3. The Mackays

“This is a difficult land. Here things miscarry
Whether we care, or do not care enough…
This is a difficult country, and our home.”

– Edwin Muir, The Difficult Land.

Jim’s mother, Jessie, was the fourth of nine children to William and Janet Mackay. William’s father, Donald Mackay was a fisherman who came from Sutherland, in the far north of Scotland; his ancestors had reputedly lived there a long time (16th century records show the territory of the Mackay clan aligning on the parishes of Eddrachillis, Durness, Tongue and Farr, the northernmost parishes of Sutherland). Donald married Elizabeth Sutherland who, as the name suggests, came from the same parts. William was born in 1856 at Wick, in the neighbouring county of Caithness.

The name Sutherland, ‘southern territory’, is from the Norse ‘sudr’ and was so named by the Scandinavian settlers of the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland). The name Caithness means ‘promontory of the cats’, referring to the tribal name of the early Celtic people who lived there, although the Gaelic name ‘Gallaibh’ means ‘land of strangers’, probably referring to the Norsemen.

William Mackay also worked with boats and the fishing industry, and as neither he nor his father worked on the land it is reasonable to guess that the Highland Clearances had not directly touched the family, though there are records of various Mackays being evicted from Strathnaver, Farr, Achtoty and Tongue, and of a Sutherland family being evicted at Armadale. Jim did not recall any mention of ancestors being involved in the evictions. On the other hand, the clearances may well have left a situation which caused Donald and Elizabeth to move from Sutherland to the Wick area.

The term ‘Highland Clearances’ refers to forced evictions, but is used to cover two distinctly different patterns of eviction. The ‘Sutherland Clearances’ occurred mainly from 1770 onwards, continuing for a large part of the nineteenth century; this was a planned programme to evict hundreds of farmers and their families, who had worked the land for generations, in order to rent the land to Lowland sheep-farmers (this type of clearance was not confined to Sutherland. 1792 in Ross-shire became known as the ‘Year of the Sheep’ after evictions had provoked serious riots there). An estimated 8,000 Sutherland people were evicted during the clearances. Many others left voluntarily due to the resulting upheaval.

The ‘Hebridean Clearances’ were evictions, which for the most part mirrored the famine evictions occurring simultaneously in Ireland and did not constitute a planned land-grab, being largely the consequence of repeated potato crop failures and unreasonable landlords. This type of eviction was not confined to the Hebrides, although many of the worst incidents occurred there.

Janet’s father, William Reid, was a boat builder who lived at Keiss, in Caithness. Keiss is a coastal village about ten miles south of Duncansby Head, the most north-easterly point of mainland Scotland. There is a small harbour there and a plaque gives information about a man called James Bremner, an “eminent and innovative harbour builder, ship raiser and ship builder.” Bremner had been born in Keiss in 1784 and had been involved in boat building at Keiss and nearby at Wick, though he is best remembered for his harbour construction : he built many of the Caithness harbours, including the one at Keiss. The innovative feature of his construction was the use of vertical courses of rough stone to assist with the dissipation of wave energy. These courses of stone can still be seen at Keiss harbour today.

William Reid married Helen Rugg in 1861 : Rugg is obviously a Scandinavian name. The modern inhabitants of Caithness and Sutherland are a mixture of the old Scots and Scandinavians. Around 800 AD the Norwegians had arrived in Shetland (‘Hjaltland’, later becoming ‘Zetland’), Orkney (‘whale isles’) and Caithness. Many were settlers : there was good fishing, and good agricultural land down the east side of Scotland. A strong Norse power base arose in Orkney, lasting until near 1300 AD and its power extended as far south as Moray. The Scandinavian influence is still evident today.

Although William Reid lived at Keiss, he often worked in Shetland at Lerwick (‘mud bay’), where he was responsible for having the vessels properly built. His daughter Janet (who Jim always referred to as “Grandma Mackay”) would later tell Jim about going with her father to Orkney and Shetland, of her early crossings of Pentland Firth which is notorious for its roughness. She loved the sea.

William Mackay and Janet Reid were married in Keiss in 1882. He was a cooper at this time : as a fully trained carpenter he had been involved in boat building but was now employed by the Fishery Board for Scotland on a regular basis and he also spent a good deal of time working in Lerwick.

