Hailing from the far north of Scotland, the MacKay clan take their name from the Gaelic ‘Macaoidh’, meaning, ‘son of Hugh’. The exact identity of Hugh is unknown, however, it has been asserted that the family are descended from Aedh, the last Abbot of Dunkeld, first Earl of Fife and elder brother of Alexander I.
Taking a while to establish themselves as a recognised clan, early members of the family would hold important positions such as the Earldoms of Ross and Caithness. They would finally become an established clan by the middle of the 14th century when they settled in the lands of Strathnaver and, despite taking a relatively long time to become known, they would rapidly become a powerful force in Scottish affairs. This rise to power is perhaps best illustrated by the marriage of Angus Dubh to the sister of the Lord of the Isles, this is a marriage that would have taken place on political grounds and shows that the MacKays were held in high regard as the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, who were arguably the most powerful family in the north of Scotland at that time.
Angus would command 4000 men from his lands at Strathnaver and with their growing reputation, the clan would need these soldiers to fend off their enemies over the subsequent years. Top of their list would be the Sutherlands – with whom the MacKays would contest an almost constant feud beginning with the capture of Iye MacKay, the then chief, in 1556 as he was sent to Edinburgh Castle and held prisoner. The clan would recover from this mishap and would grow in power as Iye’s grandson, Sir Donald MacKay, was created a Baronet of Nova Scotia in 1627, before being further elevated to the peerage as Baron Reay a year later. The MacKays would use their raised standing to have a real impact in the civil war, as Lord Reay fought alongside Charles I and was in line to be further promoted to Earl of Strathnaver before the end of the conflict. Sadly, as he was on the losing side, he would be forced to flee to Denmark, where his son would become a colonel in the Danish Army.
Despite certain members moving abroad, the clan would remain influential within Scotland and the chiefly line would pass between different branches of the family as the chief often died without an heir. This would continue until the 19th century when, after accruing a large amount of debt, Eric, the 9th Baron Reay, would be encouraged to borrow money by the Earl of Sutherland, with his lands given up as security. After he passed away without an heir in 1875, the entirety of the MacKay lands were passed to the control of the Sutherlands, in a devastating end to a conflict that had lasted for centuries. This would not be the end of the clan, however, as the chiefship passed to a cousin of the baron and the clan would continue to be influential, even without their lands, as the 11th Baron rose to the position of Governor of Bombay.
In more recent times, the MacKays have been extremely prosperous in a number of positions including James MacKay, the chairman of the P & O shipping company, and Donald MacKay, who was appointed Lord Chancellor of Great Britain in 1987. The present chief, Aeneas, became the fiftieth Lord Reay and succeeded his father in 2013. He sits in the House of Lords as a hereditary peer.