<Early Maclay History

Early Maclay History

By Walter Maclay, September, 1997

When the Romans invaded Scotland in AD79, it was inhabited by tribes they named the Picts. The Scots, from whom the Maclays are descendents, began arriving in Scotland around AD400 from Ireland at the time the Romans withdrew from Scotland, brining the Gaelic language and the Christian religion. For the next 1,000 years Scots emigrated from Ireland to Scotland. This is the first record of migration by Maclays or their ancestors, but many more were to come.

It is not possible too trace the genealogy of individuals at this early time, but the roots of the Clan Maclay can be traced using the Lyon Conjectural Tree back to Eochu, head of the pagan sacral Iron Age royal family of the Gaels who lived in the year 360 in Ireland. The Lyon Conjectural Tree1 is reproduced on page 10 and 11 of this document.

This genealogy shows that the first ancestor of the Maclays in Scotland is Anrothan who married the heiress of Cowal and Knapdale, a princess of the royal house of Argyll in the southwestern Highlands. This was c. 1050. Other books confirm that most or all of the ancestors of the Maclays lived in Cowal in the county of Argyll at this time.

The Maclay or Macleay Clan was formed by the descendents of Dunsleeve c. 1300. The Livingstones are a branch that moved to the lowlands where the large cities of Edinburgh and Glascow are located. Out of the entire Lyon Conjectural Tree, the lines from Dunsleeve to Macleay and Livingstone are the least certain, probably because of the constant migration of the Macleays and their ancestors.

According to the Highland Papers2 there are many possible sources for the name Maclay. Some of these indicate there are other lines of genealogy than described above. The records we have of these early times come mainly from church documents. The person recording the birth, death, or other event spelled the names, since most people were illiterate. For this reason there are many spellings for names of this period. As long as they sound the same, they are the same name.

Among spellings that have been used over the last 700 years are Maconlea, Clan Leaw, Clan Leaws, Clan Leiw, Clan Laiws, Clan Laigh, Clan Leayn, Clan Laine, Mhic-a-Lea, M�Lea, McLea, McClea, Maclea, MacLea, Mac Leay, M�Clea, McClea, McCleay, McClay, Macleay, and Maclay. And this is not an exhaustive list. The name has never been easy to spell! Although we use the spelling Maclay, the name is more commonly Macleay in present-day Scotland, although Maclay and other spellings are also found.

The Highland Papers have a chapter "An Account of the Name McLea". Among the sources of the name is Leigh, Gaelic for physician or surgeon. Some McLeas were doctors in the early period of the Clan. It also states "As to the antiquity of the name McLea, it is generally thought that they are among the eldest of the Macks that came from Ireland to Scotland when the Scots first possessed Scotland, and they are at this time so old that they are almost worn out." And this was written in 1743!

Thomas McLea, the writer of this section of the Highland Papers concludes the following. "That the McLeas came originally from Ireland, along with the McDonalds. That their chief place of settlement was in the district of Cowal in Argyleshire. That they were Cadets, or rather followers, of the McDougalls of Lorn. That McLea of Linsaig in the parish of Kilfinan in Cowal seems to have been the chief or Head of the Clan. That the Livingstons and McLeas claim alliance to one another, accounting their names synonymous. That McLea is an Irish or Gaelic word, some Gaelic Interpreters rendering it in English. �The living son,� from which Livingston is derived, and others render it �the Physician�s Son.� But there are no arms in Heraldry for McLea properly so termed, so that the arms of Livingston seem to be those that fall to be adopted for the name, and in order to combine therewith the other interpretation of the word. Physician�s son (by which the McLeas�s of Linsaig distinguished themselves in the figures of their Gravestones), some chirgical Instrument or Instruments may be added, such as a Lancet and Phial, or any other medical Insignia that may occur with these words below�Alt��McLea,��vic �Livingson,� �vic �Physician�s son.�"

The editor notes that "The oldest form of the name is Maconlea. In a note contributed to the Highland Papers, vol. Ii. p. 258, the Duke of Argyll wrote: -�The Maconleas were originally M�Dunleas. The D disappears through insincere omission in Gaelic and there is little doubt that their eponymic ancestor was Dunsleeve, the Son of Aedh, Alain, who through his son Suibhne or Swene was also the ancestor of the Mac Suibhnes or M�Ewens, the ancient lords of Otter in Cowal and Argyll and of Castle Sween in Knapdale.�" This confirms what the Lyon Conjectural Tree states: That the Maclays are descendents of the Dunsleeve Clan c. 1300.

