The MacKay Family
The Ancestors of David Shaw MacKay
The MacKay and Taylor families both came from Sutherlandshire in the highlands of northern Scotland. The structure of the family was:
Angus & Christina Mackay

MacKay Family Album

G5 unknown unknown unknown unknown unknown unknown unknown unknown
G4 Alexander MacKay
Isabella Matheson
William Taylor
( - )
Margaret Ross
( - )
G3 Angus MacKay
(1832 - 1897)
Christina Taylor
(1842 - )
G2 David Shaw Mackay
(1874 - 1952)
= ca 1900
Elizabeth Amelia King
(1878 - 1971)
Early History
In New Zealand the MacKays lived in an area which was settled by a number of families who were also from Sutherland. While I have no concrete evidence, family lore suggests it is likely that some of these families,who included included MacKays, Mathesons and Munros, were closely related to our MacKays.

Therefore in addition to the MacKay, Taylor, Matheson and Ross families, I have also included the Munros in this study.

Apart from the Taylors, who appear to be late arrivals in Scotland, the other families are from well known Scottish clans, follow the links there for more information. Their distribution in Great Britain in 1881 is shown here.

As can be seen in the map below, the other families were all from Sutherland (the Mathesons are not shown, but were the west coast between the MacDonnells and MacLeods)

Map of Highland Clans
1800 to 1850
Auchinduich, Lairg
The families came to New Zealand from Sutherlandshire in the late 1850s. At that time they were all living in the area, on the Sutherland estate which is the property of the Earl of Sutherland. See Old Maps of Scotland for an 1815 map of the estate and the National Library of Scotland for an 1830 map of Sutherland, the source of the maps below.

The MacKays came from , about 40km inland from Dornoch - 10 km south of Lairg on the Shin River (see the 1830 map - reproduced below and also the 1815 Sutherland Estate map - link above). Achinduich (pronounced "ak-in-dweek") is a farm on the A836, the main road south from Lairg. The photo below is the Achinduich farmhouse today, which appears to have been built later in the 19th C.

MacKay Country
MacKay Country, Sutherlandshire
John MacKay who was probably Alexander's brother, was described as a Tacksman (see box opposite). It therefore seems likely that Alexander was either a Tacksman or a subtenant of Achinduich farm.

The landscape in Scotland can be seen from this photo (looking North) taken at entrance to MacKay territory just north of Lairg on the road to Tongue. It must have been a hard life, especially in the winter.

Map of Lairg ca 1830
Map of Achinduich, 1830
A Tacksman was a large farmer - just how large could vary. Some possessed many farms, some the majority of one farm. It was mostly about size of the holding, but also about social status. Most Tacksmen had subtenants who paid rent and performed services eg ploughing, manuring and harvesting. Many tacksmen were literate at a time when most small tenants were not. The word comes from the Scots 'tack' meaning a lease - but many tacksmen did not actually have a written lease.

Achinduich, in the parish of Creich, was quite a substantial farm (of old part of the Skelbo estate: bankrupt from 1716- and eventually bought by the Sutherland family in 1787) which included the outlying settlements of Ramscaig and Achmore. A house at Achmore has been excavated by archaeologists.

Achinduich tended to be split: half in the hands of a tacksman and half in the hands of small tenants. It was cleared in 1807. Outside the large sheep-parks, ruins may be seen of some of the cleared houses. The woodlands were also important.

1716 tenants: Gilbert Mackenzie, William MacKay, John Barclay, Donald McCurchie, Hugh Murray, John Murray, John McDonald, William Mckenzie, Murdoch Beg, Neil McKay, George MacWilliam.

1746 June heads of families: Alexander Murray, Donald Ros, John Matthewson, Niel Mathhewson, Alexander Gun, William Mckenzie and Murdoch McKay

1797 Mrs Margaret Douglas or Munro, tackswoman and tenants: John MacKay, John Munro, Angus MacKay, John Campbell, Robert Murray "all joint Tackholders and tenants of the Town & lands of Achinduich & its pertinents". "George MacKay Subtenant or possessor of the lands, grasing or shealing of Meikle Ramiscaig, a part of the said Pursuer's Tack lands of Achinduich"

(Thanks to Malcolm Bangor-Jones for this information)

Other Families
Less is known about the other families.

The Taylor and Ross families probably came from and the New Zealand Mathesons and Munros from nearby at . Skelbo and Achavandra (near Trentham on the map below) are on the south shore of Loch Fleet, about 7km north of Dornoch.

It is not known if the Skelbo Mathesons were related to Isabella, but it is possible.

From the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland of about 1895:
Achavandra, a hamlet in the Dornoch parish near Skelbo in Sutherland. A free church stood on it, and was transferred to a parochial school board.

Map of Skelbo ca 1830
Map of Skelbo ca 1830
19th C. Scottish Society

What were living conditions like in the mid 18th C and what caused the migration to New Zealand?

