John ‘Hereford’ MacKay, CE, JP (25 October 1822 – 5 February 1906).
John MacKay, often just known as ‘Hereford’, was born at Acheilach, Rogart. He was entirely educated at Rogart and became proficient in Latin, Greek and Gaelic, the teaching of the latter was banned at that time. At the age of 20 he went to work in the construction of the railway system in France and by 24 he was a superintendent on a section of the Dieppe line. He returned to Britain in 1848 and became a sub-contractor, constructing a line on the Great Northern Railway. This was followed by further engineering work at home and abroad including the Shrewsbury and Hereford Railway and the Sambre and Meuse Railway in Belgium.
Despite his travels he took every opportunity to revisit his native Sutherland and keep abreast of its social and economic circumstances. In 1883 he gave evidence before the Napier Crofters’ Commission where he presented eye-witness accounts, which he had arranged to be taken, of the Sutherland evictions. These statements were taken down in Gaelic, translated into English, and read to the declarant again in Gaelic and English in the presence of witnesses who attested them, and who understood both languages.
In 1890, he spoke before the Highlands and Islands Harbour Commission which went on to construct several piers and harbours in the area. He also delivered several papers on the place names of Sutherland to the Gaelic Society of Inverness and held the highest positions in the Highland Association (Commun Gaidhealach), the Gaelic Society of London and the Clan MacKay Society. He was also a Justice of the Peace for Herefordshire.
He married Elizabeth Everall (born 1829) of Longnor, Staffordshire in 1852 and had a number of children. The family appears in the 1881 census at Reay Villa, Bodenham Rd, Tupsley, Herefordshire.
John Mackay, head, married, aged 58, occupation railway contractor b. Scotland
Elizabeth, wife 49 b. Salop, Longnor
William Henry, son, 24, railway contractor b. Leics, East Langton
Jessie Sutherland, dau 17 b. Salop, Shrewsbury
Christina Everall mother-in-law widow 81 b. Salop, Cardington
George D Mackintosh nephew, 22, medical student b. Scotland
Elizabeth A Laurence, niece, 23 b. Shrewsbury
Elizabeth Hodges, 26, cook b. Hereford, Preston On Wye
Sarah Williams, 24, housemaid b. Hereford, Burghill.
Like many heroes, John Mackay may have had feet of clay. Although he had been a vocal critic landlordism and championed the crofters’ cause, he later became much closer to the Sutherland family. He was persuaded to stand for parliament as a Conservative candidate. For many who had admired his earlier stance this was not his finest hour.
For more information see Sutherland and the Reay Country edited by Rev Adam Gunn & John Mackay (1897). Strathnaver Museum houses this magnificent portrait, in its MacKay Room.
A full account of John MacKay’s submission to the Napier Commission can be found here.