The longstanding tradition of the earliest family historians in the 16th century is that this very ancient family descended from a member of the Norman Irish House of Geraldine (whence sprang the noble families of the Earls of Leinster and Desmond). This Colin Fitzgerald was supposed to have settled in Scotland in the 1260s and to have so powerfully aided King Alexander III at the Battle of Largs in repelling the invasion of Haco, King of Norway, that he was rewarded by a grant of the lands of Kintail, in the County of Ross. The name of Colin’s purported grandson, the 3rd Baron of Kintail, who in Gaelic was called Coinneach MacCoinneach (Kenneth son of Kenneth), became corrupted in English into Mackenzie (pronounced: MacKenny) and from him it was believed all the families of Mackenzie in Scotland arose. The name Mackenzie therefore derives from the Gaelic: MacCoinneach, meaning: “Son of the Fair One”.
Following the discovery in the 19th century by the Celtic scholar, William Forbes Skene, of an ancient genealogical manuscript, known as MS 1467, it has since been widely accepted that an 11th century Celtic chieftain known as Gilleoin na h’Airde was the original progenitor of the Mackenzies (as well as the Mathesons), they being a branch of the Royal Scottish House of Dalriada, descended in the direct male line from the ancient High Kings of Ireland. This is further borne out by recent DNA analysis.
The Clan Mackenzie
The Mackenzies as a clan first came to prominence under Alexander Ionraic (‘The Upright’), the 7th Baron of Kintail, who died in 1488. He rose in power as a supporter of the Crown against the all-powerful MacDonald Lords of the Isles and was rewarded by a grant from the Crown of some of their forfeited lands. From their original patrimony in Kintail, around Loch Duich with Eilean Donan Castle as their picturesque stronghold, the Mackenzies came to dominate the whole of Ross-shire. 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.
Alexander’s son was known as “Kenneth of the Battle” for his taking up arms against the MacDonalds. He died in 1492 and his life-size stone effigy can still be seen at Beauly Priory where he was buried. John, his son, played a distinguished role in the battles of Flodden and Pinkie, and under John’s grandson, Colin Cam (‘Crooked’ because one-eyed) the Mackenzies continued their rise to power by supporting first Mary, Queen of Scots, and, then following her deposition, her son, James VI. In 1609, the chief was made Lord Mackenzie of Kintail, and in 1623 his eldest son became Earl of Seaforth, named after the great sea loch on this Chief’s recently acquired island principality of Lewis. 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. Another branch of the Mackenzies became the Earls of Cromartie, the first Earl, George Mackenzie, being Queen Anne’s Secretary of State. He was a man of astute wit and political ability who played a significant part in bringing about the Union of Scotland and England in 1705.
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 3000 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 alongside Rob Roy.
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 national influence had waned, the power and influence in Ross-shire of the Seaforth family in particular and the Mackenzies in general was such that the Government had no choice but to pardon them in due course. The 5th Earl’s grandson, Kenneth, was created Viscount Fortrose and Baron Ardelve in 1766, and then restored to the Earldom of Seaforth in 1771 (albeit these titles were in the Irish peerage). In gratitude the Chief raised the 1,000 strong 78th Regiment of Foot: the Seaforth Highlanders, who first served in the Mysore Campaign in India in 1776. He died without a male heir in 1784 and his titles became extinct. The chiefship and Seaforth estates then passed to his cousin, Colonel Thomas Mackenzie, the great-grandson of the 3rd Earl. Shortly afterwards, he was killed commanding the Bombay army in India, at the battle of Geriah. His younger brother, Francis, succeeded him. For his military and colonial service to the British Empire – having been Lieutenant-Colonel of the Seaforth Highlanders and Governor of Barbados – he was created Lord Seaforth in the British peerage in 1797.
Marriages between the Seaforth and Cromartie families and those of some of England’s leading landowners saw the restoration of both their rank and fortunes. Owing to this and the zeal of men such as Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the celebrated Canadian explorer, and Colonel Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor General of India, the leading members of the Clan finally found themselves playing a major role at the forefront of the nation, helping to forge the British Empire.
However, the doom of the Mackenzies had supposedly been foretold by Coinneach Odhar, known as the Brahan Seer, who according to legend had famously cursed the Seaforth line and foretold the dispersal of the Mackenzies’ once extensive landholdings in Ross-shire. Having risen in power and influence to hold lands which stretched from the Outer Hebrides in the west to the Black Isle in the east, the male line of the Seaforths ended with Francis’s death in 1815 when all four of his sons died before him. The demographic catastrophe was recorded in the words of Sir Walter Scott in his 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.”
In the Romantic spirit of the age, Scott’s friend and Lord Seaforth’s daughter, Mary, attempted to take up the mantle of chief. Her son, the representative of the Stewart-Mackenzies of Seaforth, however, sold up the remaining estates except for Brahan and a small part of the Clan Heartland. Her grandson was made Lord Seaforth of Brahan in 1921, but he too died without male heirs, and Brahan Castle was demolished in 1951. The much reduced estate of the Mackenzies of Cromartie and the estates of the Mackenzies of Gairloch at Flowerdale in the west and Conan in the east are now all that remains in inheritance of the once vast landholdings of ClanKenzie in Ross-shire.
In recent years, however, the fortunes of the Clan have been revived. In 1829 Lord Lyon recognised the Mackenzies of Allangrange as heirs male of Kenneth, 1st Lord Kintail (via his son., the Hon. Simon Mackenzie of Lochslin ). However, their chiefship was short-lived and the role was effectively dormant following the demise of that branch of the family in 1907. On the 12th June, 1980 Lord Lyon King of Arms recognised Roderick Francis Grant Mackenzie, Earl of Cromartie, as the lawful Cabarfèidh, Chief of Clan Mackenzie. His son, John Mackenzie, Earl of Cromartie is now Chief. He lives at Castle Leod, Strathpeffer, Ross-shire.
It must also be said that the Mackenzie Clan lands of Kintail, a magnificent 14,000 acres of Highland scenery which include the towering mountains known as the Five Sisters of Kintail, are now in good hands. They were acquired by the National Trust for Scotland in 1944, and mountaineers, campers and walkers now enjoy the ancient patrimony of the Mackenzies. The Trust also looks after another Mackenzie inheritance, the subtropical, exotic gardens created out of a barren peninsula at Inverewe in a latitude more northerly than Moscow, begun by Osgood Mackenzie. In 1862 it was presented to the Trust in 1952 by his daughter, Mrs Mairi Sawyer.