Mackay Family History

The Mackay family have featured very prominently in the life of the Hunter Valley for almost 180 years. This is the story of the first generation to come to Australia. Duncan Forbes Mackay was the first settler arriving in 1826.

The featured image shows later descendant siblings Jack, ‘Woodgie’ (Peters), Ken, Bob, Bill & Kitty (Hodgson) dressed for a party at Dungog in the 1960s. They were the six children of Charles MacKenzie Mackay and Ethol Dorothea (nee Coleman) of Bondi. Kitty was an Olympic Swimmer (Berlin 1936). Ken and Bob were ‘adopted’ by J K Mackay & Mrs J K Ellen ‘Madame’ Mackay of ‘Pullaming’, Gunnedah and later ‘Cangon’, Dungog. This was not a formal adoption but rather a family ‘arrangement’. Both Ken and Bob became prominent graziers, polo players and horse breeders. Ken was Ringmaster at the Sydney Royal Easter Show for 18 years.

Mackay Family History

The Story of a Family

When all the families gathered at ‘Cangon’ on 30th March 1962 to celebrate the 100th birthday of Mrs J. K. Ellen “Madam Mackay” I was asked so often: ‘Who is that? Who did he or she marry? How are we related to him or her?’ I seemed to be the one who knew most of the answers. For instance someone pointed to George (Sandy) Mackay, son of Donald and Dorothy (Melbee) and said ‘How are we related to Sandy’? Without hesitation I answered, ‘My father’s first cousin’s son’s grandchild’, much to the amusement of others. As the younger generation know so little of the Mackays and perhaps when all we “oldies” go where all good Scots go, in the end I decided to write down and gather what I could of interest ‘from the oldies’ for future generations.

The Mackays

In the north-western corner of Scotland is Sutherland Shire, the fifth largest Shire in Scotland, and the original home of the Clan Mackay. ’The vast tract of the Reay country, belonging to the Mackays an ancient Clan, fell, however, piece by piece, into the hands of the Sutherland family’.

The western and northern shores of Sutherland Shire are much indented, and terminate in precipices and rugged headlands at many points. The mountains are distinguished by grandeur of outline, among the lofty hills being Ben Loyal (the Hill of the young calves and deer) 2504 feet high, in Tongue. One of the principal inlets of the sea is, on the north coast, Kyle of Tongue, on the east shore of which stands Tongue House, once the property of the Reay family, now a seat of the Duke of Sutherland. The branch of the Mackay clan to which Duncan Forbes Mackay belonged came from Tongue and the following inscription appeared on the gravestone of his brother in the old Presbyterian Cemetery in East Maitland.

To the memory of JOHN MACKAY native of Tongue,

Sutherland Shire, Scotland, who emigrated from

Prince Edward Island to this colony A.D. 1838.

Died at Newcastle January 20th 1851, aged 51 years.

Also of Sybella, relict of John Mackay who

departed this life at East Maitland 18th September

1873 aged 77 years.

John Mackay was later exhumed from the old cemetery and buried at the new Presbyterian cemetery with his wife Sybella.

People emigrate to better themselves, so probably, of good family, John Mackay’s family were crofters or small farmers and for such life was as meagre in Sutherland Shire as it was in the rest of Scotland. The great mass of the surface of the shire is great grass land and deer forest. At the beginning of the 19th century (i. e. circa 1800) the crofters occupied almost every cultivable spot, and were more numerous than the soil would support. This also was the period of the great Enclosures, when by Acts of Parliament lands which had for centuries been common land, and had as such been used by the local peasantry to eke out their own small holdings, were made the property of the great landholders. The result was a large scale emigration form the Highlands in search of new lands overseas, particularly to Canada, which was the closest of the colonies and had a climate much like Scotland itself.

WILLIAM MACKAY, father of JOHN and DUNCAN FORBES, was one of those who went overseas. On 4th March 1774, he had married Jane Scobie and JOHN, born on 13th February 1800, was their eleventh child and ninth son. By the date of his birth six of the elder children were already dead, only GEORGE (9), DUNCAN FORBES (8), JOANNA (7) and HUGH (2) surviving. A last child, WILLIAM was born in 1803.

