Hugh Mackay (general)

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Hugh Mackay
General Hugh Mackay (c.1640–1692).jpg
Painting of Mackay from 1690.
Born 1640
Scourie, Sutherlandshire, Scotland
Died 3 August 1692 (aged 51–52)
Southern Netherlands
Allegiance  Scotland (Williamite)
Years of service 1660–1692
Rank Lieutenant General
Battles/wars Glorious Revolution
1689 Rising
Williamite War in Ireland
Nine Years' War

Hugh Mackay (c. 1640 – 3 August 1692) was a Scottish general best known for his service in the Revolution of 1688.


He was the third son of Hugh Mackay of Scourie, Sutherlandshire (descended from Hugh Mackay, third of Strathnaver, chief of the clan Mackay,) and Anne, daughter of John Corbet of Arboll, Rossshire. He was born at Scourie about 1640.[1]

Early military career[edit]

He entered Douglas's (Dumbarton's) regiment of the English army (now the Royal Scots) in 1660 and accompanied it to France when it was lent by Charles II to Louis XIV. After the Restoration, in 1660, he became ensign in Douglas's or Dumbarton's regiment, subsequently the royal Scots, and when the regiment was lent by Charles II to the French king, Mackay accompanied it to France. On his return to England in 1664 he was presented at court, and obtained from Charles an open letter, dated Whitehall, 20 August, recommending him to the favour of any to whom he might show it. By means of it he obtained an introduction to the Louis, Grand Condé and Turenne.[1]

Although, through the deaths of his two elder brothers, who were murdered in Caithness, Mackay, on the death of his father in 1668, succeeded to the family estates, he continued to reside abroad. In 1669, along with other reduced officers, he volunteered into the service of the Republic of Venice, to assist in driving the Turks from the island of Candia, and in acknowledgment of his valour received a medal. In 1672, he obtained a captaincy in Dumbarton's regiment, with which he served under Turenne in the expedition against the United Provinces, when John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, was a fellow-officer.[1]

While quartered in the town of Bonmel in Gueldres, in the house of a Dutch lady, the wife of the Chevalier de Bie, he fell in love with her eldest daughter Clara, whom in 1673 he married.

The pious beliefs of the family made a deep impression on his character. Gilbert Burnet said,

He was the most pious man that I ever knew in a military way.

That he had fought in an unjust cause now gave him serious concern, and his natural sympathies being also with the Dutch, he transferred his services to the States-General, obtaining a captaincy in the Scots Dutch brigade.[1]

He distinguished himself at the Battle of Seneffe in 1674, and also at the siege of Grave, which capitulated on 24 October 1674. Subsequently he was promoted to the rank of major-commandant. In 1677, he was appointed colonel of one of the Scots regiments, but whether this was, as his biographer states, in preference to his future adversary, John Graham of Claverhouse, is doubtful. In 1680, he was made colonel of the regiment, and when, in 1685, the brigade was called over to England by James II, to assist in subduing the Monmouth rising, he was appointed to its command, obtaining on 4 June the rank of major-general.[1]

The services of the brigade were not required, but Mackay, in recognition of the promptitude of its despatch, was made a privy councillor of Scotland. He went north to Edinburgh to take the oath and his seat, but returned to London without visiting his estates. After the brigade had been reviewed by James II on Hounslow Heath, he set sail with it for Holland. In 1687, James II proposed to transfer the brigade to the service of France, but the proposal was evaded by the Prince of Orange, and when, on 27 January 1688, James demanded its recall, it was decided to retain the privates, the officers being permitted to follow their own inclinations. The majority of them, including Mackay, the commander, elected to remain. The decision of Mackay doubtless powerfully affected subsequent events. It necessarily also provoked the strong resentment of King James, and Mackay figured among those who were afterwards specially exempted from pardon.[1]

Revolution of 1688[edit]

In the expedition of the Prince of Orange to England, Mackay had command of the English and Scots division, which was the first sent on shore after the Dutch fleet made the harbour of Torbay. On 4 January 1689, he was appointed by William major-general and commander-in-chief of the forces in Scotland, and after his recovery from a severe illness sailed for Leith, which he reached on 25 March 1689. His forces consisted of the old Scots Dutch brigade, reduced to eleven hundred men by the omission of all the Dutch soldiers, the intention being to fill up the ranks with Scottish recruits. The immediate purpose of its despatch was to protect the sittings of the convention at Edinburgh, but the movements of John Graham of Claverhouse in the highlands widened the scope of his mission, and necessitated a general levy. Claverhouse having on 30 March been proclaimed a traitor, Mackay was sent north in his pursuit.[1]

