WHEN I started this series on the history of the Highland clans, I had no set order in mind and my main intent was to show how clan society ruled a great part of Scotland for centuries.

I received an e-mail the other day begging me to tell what I know of Clan Mackenzie from a reader who said her interest was to do with her father’s wartime service in the Seaforth Highlanders. Was it really founded by the Earl of Seaforth, the chief of clan Mackenzie?

Let me deal with that question first – the Seaforths came about in 1881 with the amalgamation of the 72nd Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders and the 78th Highlanders Ross-shire Buffs. Both were regiments of foot with distinguished service – the 78th alone won nine Victoria Crosses (VC) in the Indian Mutiny of 1857, while the 72nd won another VC in that conflict.

It was decided to name the amalgamated regiments the Seaforth Highlanders after Colonel Kenneth Mackenzie (below), the Earl of Seaforth (1744-1781) who had raised the 78th and served as its commandant from 1777 until his death during a journey to India with the regiment.

The National:

So, in a very real sense the legendary Seaforths were a Mackenzie creation and while they ceased to be a regiment in their own standing in 1961, their proud lineage continues through the Highlanders, the 4th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

Fighting has long been a tradition with the Mackenzies. Though not as numerous as the Campbells or MacDonalds, the Mackenzies have been one of the most influential clans in the history of the north of Scotland, and their very many feuds with neighbouring clans saw them take part in some of the bloodiest battles ever to take place in this country.

The Mackenzies are a prime example of a clan as we understand them. For avoidance of doubt, by the way, this series is concentrating on Highland clans, and I will leave the lowland clans – Douglas and MacDuff spring readily to mind – until another time. Also, for sake of convenience I am spelling the name Mackenzie rather than McKenzie or variations, not least because that is how the current clan chief John Ruaridh Grant Mackenzie, 5th Earl of Cromartie, spells his name. By concentrating on individual clans, I aim to show how the Highland clans had their own distinct way of life that emerged in mediaeval times and continued until at least the 18th century. That clans were recognised by monarchs and were treated as self-contained units can be seen in many royal decrees down the centuries, and in the traditional meaning of “clann”, a Gaelic word meaning children, tribe, or family.

Basically, anyone can call themselves a clan but for a long time now it has been accepted that Scotland’s principal of heraldry, the Lord Lyon King of Arms, is the best authority on the provenance of clans. It’s his job, after all, to approve the chiefs and their coats of arms.

I AM often asked do you have to share a surname to be “in the clan”. The answer to that is no, not least because so many of the major clans have septs with their own monikers. I am also asked did clans really emerge from specific territories and the answer to that has to be a qualified yes, because many clans changed their home base over the years, and some like Clan Gregor simply lost all their lands.

Yet Clan Mackenzie is a perfect example of a clan which arose in a specific territory, Kintail in Wester Ross, now part of Highland local authority area, and which retains links to that territory until this very day. The name is derived from the Gaelic and means “son of the fair one”, believed to be a reference to Coinneach, the Gaelic equivalent of Herne the Hunter or Cernunnos, the Antlered God known in English as the Bright One.

Such mythical origins are claimed by several clans, and most historians agree that putting a demigod in your family tree was de rigueur for those compiling genealogies for clan chiefs.

As with so many clans, however, there are alternative traditions, one of which involves Irish ancestry. According to the excellent Clan Mackenzie Society website, a certain 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 (1263) 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”.

Descent is also claimed from Gilleon Og, or Colin the Younger, a son of Gilleon na h’Airde, the ancestor of the noble family of Ross, and this makes much more sense. There is evidence that Gilleon na h’Airde was a Gaelic chieftain and it would have been his intention to see his clan prosper over the land he occupied. This Colin’s grandson Coinneach MacCoinneach (Kenneth son of Kenneth), is generally reckoned to be the main ancestor of the Mackenzies and thus progenitor of the clan. This may be the same Kenneth who accompanied King Alexander III on a deer hunt when a rutting stag lowered its antlers and charged at the monarch, only for young Kenneth to shout “Cuidich an Righ” and kill the stag with a single head-severing blow. To this day “Help the King” is the motto of the Highlanders battalion and many still refer to the Mackenzie clan chiefs as “caber feidh”, the deer’s antlers, while the name became the battle cry of the Mackenzies.

As I have previously stated, when it comes to accounts of clans, I always defer to the book The Great Historic Families of Scotland published by Dr James Taylor in 1889, which is still relied on by historians as a valuable source book.

Taylor definitely makes a distinction between the Mackenzies of Seaforth and the Mackenzies of Cromarty, and I will explain that later.

Taylor wrote of the Mackenzie ancestry: “It is a curious circumstance that the first six chiefs of Kintail had each only one lawful son to succeed the father. They seem all to have borne distinctive sobriquets from some personal peculiarity or incident in their history. One was named ‘Kenneth of the Nose’ in consequence of the great size of his nasal organ.