‘Up until the end of the 18th century relatively few Scots had reached the Province of Nova Scotia, Canada, being Latin for New Scotland; but they began to arrive during the interval of the Peace of Amiens, and for a decade or so after Waterloo (1815) they came in a great wave which peopled Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, and the North-Eastern part of the Nova Scotian Peninsula. The newcomers were Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Scots who had left houses in the Highlands and the Western Isles; and they totalled over forty thousand immigrants who were known to have reached Nova Scotia during the period 1800 – 1838. Together with the pre-loyalist New England and the Royalist refugees, the Scots formed the third largest group in Nova Scotia. They were also the last group of settlers to make their homes in the peninsula. And thereafter the great population movements of the nineteenth century largely passed the province by’.

In Nova Scotia the good farmlands, the lush river valleys, were never far away from rock and forest, and almost always close to the sea. Men had to piece together a livelihood out of resources which were strangely varied and which had been scattered by none too lavish land. Along by the tidal reaches and up the short river valleys stretched the orchards and farms where they grew hay and root crops and fattened their cattle. The harbours of the long string of sea coast towns were white with fish spread out for drying; the beaches were cumbered with the scaffolding of half built schooners. And far beyond the last red boulders of the rocky headlands lay the fishing banks: ‘The Nova Scotian is often found superintending the cultivation of a farm and building a vessel at the same time; and he is not only able to catch and cure a cargo of fish but to find his way with t to the West Indies or the Mediterranean; he is a man of all work but expert in none.

‘By about 1830, Prince Edward Island, where the fine trees had been cut, and men were gradually deserting the sea, had become a tiny agricultural community. New Brunswick was like an enormous lumber camp which shared with Nova Scotia in the wood trade with the West Indies, and shipped the great bulk of its forest production in the form of squared white pine, timbers and deasl to the British Market’.

My purpose is to relate the history of the Mackay Family in Australian and the following is an appropriate commencement:


Name:                                                  Age:                       Ship:                      Year of Arrival:

MACKAY, Duncan Forbes             36 (came free)          ‘Orpheus’                           1826

Religion:           Protestant


The first Mackay to come to Australia was DUNCAN FORBES MACKAY. He was born in the year 1792. This takes us back to the time when the modern spirit of democracy, which has become the first power to the world, was making its first successful effort to assert itself in a period of gloom and terror and mid the upheaval of a long existing social state. The great French Revolution had come to a full and complete issue, and its lessons were being learned in many countries of the world.

But it is matters nearer home that have more interest to us. Three years before, the settlement at Port Jackson was effected by Governor Phillip and the birth of a new nation had begun. When it was considered under what conditions the colony of New South Wales was founded, it becomes still more a matter of wonder how we have come to be now living in a progressive rich and highly civilized country after but 200 years of development.

Governor Phillip did not remain long in the colony, for after forming the settlement and placing its conduct on the line of safety, he left for England in December 1792.

As may be learned from his name, Duncan Forbes Mackay was a Scotsman of whom so many have risen to positions of wealth and importance in the Australian colonies.

He was born in Sutherland Shire, Scotland and was a fine example of the sturdy race to which he belonged. His parents emigrated to Prince Edward Island in 1806, where in 1814 he began life in the office of Donald and George Mackay, Merchants and Shipbuilders. In 1818 the senior partner was lost on a voyage to Liverpool, and two years later the junior partner suffered the same fate. Duncan Forbes Mackay then became the head of the firm, and continued to conduct the business up to 1824, when owing to an oversupply of ships the firm failed. As he had learned a good deal in the course of business between Prince Edward Island and Liverpool, after the failure of the business, he sought for and obtained employment at sea, and after reaching England in 1825 he was appointed second officer to the transport Orpheus, then about to sail for Sydney. It was while he was in this vessel that he arrived in New South Wales in which colony he landed in the year 1826, aged 36, a free settler. Liking the country he made up his mind to remain in Australia, and soon settle down as a settler.

At that time Sydney was an insignificant place with nothing to show the magnificence and greatness she has since attained. It was not until ten years afterwards that Melbourne was founded and there was litlle known of the interior of this great continent which has been found to be so rich in all those things which go to make a man prosperous. Gold was discovered in 1836 in NSW.