Having appointed the town of Dundee as the rendezvous for his troops, he hastened after Claverhouse with four hundred men, but was completely baffled in his attempt to track him. He then occupied Elgin, and subsequently Inverness, where he was joined by about four hundred clansmen from the far north. The Campbells were also, of course, with the government, but this fact was of itself sufficient to prevent the adhesion of the other clans, and all Mackay's endeavours to gain them were fruitless, even Athole declining to commit himself. Reinforcements under Ramsay, sent to meet Mackay at Ruthven Castle, on the Spey, were threatened by Claverhouse, and compelled to fall back on Perth, and, as a further precaution, Claverhouse captured Ruthven Castle and razed it to the ground. He also made an attempt to surprise Mackay, who eluded him by marching down Strathspey, and succeeded in effecting a junction with Ramsay. Having grounds for suspecting that Claverhouse in his movements had been guided by information sent him by some of the dragoon officers, Mackay had them arrested and sent to Edinburgh, where they confessed their guilt. With his reinforcements Mackay now retraced his steps, prepared to give battle, but Claverhouse retired to the mountains, leaving Mackay to march safely but to no purpose to Inverness.[1]

Experience now convinced Mackay of the hopelessness in the highlands of the usual methods of warfare. He therefore recommended the establishment of a chain of fortresses in the central highlands, beginning at Inverlochy Castle, originally erected by Monck, which he proposed to strengthen and garrison with a large force. Leaving a portion of his troops to hold Inverness, he meanwhile returned with the remainder to the south, in order to consult with the government regarding his plans, and to collect a sufficiently formidable force. Slow progress was made in his preparations, and they were still far from complete when the intrigues of John, Viscount Dundee. in Atholl pointed to the necessity of seizing Blair Castle.[1] It was garrisoned by a portion of the clan under Stewart of Ballochin, who, as factor for the absent marquis, held it in his name, but without his authority, for Claverhouse.

Battle of Killiecrankie[edit]

Mackay, on 26 July 1689, set out from Perth with, according to his own account, 'six battalions of foot, making at the most three thousand men, with four troops of horse and as many dragoons'. Of this force he also states that 'little more than one half could be said to be disciplined,' and that many of the officers had no military experience. On arriving, at midnight, at Dunkeld, an express reached him from Lord Murray announcing the arrival of a part of Dundee's forces at Blair, and his own consequent retirement to Killiecrankie, where he had posted a guard to keep the head of the pass. Resuming his march at daybreak, Mackay passed surely through the pass, only to deliver his army into the hands of Claverhouse. He made the fatal mistake of underrating his adversary, and by drawing up his forces in a thin, extended line which gave Claverhouse the best chance of victory. He himself attributed his defeat to the slowness of his men in fixing bayonets, and this led him to invent the plan of firing with the fixed bayonet. In no respect did his presence of mind desert him, but his initial mistake was irretrievable, and his generalship found no further opportunity for its exercise, the battle being decided at the first charge. He did make an attempt to rally a portion of his cavalry, but they also became almost immediately infected with panic, and galloped off in wild disorder. Cutting his way through the crowd of attacking highlanders, Mackay 'turned about to see how matters stood,' and found that 'in the twinkling of an eye in a manner, our men, as well as the enemy, were out of sight,' and 'was surprised to see at first view himself alone upon the field'. But on looking further to the right he discovered that a small portion of his troops, who had not come within the sweep of the highland attack, still maintained their position, and with these, and various bodies of stragglers, he retreated across the Garry.[1]

Ultimately he determined to strike across the hilly country, towards the valley of the Tay and Stirling. Two miles from the battlefield he fell in with a portion of Ramsay's regiment, under their commander, but almost without arms, and completely panic-struck. The retreat was continued all night, and, with short halts at Weem and Drummond Castles for refreshments, Stirling was reached, after an almost continuous march of sixty hours.[1]

In the lowlands the death of Claverhouse destroyed much of the moral effect of his victory, but it was not so in the highlands, for all the doubtful clans now flocked to the standard of King James, and Cannon, the successor of Claverhouse, found himself almost immediately in command of no less than five thousand men. On the other hand, Mackay, in the measures he took to minimise or retrieve disaster, displayed admirable promptitude. Within two days of reaching Stirling he was in command of two thousand foot and horse, and with these he at once marched towards Perth, to protect it against the enemy, and prevent their march southwards. Near the city he routed three hundred of the Robertsons sent forward to collect supplies (31 July 1689). His bold attitude paralysed Cannon's resolution, who, against the advice of Lochiel and other chiefs, withdrew northwards along the slopes of the Grampians, with the apparent intention of occupying Aberdeen. In this he was frustrated by Mackay, who, keeping a parallel course along the low ground, stayed a night at Aberdeen, and then followed Cannon into the territory of the Gordons. Near Strathbogie the two armies were within six miles of each other, but Cannon avoided battle by retreating towards Atholl, where, learning that Dunkeld was occupied by a single regiment of Cameronians, under William Cleland, 1661?-1689, he determined to risk an attempt to capture it. The remarkable feat of the Cameronians in baffling the attempt practically decided the campaign. Cannon's aimless wanderings had already excited the contempt of his highland followers, who now retired to their homes and left him to his fate. With his Irish troops Cannon withdrew to Mull. Mackay, after reaching Perth, proceeded to Blair Castle, to receive its surrender and the submission of the Stewarts on 24 August.[1]