“Another was called ‘Black Murdoch’ from his complexion. ‘Murdoch of the Bridge’ was so designated from the circumstance that ‘his mother, being with child of him, had been saved after a fearful fall from Conon Bridge into the water of Conon’.

“‘Alastair lonraic’, ‘Alexander the Upright’, was so called ‘for his righteousness’ – an uncommon quality among the Highland chiefs in those days. ‘Coinneach a Bhlair’, that is ‘Kenneth of the Battle’, obtained his cognomen from the distinguished part he took in the sanguinary battle of Blair-na-Pare with the MacDonalds in 1491. ‘Coinneach na Cuirc’ or ‘Kenneth of the Whittle’ was so called from his skill in carving on wood.”

Tradition has it that the clan sided with Robert the Bruce and his family during the Wars of Independence, and fought at Bannockburn. Early 14th century charters mention the Mackenzie Lords of Kintail, but they also attest to the feud that arose with the powerful Earls of Ross. In effect the Earls were the overlords of the Mackenzies, who held their clan seat, the original Eilean Donan Castle – the current version is a 20th century facsimile – as tenants of Ross.

ONE account has clan chief Kenneth Mackenzie picking a quarrel with the Earl and paying for it with his life, and it was only when King David II, son of Robert the Bruce, came to the throne that the Mackenzies began their ascent to the overlordship of much of Scotland north of the Great Glen. Clan chief Murdoch or Murcha was given large tracts of land by David II, and through conflict and dynastic marriage, the Mackenzie lands grew exponentially over the next couple of centuries so that one time they owned or controlled a huge expanse of land right across northern Scotland between the Outer Hebrides and the Beauly Firth.

The first Mackenzie chief to appear in written history was Alexander Mackenzie who features in church records in 1465. Legend has it that before his time, the Mackenzies had featured in the Battle of Bealach nam Broig with one source stating the conflict was because the Countess of Ross had taken a fancy to the Mackenzie chief and he refused to marry her, so she sent in her clansmen. Whatever the reason and whenever the battle took place, Mackenzie tradition is that their men used the brogues – nam Broig – to ward off their enemies’ arrows.

Over time, they gained a lot of land from the MacDonalds and in the Battle of the Park, Blar na Pairce, in the late 15th century, the Mackenzies not only saw off an invasion by the MacDonalds from the Hebrides, but secured their own hold on both Ross and Cromarty, with the clan’s Raid on Ross in 1491 proving their superiority over a host of clans in the area. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie may have been knighted for his services to the crown against the MacDonald Lord of the Isles at that time, and he is certainly the earliest Mackenzie to be depicted as his effigy was erected in Beauly Priory in 1492. John Mackenzie, 9th of Kintail, fought with his clan at Flodden and though he survived that disastrous defeat, many of his followers did not. John also survived the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547 but had to be ransomed by his clan after being captured by the English. The Mackenzies were on the losing side again when they fought for Mary, Queen of Scots at Langside in 1568, which ended with the Queen getting imprisoned and eventually being executed in England.

By the end of that century the Mackenzies had set their sights on the Isle of Lewis and by 1610 they had taken it over by politicking and purchases. Kenneth, the 12th chief, was created Earl of Seaforth in 1623, a sign of how powerful the Mackenzies had become.

In the early 17th century, a branch of the clan began to grow that would soon achieve considerable power. These Mackenzies were based in Cromarty, and as a huge supporter of King James VI, Sir Rorie Mackenzie was given numerous lands in the area where he built Castle Leod that is now the clan seat.

Sir George Mackenzie, Viscount Tarbat, is famous as the man who almost pacified the Highlands when William and Mary usurped the throne in 1688. His plan to bribe the clan chiefs failed to stop the first Jacobite Rising and the slaughter at Killiecrankie. The Cromarty line eventually acceded to the clan chieftainship.

Though the clan fought for the Jacobites in 1715 and 1719, the 5th Earl of Seaforth losing his titles and estates for treason, the Mackenzies were split during the ‘45, and it was clan chief Kenneth Mackenzie who sided with the winners and later became an MP. This was the start of a long period of public service by the Mackenzie clan leadership, both as soldiers and politicians.

One ordinary, or rather, extraordinary member of the clan rose to fame in the 17th century. The Brahan Seer, or Coinneach Odhar, was born Kenneth Mackenzie, at Baile-na-Cille, in the Parish of Uig. He lived at Loch Ussie near to Dingwall and worked as a labourer on the Brahan estate. He is famous for his prophecies which included Culloden and the end of the House of Seaforth – for which he was killed by an enraged Countess.

Mackenzie remains a famous name and those who have worn it include the explorer Alexander, the orientalist Sir Colin, and the writers Henry and Sir Compton.