Book Note: Chief of MacKay

Originally published on Livejournal, June 5th, 2008.

Ian Grimble’s Chief of Mackay is the first volume of his Strathnaver Trilogy:

…. bringing into focus and describing in tragic detail the fate of the Mackay country – Duthaich ‘Ic Aoidh – in the far northwest of Scotland. Because of gradual changes in the idea of chieftainship, the people underwent a transformation from a traditional tight-knit Gaelic-speaking community to a down-trodden helot population to be cleared away at the will of the landowner and replaced by sheep.

In the late 16th century the Chief of Mackay was forced to become a feudal vassal of of the powerful Gordon family, becoming subject to the Earl of Sutherland. Most of the book is about the efforts of the Gordons to obtain direct ownership of the MacKay territories. From a letter of Sir Robert Gordon to his nephew, the Earl of Sutherland:

“Use Mackay rather as your vassal than as your companion, and because they are usually proud and arrogant let them know that you are their superior.” [p. 120]

The Gordon plan for the Mackay territories was cultural genocide. They intended to eliminated the Highland dress. More from Sir Robert’s advice to his nephew:

“Use your diligence to take away the reliques of the Irishe barbaritie which as yet remains in your countrey, to wit, the Irishe language and the habit, Purge your countrey peice and peice from that unciwill kynd of cloithes, such as plaids, mantles, truses and blew bonnets. Mak sewere acts against those that shall weare them. Cause the inhabitants of the countrey to cloith them selves as the most ciwill prowinces of the Kingdome do, with doublet, cloiks and hats, which they may do with less chargs then the other. It is no excuse which some wold pretend alledgeing that unciwill habit to be lightest among the montanes. They may cloith them selfs (if they list) with coats and breiches of one color, as light and handsome as plaid and truses.” [p. 121]

As for their Gaelic language:

“The Irish [Gaelic] language cannot so soon be extinguished. To help this, plant schools in every corner of the the country to instruct the you to speak English”. [p. 121].

Donald Mackay, first Lord Reay, raised a regiment of his Highlanders to fight in the 30 Year’s War, the only Highland clan regiment of all the Scots who fought in that conflict. The regiment fought well for King Christian IV of Denmark and King Gustavus Adolphus of of Sweden. Unfortunately, King Christian and King Charles I of Scotland and England (who also promised to support this venture) did not pay Mackay the funds they promised him. This left him deeply in debt, and he was forced to mortgage and then sell much of the ancestral Mackay country to the Gordons to meet his obligations.

By 1649 the situation of the Mackays was getting desperate. They were saved by the unlikely combination of Oliver Cromwell, King Charles II, and King William III. The end of the Gaelic society of Strathnaver was postponed for another century and a half.