On long, dark winter nights it is still the custom in small villages for friends to collect in a house and hold what they call a ‘ceilidh’. Young and old are entertained by the reciters of old poems and legendary stories which deal with ancient beliefs, the doings of traditional heroes and heroines, and so on.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Wonder Tales from Scottish myth and legend


A longstanding impulse of the Mackenzies throughout their long history and one that has always been important to their identity has been to make and pass on stories. In its earliest form this was relayed by the oral tradition of the bards, which we know to have been preserved in such tales as The Legend of the Birds, which relates to the son of the Lord of Eilean Donan Castle being able to understand the language of the birds and going on adventurous travels; and The Legend of Loch Maree, about a boy who, rather like Romulus and Remus in the founding legend of Rome, was suckled by a goat in a cave on the edge of the Loch, before going on to reclaim his birth right of Kintail. The importance of both these legends, which can be traced back to the 13th century and which were passed down through the generations until written down at the end of the 19th century, is that they preserve memories of the very first origins of the family.

The first oral traditions to be written down are the family histories of the late 16th and 17th centuries. While Sir George Mackenzie of Tarbat (later created Viscount Tarbat and subsequently Earl of Cromartie) has been widely accused of pedigree faking, the earliest known written Mackenzie family genealogy predates Sir George. The history written by the Rev. Hector Mackenzie in 1710, which is now in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, is at pains to relate how it drew its information from ‘ane small manuscript’ composed by his great grandfather on his mother’s side, Rory Beg Mackenzie, the son of Rory Mor, first laird of Achilty, who was living in the second half of the 16th century. In the words of Hector Mackenzie, Rory Beg ”writ first the genelogicall account of the families of Makenzie”. This account which Hector took from his forebear, referring constantly to “my author”, gave their descent from Colin FitzGerald, who came over from Ireland with his brother, Gillean, and fought at the Battle of Largs. He had a son, Kenneth, and “all the surname of MAKENZIES are descended of this Keneth son to Colin Gerald.” With specific reference to this tradition, Hector wrote that Rory Beg, “my predecessor”, was even said to have noted “the inscription engraven on their [Colin and Gillean’s] tome and place of interment at Icolmkill.” The motto of this inscription at Iona was also widely known in its relation to these two brothers, as we know from John MacRa, who gave a further (non-Mackenzie) source for the tradition when he wrote his history of the family a century later. In all of this one should remember that family traditions and genealogies possessed more historical sanction in the Highlands than in other parts of Britain, from their having been preserved by means of the trained memory of the various family bards, who were employed to hand down to posterity the history of the clan. Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh told us that “it was ordinary in our Highland families, not only at burials, but at baptisms  and  marriages,  to  recite  the  genealogies for many generations, allowing for such ever freshened tradition to endure faithfully.”


There is perhaps no other family in history that has examined and reappraised itself as much. After the self-examination that began with the late 16th century manuscript of Rory Beg Mackenzie written family histories flourished in the 17th century with those of John Mackenzie of Fairburn (now sadly lost), the short history given by the anonymous “Person of Quality”, John Mackenzie of Applecross’s history, accompanied by his remarkably comprehensive genealogical survey, and the consciously scholarly account of Viscount Tarbat (subsequently first Earl of Cromartie). The family’s contribution to its own history was then continued in the writings of Dr George Mackenzie and Colin Mackenzie of Newburnside in the 18th century, and of Alexander Mackenzie and Major James Dixon Mackenzie of Findon (who was latterly Baronet of Scatwell) in the 19th (now preserved in the genealogical trees known as the Findon Tables). It was then at the close of the last century that this family’s fascination with the actions of its kinsmen culminated in the late Earl of Cromartie’s delightful A Highland History; and at the beginning of the present century with Andrew and Kevin McKenzie’s May we be Britons. Other members of the family have also left us historical perspectives that lend a valuable insight into their own mentality regarding the past, including, again in consecutive centuries, Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh (Antiquity of the Royal Line of Scotland and Memoirs of the Affairs of Scotland from the Restoration of Charles II , for example), Dr James Mackenzie of Drumsheugh (The History of Health, and the Art of preserving it), Dr John Mackenzie of Eileanach and Osgood Hanbury Mackenzie (A Hundred Years in the Highlands, based on the latter’s Diaries). Indeed, one might even extend the perspective both backwards and forwards in time, explaining our own contribution on this website as the latest in an ancient Gaelic bardic tradition of recording and relaying history in general and which has long continued to recall the past achievements of the Clan in particular.


Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh

Somewhat removed and yet nonetheless the child of this bardic tradition in which he would have been brought up in Easter Ross, Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh is a remarkable and early precursor of the literary movement that has been dubbed “proto-Romantic”. In his poem Caelias’ Country House and Closet, of which he sent a copy to John Evelyn in 1688, he gave his muse as Friendship:

Friendship! That wiser Rival of vain Love

Which does more firm, but not so fiery prove.”

The poem conjures up a wistful paradise, describing the elm avenues and tranquil lake beside Caelia’s home, where her garden boasts images of Nereids, an artificial rock and fountains. The country is elevated as a place free of ambition:

“O happy Country-Life, pure like its Air,

Free from the Rage of Pride, the Pangs of Care!

Here happy Souls ly bath’d in soft Content,

And are at once seciure and innocent…”

Schooled abroad on the Arcadian literature of Madame de Scudery and Jean de la Fontaine, his vision anticipated the Augustan idyll of John Dryden, Alexander Pope (a close friend of the 2nd Marquis of Seaforth’s immediate family in the early 18th century) and William Kent. In his final years Sir George did indeed find contentment in a “Solacing retirement” when he withdrew from the world to the libraries of Oxford University. Here in England, where he spent his last days, “they see the best side of him, and that is very good.” His intimate friend, the eminent mathematician, Dr Gregory, wrote of him a eulogy, ascribing to him all the virtues which a good man would most desire to possess. He was admired by the diarist, John Evelyn, and respected by the Fellows of Oxford University. His advice on poetic style was deemed profitable by John Dryden, who remembered “that Noble Wit of Scotland, Sr George MacKenzy.” Alexander Cunningham, Professor of Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, penned the following epitaph for his friend:

“Painter if thou would’st draw how Cato stood,

Fix’d in Defence of’s Country’s Laws and Good:

If thou woulds’t draw great Tully’s Eloquence,

When he inspir’d the Bar with Life and Sense?

If thou woulds’t draw Maro’s Majestick Lays;

Or with what Art and Genius Flaccus plays?

Painter MACKENZIE draw, none others fit,

To represent such Men, such Sense, such Wit.”

Sir George’s Institutions of the Law of Scotland, in 1684, went through nine editions and was not replaced until 1758 as the main textbook for teaching law in Scotland.


By the end of the 18th century a Mackenzie was again at the forefront of literary endeavour. : the last Lord Seaforth’s son-in-law, Henry Mackenzie was the celebrated writer of The Man of Feeling, regarded by many as the first Romantic novel.

Henry Mackenzie

Born in Edinburgh in 1745, the son of Joshua Mackenzie, a prosperous physician, and his wife, Margaret Rose of Kilravock, eldest daughter of the 16th laird of Kilravock, he was thus a descendant of the Mackenzies of Inverlael. Educated at Edinburgh High School and, from 1758 to 1761, at the University of Edinburgh, before leaving for London in 1765 to complete his studies in English exchequer practice .This early training in London furnished some of the material for his protagonist’s adventures in his best known novel. In this, Harley, with his ideal sensibility, frequently sheds tears over the misfortunes of the people he meets, and his innocence is constantly contrasted with the worldliness of others. The novel became the most popular of its decade; the first American edition was later published in 1782, and by the 1820s the novel had appeared in nine different editions; it was reprinted several times and translated into French, German, Polish, and Swedish.

Henry himself became labelled a “man of feeling”’ after the novel’s publication, being an individual remarkable sensibility, and he is generally regarded as the arch-sentimentalist of Scottish literature. However, there were two sides to Mackenzie’s character. While he was a man of taste and sentiment, he was also a pragmatic professional lawyer. Such a dualism reveals a specific Scottish trait evident in his writings as well as in his life. No doubt owing to the fact that he sprung from the very same professional Edinburgh circle at this time, he can in this way be compared to the Lowland novelist, Sir Walter Scott, who exhibited similar dual Romantic and pragmatic allegiances. Publishers often took Mackenzie’s advice before accepting a manuscript. He supported Robert Burns by writing a favourable and influential review of the Kilmarnock poems, and he gave Sir Walter Scott a start on the ladder towards literary fame. He later became one the first writers ‘of any literary reputation to admire Byron’, according to his biographer, HW Thompson.

From 1789 Mackenzie was active in the Highland Society of Scotland. He was one of its directors and edited its Transactions. Ironically, however, it was his writing that was to lay the seeds of an image that emphasised the Highland/Lowland divide and reinforced a negative picture of Scotland’s feudal backwardness.

