Am Bratach No. 303
January 2017

Two Mackenzie families in strath

Last month we published a photo of the late Chrissie Mackenzie of Croick, Halladale, linking her family to one “exchanged” for a piper, Ruairidh Mackay, writes Donald MacLeod.

The photo and some information about Chrissie were given to me by Sandra Train, but the story about her links to the Gairloch Estate were passed to me directly by Chrissie and her brother Hamish in the 1960s, information I shared many years later with piping historian, Bridget Mackenzie, author of Piping Traditions of the North of Scotland.

However, some doubt is now cast on the veracity of the link, as Mrs Train, a native of Halladale who is knowledgeable about the history, discloses the presence of another Mackenzie family in the strath, at Trantlemore, with a plausible claim to be descended from the gamekeeper brought up from the Gairloch Estate in exchange for young Ruairidh, piper to the chief of Mackay.

As far as Sandra Train knows, the two Mackenzie families were not related, a view reinforced by the rather different Christian names running though the two families, Angus being the only one held in common, as far as is known.

According to Osgood Mackenzie, author of A Hundred Years in the Highlands, first published in 1921, the chief of Mackay, or the laird of Reay, as he called him, said to his stepson (John Roy Mackenzie), “Now, as you are getting my piper, you must send me in exchange a good deer-stalker”. Osgood goes on to say that on his return home — were are talking about the year 1609 — John Roy “at once” sent Hugh Mackenzie, “whose descendants still live in the Reay country” and “to this day” remember, and in what capacity, their ancester came from Gairloch.

In her book, Bridget Mackenzie refers to Hugh Mackenzie and also to his descendants, Donald MacKenzie and Widow MacKenzie, living in Trantlemore in 1819. She adds that “each of them had a holding of average size and they were the only MacKenzies in the strath”. The source of this information is not revealed.

Sandra Train remembers Janet Mackenzie living at Trantlemore in the 1970s. Janet’s brother, Willie, in fact, married Sandra’s aunt, Margaret MacDonald, while a sister, Bella, taught in Achreamie school, in Caithness. Although she is not aware of stories in the Trantlemore family of an “exchange”, there exists a tradition that they had come orginally from the “west”, before settling in Strathnaver in the mid-nineteenth century. The “west” could, of course, refer to Gairloch. The family gravestone in Bounahoun Cemetery testifies to the Strathnaver connection.

Fortunately, Sandra Train keeps her relationships (and friendships) in good repair and is in touch with the Mackenzies of Trantlemore, “scattered as they are to the four winds”. “I am in touch with all of my first cousins. They’re in America, Finland, London and Edinburgh,” she said. She is also in touch with descendants of the Croick Mackenzies and intends asking all of them if they have any knowledge of a Gairloch connection. One of the first people she is likely to email is Johnnie Mackenzie, a first cousin living in the USA and a direct descendant of the Trantlemore Mackenzies. He is one of the men in the group photo on page 19 of this issue. 

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