In about 1896 William Mackay accepted a job as Inspector or Supervisor with the Congested Districts Board in the West of Ireland. He was then about 40 years old. The question arises as to why William would leave the North of Scotland, taking his family with him. In the far north evictions had decreased after 1855. The population had been reduced during the eviction period, yet it fell more rapidly in the following decades.

There was much employment with fishing – the population of Lerwick in 1860 was 6,700 but it would swell during the fishing season (about two months of the year) to 16,000 or more – but it is doubtful whether, for many of these people, the earnings of two months would cover their annual expenses. Working for the Fishery Board probably ensured William of more continual income, though his earnings still may not have been exceptional. The second thing is that Lerwick lies above 60° of latitude, further north than Stockholm, which can be a gloomy place in winter. Keiss is almost 59° north and can be noticeably dull. The winters were harsh during much of the nineteenth century.

Maybe of greatest influence was the arrival of the railway line at Wick and Thurso in 1874. It was now possible, if you had cash in your pocket, to get from Wick to London in a day. Young people became easily attracted to work in or near the towns and cities. There was also emigration, principally to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Unless you were old, emigration was not seen as such a difficult thing : Scots had been emigrating in numbers for over a hundred years and many would send word back.

Jessie would have been five or six years old when the family left Keiss – she later was able to remember the place clearly for Jim – and by that time there were six children, the youngest, Jeannie being only about a year old. The Congested Districts Board was set up in 1890 by the British Government to assist with the economic conditions in those parts of the West of Ireland where the existing agriculture and fishing was considered inadequate to support the population. The region of the Rosses in northwest Donegal was one of the difficult areas. The idea was to establish improved fishing and fishery conditions there at a village called Burtonport. It was here that William Mackay came to work. The transition must have been something of a shock for all of them. From Wick to Glasgow in 1896 they would go by rail, and from Glasgow they might sail directly to Derry. A railway from Derry to Letterkenny had opened in 1883 but went no further at that time. There was just a very rough road to Burtonport. By the time they arrived, the family would have been beginning to absorb the differences between a Scottish/Scandinavian culture and a Gaelic/Anglo-Irish culture.

From the 1880s Donegal had begun to be politicized. In 1882 the harvest had been destroyed by a hurricane and the resulting destitution caused some of the Catholic priests to come down off the fence, onto the side of the tenants and the Land League. The on-going tenants’ rights issue now polarized along religious lines and there was growing suspicion, even confrontation, between the Catholics and the Protestants in parts of the region. Jim’s grandparents Mackay were Presbyterian (the term ‘Protestant’ tends to be used to describe both Anglicans and Presbyterians).

At Burtonport almost everyone was Catholic (they would have been Gaelic speaking), there were just a few Protestants. There was the doctor and his wife, and the wife of a man who was boss of the Derry to Letterkenny railway; these were the Irish people with whom Grandma Mackay was friendly. In addition there were the men based in the Coastguard station nearby, these were mostly, if not all, English : likely some were naval reservists at that time.

Jim’s grandfather Mackay not only worked at setting up the fishing station at Burtonport, he also had to travel around the coast dealing with other facilities elsewhere. Many years later he was remembered at Killybegs in connection with the building of a new pier there, around the turn of the century. Bertie Boyd later told Jim of this : people at Tullaghcullion had remembered the inspection ship, ‘Granuaile’ and the man in charge. But there had been no significant contact between the Hamiltons and the Mackays at this time.

Jessie’s eldest brother, Donald, got a job on the extension of the railway line from Letterkenny to Burtonport. In 1902, aged 17, he was riding on a light engine which was travelling backwards. By carelessness the driver ran the engine into a load of rails. Donald was killed. The family hardly flourished in Donegal. Jobs for girls (the eldest girl, Nellie, would have been aged twelve when the family arrived in Burtonport) were hardly existent. Moreover the whole district remained poor. The political disturbance and even violence coming from the ‘Brits out’ idea was growing, but Jim later stated that it was the lack of education and suitable jobs for their children which caused Jessie’s parents to again move the family.

In about 1905 the family moved to Belfast. Why did they choose Belfast ? They might have gone back to Scotland, to Glasgow for example, or to some other Irish fishing port. They can hardly have avoided knowing that Belfast had a history of political trouble and roughness. The latest severe riots had been in 1886, when Protestant mobs attacked the R.I.C. (the British/Irish police) and then Protestants and Catholics attacked each other. People were killed and much damage was done. Again in 1898 there were considerable attacks on Catholic workmen and young Catholic working women. This sort of thing was about par for the course in Belfast. Was this the place for strangers to take a largish young family ? The answer may be that William Mackay was almost 50 years old by this time and no longer had all the options that would be open to a younger man. Since Donald’s death he was the only wage earner : by this time the family was five girls and two boys, a third boy having died in infancy.