The best description of life in Scotland is that given in the Statistical Accounts of Scotland (note - to access, use the non-subscribers list). These are two accounts of life in every parish in Scotland in 1791-1799 and 1834-1845, usually written by the local minister. The accounts cover every aspect of life in considerable detail: the topography, history, population, agriculture, industry, economy, education etc and are well worth reading.

This extract from the 18th C. Account of Lairg gives an interesting insight into life there ca 1795:

"Climate:.-The Climate is rainy; but though the air is very damp, there is no distemper peculiar to the parish. The inhabitants, having the greatest abundance of peats, take good care to keep a good fire without, and, as often they can get at spirituos liquors, they will kindle a fire within; nor do they apprehend any more danger to their constitutions from the one than from the other."

p 569, Parish of Lairg, written by "A Friend to Statistical Inquiries"

Life in Scotland underwent a dramatic change in the second half of the 18th C. after the Jacobite Rebellion, with the English now having an influence over Scotland, made worse by a sharp rise in the population putting pressure on the use of the land. This brought about schemes to resettle people abroad in North America or Australia, but in some cases, especially in Sutherland, emigration came after the people had been forcefully evicted from their homes.

For a detailed description of this era see the The Highland Clearances.

An extract from this site:

Sutherland was dominated by the Sutherland family who owned 1˝ million acres by the l820’s — “an area not equalled in the British Empire”.

In 1809 three men were employed by the Duke and Duchess to examine the Sutherland estates and to suggest possible improvements, they were James Loch, William Young and Patrick Sellar.

The advice Loch and Young gave to the Duchess was to shift the people away from the Straths: Strathnaver, Strathbrora, Strath of Kildonan etc. and to convert these regions into giant sheep farms. The people would be made to go to allotments all over the West, East and North coasts of Sutherland.

Patrick Sellar wrote:

"Lord and Lady Stafford were pleased humanely to order the new arrangement of this country. That the interior should be possessed by Cheviot shepherds, and the people brought down to the coast and placed in lots of less than three acres, sufficient for the maintenance of an industrious family, pinched enough to cause them to turn their attention to the fishing.

A most benevolent action, to put these barbarous Highlanders into a position where they could better associate together, apply themselves to industry, educate their children, and advance in civilisation."

In 1814 known as the Year of the Burnings Sellar gave orders to burn the hill grazing areas so there would be no food for the tenant’s cattle and the people would have no choice but to leave.

Much of Sutherland today is littered with the remains of crofts and townships. Areas where people had lived for thousands of years now lie barren and empty. Between 1814 and 1818, Rosal was cleared, to make way for sheep farms, by the infamous Patrick Seller. It was one of the villages untouched by burning but settlements round about were all fired as they were cleared.

In the Strath of Kildonan alone, just one small part of this vast county, between 1811 and 1831 the population was decimated, from 1574 people to just 257.

The overpopulation and poverty, would have led to emigration for many, even if there had been no clearances. The Duke helped indirectly by waiving rents and giving good cattle and timber prices. He was by then, well aware of his unpopularity.

Eye witness accounts of the clearances:

The Rev. Donald Sage, missionary at Achness:

“To my poor and defenseless flock the dark hour of trial came in right earnest. It was in the month of April, 1819 that they were all, men, women and children, from the heights of Farr to the mouth of the Naver, on one day to quit their tenements and go — many of them knew not whither, for a few some miserable patches of ground along the shore were doled as lots without anything in the shape of the poorest hut to shelter them. They were supposed to cultivate the ground and occupy themselves as fishermen. Many had never set foot in a boat."
Donald Macleod, Rosal:

“I was an eye witness of the scene — strong parties led by Sellar and Young commenced setting fire to the dwellings till about 300 houses were in flames, the people striving to remove the sick, the helpless, before the fire should reach them. The cries of women and children — the roaring of cattle — the barking of dogs — the smoke of the fire — the soldiers — it required to be seen to be believed!"
To get an understanding of the clearances from the Sutherland's point, it is interesting to read this letter published in the The Times of London, Saturday, September 04 1819.

The Statistical Account of Lairg Parish written in 1834 talks about the effects of the clearances and the dramatic decrease in population. By the 1850's therefore, it seems likely the most of the worst effects of the changes had taken place, however it is fairly safe to think that the clearances were a major cause for the family's emigration to New Zealand. If nothing else the earlier emigrations resulting from the clearances set a precedent and friends writing home would have probably painted an attractive picture to young Scots looking for a life with more opportunity.

For details of the family history now continue on to

Notes & References
  1. The Highland Clearances
  2. The Highland Hearts website, which has now been closed. However see:
    County Sutherland Genealogical Resources
  3. Statistical Accounts of Scotland, two accounts of life in Scotland in 1791-1799 and 1845.
  4. Electric Scotland