Kilts and Castles – the McKenney Highlanders

Did you ever think that you would be associated with a castle? In this family it seems to happen far more we ever thought possible. In the Highlands of Scotland lies the ancestral home of the McKenney Clan.

Eileen Donan lies to the east of the Isle of Skye.

Eilean Donan lies to the east of the Isle of Skye.K

Originally constructed in the 1200s, it was the stronghold of the Mackenzie (Mc Kenney) Clan who lost control of the castle after their involvement in the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th Century. The castle was blown up in 1719 and reconstructed in the 19th Century. The castle was rebuilt by a rich person and now serves as a popular tourist destination and movie set.

In 13th Century the clan immigrated from Ireland to Kintail, in the County of Ross. The Scottish King Alexander III created this free Baronry of Kintail by Charter on January 8, 1266. It was awarded to Colin Fitzgerald for his assistance in repelling an invasion by the Norwegian King Hako. The grandson of Colin who in Gaelic was called Coinneach Mac Coinnneach (Kenneth son of Kenneth) was the 3rd Baron of Kintail. Coinneach in Gaelic means Fair One; therefore Mac Kenney means Son of the Fair One.This name was eventually corrupted by the English into Mackenzie even though the proper pronunciation is MacKenney.  Evidently, the Anglo-Saxon tongue could never pronounce the Gaelic McKenney.

Scottish Hairy Cows

Scottish Hairy Cows. Not sure of the connection but they are cute.

The McKenneys steadily rose to be one of the most important Highland Clans. In 1488, the McKenneys were awarded almost all of the north from the Outer Hebrides to Black Isle on the eastern seaboard. Much of this land was land confiscated from the McDonalds, who were know as the Lord of the Isles. The McDonalds had failed to support the Scottish King and thusly forfeited their lands to the rival McKenneys. The original McKenney base was around Loch Duich and the Eilean Donan Castle until moving to a more central location near modern Inverness.

Scottish Highland Clan Map

Scottish Highland Clan Map – click on map to see enlarged version

The McKenneys continued their rise to power in the 16th Century by closely allying themselves with the Stuart monarchs of Scotland and England beginning with the notorious Mary Queen of Scots and the first Scottish King of England, James I. Ultimately, this close alliance and continued support would cost the McKenneys, but for the time it seemed the right thing to do. It is important to remember that Mary was booted out by the Scottish Kirk (Church) that was under control by the father of Scottish Presbyterians, John Knox.

Peggy and John Knox in his Edinburgh Church


Peggy and John Knox in his Edinburgh Church

The McKenneys will find it convenient to align themselves with Catholics and then the Anglican Church of the Stuart Kings. It is important to understand this relationship to explain why the American McKenneys end up as pals with the Anglican Lees and Washingtons.

To briefly review English history, with Henry VIII’s death, his sickly son Edward dies after turning his father’s English Catholic Church into an organization in line with what John Calvin and John Knox would have liked. His elder sister, Mary is a devout Catholic and wants to undo the work of her fathers and brother. Known as Bloody Mary, she burned at the stake some 280 religious dissenters (Protestants) during her brief reign. She married Philip of Spain, heir to the superpower of the age, the Habsburg Empire. The courtship was a brief two days. Despite heroic efforts have a child, she fails and dies leaving her half sister, Elizabeth, in line to succeed her. Elizabeth will create a compromise Protestant English Catholic Church with herself as its head. Catholic Philip II of Spain pursues Elizabeth, his dead wife’s half sister. She rejects him and enlists the aide of privateers to steal from Philip. She was tough to get. She also removed her plotting Cousin Mary of Scotland by removing her head. Tudors were tough customers. The family ties to the Tudors are financial as the Greshams (who marry McKenneys in Virginia) as well as political since the O’ Rourkes came under direct English rule during Elizabeth’s reign in Queen’s County west of Dublin.

Following the death of the Virgin Queen (Guess what state is named after her?), we are fresh out of Tudors. Parliament turns to the Stuarts of Scotland who are the next most likely candidates. The Catholic leaning Stuarts soon ran afoul of an increasingly pushy House of Commons that was dominated by Protestant dissenters who thought Elizabeth’s compromise church was too Catholic. As the Stuarts seemed to favor Catholics and also controlled the established Anglican Church, relationships hardened to the point of Civil War. Supporters of the crown will eventually become known as Cavaliers and after losing the English Civil War in 1649, many will emigrate to Virginia. The Scottish McKenney’s were among this bunch. Most of our families’ English Dissenters (Puritans) will pick up and head to New England at this time.

