Monday, 22 July 2013

Join the Army and See the World - the life of Hugh MacKay

Hugh MacKay (c1756 – 1840) was my fifth great grandfather on my maternal grandfather's side. He was a weaver on a heavily overpopulated Isle in the Hebrides, yet, because he joined up to fight Napolean, he ended up travelling not only to Europe but also into the Middle East. This is a quick, and inadequate rundown of his life.

Hugh MacKay (c1756 – 1840)
Wife: Ann MacDonald (c1765-1802)
Catharine (1785-?)
Donald (1787-?)
William (1787- ?)
George (1790-?)
Lachlan (1793-1861) (guess which one is my ancestor)
Francissa (1795-?)
John (1798-?)

Hugh MacKay was born on the Isle of Tiree, Argyll, Scotland. The Isle of Tiree Community website describes Tiree thus:

“One of the Inner Hebrides, Tiree is twenty-two miles west of the nearest point on the Scottish mainland, Ardnamurchan. ...Britain’s twentieth largest island, it is just over ten miles at its longest, five miles at its widest, and a little over half a mile at its narrowest.
A walk of forty six miles would take you around its coastline, much of it along white beaches of shell sand. Tiree is divided into 286 crofts and five farms although there are today probably fewer than a hundred active crofters. The land is split into thirty one crofting townships, each controlled by a grazing committee. It is the most fertile of the Hebrides...
The weather dominates life on Tiree in a way it often fails to do on the mainland. Weather reports from the island are familiar to listeners to the BBC’s Shipping Forecast and Reports from Coastal Stations.
Like the rest of Scotland’s west coast, the island is bathed by the warm Gulf Stream. The surrounding seas keep the island’s climate mild in winter and cool in summer. Sea temperatures are at their lowest in March, and at their highest in September.
The prevailing south-westerly winds bring a succession of weather systems from the Atlantic... There are gales here on average thirty four days a year.”1
Tiree is without woodland, and has only three sizeable hills.
Tiree, withing Argyll and Bute, from Wikipedia
Finding birth records for Hugh has proved problematic, although pursuit continues. His father, if Hugh followed tradition, would have been Donald (as this is the name of his eldest son – the tradition was to name the eldest son for the paternal grandfather). However, this is presently conjecture. Little has been uncovered of Hugh until the birth of his first child, and even then the details are sketchy.

In 1785 the birth of Catharine is recorded in the Parish Records of Cornaig, Coll to Hugh MacKay and Anne MacDonald2. They were already married as the child was not listed as “begot through fornication”. Luckily, the custom in Scotland was to record the mother's maiden name. No marriage records for Hugh and Ann have yet been uncovered.

All the subsequent Mackay children were born on Coll, although in differing Parishes (Cornaig, Sodistal), with the possible exception of Lachlan (this will be explained later), whose birth does not appear in the Old Parish Records (OPR).

Coll, the island directly north-east of Tiree on the map above, is 20.9km long by 4.8km wide and these days has a population of about 200. It has sandy beaches and one notable “mountain”, Ben Hogh in the south west of the island which rises to a height of 104m3. Coll's official website boasts a list of things the island does not have, including “nowhere to go whilst it rains.”4

Coll's population has been much higher. There were 938 residents in 1776, and over one thousand by the early nineteenth century, eventually rising to about 1500. Added to the human population was all the accompanying lifestock. There were cows, the lucky families having one per household for milk, and sheep, with many on the island listing their occupation as weaver. Hugh McKay was among these.
Clabbach, Coll, from
A typical Coll house was a small affair, one or two rooms, with a thatched roof held down by a complex web of ropes weighted with stones. Where windows existed they were small. Light came into the first room through the door and any windows. The external walls were about six feet thick, made of two layers of stone with a gap between filled with sand and peat. The roof came only to the gap and grass and food plants were grown in the fill. There was no chimney and the sooty thatch, when replaced, was ploughed into the fields as fertiliser. This all doesn't sound too bad. Somewhere to live, well-insulated for the winter, extra growing space. However, only part of this house was for the human occupants. Half to two-thirds was dedicated to the livestock, which would have to live indoors in the colder months, and whose dung would be removed each spring by breaking a hole in the wall and shovelling the dung out onto waiting carts. If you were very poor, there was no dividing wall between your family and your animals, which were tethered to prevent incursions into the living quarters.