As the Orpheus sailed into Sydney harbour Mr Mackay and those on deck could see little groups of cottages nestling together on eminences and promontories, dozens of windmills turning slowly in a morning breeze, and fantastic narrow streets twisting and turning crazily in and out among the sloping hills. Two large building dominated the Sydney scene. One appearing to hold the very centre of the town, was pointed out as a Military Barracks and the other – a vastly towering sandstone edifice, as Government Offices. Gathered on the wharf to inspect the new arrival was a strange and noisy assemblage. Merchants and prosperous squatters in plum-coloured swallowtail and nankeen tights, poor settlers attired in the cheapest of blue cotton form India, thus acquiring the contemptuous name of ‘dungaree men’, fierce looking convicts in their canary coloured prison cloth, a motley collection of various sorts of people in fustian jackets, in blue smocks, in rags and wretchedness and head gear of every queer type form straw beavers to kangaroo skins, red-coated soldiers, sailors, gaudily decked harpies, ticket-of-leave men, thus was the crowd around the wharf composed. They shouted, they laughed, they cursed, they quarrelled drunkenly, they struggled for possession of bottles, they jeered and jostled the bewildered immigrants standing among them.

Having passed at last through the hands of the immigration officers and more as well, the voyagers were finally free to wind their way through the jostling throng to the wharf-side loafers and to explore the town of Sydney. Here was none of the dignity or stable development of life in England.

Here were men gripped with excitement, with a sense of vast opportunity waiting to be grasped.

Duncan Forbes Mackay was destined to become an inhabitant of New South Wales because he was appointed to a responsible position in Newcastle in connection with the convict settlement. On January 27th 1827 he was appointed Superintendent of Prison’s and Public Works at Newcastle. On March 28th 1828 he was made first Post Master at Newcastle, held the post 2 years. In 183 erected Court House and Solitary Cells at Dungog (by contract). In 1834 he was elected a member of the Committee of the Paterson River Stock Protection Association. Her he remained for some time but he could not continue in a fixed position and he returned his attention to farming.

An early map of County Durham shows Duncan Forbes Mackay’s name on property south of the town of Dungog, this was the primary grant of 640 acres. On the northern boundary of the town he held 2500 acres, co-siting with 850 acres north of this. According to the NSW Directory D. F. Mackay’s address was Goulburn Plains from 1833 to 1835, but in 1836 he took up residence at Melbee, Dungog. His Dungog properties have remained in the hands of the family to this day (1986).

He obtained from Governor Brisbane, a grant of 640 acres of land in the County of Durham which is now known as Melbee and which he added to by purchase. As a farmer and stockbreeder he continued right up to his death, which took place in the year 1860. His was a pioneer’s life and was coloured by the adventures and experiences which are usual in the career of a first settler. He succeeded in making his way and left affair fortune behind him. Duncan Forbes decided to leave Melbee and the Dungog district for Ravensworth (Singleton). This rich pastoral estate was a grant to Dr James Mitchell Bowman, it was 12,000 acres, and Dr Bowman built a magnificent home which still stands (1986). (Dr Bowman was no relation to the Archerfield Bowmans of Singleton).

Duncan Forbes Mackay had a sale of furniture and effects, leaving Dungog in 1841. His brother John and family lived at Melbee for some years. John had an accident ploughing, was taken to Newcastle Hospital where he died.

Mr George Mackay, nephew of D. F. Mackay, succeeded to the farm at Melbee, and nephew John Kenneth Mackay succeeded to Cangon.

Melbee land comprised about 900 acres, which was well suited to cultivation, and gave an excellent rerun for the labour which was expended on working it. The rich herbage which covered the greater portion of it sustains and fattens a large herd of stock in which Mr Mackay was particularly interested. It was to the fattening of stock that he chiefly devoted himself, and in the pursuit of which he succeeded in acquiring wealth. He cultivated portions of the land with great skill, and obtained an excellent return for his labour.

Mr George Mackay was born in Prince Edward Island in the year 1821, and so was another example of how a native of another and distant land is able to make his way in this free land of Australia. D. F. Mackay never married. A headstone to his memory stands in the graveyard around St Stephen’s Church, Newtown. This beautiful old church was the design of Edmund Blackett, one of our earliest architects, who was responsible for some of our beautiful old churches.

Not yet, but someday Australians will come to realise that the finest thing in their history will be the fate of the courageous men and women who, during the early part of the 19th century, had the will to leave the old land, sail across the sea in indifferent vessels, come to a region which was little known and with bravery, in both hands, begin the battle for the making of a Nation.

Dungog 1986