Maclay Migration Within Scotland

According to the book Scottish History3, in the late 11th century King David of Scotland married a Norman, beginning the Norman migration to Scotland. One group of Normans settled in the southwestern Highlands and became the Stewart (or Stuart) Clan. As a result of this migration most of the Maclay�s migrated to northeastern Scotland, in particular to Contin, just west of Inverness.

Some of these events are confirmed by the book The Stewarts of Appin4. Walter Stewart, High Steward of Scotland, second son of Walter Stewart, Steward of Scotland, lived in the early 110�s. These Stewarts moved to Scotland about 1150. Alan, son and heir of Walter succeeded his father as High Steward of Scotland in 1177. If the Maclays lived in Appin before migrating to Contin, they had to have migrated from Cowal in the southern part of Argyll between 1050 and the 1300�s.

In the early 1300�s the Stewarts in association with the famous King Robert Bruce began to dominate Appin. Appin is on the northern edge of the County of Argyll. It is likely that the Maclays left during this period for Contin. Not all of the Maclays left, resulting in popular references for tartans listing Maclay and Macleay as using the tartan of the Stewarts of Appin. One example is the Tartan Map of Scotland5.

It is likely the Maclays did not fight for the Stewarts, and thus did not use their tartan, since they soon became dissatisfied and migrated away. According to Burke�s Peerage and Banronetage6, it was not until 1469 that the Clan Stewart of Appin was formed when Dugald Stuart of Appin tried to enforce his claim to the Lordship of Lorn by force of arms. He made a compromise with his Uncle Walter retaining the Appin district of Upper Lorn and becoming the first chief of the clan. The following shows that our branch of the Maclays had already migrated to Contin before the Stuarts of Appin clan was formed.

The Maclays in Contin

The Maclays were a minor clan with little recorded history after the influx of the Stewarts forced them to migrate to parish of Contin. Today, Contin is a very tiny town of two or three dozen buildings. It is located just east of Loch Achilty at the west edge of a small farming valley surrounded by small hills. See pictures of Contin and the valley at the end of this document.

So we find that the Maclays migrated to what was probably the edge of civilization. The church appears to be the oldest building, although there are some buildings neat the church that are in use as farm buildings that are clearly hundreds of years old. The Maclays of Lurgan7, a genealogy with which many of us are familiar, states that:

"The Mac Leays or Clan Laigh were an independent Tribe and inhabited the country around Loch Achilty, in the Parish of Contin, County of Ross. In the earliest and most important of the known events in their history we find them associated with the Clan Ivor and said to be under the command of Donald Garve M'Ivor (Anderson's History of the Frasers p. 53), and on page 361 of the Transactions of the Iona Club de rebus Albancies, is the Genealogy of MacLeod, in which the name Ivor occurs several times. And as the M'Ivors to this day inhabit some of the oldest lands of the Clan Leod, may they not be of that race and 'Laigh the Strong' (from whom are named the Clan Laigh), son of Fergus of the Red side (Mic laidare, or Clan h MicFergusa liet dearg [be] the ancestor of this Clan Laigh or Macleay."

"In page 238 of the new statistical account of Ross and Cromarty shires written by the able and intelligent Rev. Chas. Downie, Minister, we find 'there is still in Loch Achilty a small island likewise supposed to be artificial. It belonged to Mac Lea Mhor, i.e. Great MacLea, who possessed at the same time a large extent of property in the parish (Contin) and who was wont in the seasons of danger to retire to the island as a place of refuge from his enemies. The ruins of the buildings he there occupied may still be traced. A niche was long seen in the wall of the church (of Contin) called Cruist Mhic-a-Lea, from its having formed part of a vault in which that family was buried."