It is likely that William had heard in Burtonport that he could get a reasonable job in the fish curing business in Belfast. It was all-year round trade and he had the required experience and more. The work was at Messrs Crawfords of Corporation Street, Belfast, and he must have suited well, since he stayed there until he had to retire at the age of 70.

In Belfast there were plenty of good quality shops, wholesale stores and offices where a family of girls could expect to find reasonable work. And of course there were good schools for boys. The two surviving boys, James and William Reid, would have been aged about 13 and 9 respectively at the time of the move to Belfast. James spent two years at the Model School, Belfast, then three years at ‘Inst.’ (Royal Belfast Academical Institution) before going on to study Organic Chemistry at St. Andrews University in 1910. In 1914 he was awarded a Carnegie Research Scholarship at St. Andrews (support for four years) but by September 1915 was lying dead at Hooge, on the battlefield of Loos.

Nevertheless Belfast, taken as a whole, was an intolerant and potentially lawless place. Jim later observed that his grandparents Mackay and his aunt Essie, who still lived with William and Janet, must have had a very unpleasant time when they lived close to a riot prone district (Ballymacarratt) during the bad years 1920-1922. During those two years leading up to the partition of Ireland, of Belfast residents, 267 Catholics and 185 Protestants were killed in the riots, more than 2,000 were seriously injured, 10,000 Catholics were expelled from their jobs and about 23,000 people lost their homes.

It was clear to Jim, later on in the 1930s and also living in Belfast, that one large trouble was that both sides, Catholic and Protestant, would at times completely ignore the law. One side thought that it was a foreign law while the other side, being ‘loyalists’, thought that the law was for the purpose of controlling the first lot and did not apply to themselves. The prosperous Belfast middle class managed to avoid seeing these facts, at that time being mainly Protestant themselves.

The Mackay family first moved to a place off the Newtownards Road in east Belfast, in a quarter which housed many workers from one or other of the two shipbuilding yards; these yards employed large workforces. That house was cramped quarters and they soon moved to an address in Castlereagh Street, also in east Belfast (near Albert Bridge Road), where the house was much better and no doubt more room was available for the family. There is a photograph of Grandma Mackay with daughters Nellie, Jeannie and Essie standing at the front of this house. It was a terrace house with a small garden between it and the street and in the early days will have been quiet enough. Later on, by the time Jim visited there, the electric trams and carts and lorries made a fair noise. In the colder weather the houses were heated by individual coal fires and smoky Scottish coal was used. The air was often foul with the polluting smog that resulted, Jim recalled how he found this very irritating to the throat.

Castlereagh Street runs southeast out of east Belfast for about two miles to the village of Castlereagh, standing beneath hills of the same name. At weekends, and later, in his retirement, Grandfather Mackay was apt to walk that far out for exercise – the air would have been cleaner at Castlereagh and on a good day it might be possible to see over the smog of Belfast.

The conditions in many districts of Belfast in the early 20th century were very poor. This in turn affected the welfare and health of almost all who lived in the city. R.M. Foster (Modern Irish History, 1600-1972) describes the conditions in Belfast during the 1920s and 1930s as a continuation of those in the earlier decades : “The industrial slums there remained legendary; no clearance scheme was mooted; the response of local authorities to building initiatives was abysmal…Belfast’s health and sanitation standards remained appalling; tuberculosis at epidemic proportions, infant mortality and death in childbirth exceptionally high, the threat of the workhouse hanging over the poor. The year 1932 saw the celebrated riots by the poor…”

Castlereagh Street was not in a slum, but it was within a mile of one such and disease tended to spread. Lizzie, who was older than Jessie by just two years and who had worked for some time at the same Singer Co. office, died from tuberculosis in 1916. This just a year after the family had lost James. Meantime the eldest sister, Nellie, had emigrated to Canada in about 1914 and Jeannie joined her in 1916. The other boy, William Reid, emigrated to USA in 1916. Thus, after Jessie got married to Joe in 1917, Grandparents Mackay had only daughter Essie with them in Belfast. Essie also died from TB, in 1926.


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