Crest of Clansfolk of Clan MacKay
Clan MacKay Provided Distinguished Nova Scotians:
A Biography of Alexander Howard MacKay
- Gordon MacKay Haliburton
[Editor's note: In preparation for The International Gathering of the
Clans will be held for the first time in Nova Scotia in 1979, Dr.
Haliburton, who is a university professor and author, prepared a series of
articles on Nova Scotia clansmen. This series was first published in the
Chronicle Herald and Mail Star, and later as the excellent book, "Clansmen
of Nova Scotia", by the same author. We reprint this article with the
gracious permission of Dr. Haliburton.]
The Clan Morgan, or MacKay, is historically found living at the very top
of Scotland, in Sutherland. Here they clustered along the valley known as
Strathnaver, through which the River Naver flows from the loch of the same
name northwards into the ocean. For centuries Strathnaver was the
territorial appellation of the chiefs, until in the 17th century they were
raised to the peerage with the title of Lord Reay.
The clan is deemed to be Celtic, and perhaps associated with the old royal
house of Moray. Evidently the clan was one of those driven out by Malcolm
IV in the 12th century when he was establishing the feudal system with the
aid of his Norman friends. The name Morgan comes from a chief in the
early 14th century; MacKay, from his grandson Aodh (Hugh). The war cry is
Bratach Bhan Chiann Aoidh (The White Banner of MacKay) and was used with
powerful effect in times gone by.
The Clan MacKay was zealous in the cause of the Reformation, which gave
scope for their fighting spirit to be displayed. In 1626 the chief, Sir
Donald MacKay, raised some 3,000 troops (including 36 pipers) to fight on
the Protestant side in the Thirty Years' War. As a result, King Charles I
raised .pn 2 him to the peerage as Lord Reay. The men wore Highland dress
with kilts of dark green tartan, and were the first regularly organized
military unit to wear the Highland garb as a uniform. Ultimately the
regiment formed part of the army of Gustavus Adolphus; his death left Lord
Reay in serious financial trouble.
There have been many distinguished members of the clan in Nova Scotia, but
perhaps the most influential in forming our society has been A. H. MacKay,
who directed the school system of the province and charted its educational
course for a period of 35 years, spanning several generations of pupils.
Alexander Howard MacKay was born at Dalhousie Mountain, near the source of
the River John in Pictou County,
on May 19, 1848. He was the son of John and Barbara (MacLean). John
MacKay, known as John MacKay 'turner', was born on the croft of Bratan
Grudy in the Parish of Rogart, Sutherland. He came to
Pictou County with his parents (Alexander
and Margaret (MacKay) MacKay 'Bratten') in 1822.
Young A. H. MacKay grew up on the farm, then attended Pictou Academy, the
Normal School (following which he taught a few years), then Dalhousie
University, where he got his BA with honours in mathematics and physics in
1873. He found time while excelling in his studies to edit the Dalhousie
Gazette. In 1880 he was awarded his B.Sc. (honours in biology) from the
examining body, the short-lived University of Halifax.
The main thrust of A. H. MacKay's accomplishment was in the field of
public education. At the time that he took his primary and secondary
education, there was as yet not free school system in Nova Scotia (it was
introduced in 1864) and at the time he began his teaching career, the new
system was undergoing severe growing pains. It was his destiny to oversee
the shaping and moulding of the system through the closing decade of the
19th century and the first two of the 20th century. His influence on the
shape it took can hardly be over-estimated.
As soon as he had graduated he was appointed principal of the Annapolis
County Academy, but in November of the same year (1873) he was called on
to take charge of Pictou Academy. He inaugurated a veritable renaissance
of that venerable institution, gathering to it a staff of brilliant
teachers who made it a magnet for the youth of the Maritime Provinces and
beyond, and renewed its impact on the educational life of the area.
MacKay gave weight especially to the teaching of science, the wave of the
In 1889 MacKay was attracted to the principalship of Halifax Academy, but
after a year he left it to lecture in the Dalhousie College and Medical
School. Fortunately for the school system of the province, in 1891 he was
appointed Superintendent of Education, a post he filled for the next 35
Under his direction, the high schools were fitted into a system which
formed an educational ladder, beginning at the primary level and extending
up to university entrance. To the new high school program he gave an
emphasis on science consistent with his own belief in its importance.
On the other hand, he believed in the training of practical skills, and
introduced domestic science and manual training through the system.
Finally, a firm believer in "mens sans in corpore sano", he insisted on
systematic physical training in the schools, and in this Nova Scotia was
the pioneer among Canadian provinces.
He was not afraid to advocate measures which his contemporaries found
farfetched. For example, he published a paper advocating three great
reforms: bringing weights and measures under the metric system, reforming
English spelling, and instruction in shorthand (phonographic writing).
Politically speaking, he had some definite ideas. A sketch of him in 1912
said he believed in the more complete organization of the British Empire,
in the future federation of English-speaking and governed people, and in
the ultimate judicial organization and political confederation of the
At the time of his retirement in 1926, the Educational Review said:
"When asked to estimate the general educational policy of his
administration, we would suggest first and foremost the emphasis laid upon
the formation in the young of a national and imperial temper. Nothing has
been left undone by a central educational authority to inculcate into
youth a sense of the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. Of
Scottish Highland stock, in its origin intently sectional, lisping in his
cradle the language of the Gael, Dr. MacKay has nevertheless consented to
submerge the special interests of race and language in the presence of a
larger vision of United Canada."
A. H. MacKay contributed by his interest and his research to the Nova
Scotia Institute of Science and to the Royal Society of Canada. He
organized the Summer School of Science for the Atlantic provinces and was
its president in 1887-8, was prominent in educational associations (such
as the Imperial Council of Education, which met at intervals in London),
and in scientific groupings (such as the British and American Association
for the Advancement of Science). He was elected a Fellow of the Society
in Canada in 1888.
In 1882 he married Maud Augusta, daughter of Dr. George Moir Johnstone, of
Pictou. They had two children, Johnstone and Lois.
Dr. MacKay retired in 1926 and lived at his home in Dartmouth until his
death in 1929 in "abounding good health and buoyant energy to the very
end". His successor, Dr. Henry F. Munroe, eulogized him in these words:
"Deriving from a sturdy Highland stock, he exhibited throughout his
long career tireless energy and a capacity for hard work which few known
to me have ever attained and none surpassed ... even at 80 he continued
his daily habit of unremitting study until long past midnight. Coupled
with his strength of body and mind went an intellectual curiousity, which,
in a special sense, seems to be a quality of the Scot."
"His career may be considered as fourfold - as headmaster, scientist,
educational administrator, and citizen. In each capacity he was
conspicuous, and, when all is considered, he stands forth as one of the
notable Nova Scotians of our time."
Copyright (C) 1979; Gordon M. Haliburton
Published in: The Chronicle Herald - Mail Star: 21 April 1979
Also in book, "Clansmen of Nova Scotia", by Gordon M. Haliburton
[Copyright (C) 1996]