From 1801 to 1810 Henry was a trustee of the Edinburgh Theatre Royal, together with Sir Walter Scott and William Erskine. The unique position Henry occupied in society and the great influence he exercised in all matters literary was at the very time of Edinburgh’s cultural and intellectual heyday. His Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says of him: “A unifying, if not solitary, element in a rapidly changing cultural landscape, Mackenzie links the age of David Hume and Adam Smith to that of Robert Burns, John Galt, James Hogg, and Walter Scott.” The Edinburgh Evening Courant observed in its obituary: “We cannot but with feelings of regret, notice the departure of almost the last of that eminent class of literary men, who, about fifty years ago, cast such a lustre on our city … there have been few authors more distinguished”.


The question of the Mackenzies’ relationship with their bardic past becomes ever more fascinating and complex because by this time what had once been deemed by many as primitive and uncivilized had attained celebrity status and acclaim when it reached the attention of those at the forefront of mainstream fashionable literature in Europe. Foreshadowing the celebrity literary phenomenon that was Sir Walter Scott (the author of the poem, The Lament for the Last Seaforth ), this became particularly apparent with the controversy surrounding the ancient heroic sagas of the Ossianic tradition. It therefore deserves to be examined in some detail.

Most unfortunately, James MacPherson’s attempt to pass his Tales of Ossian off as an exact translation of original Gaelic stories that he collected in the Highlands and Hebrides led Dr Johnson famously to dismiss these tales as outright forgeries and this simplistic accusation still persists today amongst unenquiring academics (it was even repeated in the prestigious Celts exhibition that was put on in 2015-16 by the British Museum in collaboration with the National Museums of Scotland). However, there is clear evidence that these popular stories surrounding Fingal and his band of ancient heroes were very much current in oral tradition in the Highlands and Islands before MacPherson published his massively popular and subsequently controversial volumes. These tales were by no means an outright forgery, but based on a genuine, ancient oral tradition. As well as being the view of the best-informed scholars today, this was in fact the conclusion that was reached by the novelist, Henry Mackenzie, when he edited the Ossian Report of 1805, to examine the authenticity of the poems.

Significant support for the ultimate authenticity behind the Ossianic legends also comes from the lawyer, John Mackenzie of the Inner Temple, a descendant of the Mackenzies of Torridon, who was one of MacPherson’s executors. In a savage challenge to the widespread attacks on MacPherson, the Rev Donald MacNicol wrote: “… as Dr Johnson may think it too great a trouble to travel again to the Highlands for a sight of old manuscripts, I shall put him on a way of being satisfied nearer home. If he will call one morning on John Mackenzie Esq. of the Temple, secretary to the Highland Society at the Shakespeare, Covent Garden, he will find in London more volumes in the Gaelic language and character than perhaps he will be pleased to look at, after what he has said …”. These included works on “a variety of subjects, such as some of Ossian’s poems” and “the Red Book which was given to Mr. MacPherson by the Bard MacVurich.” Further witness statements to Henry Mackenzie’s Ossian Report refer to “a great variety of books and papers, contained in an iron chest, composed chiefly of the manuscript of the poems of Ossian.” Although these papers can subsequently be traced to a Mr Alexander Fraser of the Leadclune family, who lived on to about 1832, what then became of them is frustratingly now unknown. However, the Black Book of Clanranald, which may have been one of the manuscripts entrusted to MacPherson during his Hebridean travels has since resurfaced and does indeed include some 30 pages of poems about the Age of Ossian’s Fingalian heroes. Sadly, the relevant sections of the Red Book of Clanranald, which was much discussed at the time of the Ossian controversy, remain missing to this day.

This verdict of Henry Mackenzie and John Mackenzie was further corroborated in Ewen Cameron’s 1777 translation of MacPherson’s work into heroic verse, The Fingal of Ossian, the Preface of which comprises a little-known but forensic defence of MacPherson against fabrication. During his famous tour of the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland Johnson claimed to have found no first-hand evidence of the genuineness of MacPherson’s poems. But Cameron exposed the English lexicographer as overtly dishonest when he claimed, for example, that the minister of Skye would not confirm to Johnson that he believed in the genuineness of Ossian. Cameron directly asked Norman MacLeod of Dunvegan (who was present at the time of this discourse on the subject) to confirm Johnson’s statement: Macleod’s reply was unequivocal: “Quite the contrary, I assure you: Doctor Johnson was very over-bearing, and laughed at the Minister for giving Credit to such an Imposition.” At last he asked him, whether he seriously did believe it. “The Gentleman’s Answer was, that he did.”

