The Spirit of Elijah

Angus Mackay, Piper to Queen Victoria

Angus Mackay, Piper to Queen Victoria

When my twelve year-old son Jeffrey wanted to learn to play the bagpipes, I thought it was cool. I honestly did— I have always loved highland bagpipes, and find them haunting and beautiful. While our surname is an obviously Scottish clan name, I never really gave it much thought beyond knowing we were one of thousands of families whose “Mac—” became “Mc—” during the emigration to the United States. I knew my ancestors came down through Canada via Nova Scotia, but I somehow missed picking up Nova Scotia is NEW SCOTLAND.

So when Jeff picked up the pipes, I started poking around. (He is also a tuba player, and his younger brother plays the bugle. Take a moment to grieve for our neighbors) Jeffrey also wanted a kilt. My uncle is a judge who wears full Highland Dress for formal occasions, and I discovered our family has a tartan. A specific tartan, tied to very specific ancestral lands in the northern highlands of Scotland. Cool, right? We don’t just have a modern tartan- we’ve got an ancient tartan, a hunting tartan, a formal tartan…

Out of curiosity, I went to the Family Search website and started entering the handful of names of my ancestors- I didn’t have many of which I was certain, beyond my great-grandparents, but it turned out to be enough. Files started linking up, and I experienced that moment I’ve heard other people speak of, where the generations almost literally open up before your eyes. There were photos, emigration records, even birth certificates with signatures and dates in their own hands. And they were all there. Other than my immediate grand and great grandparents, they had already had ordinances performed for them, and I had immediate and current links to people who also claimed the same family line.

Turns out we’ve been around a loooong time as a clan- direct lines back to 1085. We’ve got more than bit of history. We fought with William Wallace in 1296. Remember Braveheart? Yeah, that William Wallace— though his real story is not as romantic as Mel Gibson made it seem, the battles are firmly established history, as is his horrible demise and cry for freedom for Scotland. After Wallace, in 1306, we followed and fought for Robert the Bruce and helped win Scotland’s independence at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. It’s not like things were all roses after that though…

Life in Scotland was hard. There were centuries of retaliations and bloodshed and fighting amongst clans and others. Our name means “sons of fire” and the family motto on our crest is “Manu Forti” with a fist clenching a dagger. It means ‘with a firm hand’ and we had a warlike reputation for being a good ally and a formidable foe. History reports more than three thousand Mackays fought alongside William of Orange.

Finally in the late 1800′s, the clan suffered greatly as a result of the “Highland Clearances” and my family’s ancestors emigrated to Canada. There are still ancestral lands in the northern highlands that bear our name, as well as two ruined castles.

One of the more interesting things I’ve discovered is that we became known for our piping. To exert control over people, some music was outlawed, kilts and tartans were banned (clan identity was dangerous) and the bagpipes were outlawed. We played anyway. From 1629 on to the modern day, our piping as a clan is renowned. We have clan society pipers in Scotland, Nova Scotia and throughout Canada.

Discovering these rich veins of ancestry turns our forbears from dusty pages in a colorless book into rich, passionate and full blooded people. I’m utterly fascinated how my children’s red hair and freckles are tied directly to blood that runs in my veins from these very people. It’s lovely to imagine my own willingness to stand up for my beliefs, to battle if the need arises, might stem from these very same mitochondrial strands in every cell in my body, passed on in my children’s bodies… And so it goes. Hearts to our forefathers, indeed. All because my son, out of the blue, wanted to learn the pipes.


  1. I love this. Thank you for such an enjoyable morning read! I’ve also felt the Spirit of Elijah, as interpreted by us as Mormons, as I’ve sat in front of screens looking at documents relating to ancestors’ births, baptisms, marriages, etc.

  2. Awesome stuff. My mother’s side has allowed me to assert that my clans are “Gunn’s n Rose’s” (even though the Rose side is mostly English).

  3. Ha! and it appears we (clan Gunn) fought against your clan, Tracy. According to the source of all truth, Wikipedia, the Battle of Harpsdale was fought in 1426 where the Clan Gunn fought an inconclusive battle with the Clan Mackay.*

    *Gordon, Sir Robert. (1580 -1656). A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland. p.63 – 64.

  4. Last one.

    It appears we made up. During the 17th century the clan Gunn strengthened our links with the Mackay clan when Gunn of Killearnan married Mary Mackay, sister of Lord Reay, chief of Clan Mackay.* Love this stuff.

