Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"The temperamental gulf which divides the inhabitants of north-east Ulster from those of south-west Cork, is no wider than that which separates the people of Sutherland from those of Selkirk" - William Cook Mackenzie (1862-1952) - 'The Races of Ireland and Scotland'

SAM 1850

One of the first books I bought when I became interested in Ulster-Scottish history was William C Mackenzie's 1916 400 page volume The Races of Ireland and Scotland (now available on Archive.org.here) - found in a long-gone second hand bookshop on Gray's Hill in Bangor. It mostly deals with ancient history and perhaps, like many Victorian-era publications of this kind, has been superceded by later discoveries and scholarship. Mackenzie drew upon numerous Irish sources and painted a picture of a regular two-way criss-cross of communication and migrations across the North Channel throughout time. The Picts and Cruthin get numerous mentions, as do linguistic issues.

At the time, in my early 20s, I was a bit disappointed by it. Its history was too long ago, and its geography too far away, to seem relevant to me. I preferred buildings I could touch and take photographs of, words I could still hear and had grown up with myself in my community, surnames I recognised and history which was around my own home turf.

Now, however, the book interests me more. William Cook Mackenzie (1862-1952) argued the case for a regional appreciation of Scotland, and Ireland, and of the multiplicity of cultural influences which had shaped Scotland - such as the Scandinavian / Viking influence of his native Western Isles.

Born on the Isle of Lewis (an island bizarrely claimed by earlier historians to once have been inhabited by a race of pygmies and where pygmy remains had reportedly been found - a theory which Mackenzie, his brother and his cousin investigated and published a paper on in 1905) he was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He was a scholar and speaker of Scottish Gaelic and also fully appreciative of the Norse connections.

He lived in London for a time when he worked for the British India Steam Navigation Company (he wrote a biography of his ancestor, Colonel Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor-General of India and renowned antiquarian). William emigrated to Australia and lived in Brisbane from 1884-1888 where he worked for the Bank of Queensland. He then returned to England, became managing director of a cotton importing company, and settled at Richmond Upon Thames. 

• In 1903 he published his first book, the 600 page History of the Outer Hebrides. It refers to the MacNeills of Barra, (see here on page 65) whom I mentioned here a few posts ago and whom Mackenzie interestingly connected back to a Viking called Njal who is said to have been the 'progenitor' of the Barra MacNeills - thereby confirming that very recent DNA discovery. 

• In 1908 he published his 400 page A Short History of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, which is online here.

• in 1916 he expanded his geography further, in The Races of Ireland and Scotland. MacKenzie acknowledges that his book, for its day, was groundbreaking:

'... the main theories advanced in this book are entirely new, and, if I may use the word without fear of being misunderstood, entirely "revolutionary". I am not so sanguine as to suppose they will meet with complete acceptance, not so confident as to believe that they are impervious to criticism. But I have made no important assertions without supplementing them by reasoned proofs that have satisified me...'

• In 1923 Mackenzie declined an invitation to stand for Westminster election as the Liberal candidate for Lewis. 

• In 1931 he published Scottish Place Names - review here.

• In 1932 he published the 350 page The Western Isles; their history, Traditions, and Place-names (which appears to not yet be available online). 


He retired from business in 1934. In 1937 the Moray Press published Mackenzie's 326 page review of his own books entitled The Highlands and Isles of Scotland' and in 1938 he was made a Freeman of Stornoway. He died, aged 91, at his home at St Margaret's-on-Thames, in 1952. I intend to re-read the book over the coming months and will post anything relevant here. In our globalised age, regionalism is dwindling. Regional distinctives are less pronounced than ever before. The excerpt below shows how obvious they once were.

SAM 1853 2