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The Great Historic Families of Scotland
The Mackenzies of Cromartie


There were at one time no fewer than seven baronets of the stock of Caberfae, but the Tarbat, or Cromartie family, was the most powerful and famous branch of this great house. In little more than a century it raised itself, by mere dint of talent, from a state of comparative obscurity into affluence and eminence. Its founder was SIR RODERICK, or RORIE, MACKENZIE, second son of Colin Mackenzie, and next brother of Kenneth, first Lord Mackenzie of Kintail, to whose son he acted as tutor during his minority. Sir Rorie appears to have been a person of great ability and energy, and his position as an extensive landed proprietor in Ross-shire, and as tutor of Kintail, gave him vast influence, which was greatly increased by his marriage with Margaret Macleod, heiress of Lewis. Through this lady Sir Rorie also obtained the barony of Toryeach, in Lochbroom, from which he obtained his usual territorial designation. At this period the Kintail estates were burdened with debts, and the clan were involved in a sanguinary feud of long standing with the Macdonalds of Glengarry. But by the prudent and vigorous management of the tutor, the family estates were handed over to his nephew on attaining his majority in a most prosperous condition; the inveterate feud with Glengarry was terminated, and the turbulent islanders of the Lewis were subdued. By a dexterous stratagem Sir Rorie succeeded in capturing Macneil of Barra, whose piracies on the Irish coast had been loudly complained of by Queen Elizabeth, and had been a source of great annoyance to the Scottish Government. In addition to the honour of knighthood, Sir Rorie was rewarded by King James VI. for his services, in civilising the northern parts of the kingdom, with extensive grants of estates in the Western Isles; and he made numerous purchases of lands in Western Ross. He was the builder of the mansion of Castle Leod, which to this day forms a prominent feature in the beautiful valley of Strathpeffer. This sagacious and resolute chief died in 1626, in the forty-eighth year of his age, leaving six sons and one daughter, who became the wife of Sir James Macdonald, of Sleat, ancestor of Lord Macdonald.

Sir Rorie was succeeded in his estates by his eldest son, JOHN, who was created a Baronet of Nova Scotia by Charles I. in 1628, and received at the same time a grant of sixteen hundred acres, situated to the north of the Gulf of Canada, to be called the Barony of Tarbat. Sir John Mackenzie was a staunch supporter of the Presbyterian system. He took an active part in resisting the innovations of Laud, and fought on the side of the Covenanters in the Great Civil War; though, after the King had fallen into the hands of the army, he, in common with a large body of the Scottish nobility and people, took up arms in his sovereign’s behalf, and was one of the Resolutioners, or Engagers, who sent an expedition to England under the Duke of Hamilton, which came to a disastrous end at Preston. It appears that Sir John afterwards suffered imprisonment during the Protectorate for his adherence to the royal cause. He died on the 10th of September, 1654, leaving six sons and four daughters. His wife, who was a member of the Erskine family, survived till near the close of the century, and when she must have been nearly ninety years of age the indomitable old lady carried on single handed a contest with the Court of Session, and was successful in an appeal to the Parliament against the decision of the judges.

Sir John Mackenzie was succeeded in his title and estates by his eldest son, SIR GEORGE, afterwards VISCOUNT TARBAT, and first EARL OF CROMARTIE, the most celebrated person that the family has produced. He was born in the year 1630, and was educated first at the University of St. Andrews, and then at King’s College, Aberdeen (a favourite seminary with the Mackenzies), where he became an excellent classical scholar, and acquired a taste for natural philosophy. Even in his youth Sir George was a zealous Royalist, and, in 1653, he took part in the Earl of Glencairn’s expedition in the West Highlands: on its defeat, he and Lord Balcarres and Sir Robert Moray made their escape to Castle Donan, the stronghold of the Seaforth Mackenzies. It is curious to know that at this time of danger and depression Sir George Mackenzie and Sir Robert Moray, the founders of the Royal Society of London, travelled through many of the Western Isles, examining their natural productions, and watching the flowing of the tides, for the purpose of advancing the study of natural philosophy. At the Restoration, Sir George Mackenzie was rewarded for his loyalty with a seat on the Bench, and he assumed the judicial title of Lord Tarbat. He attached himself to the Earl of Middleton, the Royal Commissioner, a rough and ignorant soldier, whose confidential adviser he became, and chief agent in the management of public affairs. He carried matters with a high hand, and was mainly responsible for the infamous ‘Recissory Act,’ as it was called, which repealed the whole of the Acts passed by the Scottish Estates since the year 1641, including even those which had been passed in the presence of Charles I., and with his sanction. In the contest for supremacy between Middleton and Lauderdale, Lord Tarbat zealously espoused the cause of his patron, and was the most active supporter, if not indeed the author, of the proposal to exclude from public office twelve persons who had taken the Covenant—the victims to be selected by the votes of Members of Parliament given in secret. The blow was chiefly aimed at Lauderdale, who had been a zealous Covenanter, but it recoiled on the heads of his assailants. Middleton’s commission was cancelled, and Lord Tarbat, whose conduct in the affair was by no means straightforward and honourable, was removed from his seat on the Bench. He was excluded from office for the long period of fourteen years, but at length, on the 16th of October, 1678, he was appointed Lord Justice-General of Scotland, and, on the following day, he received from King Charles a grant of a pension of two hundred pounds. Shortly after he was admitted a member of the Scottish Privy Council. In October, 1681, he exchanged the office of Lord Justice General for that of Lord Clerk Register, and in November following he was restored to a seat in the Court of Session.

On the accession of King James, Sir George Mackenzie was elevated to the peerage by the titles of VISCOUNT TARBAT and LORD MACLEOD OF CASTLEHAVEN. He was a member of the Secret Committee of Council to whom the government of the country was chiefly committed. He must, therefore, have had his share in the odium of the public measures which ultimately drove the arbitrary and bigoted monarch from the throne of his ancestors. When the Revolution took place, Lord Tarbat showed much greater anxiety to protect himself than to defend his sovereign’s rights. He was, indeed,’ as Hugh Miller remarks, ‘one of those many politicians who, according to Dryden, neither love nor hate, but are honest, as far as honesty is expedient, and never glaringly vicious, because it is impolitic to be vicious overmuch. And never was there a man more thoroughly conversant with the intrigues of a court, or more skilful in availing himself of every chance combination of circumstances.’ Though the feeling of aversion towards Lord Tarbat was so strong and general that King William was earnestly entreated to incapacitate him and two or three of his brother councillors from all public office, he contrived to ingratiate himself with that prince, and to make himself so useful that he was restored to his old place of Clerk Register (1692), and preserved the favour of the King till the end of his reign. The plan which this able and wily statesman proposed to the ministers of the new sovereign for the pacification of the Highlands was most sagacious, and if it had been prudently carried into effect there is every reason to believe that only a very small body of the clans would have rallied to the banner of Dundee. But though not expressly rejected by the Government, it was rendered abortive by the foolish mode in which it was attempted to be carried out.

The state of affairs in the Highlands at this juncture, and the cause of the failure of Tarbat’s plan for their pacific settlement, are clearly pointed out by Lord Macaulay. ‘There is strong reason to believe,’ he says, ‘that the chiefs who came [to Dundee] would have remained quietly at home if the Government had understood the politics of the Highlanders. Those politics were thoroughly understood by one able and experienced statesman, sprung from the great Highland family of Mackenzie, the Viscount Tarbat. He at this juncture pointed out to Melville by letter, and to Mackay in conversation, both the cause and the remedy of the distempers which seemed likely to bring on Scotland the calamity of civil war. There was, Tarbat said, no general disposition to insurrection among the Gael. Little was to be apprehended even from those Popish clans which were under no apprehension of being subjected to the yoke of the Campbells. It was notorious that the ablest and most active of the discontented chiefs troubled themselves not at all about the questions which were in dispute between the Whigs and the Tories. Lochiel, in particular, whose eminent personal qualities made him the most important man among the mountaineers, cared no more for James than for William. If the Camerons, the Macdonalds, and the Macleans could be convinced that under the new Government their estates and their dignities would be safe, if MacCallummore would make some concessions, if their Majesties would take on themselves the payment of some arrears of rent, Dundee might call the clans to arms, but he would call to little purpose. Five thousand pounds, Tarbat thought, would be sufficient to quiet all the Celtic magnates; and in truth, though that sum might seem ludicrously small to the politicians of Westminster, though it was not larger than the annual gains of the Groom of the Stole or of the Paymaster of the Forces, it might well be thought immense by a barbarous potentate who, while he ruled hundreds of square miles and could bring hundreds of warriors into the field, had, perhaps, never had fifty guineas at once in his coffers. Though Tarbat was considered by the Scottish ministers of the new sovereigns as a very doubtful friend, his advice was not altogether neglected. It was resolved that overtures such as he recommended should be made to the malcontents. Much depended on the choice of an agent, and, unfortunately, the choice showed how little the prejudices of the wild tribes of the hills were understood at Edinburgh. A Campbell was selected for the office of gaining over to the cause of King William men whose only quarrel with King William was that he countenanced the Campbells. Offers made through such a channel were naturally regarded as at once snares and insults. After this it was to no purpose that Tarbat wrote to Lochiel, and Mackay to Glengarry. Lochiel returned no answer to Tarbat, and Glengarry returned to Mackay a coldly civil answer, in which the general was advised to imitate the example of Monk.’

Lord Tarbat retired from the office of Clerk Register in 1696, with a pension of 400 a year. The death of King William and the accession of Queen Anne brought Lord Tarbat again into official life, and although now in the seventy-second year of his age, he was appointed Secretary of State for Scotland in November, 1702. He was soon afterwards created EARL OF CROMARTIE, having some time previously purchased the estate of the ancient family of Urquhart of Cromartie. When he attained his seventy-fifth year, feeling the duties of Secretary of State too arduous for his advanced age, he resigned that office, and was reinstated in his former situation as Lord Justice-General, receiving at the same time a pension of 600 a year. He took an active part in promoting the union between Scotland and England, and published several essays in support of that measure. After serving the public in various important situations under six crowned heads for the long period of sixty years, Lord Cromartie finally resigned the office of Lord Justice-General in 1710, when he was in. his eightieth year, and retired into private life. He survived, however, till 1714, when he was gathered to his fathers, full of years and honours.

Lord Cromartie’s first wife, a daughter of Sir James Sinclair of Mey, died in 1699, and six months after, when he was in his seventieth year, the Earl married Margaret, Countess of Wemyss in her own right, and widow of Sir James Wemyss. She also predeceased Lord Cromartie, and so anxious was he that on his own death his body should rest beside hers at Wemyss that he took a formal bond from her son David, Earl of Wemyss, that he would allow this arrangement to be carried into effect. But notwithstanding this precaution, his wish was not gratified. Excavations made in 1875 in the burying-ground at Dingwall brought to light the fact that Lord Cromartie was buried beside his own ancestors, near the pyramid known as Lord Cromartie’s monument. The Earl found leisure in the course of his very busy life to write a number of historical, theological, and political dissertations of great ability and research. Two of the most valuable of these—now very rare—are a vindication of Robert II. from the charge of bastardy, and a historical account of the Gowrie conspiracy. He wrote besides a Synopsis Apocalytica, and recorded several interesting facts regarding the formation of peat-moss. Lord Cromartie was one of the original members of the Royal Society, and contributed some valuable articles to the earlier volumes of the ‘Philosophical Transactions.’ Mr. Fraser mentions an interesting fact which, as he says, is not generally known, that it was the Earl who advised Monk to attempt the restoration of the Stewarts to the throne, and that he advanced him a thousand pounds to assist him in the enterprise.

Lord Cromartie’s second son, Kenneth, inherited the large estate from which his father’s title was taken, and was the ancestor of the MACKENZIES, BARONETS OF TARBAT. The third son, James, who was a distinguished advocate, was for thirty-four years a member of the College of Justice, under the title of LORD ROYSTON, taken from an estate near Granton, bequeathed to him by his father. The eldest son, JOHN, succeeded to the ancestral estates and his father’s titles, and became second Earl of Cromartie. His career was comparatively short and undistinguished. He died in 1731, and was succeeded by his eldest son, GEORGE, third Earl, who, unfortunately for himself and his family, took part in the rebellion of 1745. Having been dispatched into Sutherland for the purpose of dispersing the Government forces in that county, he was surprised, on the 15th of April, the day before the battle of Culloden, and made prisoner at Dunrobin by a party of the Earl of Sutherland’s militia. His eldest son, Lord Macleod, who had fought gallantly along with his father at the head of their clan at the battle of Falkirk, was shortly after apprehended also, and the two were sent prisoners to London. The Earl was brought to trial for high treason on the 28th of July, 1746, along with the Earl of Kilmarnock and Lord Balmerino, and pleaded guilty, throwing himself on the mercy of the sovereign. He was condemned to be executed, and his honours and estates were forfeited. But though his two brother nobles suffered the extreme penalty of the law, Lord Cromartie’s life was spared, mainly, it is believed, through the heroic efforts of his devoted wife, combined with pity for his numerous family. He survived his forfeiture twenty years, and appears to have suffered no small privations and hardships in providing for the support of his family, which consisted of three sons and seven daughters. His eldest son, LORD MACLEOD, who was not brought to trial, nobly disdaining to be a burden to his parents, went to the Continent as a soldier of fortune, and joined the Swedish army, in which he remained for twenty-seven years. He attained high rank in the service, and was created a Count of Sweden. On the breaking out of the Seven Years’ War he joined the Prussian army as a volunteer, and served in it through the first campaign in the year 1757. Lord Macleod returned to his native country in 1777, and obtained from King George a commission to raise a new Highland regiment. So successful was he in his efforts in the district where his family were held in high respect, that in a short time he enrolled 840 Highlanders, who, along with 270 Lowlanders, were embodied under the name of the 73rd Regiment, or Macleod’s Highlanders, celebrated for their gallant exploits in India against Hyder Ali. Lord Macleod, now restored to the British service, distinguished himself by his energy and courage, and in 1782 was promoted to the rank of major-general. He had been previously elected member for the county of Ross amid unusual rejoicings, and in 1784 the forfeited estates of his family were restored to him on payment of the debt of 19,000 with which they were burdened. He greatly improved his property, planted many thousands of trees, and erected a new mansion at Tarbat. His lordship died in Edinburgh in 1789, in the sixty-second year of his age, without issue, and his estates were inherited by his cousin, KENNETH MACKENZIE OF CROMARTIE, great-grandson of George, first Earl of Cromartie. At his decease the patrimonial inheritance passed to LADY ISABELLA MACKENZIE, Dowager Lady Elibank, eldest sister of Lord Macleod. They next, in default of male issue, descended to her eldest daughter, MARIA. She married EDWARD HAY OF NEWHALL, uncle of the seventh Marquess of Tweeddale, who, in terms of the entail executed by Lord Macleod, assumed the additional name of Mackenzie. JOHN HAY MACKENZIE, the only son of this couple, married a daughter of Sir James Gibson-Craig, and left an only child, ANNE HAY MACKENZIE, present Duchess of Sutherland, who was created, in 1861, COUNTESS OF CROMARTIE, VI5COUNTESS TARBAT OF TARBAT, BARONESS MACLEOD OF CASTLE LEOD, and BARONESS CASTLEHAVEN, &c., with remainder to her second son, FRANCIS, the heir to the estates, as well as to the Cromartie titles.

See also a pdf article about the 2 volume book on the Earls of Cromartie

And should that interest you then download the 2 volumes here..
Volume 1  |  Volume 2


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