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A Brief History of the Clan Mackenzie


The name Mackenzie means “Son of Coinneach”, a Gaelic Christian name that can be translated as “Comely” or “Fair”, which is commonly anglicised to Kenneth, and some of the earliest histories of the family assert that the first Kenneth after which his descendants are named was the son of Colin, a scion of the great Irish Norman family of FitzGerald, who fled Ireland after his father and elder brother were killed at the Battle of Callan in 1262. Colin was supposed to have received a Crown charter for the lands of Kintail (on the mainland of Wester Ross across from the Isle of Skye) from Alexander III shortly afterwards, in recognition of his support for the Scottish King at the Battle of Largs in 1263. This heroic progenitor of the Clan was famously depicted in the 18th century rescuing the King from a stag painted by the American artist, Benjamin West in his celebrated monumental canvas that now hangs in Edinburgh’s National Gallery.

Benjamin West’s Alexander III of Scotland Rescued from the Fury of a Stag by the Intrepidity of Colin Fitzgerald

In 1836, however, the distinguished historian of the Highlands, Dr William Forbes Skene, first asserted the Celtic origins of the Scots in general and the Mackenzies in particular, in his The Highlanders of Scotland. Thanks to Skene, most historians and genealogists have ever since accepted that the national identity of the Scots sprang from an early Gaelic tribal root that first flourished in Ireland. Within this revision, and drawing on a manuscript he himself discovered in the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh, known by historians today as MS 1467, Skene established a man called Gilleoin na h’Airde as the 11th century Celtic progenitor of both the Mathesons and the Mackenzies. This Gilleoin, according to another document dating from circa 1700, known as the MacMhuirich (or MacVurich) Manuscript, was in turn descended from Loarn, of the line of the Dalriadic, or Irish Scots kings. This descent is further supported by the Senchus Fer n-Alban, or The History of the Men of Scotland, an old Irish mediaeval text. More recently this account has been further endorsed scientifically by DNA analysis.

Until very recently it had consequently been fashionable to dismiss the longstanding tradition pertaining to Colin FitzGerald as a myth. George Mackenzie, 1st Earl of Cromartie, in particular, had been singled out as a “pedigree faker” and accused by some of inventing this legend. Yet, given that a prestigious royal Celtic origin for the Mackenzies is now widely accepted, what motive would the 17th century family genealogists have had for inventing this descent from an obscure Irish adventurer? Initiated by a series of conversations with the late Alan McKenzie of the Canadian Clan Mackenzie Society, the detective work of the brothers Kevin and Andrew McKenzie unearthed a body of concrete evidence that vindicates the Mackenzies’ claim to a descent from the FitzGerald dynasty, albeit in the female line. It would thus appear to be by virtue of their 13th century FitzGerald heritage that this subsequently powerful Highland Clan acquired its earliest landholdings in Kintail and its iconic stag’s head coat-of-arms, just as the British monarchy today claims its all-important titles and prestige through its various descents in the female line, disregarding its direct male-line ancestors and principally German DNA.

In May we be Britons Kevin and Andrew McKenzie postulate a way of reconciling the longstanding arguments regarding the origins of the Mackenzies – through the marriage alliance in the 13th century of John MacMathan (or Matheson) to a FitzGerald heiress in this closely inter-related web of kindred who at that time were participating in the Crusade of King Louis IX of France to the Holy Land. This is suggested not only by the association of names and heraldry which are on historical record, but can also be supported by two local oral traditions: The Legend of the Birds (about the son of the Lord of Castle Donan “of the same race as the Mathesons” who travels to France and thence to more exotic lands) and The Legend of Loch Maree (about the son of a displaced chief who is suckled by a goat in a cave beside this scenic loch and goes on to regain his birth-right, marrying the daughter of the Lord of Eilean Donan Castle). The prophecy which that legend purports to fulfil also gives an explicit explanation for how a son of the Matheson family through marriage came not only to acquire certain landholdings but also the distinctive Mackenzie coat-of-arms: “the mountain in flames; and the horns of the deer.”

Eilean Donan Castle

The Clan Mackenzie

Just as the family’s origins were believed to have begun with a prophecy, so too was the ultimate fate of the Mackenzies purported to have been foretold by the Second-Sighted Kenneth Odhar Mackenzie, known as the Brahan Seer (after Brahan, near Dingwall, where the chiefly seat of Brahan Castle stood until it was demolished in 1951). Having risen in power and influence to hold lands which stretched right across the north of Scotland, and to become one of the four most important Highland chiefs in 1726 (the others were the Dukes of Argyll, Atholl and Gordon), the Mackenzies of Seaforth’s chiefly line ended in the 19th century when all four of the last Lord Seaforth’s sons died before him, as had been supposedly predicted by the Seer. This longstanding romantic view of the Mackenzies’ history has thus often highlighted the demise of a once powerful clan while also reflecting a popular misconception of the Highlands in general as something of a benighted backwater (promoted principally by the Hanoverian regime in the event of Jacobite opposition during the first half of the 18th century). In reality, the family’s internationally diverse origins were to continue to characterise its cosmopolitan outlook in centuries to come, going on to account for so many of its later successes and achievements. 

