The Scottish Highlands was at one stage a patchwork of clan territories and I’m drawn to the idea of illuminating this heritage by re-establishing clan lands ‘on the ground’. Roadside signs announcing which bailiwick lies ahead would add character to our countryside and would also be great for tourism: members of the Diaspora would enjoy a surge of excitement, certain that they had arrived ‘home’.
Of course an agreed date would be needed because clan lands grew and contracted over the ages. And even then it wouldn’t be straightforward: the process of fixing the exact location of signs evokes a nice image of red-faced, kilted clan chiefs, tussling with cromachs to establish where boundaries belong.
Fanciful? Not entirely. With, so far as I know, no falling out with their neighbours, Clan Mackay staked out their territory back in 2004 with six "Mackay Country" signs. The lands are in the far North West and so signs were placed at Kylesku, Achfary, Forsinard, Dalvina and on the A836 road at the Caithness/Sutherland border.
In Gaelic the name is rendered as Macaoidh, son of Hugh. They claim descent from both Somerled and the Celtic royal house, from both of whom they inherited a robust warrior spirit, much needed in early times as the Earls of Sutherland endeavoured to encroach on “Mackay Country”.
However by the 17th century their neighbours – Sinclairs, Sutherlands, MacLeods and Gunns - were presumably content and gave them relatively little trouble. The Mackays therefore had to go abroad for a fight: in 1626 Sir Donald Mackay took 3000 Mackays to fight for the King of Denmark in the Thirty Years' War. And in 1631 Lord Reay, the clan chief, raised another force for service with Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden; the earliest depiction of the kilt is assumed to be Mackays in the service of Gustavus Adolphus.
General Hugh Mackay of Scourie was a professional soldier. He fought the Turks on behalf of the Republic of Venice (1669), the French on behalf of the Dutch (1674) and commanded the army that faced the Jacobites at the Battle of Killiecrankie (1689), dying in the field at the Battle of Steinkirk (1692), in a doomed attack against the French, ordered by William of Orange (King William III)
During the Jacobite risings. Mackays were unwaveringly Hanoverian and produced two independent highland companies to oppose ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was principally Mackays who won the skirmish at Littleferry near Golspie on 15 April 1746 and captured the Jacobite George Mackenzie, 3rd Earl of Cromartie at Dunrobin Castle.
If you venture up to Mackay Country don’t drive past the excellent Strathnaver Museum and find time if you can to walk up to Caisteal Bharraich.