister of the Lord of the Isles who led his Highland host to Harlaw in 1411. A hundred years later a clerk (as he described himself) of the northern Highlands wrote a vivid description of his society, by then labelled ‘Irish' in the Lowlands. "The great courtiers of Scotland repute the foresaid Irish lords as wild, rude, and barbarous people, brought up (as they say) without learning and nurture; yet they passed them a great deal in faith, honesty, in policy and wit, in good order and civility." One of those great courtiers, Adam Gordon, had just seized the neighbouring earldom of Sutherland, and Strathnaver was the next Gordon Target. In 1588, by violence, fraud and the abuse of royal authority, the first Mackay Chief was reduced to the status of feudal vassal to a Gordon Earl. His great body of clansmen was at once conscripted to assault the Gordon target - the Sinclair earldom of Caithness.
But Donald, Chief of Mackay, found other service for his clansmen when in 1626 he took a regiment of three thousand men to fight on the Protestant side in the Thirty Years War. At Stettin the earliest portraits of Mackays in Highland dress were published in 1631; and in 1637 Robert Monroe published his unique chronicle, Monroe His Expedition with the Worthy Scots Regiment (Called Mackeyes Regiment), "the memory whereof shall never be forgotten, but shall live in spite of time."
The military tradition was continued by Hugh Mackay of the cadet house of Scourie, who served with the Scots Brigade in Holland. He joined William of Orange at the Revolution of 1688, and commanded the forces which fought against Bonnie Dundee at Killiecrankie in 1689. There the Jacobite leader was killed, while General Mackay fell in action soon afterwards.
Donald, Chief of Mackay, had been raised to the peerage as Lord Reay in 1628, and throughout the 18th century the Hanoverian Reay country remained unmolested. It's ancient way of life was preserved forever in the poetry of Rob Dunn Mackay (1714-1778), the most graphic of all Gaelic poets in his detailed delineation of social relationships, everyday occupations and human aspirations. In his songs and his satires, Rob Dunn is the only Gaelic poet comparable to his contemporary Robert Burns. The world soon to be destroyed in the Sutherland Clearances of the early 19th century is commemorated in a language that fewer and fewer are able to understand. But his poetry has been presented in English translation in Ian Grimble's The World of Rob Donn (1979).
At first, the evictions of the Mackay country were confined to the valleys of Kildonan and the Naver valley already owned by the house of Sutherland. But in 1829 the 7th Lord Reay sold the remaining clan lands in his possession, the vast tracts of the far north-west in which Rob Donn had lived. In 1830 the cadet branch of Strath Halladale also sold out to the Sutherlands, and the entire Mackay country now lay at their mercy. The direct line of the Mackay chiefs died out in 1875, when their title passed to a branch of the family already ennobled in the Netherlands. Hugh 14th Lord Reay (b.1937), Baron Mackay van Ophemert in the Netherlands, is the present Chief of Mackay.