William McKenney (1622-1683) , Peggy’s 10th great grandfather, will provide the Isle of Skye as his last mailing address before landing in Virginia. His son, another William is born in 1650 on the Isle of Skye and leaves with his father. He will have a William (actually there will be five in a row) born in Virginia. More on this bunch and the relationship with George Washington later. The specific McKenney clan branch is uncertain. There were a bunch of them. After reading two genealogies of the family, I have concluded that there are Williams in almost every root and branch. The branch most closely identified with the Isle of Skye hung out around Eilean Donan (see castle above)  which lies a few miles east of Skye.

Glencoe in the Highlands

Glencoe in the Highlands

Peggy surveying the McKenney Kintail Highlands

Peggy surveying the McKenney Kintail Highlands

This brings us back to kilts.

The family McKenney’s left Scotland in the mid 1600s. The kilts of that day were still of the cloak over a tunic design. Since they wove in plaid designs, you could describe them as men in plaid (Sorry). These tunics were usually made of seven yards of woolen cloth and worked as wearable sleeping bags. Useful when you spend a good deal of time raiding and cattle rustling across the damp Highlands. These robes bore little relationship to today’s kilts.  The small, half kilt developed after our McKenney’s left but those who stayed certainly adapted the latest fashions.

Edinburgh Castle Guards

Edinburgh Castle Guards

Until the 19th Century the tartan patterns associated with “clans” today were associated with regions, not specific clans. Clans usually wore badges, like a plant or ribbon, to identify their clan loyalty.  After the firing of James II by Parliament in 1688, the Stuarts led uprisings in Scotland. After the devastating defeat of the Scottish clans who supported the Bonnie Prince Charlie (Stuart) at Culloden in 1746, the clans were suppressed.

Memorial to the Scots at Culloden

Memorial to the Scots at Culloden. Peggy is strutting by.

The suppression included the MacKenzies, as the McKenneys were now know.  Another result was the development of a dress code that outlawed all this clan paraphernalia, including the kilt. Exceptions were made for the Highlander Regiments that were created to absorb Highland energies and excess males. The ban was lifted in 1782 and kilts became the rage under encouragement of Romantics like Sir Walter Scott (Rob Roy,etc.). Lowland Scots, some 90% of the Scottish population, were encouraged to wear stylized versions of Highland dress. The pageantry associated with a visit by King George IV in 1822 led to adoption of faux Highland dress as being symbolic of all Scotland. Queen Victoria sealed the deal by dressing her English boys in Scottish garb. We too are not immune to this romanticism and managed to pick up a fair amount of MacKenzie plaid.

Tartan Shopping near Loch Lomond

Tartan Shopping near Loch Lomond

Actually there is more to “tartanology” than I care to learn but here are the old old and the newer.

Prior to 1828

Prior to 1728

Seaforth Highlanders, a modern MacKenzie Tartan

Seaforth Highlanders, a modern MacKenzie Tartan

19 thoughts on “Kilts and Castles – the McKenney Highlanders

  1. Interesting – this is more information on the McKenney clan that I have ever seen – thank you. My maiden name was McKenney and my Grandfather was from West Virginia before moving to Texas

    • Mark and Peggy,

      I have been jumping back and forth on this blog from time to time, but I just wanted to take the time and thank you for sharing all of this. I do not hail from the same line that Peggy is from. I descend (supposedly) from a John McKenney of Scarborough, ME who was a Scottish Prisoner of War in the 1600’s. Hopefully my Y-DNA test will assist in confirming that (or not).

      Sean

  2. Very good article. I agree with Leslie it is the most information I have found on the McKenny clan. My maiden name is McKenny and my ggg grandfather was Spencer McKenny born about 1750 Christiana, Delaware, MD and later Virginia.

  3. Just recently started to look into the Irish(McKenney descendant on my mother’s side of the family,who resided in Maine.

  4. Thanks for all the information and time it took to gather all this. Do you know if the McKenney crest is the same as the McKenzie crest (the mount on flames with “Luceo non uro (I shine not burn)?”

  5. My ancestor John Mckenney (1630-1697) of Scarborough, Black Point. Maine. A Carter of the area married John Mckenny’s granddaughter (I don’t have the info in front of me of exact names and dates…yet do have) Eventually the Carter children moved west. At least most of them. Believe some became Mormons. My father’s grandfather was related to the Carters From ME (not a Mormon:) I like your website…very informative. Are you on FB?