Brahan Castle in the 19th century

After a complex series of changing loyalties in the 14th century, which did not always follow the interests of the Crown, a subsequent strong allegiance to the House of Stewart was firmly established under the leadership of the Clan’s 15th century chief, Alexander Ionraic, or “the Upright”, from whom most genuine legitimate Mackenzies living today are descended. Alexander, or Alistair, is widely said to have received the nickname Ionraic, meaning “Upright”, due to his reputation for righteousness, although the early 18th century family historian, Dr George Mackenzie gave an alternative reason for the name, which also means “Innocent”, suggesting that it referred to his miraculous survival as an innocent in his mother’s womb when she was thrown off the Bridge of Scatwell. This helpful act was done by the kinsmen of Alistair’s father, Murdoch (known as “Murdo of the Bridge” for that very reason), since at that time she was thought unable to bear the Chief an heir. As a prominent supporter of the Crown against his all-powerful rival, the Lord of the Isles, Alexander was rewarded with forfeited MacDonald lands. Further marriages to a number of heiresses cemented the family’s impressive ascendancy as one of the most powerful clans in the Highlands, as well as in Scotland as a whole. From their “Giftlands” in Kintail around Loch Duich with Eilean Donan Castle as their base, they spread east throughout Ross-shire, which they came to dominate and the Mackenzie chiefs established seats further east in the 16th century at Kinellan and Castle Leod near Strathpeffer, and then in the 17th century set up court in the castles of Chanonry and Brahan on the Black Isle.

The Crannog (an artificial island, built for defence) at Kinellan

Alasdair’s eldest son, Kenneth a’bhlair, or “of the Battle”, defeated Alexander MacDonald of Lochalsh in the combat known as Bhlair-na-Parc, or the Battle of the Park, which took place close to Strathpeffer. This marked the ascendancy of the Mackenzies as the most powerful Clan in Ross-shire. He died in 1492 and his stone effigy can be seen at Beauly Priory where he was buried.

The monument to Kenneth Mackenzie “of the Battle” above his tomb in Beauly Priory

John, his son, fought at both Flodden and Pinkie, but survived and lived until the mid-16th century. The Mackenzies continued their rise to power, retaining their allegiance to Mary, Queen of Scots, and her son, James VI. In 1609, the chief, another Kenneth, was made Lord Mackenzie of Kintail, while in 1623 his eldest son, Colin was created Earl of Seaforth after the magnificent sea loch on the Island of Lewis which territory he had acquired and which he and his descendants were to rule as their private fiefdom for the following two and a half centuries. The 17th century was a period of great upheaval for many members of the Clan, different members of which held differing political and religious allegiances at different times. The 1st Earl of Seaforth’s brother, George, the 2nd Earl played a prominent role in national politics throughout the Civil Wars, becoming Charles II’s Secretary of State for Scotland during Cromwell’s Interregnum, a period that saw widespread devastation across the Mackenzies’ landholdings.

Another powerful branch of the Mackenzies became Earls of Cromartie in 1703 when George, the 1st Earl served as Queen Anne’s Secretary of State for Scotland. A remarkably erudite intellectual and accomplished statesman, George was influential in bringing about the Union of Scotland and England in 1707.

Sir George Mackenzie, 1st Earl of Cromartie

Famously, the chiefly Seaforth branch of the family continued to remain loyal to the Stuarts. It was the Seaforth Mackenzies’ loyalty to the Stuart Kings which brought about their demise at the beginning of the 18th century. Kenneth the 4th Earl was one of the first Knights of the Thistle, the Scottish Order of Chivalry, and he continued to support his fellow Roman Catholic King, James VII after the deposed monarch was sent into exile in 1688. James created him Marquis of Seaforth in the Jacobite peerage. His son, William Dubh (‘Black’), the 5th Earl and 2nd Marquis, raised an army of 3,000 men in 1715 for the Jacobite Pretender, and had to flee to France, returning in 1719 to be severely wounded at the Battle of Glenshiel, where he fought courageously alongside Rob Roy.

William Dubh Mackenzie, 5th Earl and 2nd Jacobite Marquis of Seaforth

While William Dubh was later pardoned and his son came to support the Hanoverian Government during the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745, his cousin, the 3rd Earl of Cromartie, used his local influence to raise a significant force of Mackenzies in opposition on behalf of the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie. Following Lord Cromartie’s capture at Dunrobin Castle he was sentenced to death in London, but fortuitously reprieved at the 11th hour. His lands and titles were nonetheless forfeit and he was exiled to Devon.