    -Way, George and Squire, Romily. (1994). Collins Scottish Clan & Family Encyclopedia. (Foreword by The Rt Hon. The Earl of Elgin KT, Convenor, The Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs). pp. 399 – 400.

  5. That’s cool! I was reading about Lord Reay. The family I am marrying into has Sinclair roots, and we share a clan boundary. That family tree should be fun to dive into!

  6. Old Geezer says:

    My wife wants me to wear a kilt to church, but my white knobby knees would force William Wallace into full retreat and bring shame to all Scots.

  7. Do it! My son loves his, and will wear it for formal occasions. Kilts are awesome.

  8. Solid, Tracy. And the Psalmist would agree with your family’s affection for the pipes:
    “Praise [God] with the sounding of the trumpet,
    praise him with the harp and lyre,
    praise him with timbrel and dancing,
    praise him with the strings and pipe.”
    Psalm 150: 3-4 (NIV).

  9. Tracy. You are wonderfully Mormon.

  10. Fun stuff. There’s a Scotland 10k in Central Park every spring that’s fun to run, since so many people wear “sport” kilts.

  11. We have sport kilts, as well as dress-kilts in our house. And my children LOVE rowdy Scottish songs (which kind of come with piping territory).

  12. Christy Mackay Hatch says:

    Happy to see a fellow clans(woman)!!
    Manu forti! You must look into the Highland festivals. My family attends in Southern California. Great fun!

  13. We’ve attended the VA Scottish Highland games since we moved east. It’s so much fun- and my kids really love seeing so many other people who look like them! Big redheaded men who throw rocks and stones and trees- the boys are in heaven (and I like it too!).

  14. Mark B. says:

    You of course will need to start pronouncing your surname with a final syllable that rhymes with “eye”–the same as the Scots in the Church pronounce the name of their beloved President McKay!

  15. Mark B. says:

    Although, as to the pipes, I’m reminded of the old explanation for why pipers walk while piping–to get away from the noise! :)

  16. Katie A. says:

    Awesome! Except perhaps “Hearts to our foremothers” would make more sense considering mitochondrial DNA is passed through the maternal line. :P

  17. Wonderful! My maternal line goes straight back to Scotland. While I didn’t seem to inherit any Scottish sensibilities as far as music or dress (although I don’t mind some good bagpipe music or a few episodes of Monarch of the Glen) what I did inherit from my mother and her mother and her mother, tracing back through the generations to Renfrewshire, is strong tendencies toward frugality and thrift.

    It’s good to understand our origins, and therefore ourselves. Thanks for sharing this about your family, Tracy.

  18. HeidiAnn says:

    I caught that “the family I am marrying into”…congrats!!!

  19. I was wondering if someone would! ;)

  20. Chad Too says:

    Congrats on the engagement! My son wants a kilt badly so we’ve used that to get him interested in our British Isles ancestry. My wife’s mother was a Kyle, so there’s a hearty vein to tap into. We bought a sewing pattern to make kilts, so we have a summer project.

  21. The Other Clark says:

    Monte Brough gave a conference talk 20 years ago where he taught that if we want to get to know ourselves, we should get to know our ancestors. Modern understanding of DNA has disproven alot of traditional ideas about “bloodlines,” but I still think genetics plays a much stronger role on our character than what we’d like to admit.

  22. I’m inclined to agree, TOC. Before I became a mother, I totally believed it was all “nurture”. Now that I have children, it’s pretty clear they come already with some substantial hard-wiring. While I can guide them with nurturing, Nature has a pretty firm scaffolding.

  23. @TracyM – but does he wear a kilt? (See bucket list item #28). Congratulations!!

  24. Paul, I am *totally* blown away that you knew that!! And yes, as well as his brothers.

  25. rameumptom says:

    MacDonald of Clanranald clan here. Nothing finer than to attend a Scottish Highland Games event and visit with fellow clans folk.

  26. Karen H. says:

    Hey Tracy, clan Grant checking in here. I think the highland clearances were in the mid to late 1700s rather than 1800s, which is even more impressive. Because it means that the family traditions have survived an even longer time under duress. I love your red-heided lads. (And the lassie too!)

  27. Sleipnir says:

    Don’t miss the Highland Games right here in Utah! Friday, June 14 and Saturday, June 15. Go here for info:

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