Cameron explained how, “To satisfy the Public fully on this Point” [that of the Ossian controversy], Dr. Hugh Blair, Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the University of Edinburgh had “applied to several Clergymen and Gentlemen of the Highlands and Islands: From them he received Attestations placed before the Preface, which will ever remain undeniable Proofs of these Compositions being real Translations from the Galic Tonge.” He goes on to quote the numerous testimonies of how men such as “Sir James Macdonald, of Skye, Bart. assured me, that having made, at my Desire, all the Inquiries he could in this Part of the Country, he entertained no Doubt that Mr. Macpherson’s Collection consisted entirely of authentic Highland Poems; that he had lately heard several Parts of them repeated in the Original, in the Island of Skye, with some Variations from the printed Translation, such as might naturally be expected from the Circumstance of oral Tradition.”

As a legacy of anti-Jacobite propaganda and also, perhaps because English intellectuals at this time felt threatened by the way in which Edinburgh was being recognised in Europe as the “Athens of the North”, many Englishmen persisted in portraying the Scots, and especially the Highlanders, as barbaric savages. But one should note that several members of this progressive Edinburgh society (which included a not insignificant number of Mackenzies) had roots in the Highlands: thus, Cameron also quoted the testimonies of “Mr. Alexander Macmillan, Deputy Keeper of his Majesty’s Signet; Mr. Adam Ferguson, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh; and many other Gentlemen, Natives of the Highland Counties, whom I had Occasion to converse with upon the Subject, declare, that though they cannot now repeat from Memory any of these Poems in the Original, yet, from what they have heard in their Youth, and from the Impression of the Subject still remaining on their Minds, they firmly believe those which Mr. MacPherson has published, to be the old Poems of Ossian current in the Country.”

Illustration from the title page to Ewen Cameron’s annotated, 1777 translation into heroic verse of James Macpherson’s Fingal.

Ewen Cameron wrote that “Ossian has been always reputed the Homer of the Highlands, and all his Compositions held in singular Esteem and Veneration; the whole Country is full of traditionary Stories derived from his Poems, concerning Fingal and his Race of Heroes, of whom there is not a Child but has heard, and not a District in which there are some of their Feats of Arms; that it was wont to be the great Entertainment of the Highlanders, to pass the Winter Evenings in discoursing of the times of Fingal, and rehearsing these old Poems, of which they have been all along enthusiastically fond; that when assembled at their Festivals, or on any other of their public Occasions, Wagers were often laid who could repeat most of them; and to have Store of them in their Memories, was both an honourable and a profitable Acquisition, as it procured them Access into their Families of their great Men; that with regard to their Antiquity, they are beyond all Memory of Tradition; insomuch that there is a word commonly used in the Highlands to this Day, when they would express any Thing which is of the most remote or unknown Antiquity, importing, that it belongs to the Age of Fingal.” Elsewhere Cameron noted: “I likewise took Notice that in the Highlands many Dogs went by the Names of Toscar, Oscar, and other Heroes frequent in Ossian’s Poems, a certain sign they were Names well known and familiar to the People of the Country.”

While Ossian has often been compared to Homer, one can also identify close parallels when it comes to the controversy regarding the origins of the Iliad and Odyssey as those surrounding the origins of the Fingalian tales. There has been similar debate as to whether there was a single poet named Homer or whether his name had simply been attached to a number of different oral traditions, of which different versions compete amongst scholars in their claims for authenticity. There was even a boast amongst reciters on the Island of Chios on the eastern side of the Aegean Sea, who claimed descent from Homer, that they had in their possession his original manuscripts that had been handed down to them; while the 20th century American scholar, Milman Parry proposed that Homer’s masterpieces were not the product of a single genius but of a world in which the spoken epic was the vehicle by which meaning was conveyed from past to present and it was by employing a formulaic way of storytelling in this oral tradition that this need was fulfilled, in just the same way as with the Celtic bardic tradition. And yet despite its uncertain authorship we never hear anyone dismissing the Homeric legacy as a worthless forgery.

