Life in Ulster

The McKay family in Ireland were members of the Scottish Clan Mackay whose traditional lands were located in Sutherlandshire, in the Northern Highlands of Scotland. The Mackay family motto is 'Manu Forti' — with a strong hand.' McKay family folklore has it that one Hugh McKay immigrated to Glasslough, County Monaghan, Ireland from Inverness (close by to Sutherland), with his son. The exact date of their arrival is not known, but it is thought that several generations resided in Glasslough until the William McKay family immigrated to Australia in November 1851. William McKay's birth is recorded as taking place in 17912 — if this is correct, and as thought, several generations of McKays did live in Glasslough, it would seem likely that the original Hugh McKay emigrated to Ireland from Scotland during the mid to late 17th century. James I was the reigning monarch during the 17th century. He was called the uni­versal prince, because for the first time the Kingdoms of Scotland and England were united under his patronage. He was greatly interested, both economically and politically, in colonising what he considered were 'the barbaric and uncivilised lands of Ulster'.

At the same time he was concerned by the troubles in Scotland, caused by rebellious Highlanders. As a solution to these problems, James I and his advisers devised a plan whereby Scottish lairds and farmers would be offered the opportunity to take up the ownership of dispossessed lands in Ulster. The first of these 'Plantations' as they were called, took place in 16093. The Scots who were chosen to emigrate had to produce evidence of their ability to support themselves for the first five years of settlement, and strict conditions as to the type of dwelling they were to construct had to be complied with. These 'Plantationers' were not poor peasants but were either titled persons or from the middle-classes of Scottish society/ Most of them went to either County Armagh or County Down — among them were many Mackays and members of the Shaw family (cousins of the McKays). However, according to a monograph on the county of Monaghan5 some Scots did settle there in 1613. Other Scottish settlers followed and by 1693 there were 133 inhabitants, mainly Scots living in Monaghan. This brief explanation on the 'Plantations' of Ulster would seem to provide the most satisfactory reason, and time of immigration from Scotland to Ireland of Hugh McKay and his son; as the 'Battle of Culloden' was not fought until 1746, and the great purge of the Highlands, the 'clearances' were well after this date. More investigation is in hand.


William McKay

It is interesting that even after several generations of living in Ulster, the McKay family still considered themselves to be Scots. One reason for this may be that the Scots felt themselves to be superior to the Irish, perceiving their role in Ulster as that of a 'civilising influence'. It may also be that clan traditions and religious faith kept them from assimilating their culture with that of the local Irish.

John McKay, third son of Nathaniel McKay of Drummartin, relates the next part of the story in his short biography of Hugh Victor, which he wrote at Cecil McKay's request. John writes of life in Ulster as it was told to him by his father, and the reason for their decision to immigrate to Australia.

Hugh McKay and his father settled at Glasslough, and being stone masons they started cutting gravestones and building stone houses. One of the stories about them tells of two clergymen who required a headstone, enquiring the price from the McKays who quoted for them. The two priests consulted with one another in Latin and agreed that they would offer less, but before they made the offer, one of the McKays replied in Greek that he would not accept a penny less. The priests were astonished that this working stone mason understood both Greek and Latin languages and they paid him his price.