Loch Achilty today is a rather well known, though small loch stocked with trout for fly-fishing. You can even buy a postcard of Loch Achilty at nearby stores. There is public access the loch at a campground. There are two small islands, one only 20 feet across near the south shore. The other is roughly 30 feet by 100 feet and located about 30 feet from the north shore. This must be the one Mac Lea Mhor used 'in seasons of danger'. Perhaps the island was larger 500 years ago. A local resident reported that there are no foundations or other evidence of buildings on either island. Considering the small size of the is lands and the unlikelyhood of anyone living there often enough to build durable buildings 500 years ago, it is likely that the preceding paragraph from The Maclays of Lurgan should be interpreted as to say that the ruins of the buildings were on the property near Loch Achilty. See the pictures of Loch Achilty at the end of this document.

The Battle of Bealach nam Broig

The Battle of Bealach nam Broig was so important that it is still known today. Alistair Macleod, genealogist at the Library of Inverness knew of the battle, and a genealogy researcher at the Clan Donald Center on the Isle of Skye said that it was a familiar name. It is recorded in the History and Genealogies of the Mackenzies8 that then, as now, the area around Contin was Mackenzie country. It also describes the battle as follows:

"A desperate skirmish, which took place some time before this, at Bealach nam Broig, "betwixt the heights of Fearann Donuil and Lochbraon," was brought about by some of Kintail's vassals, instigated by Donald Garbh Maciver attempting to seize the Earl of Ross, but the plot having being discovered, Maciver was seized by the Lord of the Isles' followers, and imprisoned in Dingwall. He was soon releawsed, however, by his undaunted countrymen from Kenlochewe, consisting of Macivers, Maclennans, Macaulays, and Macleays, who, by way of reprisal, pursued and seized the Earl's son at Balnagown, and carried him along with them. His father, Earl John, at once apprised the Lord Lovat, who was then His Majesty's Lieutenant in the North, of the illegal seizure of his son, and he at once dispatched [sic] northward two hundred men, who, joined by Ross's vassals, the Monroes of Fowlis, and the Dingwalls of Kildun, pursued and overtook the western tribes at Bealach nam Broig, where they were resting themselves. A desperate and bloody conflict ensued, aggravated and exasperated by a keen and bitter recollection of ancient feud and animosities. The Kenlochese men seem to have been almost extirpated. The race of Dingwall was actually extinguished, one hundred and forty of their men having been slain, and the family of Fowlis lost eleven members of their house alone, with many of the leading men of their clan.