MacPherson had gathered the oral tradition and manuscripts on which he based his work from the very heartland of the Mackenzies’ domain: Skye, Ross-shire, the Hebridean island of South Uist (not far from the Seaforth principality of Lewis), and Glenelg, a stone’s throw from Eilean Donan Castle. And one of the ancient manuscripts which he is said to have used for his source material, the Red Book of Clanranald, which contained many of the poems on which Fingal was based, had been in the possession of the family of William Dubh, the 2nd Marquis of Seaforth’s friend and comrade-in-arms at the Battle of Glenshiel, Ranald MacDonald of Clanranald. These manuscripts, which, were compiled by the McVhuirrich family of hereditary bards to the Lords of the Isles and later Clan Ranald also include one of the earliest genealogies that record the origins of the Mackenzies – genealogies that would have been recited at social gatherings in just the same way that these Fingalian legends would have been. It is therefore not surprising when reading their contemporary correspondence that one is able to come across the testament of Mackenzies from the time who remember hearing some of the stories recited by bards at social gatherings, long before MacPherson made them famous and his interpretations had gone on to be met with admiration by the likes of Schiller and Goethe (MacPherson’s works were even said to have been among Napoleon’s favourite reading). So, while it is evident that no epic poem in the original which was a precise translation of that published by MacPherson ever existed – the equivalent of Homer’s Iliad, or Odyssey, as had been claimed – although, as we have seen, even an original undisputed manuscript for those two great works cannot be identified – the fact that he had collected a number of valuable related manuscripts and oral traditions cannot be in doubt, and it is not too much to hope that still more of these precious original manuscripts may one day yet be recovered and given their rightful place in cultural history.


When we come to the 20th century we find another celebrated storyteller from the family: Sir (Edward Montagu Anthony) Compton Mackenzie.

Sir Compton Mackenzie

Although of proud Highland descent, Compton Mackenzie was born in County Durham and educated at St Paul’s and Magdalen College, Oxford. He first became a literary celebrity with the publication of his masterpiece, Sinister Street (1913–14), a semi-autobiographical account of childhood and education. The novel was described by Ford Madox Ford as “possibly a work of real genius”; while it was compared favourably by another critic with Proust, and Henry James declared its author to be the most promising English novelist of his generation. 

Compton, like so many of his generation, lost direction in the early 1920s as his Edwardian aesthetic went out of fashion, and he became more of a jobbing writer, largely as a result of financial necessity. Sickened by the First World War, which had also taken its personal toll on his first marriage, he found himself—in political and cultural terms—increasingly “at an angle to English society”. It was in Scotland, under the newborn mood, both cultural and political of the “Scottish Renaissance”, that Compton identified, in accordance with his childhood Jacobite dreams, along with his readiness to identify with the politics of minorities and the oppressed, and his sense of his own roots. From 1925 onwards he established an important relationship with Christopher Murray Grieve (aka Hugh MacDiarmid). Along with MacDiarmid and R. B. Cunninghame Graham, he was a founder member of the National Party of Scotland in 1928, and in 1932 Compton was elected as the first nationalist rector of Glasgow University.

Henry Mackenzie’s nationalism, like Cunninghame Graham’s, has been described as a romantic nationalism—a matter of emotion as opposed to abstract political theorizing—but it was not, like MacDiarmid’s, based on anti-English hostility. For this reason it is argued in his entry to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that his contribution to the nationalist movement has been somewhat misunderstood. 

By the time Compton had established himself in 1933 on the Hebridean island of Barra, where he later built his house Suidheachan (“the sitting-down place”), he had made a conscious decision to bring his involvement in Scottish political and cultural affairs into his fiction. After the Second World War, he became one of Scotland’s best loved authors for his series of light-hearted comedies (or “farces” as he preferred to call them) of the Highlands, featuring the blimpish Anglo-Scottish laird Ben Nevis, or affectionate fictional portrayals of Barra as the island of Todday. The Todday comedies also made the serious political point of promoting the right of small communities to self-determination in the face of larger, frequently ignorant, interfering forces, most famously in Whisky Galore (1947). In this he fictionalized a real incidentL the sinking of the SS Politician off Eriskay with thousands of cases of whisky, and the islanders’ desperate attempts to salvage this wondrous gift from the sea. Aided by the charm of the Ealing Studios film of 1948, shot on Barra itself and in which Compton himself played the skipper of the stricken ship (with Joan Greenwood, James Robertson Justice and Gordon Jackson), and later revived in a production in 2016 (with Eddie Izzard), the story’s permanent place in the affections of 20th century filmgoers has been assured.

In 1952 Compton purchased an elegant residence in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town. Dividing his time between his Drummond Place flat and the South of France, Compton came to relish his role as something of an elder statesman of Scottish letters.