McLeay/McRae Family Overview

by Alan Craig

I’ve known since childhood that I had a great-granny who came from the Highlands of Scotland. Jessie Littlejohn was my father’s paternal grandmother; but, even after years of research, we know very little about her. She married James Craig in 1900, but my dad’s family had little to do with Jessie and James Craig in the years my father grew up, and he only remembered her as a quiet, gentle, “put-upon” woman (see the article by Iain Craig). She died in 1942, and everything that we reliably know about her comes from her birth, marriage and death certificates, and five census records from 1871 to 1921. I have pictures of James Craig, but none of Jessie.

If Jessie Littlejohn’s life was somewhat opaque, then her mother’s was positively obscure. Jessie’s mum, we know, was Margaret McLeay; but we have no birth or death record for her and, enigmatically, she only appears in the 1861 and 1871 census records. Like Jessie, Margaret comes from Keith in Banffshire, and we know a good deal about her grandparents, aunts and uncles — but we’re not sure who her mother and father were (we have narrowed the field a bit, but more on that later). Anything we do know about Jessie’s mother comes from what we can infer from other people’s records. You can read about the mystery of Margaret McLeay here.

Most of my Scottish ancestry seems to have evolved within the Scottish midlands of Lanarkshire, Dunbartonshire and Ayrshire, with bits of Northern Irish thrown in from time to time to make the mix. However, one branch of the family — our McLeay/McRae line — came from the Scottish Highlands, and only migrated to the Glasgow melting pot at the end of the nineteenth century.

History of the clan names

The MacLea/McLeay clan badge. The family motto “Cnoc aingeil” means “hill of fire”, derived from the site of a Pictish burial mound near the Chief’s house at Bachuil, Lismore. The figure at the centre is Saint Moluag, a contemporary of St Columba.

The name McLeay (McLea, MacLay, McClay) has an obscure etymology with various theories tying it to the names Livingstone, McKinley and even O’Neill. Depending on who you believe, the name evolved in places as diverse as Lorn, Lismore and Ulster, but the ‘clan’ was largely loyal to the Crown during the Scottish Civil Wars in the 17th century (thereby suffering at the hands of the Covenanters and Oliver Cromwell), but supported the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 (thereby losing their titles). The MacLea clan fought with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Appin Regiment at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 — and, as with other battles the clan fought in antiquity, they were on the losing side. Consequently, the McLeay clan was not formally recognised until 2003 by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, the first chieftain being William Jervis Alastair Livingstone of Bachuil, Isle of Lismore.

The McRae/MacRae clan badge. The family motto is “Fortitudine”, which is Latin for “with fortitude”.

The McRae (MacRath) clan shares a common ancestry with the MacKenzie and MacLean clans. An Irishman, Maurice McRath, is thought to have settled in Clunes on the Beauly Firth until falling out with the Frasers of Lovat. His sons then dispersed to Dingwall, Argyll, and Kintail. Like the McLeays, the McRae clan — often referred to as “the Wild McRaes” — supported the Royalist cause during the Civil War, but were decimated at the Battle of Sheiffmuir in 1715 while supporting the Stuart uprising. The family had divided loyalties during the 1745 rising, turning out companies to support both the government and rebel armies. Today, the clan has no chief, the last being Farquhar MacRae (1720–1789), 9th of Inverinate, Kintail.

A summary of our McLeay-McRae line

Anne McRae was likely born in Fodderty Parish just west of Dingwall, and she married shoemaker Murdoch McLeay in 1796 at Dingwall. Anne and Murdoch had at least seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood — two of the boys had settled in Banffshire by the 1830s, while the youngest boy and the three girls went with their families to Edinburgh soon after.

The oldest boy, Donald, married at Cullen in 1821 and had 6 children with his wife, Janet Innes, between 1821 and 1832. Second son, John McLeay married Janet Mair at Cairnie in Aberdeenshire in 1823, and had nine children (eight girls, one boy) over the next 22 years. By 1838, this family had moved to the nearby town of Keith, Banffshire, where they appear to have to run the local inn for many years. Many of their offspring had illegitimate children, all brought up by John and Janet at the hotel — even illegitimate great-grandchildren were added as the years went on. Most of John McLeay’s daughters, like his sisters, ended up in Edinburgh and marrying, but his only son, Alexander, moved north to Whitehills on the Banffshire coast where he married Sarah Wood in 1852.

John and Janet both died in the 1880s, and our line descends through their illegitimate grand-daughter, Margaret McLeay — it is not completely certain which of John and Janet’s children was a parent to Margaret, and we hope to solve this riddle through DNA matches with other known descendants — but we do have a frontrunner in that quest: Helen.

The story of this branch of the family can be explored in greater depth on the following pages:

  1. Dingwall, Ross-shire: 1740–1820Murdoch McLeay and Anne McRae, and their 7 children.
  2. Keith, Banffshire: 1820–1885John McLeay and Janet Mair, and their 9 children.
  3. Helen McLeay: 1840–1903Helen McLeay and Peter McLaren of Auchterarder.
  4. Margaret McLeay – the mysterious matter of the ‘missing link’.
  5. Whitehills, Banffshire: 1850–1950Alexander McLeay and Sarah Wood, and their 12 children.
  6. The Cranston Connection – the story of Elizabeth Smith and her family’s sacrifice in WW1.



McLeay Family Overview — 2 Comments

  1. Alan, I came across your website when I was looking for info on my Great Aunt, Helen Mcleay, from Banff, who left for Western Australia in the 1920s. We have
    common Ancestors in Alexander Mcleay and Sarah Wood their son Walter is my Great Grandfather, on my Mother’s side. Boyndie then Banff is where my Grandmother and Mother were from, I live with my family in Edinburgh.

    • Hello Alisdair,

      Great to hear from you. Yes, I have Walter born at Whitehills on 8 May 1862. I presume your Helen McLeay was his daughter? As it turns out, Alexander and Sarah are not my direct ancestors (as I thought for a while) – his younger sister, Helen McLeay (born 16 Mar 1840, Keith, Banffshire) has turned up as my likely GGG-Grandmother from strong DNA links to her descendants. Our common ancestors are John McLeay and Janet Mair, who ran the pub at Keith from about 1840 to 1860.

      A lot of the McLeay family (from Keith, Dingwall, Cullen and Whitehills) ended up in Edinburgh, and if you look at the map I have of Old Edinburgh, you will see many places that will be familiar to you. Have you done a DNA test with Ancestry?

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