In 1793, the call went out for men to fight Napoleon. Hugh was among the first on Coll signed up to the 79th Regiment of Foot (Cameronian Volunteers). The Regiment was established on August 17, 1793 at Fort William from among the members of the Clan Cameron by Sir Allan Cameron of Erracht. A new tartan was devised, based on a combination of the MacDonald and Cameron tartans.
Initially Hugh and his comrades were stationed on Malta. There is a record of a Lachlan McKay being born there in 1793, implying that the whole family went along too, although currently that Lachlan cannot be indisputibly linked to Hugh. Families travelling with soldiers was not uncommon at the time, so it is possible. In 1794 the Regiment was sent to the Netherlands. The campaign went badly and the men were evacuated back to Great Britain, the 79th foot listed for disbandment. However, this did not happen and the Regiment was instead posted in 1795 to the West Indies. Hugh, along with a number of other men, was sent home during this time and his last two children, Francissa and John, were born. In 1799 the men were recalled and joined their Regiment, bound for Holland

The 79th Foot saw active service at Egmont-op-Zee in October and in 1800 joined an unsuccessful assault at Ferrol on the Spanish coast. From there, they went to Egypt and were part of the force that eventually saw the surrender of the French at Cairo. As a result a sphinx with the word EGYPT over it was added to the Regiment's colours and badges5

The next few years were spent in Minorca, where Anne died. George, Donald, William and Lachlan were already serving in the army as soldiers, Lachlan having been signed up at the age of six as a drummer boy, but the death must have come as a blow to the family The assumption currently is that Catharine bore the bulk of the care for Francissa and John.

In 1804 the 79th Foot was made part of the British Army, and it is from this point that the Chelsea Records commence. A second battalion was formed as a draft-finding unit and Hugh served in this Battalion from 20th Sept 1804 to 24 December, 1807, whereafter he was transferred to the 1st Battalion. The 1st Battalion had, during 1807, served in Denmark. Hugh joined them on their return to England.

“In 1808 the 79th Foot moved to Portugal, moving to Spain in the following year and participating in several major battles of the Peninsular War:

* Corunna in 1809,
* Busaco and the defence of Cadiz in 1810,
* Fuentes d'Onor in 1811,
* The Battle of Salamanca, the occupation of Madrid and the siege of Burgos in 1812,
* the Battles of the Pyrenees, Nivelle, Nive in 1813
* The Battle of Toulouse in 1814

Following the abdication of Napoleon in 1814, the regiment moved to Cork, Ireland. However, with the return of Napoleon from exile, the 79th Foot travelled to Belgium in May, 1815. The regiment took part in the final battles of the Napoleonic Wars at Quatre Bras and Waterloo in June.”6 All soldiers who served at Waterloo received a special medal. The medal is silver, is 1½ inches across (37mm) and is attached to a ribbon by an iron ring. It was the first medal to have the recipient's name impressed around the edge by machine. Unfortunately many were lost as the iron ring rusted. Whether Hugh's medal still exists somewhere is at this point unknown.
front and reverse of Waterloo medal, from
Hugh MacKay, Private, was officially discharged on 16 October, 1815, although his service record gives the conclusion date of his service as 24 April, 1816 (the extra time a credit for serving at Waterloo and Quatre Bras). He was discharged on the grounds of “Infirmity through age” being at that time 59. Given that Quatre Bras and Waterloo alone accounted for 21 800 dead on the British side, Hugh did remarkably well to survive the entire war.

His discharge papers, held in the National Archives, London, give a physical description of Hugh. He is given as “fifty nine years of age, five feet, six inches in height, dark brown hair, grey eyes, dark complexion”, his trade listed as “weaver”. His place of residence is “Coll, Tobermory, Argyll”. Hugh signed the papers with a cross.

Following the war, his family scattered, while Hugh returned to Coll to quietly live out his days, a weaver who had travelled the world.

Nothing more is yet uncovered about Hugh, except his death date, 1840. However, this is not yet verified, and comes from an uncertain source. There are few death records for Coll or Tiree as burial was not considered a sacrament (John Knox wrote that death rites led to Popery, and Knox had the last say in Scotland). The search continues.

2Christening records OPR accessed through Scotland's People website. OPR frame no FRCH2V1P60
5"Historical Record of the 79th Regiment of Foot, or Cameron Highlanders" by Captain Robert Jameson, William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and London, 1863, p.15


  1. Have you checked the claim that Lachlan played the pipes at Nelson's funeral parade?

  2. Another point that worried me deeply in your wonderful story, is that the Cameron Highlanders assembled for the first time in December 1793 at Fort William, so they could not have been in Malta that year. Could Hugh have been in another regiment at that time and transferred to the Cameron Highlanders later on? "In December, 1793, the regiment was assembled at Fort William,
    where it paraded for the first time, the roll being called by its first
    Adjutant, Archibald McLean : the ranks of the regiment were filled
    for the most part with men of the names of Cameron, Gunn, Maclean,
    and Mackay. " (Historical records of the 79th Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders)