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John Mackay

THERE could be no better plea for the Preservation of a Highland peasantry than the existence of such families as the one to which the subject of this sketch belongs. Mr. John Mackay, of Hereford, is a native of Rogart, Sutherland, and is the third member of a family of seven sons and two daughters, eight of whom still survive, and are in good positions. His father and grandfather were both Johns, and locally known as the “M’Neills,” pointing to their honourable Abrach descent. His mother, Margaret Sutherland, was an ideal housewife; “she was not afraid of the snow for her household,” as they were all clad, if not in "scarlet,” at anyrate in beautifully-made Mackay tartan, she being an expert in spinning and dyeing wool. His father was a quiet, shrewd man, who at the age of 17 enlisted into the 42nd Highlanders in 1810, and retired from that noble regiment upon its return from France in 1818; at the Disruption he became an elder of the Free Church. He was the proud possessor of the first “white house” in the upper part of the parish of Rogart.

Under such home influences “Johnny Achail-leach” — for so he was distinguished, from the name of the croft — developed into a bright, generous boy, and very early gave promise of those kindly traits of character so well known in the “Hereford” of to-day. He was educated entirely in his native parish — first under Mr. Gunn, who dared to encourage the banned Gaelic even in school hours, and afterwards under Mr. Fraser, whose scholars were specially noted for excellent penmanship, a striking feature of Mr Mackay’s correspondence still. Being naturally clever, he received a fair share of his teacher’s attention (for Mr. Fraser had no inclination to waste time over dunces), and in addition to English and mathematics, was taught Latin and Greek.

Prompted by those natural impulses which are so essential to success in the emigrant, he resolved at the age of nineteen to try his fortunes in the south, knowing that by improving his own position he would be the better able to benefit others. That period, now nearly fifty years ago, was the time of the great railway “boom,” and the young Highlander sought work in their construction. Tall, strong, and athletic, with quite a military bearing, had he not found at once congenial employment in the industrial army, he would probably have become a soldier, so fond was he of the heroic and martial achievementsof his countrymen as his forefathers were. Familiar with manual labour, and accustomed to handle horses, he was offered and accepted employment as the driver of a team, but was soon advanced to timekeeper, and then, coming more immediately under the notice of his employer, his abilities were recognised, and promotion was rapid. At twenty-four years of age he was made superintendent of a section of the Dieppe line, and remained in France during part of the trying time of the Revolution of ’48. During this period he acquired great proficiency in the French language, his thorough knowledge of Gaelic being very helpful to him. Returning to England in 1848, he found work on the Great Northern Railway, and the famous railway king — Mr. Brassey — gave him, young as he was, a portion of the line to construct as a contractor. Then followed the Shrewsbury and Hereford Railway, the Sambre and Meuse Railway, and other extensive engineering works at home and abroad, in all of which he earned a well-merited reputation for skill in carrying out arduous undertakings and in dealing with men.

Arrived at middle life, his warm heart yearned to be more helpful to his fellows in the Highlands and elsewhere, and amidst the toil and cares incident to a large business he still found time to consider carefully any patriotic scheme submitted to him. None know this better than the people of his native county, where his munificence has been princely.

His intelligent sympathy with the Highland land movement is well known, and many a long journey he made to take part in meetings on the subject, some of his addresses being afterwards printed. In 1883 he gave valuable evidence before the Napier Crofters’ Commission on the land question; in subsequent years he communicated interesting papers to the Gaelic Society of Inverness on the “Place-names of Sutherland (vide “Transactions”); and he also rendered into English many of Rob Donn’s poems. Recently he published a neat little volume on the “Reay Fencibles;” reprinted the thrilling story, “The Wreck of the Juno,” by Captain William Mackay; and also reprinted the “History of the Highland Society of London.” He is a Justice of the Peace for Herefordshire, an Associate of the Institute of Civil Engineers, ex-president of the Clan Mackay Society (the formation of which was largely due to his enthusiasm), and a member of a host of other patriotic associations in Scotland, England, and Wales.

Mr. Mackay has been appropriately styled a true Highlander, and one of Nature’s noblemen. Long may we have him in our midst as a bright incentive for others to follow his lofty example.

D. W. Kemp.

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