"The following version of this skirmish and the cause which led to it is worth recording -- Euphemia Leslie, Countess Dowager of Ross, lived at Dingwall. She would gladly have married Alexander of Kintail, he being a proper handsome young man, and she signified no less to himself. He refused the offer, perhaps, because he plighted his faith to Macdougal's daughter, but thought he had not done so, he had all the reason imaginable to reject the Countess's offer, for, besides, that she was not able to add to his estate, being but a life-rentrix. She was a turbulent woman, and therefore, in the year 1426, the King committed her to prison in St. Colin's Isle, because she had instigated her son, Alexander, Earl of Ross, to rebellion. She invited Kintail to her Court in Dingwall to make a last effort, but finding him obstinate she converted her love to hatred and revenge, and made him prisoner, and either by torturing or bribing his page, she procured the golden ring which was the token between Mackenzie and Macaulay, the governor of Islandonian, who had strict orders not to quit the castle or suffer any one to enter it unless he sent him that token. The Countess sent a gentleman to Islandonian with the ring, who, by her instructions, informed Macaulay that his master was, or shortly would be married to the Countess of Ross, desiring the Governor to repair his master, and to leave the stronghold with him. Macaulay seeing and receiving the ring believed the story, and gave up the castle, but in a few days he discovered his mistake, and that his chief was a prisoner instead of being a bridegroom. He went straight to Dingwall, and finding an opportunity to communicate with Mackenzie, the prisoner made allegorical remarks by which Macaulay understood that nothing would secure his release but the apprehension of Ross of Balnagown, who was grand uncle, or grand uncle's son to the Countess. Macaulay returned to Kintail, made up a company of the "prettiest fellows" he could find of Mackenzie's family, and went back with them to Easter Ross, and in the morning apprehended Balnagown in a little arbour near the house, in a little wood to which he usually resorted for an airing, and, mounting him on horseback, carried him westward among the hills. Balnagown's friends were soon in pursuit, but fearing capture, Macaulay sent Balnagown away under guard, resolving to fight and detain the pursuers at Bealach nam Broig, as already described, until Balnagown was safely out of their reach. After his success here Macaulay went to Kintail, and at Glenuing, five miles from Islandonian, he overtook thirty men, sent by the Countess, with meal and other provisions for the garrison, and the spot, where they seized them, to this day is called Innis nam Balg. Macaulay secured them, and placed his men in their upper garments and plaids, who took the burdens of the sacks of meal on their backs, and went straight to the garrison, whose impoverished condition induced the Governor to admit them without any inquiry, not doubting they were not his own friends. Once inside they threw down their burdens, drew forth their weapons from under their plaids, seized the Governor and all his men, and kept them in captivity until Mackenzie was afterwards exchanged for the Governor and Balnagown."

The account goes on to show that the date of this encounter is 1452, a date which was reported to be between 1272 and 1452 in The Maclays of Lurgan. According to The Maclays of Lurgan, "from that time they [the Maclays] led somewhat of a scattered life."

The Maclays of Lurgan identifies the location of the battle as between Ferandonald and Lochbroun. I was not able to locate the battlefield, but according to the Gazetteer of Scotland9, Ferandonald is an old name for the District between Dingwall and Invergordon, Ross and Cromarty, being the Clan Monroe country in Kiltearn and Alness parishes. This is about 14 miles north of Dingwall by road. The location of Lochbroun is still unknown.

The Church at Contin

Another event recorded in The Maclays of Lurgan in the same period, as the battle is the burial of Mhiclea Mhoir or MacLea Mhor or the Great MacLea at the church of Contin. This church, still in use today, was established around 690 probably by St. Mealrubha, an Irish Christian.

According to a short history of the Parish of Contin10 that can be purchased at the church "Between 1485 and 1487 the Macdonalds and some of their allies (about 1,000 men) meeting at Contin, on their way to a punitive raid against the Mackenzies of Kinellan, discovered the church was filled with the aged men, women and children trusting to its sanctuary. Alexander Macdonald ordered the door to be shut and the building to be surrounded so that none could escape. He gave orders to set the church on fire, and everyone within - several hundreds - were burnt to death. Vengeance from the Mackenzies and Macreas was swift. After the battle at Pairc, one or two hundred out of 1,800 to 2,000 Macdonalds and their followers, who had eventually gathered at Contin, were left to escape as they might."

About 1490 the present church was built to replace the one burned in the fire. "In the middle of the north wall, near the ground, is a recess for the effigy of 'Mhiclea Mhoir', which has now disappeared." A sign inside the church states that this is the location of the remains of the big MacLea. There is evidence today of this recess.

The dates when he lived are not known. According to Alistair Macleod, genealogist at the Library of Inverness, the Great Maclay was large and notorious for his bad behavior. For a Highlander of that violent time, he must have been really bad! It is clear he died before 1490, however. The timing of these events leads one to speculate that the Great MacLea died in the Battle of Bealach nam Broig.

The sign posted inside the church today (which I poorly photographed) reads in part"

"As Contin Church was dedicated to St. Mealrubha the 'Red Monk' of Applecross (642 to 722 AD) it is probable that it was actually founded by him and was the source of some of his ------'s.