In 1690, Mackay commenced the erection of the stronghold at Inverlochy, which, in honour of the king, was named Fort William, and after suppressing a rising in the north under Major-general Thomas Buchan, who had been sent from Ireland to succeed Cannon, he, in November 1690, laid down his command, and, accompanying the king to the Hague, spent the winter with his family in Holland.

Williamite War in Ireland[edit]

He assisted the king in arranging the measures for the campaign of 1691 in Flanders, but was himself sent to Ireland as second in command to General Ginkell. He headed the fifteen hundred grenadiers who on 30 June 1691 achieved the brilliant feat of carrying Irishtown by assault, after crossing the deep and rapid ford of the Shannon. At the battle of Aughrim, on 12 July, he performed an equally remarkable exploit by leading the cavalry across an almost impassable bog, on which he succeeded in making a pathway of hurdles. He turned the flank of the Irish army, and was thus chiefly instrumental in winning the victory.[1]


After the capitulation of Limerick on 3 October he returned to Holland. In 1692 he was sent, with the rank of lieutenant-general, to command the British division of the grand army in Flanders.[1]

At the battle of Steinkirk, 24 July 1692, he led the attack, and after a desperate struggle drove back the Swiss with great slaughter. To avert disaster the French household troops were sent to their support. Mackay, discerning his imminent danger, asked for immediate reinforcements, without which, he affirmed, he could not hold his position. He was commanded to hold it, but reinforcements were denied him. 'The will of the Lord be done,' he exclaimed, on receiving the fatal message. He was slain, along with the greater part of his division.[1]


His defeat at the Battle of Killiecrankie has possibly unduly tarnished Mackay's reputation; but during his highland campaign, when he held independent command, he on no occasion appeared to very much advantage. The victory at Dunkeld was gained by Cleland, and the victory of Cromdale by Livingstone. There is no evidence that he could have coped on anything like equal terms with Dundee, who, had he survived Killiecrankie, would probably have soon had all Scotland at his mercy. Yet Mackay continued to enjoy the full confidence and respect of King William, and his subsequent achievements also show that if lack of initiative unfitted him for supreme command, he had few or no superiors as a general of division. His conscientiousness, single-mindedness, and unfailing self-possession atoned to some extent for his lack of military genius. 'The king,' says Burnet, 'often observed that when he had full leisure for his devotions he acted with a peculiar exaltation of courage. He had one very singular quality : in councils of war he delivered his opinion freely, and maintained it with due zeal, but how positive soever he was in it, if the council of war overruled, even though he was not convinced by it, yet to all others he justified it, and executed his part with the same zeal as if his own opinion had prevailed'. [1]


Mackay was the author of Rules of War for the Infantry, ordered to be observed by their Majesties, Subjects encountring with the Enemy upon the day of Battell, written by Lieutenant-General Mackay, and Recommended to All (as well officers as soldiers) of the Scots and English army. In xxiii articles. Published by his Excellencies Secretary. Reprinted at Edinburgh by John Reid in 1693.[1]

A volume printed by the Bannatyne Club in 1833 contains his Memoirs touching the Scots Wars, Memoires écrites à sa Majestie Britannique touchant la dernière Campaigne d'Irlande, Lettres ou Dépêches écrites, lorsqu'il commandoit en chef les troupes de sa Majêstie en Écosse, and an Appendix of Letters relative to Military Affairs in Scotland in the years 1689 and 1690, Many of his letters are printed in Leven and Melville Papers (Bannatyne Club), in Macpherson's Original Papers, and in Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. App. pt. viii.[1]


Mackay and his wife had three children together:

The descendants in the male line became extinct in 1775.

Cultural significance[edit]

Mackay was the inventor of the socket bayonet which soon came into general use, the idea being suggested to him by the failure of the plug bayonet to stop the rush of the Highlanders at the Battle of Killiecrankie.

He may be known to some people nowadays from a mention in the song "Braes o' Killiecrankie": "O fie Mackay what gart ye lie".


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Henderson 1893.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHenderson, Thomas Finlayson (1893). "Mackay, Hugh". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 35. London: Smith, Elder & Co.