MACKAY, Hon. Alexander (1717-89), of Strathtongue, Sutherland.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1761 - 1768
1768 - Mar. 1773

Family and Education

b. 1717, 4th s. of George, 3rd Lord Reay [S], by his 3rd w. Mary, da. of John Doull (or Dowell) of Thuster, Caithness; bro. of Hon. George Mackay.  m. 24 Dec. 1770, Margaret, da. and coh. of William Carr of Etal, Northumb., s.p.

Offices Held

Ensign 25 Ft. 1737; lt. 47 Ft. 1740, capt. Lord Loudoun’s Regt. 1745; maj. 3 Ft. 1749; lt. col. 52 Ft. 1755; lt.-col. 39 Ft. 1760; col. 122 Ft. (which he raised) 1762-3; col. 65 Ft. 1764-70; maj.-gen. 1770; col. 21 Ft. 1770- d.; gov. Tynemouth castle 1771-8; lt.-gen. 1777; gov. Landguard fort 1778-88; c.-in-c. Scotland 1780- d.; gov. Stirling castle 1788- d.

Commr. for the forfeited estates 1781.


Mackay served with Cope during the ‘45 and was captured at Prestonpans; from 1747 till 1748 he was with his regiment in Flanders. He spent most of the seven years’ war in Ireland, where he raised a regiment in 1762. In 1761 he was returned for Sutherland as the result of an agreement with the Earl of Sutherland for one Parliament only. In December 1762 he was listed by Fox as favourable to the peace preliminaries, and he voted with the Grenville Administration on Wilkes and general warrants. He had formed a connexion with the Bedfords, dating probably from Bedford’s term as lord lieutenant of Ireland, and was a close friend of Richard Rigby. He voted with Opposition on the repeal of the Stamp Act, 22 Feb. 1766. In October 1766 Mackay wrote to Rigby asking that, owing to ‘the distressed condition of a very near relation’, he might be excused early attendance in Parliament. Rigby wrote to Bedford, 14 Oct. 1766:1

He tells me further that all our friends in Scotland stand fully secure as to their elections, and that no Englishman from the Revolution to this day ever had so many personal friends in Parliament from that kingdom, as your Grace will have next election.

Mackay voted with Opposition on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767, and, after the Bedfords had joined the Administration, with Government on nullum tempus, 17 Feb. 1768.

By the agreement between the Mackays and the Sutherlands, Mackay was not a candidate for Sutherland in 1768 but stood for Tain Burghs. During the summer of 1768 he was appointed to command the troops sent to maintain order in Boston. Owing to a storm his ship made for the West Indies, and Mackay did not reach Boston until April 1769. Deeply perturbed by the conflict over the American duties, he made many friends among all parties, including Lt.-Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, James Murray the perfervid Scots loyalist, and James Bowdoin the moderate revolutionary leader. ‘I made it my duty’, he told the Commons in 1770,2 ‘to inform myself as a Member of Parliament and a subject of this kingdom at large how far [the Townshend duties] were founded upon right principles.’

Lord Gage, commander-in-chief in America, wrote to Barrington, 22 July 1769:3

Major-General Mackay has made strong and frequent applications to go home on account of his private affairs, and that the King’s service does not require him to stay any longer at Boston. I have considered his command here only as a temporary one and have consented to his going.

In August 1769, when Mackay sailed for England, the Boston Evening Post commented:4

Though the sending the troops in this town ... was a measure not founded in reason ... justice however requires us to say, that General Mackay’s command of the troops has given universal satisfaction, and with pleasure we take this opportunity to acknowledge his merit both as a gentleman and an officer.

On his arrival home Mackay applied himself to American affairs. In the debate of 5 Mar. 1770, on the repeal of the Townshend duties, he spoke of public opinion in America:5

I am fully persuaded had the right hon. gentleman who proposed the first duty, known the true state of that country he never would have proposed that Stamp Act. I gave my vote for it ... But bad as that measure was ... it laid the foundation of every disturbance which the total repeal of it occasioned. The minds of the people of that country do declare that you really have no right to tax them. They allow that you have a right to regulate their commerce ... With regard to the Act now in question which they complain of it is not the duty, it is the preamble of the Act ... Any revenue you may raise there will never be an object for you to distress that country for ... The minds of the people there as well as the people here ... don’t judge by themselves, but are led in their judgment by I don’t know who, but all the rational part of that country are sick of it. Were it not kept up from this country (I wish I could not say from this House) you would soon see an end of it.

He strongly denied that Boston had been oppressed by the troops; but claimed that the troops had been shamefully treated by the Americans.