"The walls of the present church may have been built about 1490 as the former church was burned by the Macdonalds about 1485-1487. About 1832 eight feet were added to the walls to allow headroom for the gallery.

"During repairs in 1908 --- ----- or sacrament house was discovered in the north wall of the church. It had been covered over with lathe and plaster and ------ for the ---- were driven into the ----rings.

"Almost in the middle of the north wall and near the ground is a recess for an effigy which has disappeared - that of Mhiclea Mhoir - the tomb of the big Maclay, who in times of danger, retired to a small island in Loch Achilty."

See pictures of the Church of Contin at the end of this document.

Maclays Become Scattered.

The last known event of this period is also described in The Maclays of Lurgan:

"In John M'Kenzie's of Applecross Genealogies of the MacKenzies (page 13) is the genealogy of Rosie Mhor, son of Kenneth 8, Lord of Kintail who died 1491. This Rosie was in his youth debauched by the MacLeays his comrades, among whom he was fostered, being then a somewhat loose and broken people. He committed several extortion's upon the King's Common of Brae Ross, and other Riots, for which, and his unjust killing of the Laird of Kildun (King James V.) caused, apprehended and commit him prisoner to the Isle of Bass. He was taken thence to encounter a famous wrestler whom he overthrew before his majesty with his more prudent behavior thereafter, got him so much of the King's favor, that within a short time, he sent him home to his country -- and was pleased to allow him the lands of Achilty and Kinnahaird being of the annexed property of the crown, for his life rent use. Rose Mhor died at Contin 17 March the year 1533 and is buried at Bealun."

"Achilty was ever afterwards held by the MacKenzies tho' possibly the M'Leays were kindly tenants and occupied their old lands, and let us hope the rough, bold cateran Rosie Mhor -- had foster child and foster brother's love and regard for them -- his descendants of Achilty Fauluern and Andros were considered the hardiest and bravest men of the Clan Coinact, and many a tale is told of that courage which they seem to have imbibed with the foster milk of the brave Macleas. In the Wardlaw MSS. A history of the Frasers by the Minister of Wardlaw there are some further notices of the Clan Leay, particularly of the disastrous battle of _________ where the Clan Lea, Clan Ivor and Clan Aula were defeated, it is also referred to in Anderson's History of the Frazers."

"From the above it appears that the Clan Maclay were overwhelmed in the Great Battle of Bealach nam Broig, the date of which ranging from 1272 to 1452, and from that time they led a somewhat scattered life."

As we saw above, the date of the battle was 1452. Indeed, we find today that the area around Contin is Mackenzie country.

I have not found any records of the Maclays after this until Charles Maclay of County Antrim, Northern Ireland, who was born about 1635, is mentioned in The Maclays of Lurgan. The Maclays migrated from Scotland to North Ireland between 1610 and 1650. The Maclays of Lurgan has a complete and detailed genealogy of the Maclays who are descendants of Charles. I attempted to locate Charles at the Registrar in Dingwall. They have an electronic connection to Edinburgh that has records as far back as the 1500's, although the early records are not complete. They found no record of a birth of any Maclay or Macleay in the Parish of Contin between 1610 and 1649. Because the records are incomplete this does not indicate that Charles Maclay was not born in Contin.

The gap in the record of about 100 years is likely due to the massive destruction of records during the Reformation. For this reason it is likely that the Maclay genealogy will never be connected with certainty to the Maclays of Contin. When the Maclays became scattered around 1500 they probably moved north to Lairg or west to the coast, where Macleays are known to live today. There appear to be no Maclays living in Contin today. There is a McLeay plot in the graveyard at the Church of Contin. The only readable gravestone is for Douglas McLeay, his wife Ann Tuach who lived from 1774 to 1874, and their sons Alexander who lived from 1805 to1837, and Rod who lived from 1822 to 1847.

