My hunt through my Scottish ancestry to find The Real Mackay

Family legends said that Helen Graham was descended from the original “Real Mackay” so she rolled up her sleeves and did some digging. What she found out was fascinating.

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About eight years ago I came across a scrap of paper among my mother’s family tree research which sparked my curiosity. Apparently we had a Mackay ancestor who was not only a comedian and friend of Walter Scott but also the origin of the well-known phrase The Real Mackay. I wanted to know more at once and began researching. It wasn’t long before I’d gathered enough evidence to prove that Charles Mackay, a hugely popular comedian in his day, was indeed my five times great uncle. What I also uncovered was evidence that he was widely known as The Real Mackay.

He even toured a solo show of that name in the 1840s. Kirsty Archer-Thompson, curator at Abbotsford House, wrote of him in her 2017 exhibition: Rob Roy on Stage and Screen saying ‘Mackay was so sought after in the role that he attained an almost cult status, so much so that theatres would sometimes use his name to advertise a performance with which he was not involved in any way’. His most iconic role was Bailie Nicol Jarvie in Rob Roy, which he played well over a thousand times. This was all very exciting, but I was still curious to know if he was the origin of the phrase The Real Mackay, as my family claimed. Google the phrase and you’ll see over 34 million opinions on the subject of its origin, many from America where it quickly became The Real McCoy. Suggestions often relate to people in the late Victorian era: a Canadian inventor, an American boxer, a smuggler, a feuding family, but many agree the phrase was first used to advertise whisky in Scotland.

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It’s a matter of record that G Mackay and Co, whisky distillers in Edinburgh, were using it as an advertising slogan by 1870. That was 13 years after my ancestor died, but its association with whisky actually began shortly before his death. The earliest surviving printed record of the phrase appears in a tract deploring the evils of drink, published in 1856. Called The De’il’s Halloween the tract refers to whisky as ‘a drappie o’ the real Mckay’.

When I asked a friend in the Mackay Clan Society about all this I discovered there’s a widely held belief in the clan that the phrase refers to a child of two Mackay parents. ‘A Mackay through and through – the genuine article for sure.’ So writes Charlotte Fairbairn, cousin of the current clan chief, in her excellent history book The Real Mackays. How long the phrase has been used in this way is not clear, though. It could be centuries, or it might have been adopted by the clan in the Victorian era.

No-one knows. John Baker of the American Dialect Society says ‘It's no’ the real Mackay’ means it’s not genuine. He goes on to write that ‘the ancient family or clan of Mackay was so famous for its integrity, honesty, and uprightness that its name passed into a proverb, and anything not fundamentally correct, or with the least suspicion of not being genuine, was said not to be the real Mackay.’ Both these theories may be true, but there was still a possibility the clan adopted the phrase after it had come to prominence in the 19th century.

Then I found an old letter, sent to my mother, telling the story that had been passed down my family more fully.

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‘Aunt Evelyn remembers a story about a Charles MacKay, an actor. Apparently there was a successful stage adaptation of Scott's novel Rob Roy. It made a great hit in Edinburgh because of the performance of Charles MacKay. One evening he could not appear and the capacity audience was so incensed that it put up a mighty roar of "it's no’ the real Mackay!" This gave rise to the phrase. Aunt Evelyn says that Scott wrote all this in a letter to the Scotsman.’

I doubt there was a letter from Walter Scott to The Scotsman, certainly nothing has come to light yet. But in the Scottish National Library I was able to look at some of the letters Scott and Mackay exchanged and they seemed to be on very friendly terms with Scott usually addressing him as The Bailie. I decided to keep digging.

One day a random google search brought up a discussion on the Guardian Semantic Enigmas thread with several of the above theories outlined by contributors. There was also a theory from Aberfoyle’s award-winning historian and author, Louis Stott.

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‘The 'real mccoy' is an American corruption of the 'real mackay'. One very possible origin of this phrase is connected with the stage version of Scott's famous novel Rob Roy. The part of Bailie Nichol Jarvie, a popular comic character, was played in Edinburgh for many years by an actor called Mackay.

One evening he did not appear and was replaced by another actor. The memorable phrase "That's no’ the real Mackay" was uttered sotto voce by a member of the audience. This use of the phrase originated in the 1820s. It was undoubtedly this phrase which RLS [Robert Louis Stevenson] had in mind when he described himself as 'the real Mackay' [in a letter in 1883].”

Bingo! To cap it all, I discovered a letter to the Scotsman in 1931 from a Mr Skinner, who said he had spoken to Charles Mackay’s granddaughter about the understudy incident, and she had confirmed the story.

I now had three separate sources of the same story, including my family’s, but somehow it no longer mattered whether the famous phrase was originally coined for Charles Mackay, or whether it was adopted for him by his adoring public. I knew for certain that he was the person who had put it on everyone’s lips and on playbills across the country throughout his 40-year career as Scotland’s finest 19th century comedian.

I was beginning to feel immensely proud of him by this time and wondered why his name and huge contribution to Scottish national drama had been almost completely forgotten. Most mentions of him in academic books and papers have small inconsistencies, too, which made me wonder if I should attempt to set the record straight, perhaps even bring him back into the national consciousness, if I could.

I was fairly certain a comprehensive account of his life didn’t yet exist, or surely I would have found it. So, I decided to write a book. A historical novel, rather than a biography. I wanted to bring Charles and his family to life.

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I began by gathering everything I could find about him, all the documented incidents, addresses, dates, all his speeches and letters, and so much more that I can hardly remember it all. It was particularly thrilling to discover the 1854 portrait of Charles Mackay by Sir Daniel Macnee in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which I’ve used for my book cover, had once belonged to my family. I spent ages sifting through everything.

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It was overwhelming for a while, but gradually the story of a kind and genuine man, his wife and children, their struggles and victories, started to emerge and I began to sew it all together with my imagination. I hope I’ve done him justice, and that he would forgive my misinterpretations and assumptions. Most of all I hope it would make him smile to be remembered again as The Real Mackay.

When the book was finished and signed off a couple of months ago I made an extraordinary discovery. Someone else had researched the life of Charles Mackay and written about it! The late Donald Mackenzie MBE, former chairman of the Society of Scottish Playwrights, wrote a play called The Bailie which was first performed in the 1970 Edinburgh Fringe at Riddles Court by the Scottish Actor’s Company, with Callum Mill in the title role and the set designed by Hamish Henderson. It’s a one man play in which Charles Mackay tells his life story in his dressing room at Edinburgh’s Theatre Royal before his final performance.

I read it in the National Library of Scotland’s Special Collections Room recently and couldn’t believe my eyes. My Conscience! as The Bailie would have said!

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