Although their influence was now waning, Lord Fortrose’s son, another Kenneth, who was a sophisticated patron of music and the arts, spending time, like his father on the European Continent, had the Earldom of Seaforth restored to him in the Irish peerage in 1771. In gratitude this chief raised the 1,130 strong Regiment, designated at that time the 78th (Highland) Regiment of Foot, or Seaforth (Highland) Regiment. But he died without a male heir while accompanying his men to India in 1784 and his titles became extinct. The chiefship and estates passed to Colonel Thomas Mackenzie Humberston, a great-grandson of the 4th Earl. Shortly afterwards, he was killed commanding his cousin’s Regiment during the Second Anglo-Mysore War. His younger brother, Francis, succeeded him. Deaf and subsequently suffering from blindness, Francis was a remarkably accomplished individual who overcame his disabilities and proved an enlightened Governor of Barbados between 1800 and 1806 and was subsequently created Lord Seaforth in the British peerage in 1797, only to have all his sons die before him and to dispose of much of the Seaforth landholdings before he himself, the last male descendant of the Mackenzies of Seaforth, died in 1815.

Francis Humberston-Mackenzie, shown in the uniform of the 78th or Seaforth Highlanders

This local calamity was recorded in Sir Walter Scott’s poem, The Lament for the Last Seaforth:   

“Thy sons rose around thee in light and in love,

All a father could hope, all a friend could approve;

What vails it the tale of thy sorrows to tell,

In the spring-time of youth and of promise they fell!

Of the line of Fitzgerald remains not a male

To bear the proud name of the Chief of Kintail.”

The Hon. Mary Frederica Mackenzie, Lady Hood

Lord Seaforth’s daughter, Mary, took on the mantle of Chief in 1815 as the widowed Lady Hood. A close friend of Sir Walter Scott, she too was remembered in his poem:

“And thou gentle Dame, who must bear to thy grief,

For thy clan and thy country the cares of a Chief,

Whom brief rolling moons in six changes have left,

Of thy husband and father and brethren bereft;

To thine ear of affection, how sad is the hail

That salutes thee – the heir of the line of Kintail!”

From Mary descended the Stewart-Mackenzies of Seaforth by her second marriage. Her son sold up all of his family estate, except for Brahan and a small part of the Clan’s original heartland in Kintail that was nonetheless finally disposed of later in the century. Her grandson was made Lord Seaforth of Brahan in 1921, but he too died without a male heir, and Brahan Castle was demolished in 1951. After something of a vacuum with regard to the Clan’s chiefship, Roderick Grant Francis Blunt-Mackenzie, the 4th Earl of Cromartie, who renounced his family name of Blunt to inherit the title through the female line, became chief of the Clan Mackenzie in 1979. His son, John Ruaridh Grant Mackenzie, 5th Earl of Cromartie and current clan chief, lives at the ancient Mackenzie stronghold of Castle Leod, near Strathpeffer in Ross-shire.

Coat-of-arms of the 5th Earl of Cromartie, current Chief of the Clan Mackenzie

The Mackenzie Clan lands of Kintail, a magnificent 14 000 acres estate of Highland scenery which includes the majestic mountains known as the Five Sisters of Kintail, were acquired by the National Trust for Scotland in 1944, so that mountaineers, campers and walkers are today able to enjoy the ancient patrimony of the Mackenzies. The Trust also looks after another Mackenzie inheritance: the subtropical, exotic gardens created out of the barren peninsula at Inverewe in a latitude more northerly than Moscow, begun in 1862 by Osgood Mackenzie (a scion of the Mackenzies of Gairloch) which was presented to the Trust in 1952 by his daughter Mrs Mairie Sawyer.

But while the Clan had come to promote a somewhat romantic perception of itself, with its story often painted as one of inevitable decline in support of a lost cause, culminating in Lord Seaforth’s death in 1815 and the fulfilment of the Brahan Seer’s prophecy of Seaforth’s Doom, in reality, especially from the many Mackenzie cadets’ roles as soldiers, clergymen, lawyers, doctors and merchants, the Highlanders had always been outward-looking and were far from being a leftover from the primitive and tribal Middle Ages. Thus, the clan system under the Mackenzies continued to flourish throughout the severe political upheavals of the 17th and 18th centuries. During this time a number of leading lights of the family were among the most advanced thinkers of their time and included some of the major participants in the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. In the 18th century it was remarkable how the resilience of clan solidarity enabled its survival, overriding partisan political considerations and by the 19th century Clannishness, in the form of family connections, invariably assisted migration to the industrial cities and towns, as well as overseas.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie

Many distinguished members of the Clan Mackenzie came to the fore during that latter period. Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820), a Canadian explorer with an inclusive and inquisitive world view left us with stirring accounts of his travels across North America; Alexander Mackenzie (1822-92) was a Canadian statesman, born in Perthshire; Sir John Mackenzie (1838-1901), born at Ardross, was an eminent New Zealand statesman; Henry Mackenzie (1745-1831), author of The Man of Feeling, and Sir Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972), author of Whisky Galore, were celebrated literary representatives of the clan. The formation of regiments, most famously the Seaforth Highlanders, the building of great canals and railways in Britain and France, most notably by William Mackenzie (1794-1851), the charting of the seas by Murdoch Mackenzie (1712-1897) and the surveying of India by Colonel Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821) are among the many remarkable achievements of this innovative and ambitious family, whose ties of kinship have long persisted across oceans and hemispheres and indeed continue to do so to this day.