The real state of that country is that there is no Government ... The first object is ... if temper can be brought back, to establish some system of order and government ... I will by no means accuse that country at large. I must in justice say that the greatest fault lies here. We have attended too little to the interest of that country.

On 7 Apr. 1770 Mackay wrote to Bowdoin:6

I have had many conversations with some of the ministers on the state of America ... I have endeavoured all in my power ... to clear up prejudices and to show where the remedy lay and how to bring matters to a state of peace and concord. This ... I did with as much sincerity and regard for one side of the Atlantic as the other ... I found them all as willing and desirous to promote that end as ever you and I was on any occasion. ... You may say how comes it then that matters have stopped now with only repealing the duties on glass, painters’ colours, etc. and not tea? I will answer you candidly ... that it is owing to the measures taken by yourselves ... that no importation of British goods should be entered ... till all duties were repealed. This was so deep a stroke that no man in his senses could pretend to say a word and ... if any Member here would give way he would have the whole nation against him ... My situation in life does not call upon me to take a ministerial part, nor have I views or plans to pervert my judgment ... And I now declare to you that such is my idea of the good intention both of ministers and Parliament to America that if there was but temper and moderation shown on your side, everything that a reasonable man could wish would readily be granted, but while they continue as at present I believe nothing more will be done.

When, on the news of the ‘Boston Massacre’, the Opposition called for the production of all correspondence with governors and military officers, Mackay protested, 26 Apr. 1770: ‘Not an officer but is in the greatest terror about writing to this country’; and in the debate of 9 May he spoke against Burke’s censure motion on America.7

In February 1773 Mackay announced his intention of vacating his seat to make way for James Grant of Ballindalloch.8 The reason for his retirement is unknown. He stood high in Government favour and was persona grata with the King who, when considering nominees for the appointment of a major-general for North America, wrote to North, 18 Nov. 1774:9

If it is absolutely necessary to send one who had already been in that country, Major-General Mackay is very proper, but I should rather pitch on one of the others as it is not a desirable commission.

Mackay’s attitude towards the Americans had stiffened; Governor Hutchinson, when in London in January 1775, records:10

General Mackay called upon me, having been a few days in town from Scotland: apologized for not writing me oftener after he left New England because he did not choose to run the risk of his letters falling into other persons’ hands; says that after he arrived he told Administration what they might expect, gave them an account of Franklin as a most dangerous man but they gave little heed to it. He asked whether Hancock lived in Boston. I said I supposed so ... ‘And not secured?’, says the General.

In 1777 Mackay asked leave of the King to offer his services to the East India Company as commander-in-chief. ‘If he should meet with success’, wrote the King to North, 5 Apr. 1777, ‘I can answer for his talents.’11 North submitted his name, but reported to the King that the directors ‘objected to gentlemen of North Britain for commands in chief’.

The following year Mackay received the lucrative governorship of Landguard fort, and in 1780 was appointed commander-in-chief in Scotland where he at once instituted an economy campaign to reduce expenditure ‘swelled beyond all measure’ and to abolish useless sinecure posts, without offending old friends too deeply.12 ‘I see with pleasure’, wrote Jenkinson, 20 Feb. 1781, ‘that the King has now a servant at the head of that department who is determined to examine this business with attention and to put an end to every improper charge.’ On the death of his brother George in 1782 Mackay became commissioner or factor for the estates of his imbecile nephew Hugh, 6th Lord Reay. He constituted himself the protector of the smaller tenants against the high rents and excessive services exacted by the tacksmen, and refused to grant new tacks without appropriate safeguards. To improve conditions he proposed a regular postal service in Sutherland, encouraged the kelp industry, started a fishing company, and built a pier at Eriboll. He was for some years a ruling elder in the general assembly where he represented Tongue presbytery.13He died 31 May 1789.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. Bedford mss.
  • 2. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 221, f. 29.
  • 3. Gage Corresp. ii. 517.
  • 4. Mass. Hist. Colls. (ser. 6), ix. 170.
  • 5. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 221, p. 29.
  • 6. Mass. Hist. Colls. (ser. 6), ix. 170-1.
  • 7. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 222, ff. 24b, 117.
  • 8. Add. 39190. f. 195.
  • 9. Fortescue, iii. 153.
  • 10. Diary Letters, i. 340.
  • 11. Fortescue, iii. 438-9.
  • 12. See his corresp. with Jenkinson in Add. 38213, 38214, 38215, 38216, 38307, 38308.
  • 13. A. Mackay, Book of Mackay, 219.