  6. Hello, I just discovered this website. I am descended from a Caty McKenney, of Westmoreland County, Virginia. Caty married my 6th great grandfather, Lt. Sam Templeman, Revolutionary War soldier and Adjutant to John Washington, brother of George. Westmoreland County incidentally is the seat of the Washington family. Does anyone know where exactly the McKenney’s arrived in Virginia, and when? They seem to have become very prolific by the late 1700s.

    Thank you,
    David Vazquez

    • Hello David,

      I have not heard of Caty Mckenney in Westmoreland County, Virginia but I do have many family members in the area…Tapahannock, VA Coloinai Beach, VA Stafford and even Mckenney, VA

      Does Robert Mckenney, James Mckenney, Lee Mckenney, Robin Mckenney, Lurlene Mckenney have any meaning to you???

      • Hi Cathy— by the way, Caty was short for Catherine, interesting coincidence! James McKenney does ring a bell but not surprisingly, as James is quite a common name. The male name that seemed to be most common among my collateral ancestors was Armstrong McKenney– that was Caty’s father’s and brother’s name, which must mean they intermarried with Armstrongs at some point. But anyway, that can’t be a coincidence that you have McKenneys in the Northern Neck too– we must be related, at least distantly. Have you taken a DNA test? We could compare, or you could compare with my mother’s results.

  7. Hi Cathy— by the way, Caty was short for Catherine, interesting coincidence! James McKenney does ring a bell but not surprisingly, as James is quite a common name. The male name that seemed to be most common among my collateral ancestors was Armstrong McKenney– that was Caty’s father’s and brother’s name, which must mean they intermarried with Armstrongs at some point. But anyway, that can’t be a coincidence that you have McKenneys in the Northern Neck too– we must be related, at least distantly. Have you taken a DNA test? We could compare, or you could compare with my mother’s results.

  8. I found this while expanding my family tree, my Sarah McKinnie (1677) married Isaac Ricks, from what I can gather she was the daughter of Michael, Barnaby, Michael and I have nothing after that. At least that’s how I think that goes, everyone changes the spelling of the name that it’s hard to keep track. Thanks for the information I enjoyed it

  9. I am related to a John T Mckenney of Calvert County , Maryland. He came to America from Londonderry in / around 1900s . We are starting our research but need help. So please HELP… 🙂

  10. Just stumbled onto this blog, am researching my (deceased) dads side of McKenney’s…..I can trace back to a Thomas (Thos.) E McKenney, who may also have had his named spelled as McCaney, as I have read on a copy of what appears to be a marriage to a Mary Adams in 1828, Burlington County, New Jersey. Any insight as to how to “break through” and find if Thomas is the first-born of an immigrant McKenney, or do I look for more “McCaney”, ? Thanks!

  11. Just stumbled onto this blog, am researching my (deceased) dads side of McKenney’s…..I can trace back to a Thomas (Thos.) E McKenney, who may also have had his named spelled as McCaney, as I have read on a copy of what appears to be a marriage to a Mary Adams in 1828, Burlington County, New Jersey. Any insight as to how to “break through” and find if Thomas is the first-born of an immigrant McKenney, or do I look for more “McCaney”, ? Thanks!

  12. im linda McKenney my grandfather was Frank Lewis McKenney but not sure if he immigrated from Scotlamd or Ireland mid 1800s my dad was Frank McKenney brothers John and Charles all deceased My dad was a fireman with Reading mass fire department until hi death in 1938

  13. Mark and Peggy,

    During your research, did you see in any record where William McKenney’s (1622 to 1683) name was spelled Mackenney or Mackenny?

  14. So glad I stumbled on this blog! My maiden name is McKenney. I did some family history research for both my paternal and maternal side of my family. My paternal side is McKenney and we are originally from Rhode Island in the Americas. However, I have not been able to get a whole lot of information beyond this as my GGfather was born in RI and became a runaway at 15. Only record of him afterwards was in Michigan where he married my GGmother, Lillian Talbot. My grandfather shared that his dad did not like talking about his life before his marriage and so much of our McKenney history is unknown. My last relative, my GGrandfather was Charles Henry McKenney and my grandfather, Harold Charles McKenney both are now since passed. I’d love to dig further!

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