This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 14th June 1999, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

“In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves.”

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called MACKAY?

This name prevails in Scotland but it has its counterparts in Ireland, particularly Ulster, where it takes forms such as MacKee and McCoy. Otherwise there are innumerable variations on the name such as McKay, Mackie, Maccay, etc. It would be tedious to catalogue all the variations (over 40), but some of the more unusual include: MaCa, McKaa, Makhe and Makcawe. There may certainly be good reasons to account for any particular variation but they are of interest only to the families bearing them. Hence, whatever the spelling, all the surnames return to a single source and carry the same meaning. In this case "Mackay" is derived from the Gaelic "Mac Aoidh" which signifies "The Son of Aodh" and, in translation can be rendered as "The Son of the man of Fiery Temperament". It is an extremely old personal name, this "Aodh" or, in its even earliest form, "Aed". It was already well-established long before the Romans invaded our island. A tribe bearing the name "Aedui" is mentioned by Caesar in his "Gallic War". It was to be found also in Ireland. The death of Aed Albanach, a chieftain in the Dublin area took place in 942 and yet another Aed was chosen King of the Britons in 943. We don't know exactly how "Aed" was pronounced but what evidence is available suggests it had a very throaty sound and this seems to have induced later writers to add an "-h-" and re-work it into "Aodh". In Latin the name was converted into "Aiden" but unfortunately this tended to confuse it with the Germanic "Odo" and also with "Hugo". As might be expected "Hugo" took the form "Hugh" out of which was contrived the surname "McHugh" - involving many a Scots family with absolutely no connection with Wales!

Since the name "Aed" or "Aodh" was highly favoured as a personal name amongst our Gaelic predecessors, it is interesting to look into its meaning. It is believed to have been the name of a Pagan god and that it signifies "Fire". The word originated in an ancient language of Central Asia called "Sanskrit" and it made its way westwards during the great Folk Migrations. Although similarities in the appearance of words can be seriously misleading, it is not too fanciful to discern the connection between "Aodh" and the Latin "Ardor" which relates to fire and heat. Furthermore, the remains of a fire are called "ashes" and in Sanskrit this appeared as "asa" and later emerged in Gothic as "azgo". All this makes it tempting to look for possible links with the name of the Assyrian God of Fire and Light, "Mazda". Needless to say all the foregoing is largely speculation and can be put no higher than inspired guess-work.

What is significant is that the oldest spellings of the name preserve the unit "Aed" or "Aodh". The earliest reference (1098) is to a "Cucail Mac Aedha" of the Isle of Man (where, today, the form "Key" predominates). In Scotland "Gilchrist M'Ay" is linked with Tarbert in 1326.

As time went by the "- a-" in "Mac" tended to lose its short, staccato sound and assume a broader one. This caused the "-c-" to separate from the "Mac-" and to attach itself to the following unit by so doing causing bearers of the name to lose sight of its origins. This is very well illustrated in examples drawn from the Kintyre Region where both "MacAoidh" and "MacCaidh" are seen to evolve among neighbouring families. Merely in passing it is interesting to note something similar in that there are instances where the old Gaelic name "Aodh" and its Latinised form "Hugo" or "Hugh" run side by side in the same families - where two brothers are given either name and apparently without it being understood that each was really identical in origin!

Very little is known of some of the earlier "Mackay" members. There are close connections with the Clan Morgan which was limited to Aberdeen and Sutherland and for a long while there was a branch of the family based on Reay (Caithness, west of Thurso) which was known as "Clan Morgan".

The first appearance of the name "Mackay" seems to have been in connection with Brian Vicar Mackay of Islay in 1408. In the Local Directory are to be found around 40 entries under "Mackay" or one of its variations. There are about 20 Mackays listed in the standard references but none is exactly a "headliner". There was however a certain Mary Mackay (1855-1924) whom our older readers would know better under the pen-name of "Marie Corelli". She coined the expression "The Mighty Atom" and popularised the name "Thelma" - titles of two of her novels. Her writings were once greatly admired and sales were record-breaking but, today, she is no longer read and quite forgotten.

Readers might like to have explained to them how the expression "The real McCoy" seems to have come about. It is an Irish rendering of the Scots "Mackay". An American boxer called Norman Selby (1873-1940) adopted, as his professional name "Kid McCoy". Finding that there was also another fighter of the same name, he naturally wished there to be a clear distinction, and adopted the special designation "The Real McCoy". He cannot, however, be credited with having invented the expression: it had already been used by no less a personality than Robert Louis Stevenson in 1883, when Selby was only 10 years old. However Stevenson's use was in a private letter and that apparently was not made public until about 1958. In any case he speaks of the real "Mackay". The first reference in the open press dates from 1922 and it has a North American context and would seem to support Selby's case.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 14th June 1999.

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