Wanderlust has burned strongly in the Maclays and their ancestors for at least 900 years. First they migrated from Ireland to Scotland c. 1050, settling in Cowal in the county of Argyll. Two or three hundred years later they are found in Appin, 50 miles north. They migrated to Contin, 70 miles further north, by the early 1400's. By todays standards these short distances are not migrations, but in those days travel was dangerous and unusual. "The countryside was wild and full of danger, the ancient Picts were corrupt, and the Druidic religion unjust, selfish and often violent."10 After the Battle of Bealach nam Broig in 1452 the Maclay Clan scattered and our ancestors may have moved several times before the migration to Northern Ireland in the early 1600's. Then in 1734 our ancestors migrated to the New World, settling near Middle Spring, Pennsylvania. Again in 1880 they migrated, this time to Missoula, Montana. This makes at least six migrations in 800 years.

In many of these migrations, in not all of them, they moved to remote areas: Contin, Middle Spring and Missoula were all at the edge of civilization at the time the Maclays moved there. Cowal and Argyll could not have been much different so many years ago. And migration continues today. Maclays from Montana are scattered throughout the United States and into Canada. I suspect the Maclay Clan is smaller and less well known than other Scottish clans not so much because of their losses in battle, but because of this wanderlust. The Maclays have been repeatedly scattered by their own volition, preferring locations away from the mainstream. This has probably been due to the Maclay temperament, sometimes referred to as cantankerous11, which sometimes leads to a desire to shun social contact.


The sources for this document are the genealogy; The Maclays of Lurgan, as well as information acquired during a two day visit to Scotland in September 1997 with my wife Lydia. During that trip we visited the town of Contin, Loch Achilty, the adjacent town of Strathpeffer, where there is a visitor center, the Registrar in Dingwall, the public library in Inverness, a genealogy shop in Inverness, and the Clan Donald Center on the Isle of Skye. All of these are within half-hour drive except the Clan Donald Center, which is on the opposite side of Scotland. We went there to learn more about the Battle of Bealach nam Broig because there is a nearby town of Ferandonald. The trip to the Clan Donald Center, although a pretty drive, yielded little information. We did learn that there is an old place that used to be known as Ferandonald just north of Dingwall that is neat the probable battle site. The most useful source if information was the library at Inverness. Alistair Macleod, genealogist at the library, located many of the references cited. He is available to do genealogical research for an hourly fee. It appears that the most fruitful genealogical search for Maclays prior to Charles born in 1635 would begin in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the migration of the Maclays from Scotland can be traced to Contin using records in Northern Ireland.


  1. bLyon Conjectural Tree, on the inside front of an unknown book from the Inverness Public Library. Most of it is reproduced here.
  2. bHighland Papers, Vol. IV, 1296 to 1752, third Series, Scottish History Society, pages 94 to 103. Thomas McLea wrote this section in 1743 in Edinburgh.
  3. bScottish History, Colin Baxter and Chris Tabraham, Lomond Books, Edinburg, pages 7 to 15. It has no date, but is a contemporary book found at a visitor center.
  4. bThe Stewarts of Appin, John H. J. Stewart, Edinburgh, 1880.
  5. bTartan Map of Scotland, published by Bartholmew, 1993, reprinted 1994.
  6. bBurke's Peerage and Baronage, 105th edition, 1980, London, page 1874.
  7. bThe Maclays of Lurgan, Edgar Maclay, 1889.
  8. bHistory and Genealogies of the Mackenzies, Alexander MacKenzie, 1879.
  9. bGazetteer of Scotland, Johnston and Bacon publisher, London 1973, Third Edition.
  10. bParish of Contin 690 to 1990, based on research by Rev. A. C. Maclean F.S.A., J.P. Minister from 1906 to 1937, published by the Church of Contin from time-to-time and available for 30 pence at the Church.
  11. bThe Cantankerous Senator Maclay, an article in the American Heritage Series of Books.


Inside of the Contin Church

Outside the Contin Church

Island near Loch Achlity

Loch Achlity

Lyon Conjectural Tree

Valley East of Contin

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