For a time, the MacKenzies were thought to have derived from the Irish house of Fitzgerald but that theory is now discredited. It is now generally accepted that they are derived from a younger son of Gilleon of the Aird, from whose elder son descended Farquhar Mac an t-Sagairt, ancestor of the Rosses. The forefathers of the MacKenzies were therefore, originally junior kinsmen and vassals of the ancient Beolain Earls (previously Mormaers) of Ross.
MacKenzie territory was unique in that it straddled Albann from sea to sea. Although much of it was not particularly arable, it was both beautiful and awesome. One could travel from Applecross to the Moray Firth without ever leaving MacKenzie land, and this feature gave the MacKenzies considerable clout.
In the late 13th century, their chief was Kinnid, twelfth in descent from Gilleon of the Aird, according to the old genealogical records. Kinnid (or Kenneth) was Governor of Eilean Donan Castle, on Loch Duich, under the Earl of Ross. This remained the western stronghold of the MacKenzies for centuries, and still is there today.
In 1270, Kenneth rebelled against his superior Earl William of Ross, and successfully held Eilean Donan against him, thereby establishing himself as an independent chief. The clan took its name from Kenneth, and due partly to its control of the mouth of Loch Duich, the Clan were named as royal bodyguards. The Scottish King needed them to thwart the possibility of another Norse invasion through that area.
Kenneth's son, John, sheltered Bruce at Eilean Donan in 1306, and led 500 of this men at Bannockburn. John's son, Kenneth, and grandson, Murdoch, managed to maintain their independence from the Earls of Ross. Murdoch's grandson, Alexander Ionraic, 6th Chief of Kintail, was seized at Inverness by James I in 1427. He was lucky, as he was a mere boy, he was sent to the High School in Perth.
By now, the MacKenzies' official overlords were the Lords of the Isles, the MacDonalds, who had acquired the Earldom of Ross by marriage. However, when the MacDonalds raised a rebellion against the king in 1429, the MacKenzies fought on the side of the king. In 1476, Alexander received a royal charter of much of the lands forfeited by the Macdonalds, including Strathconan and Strathgarve.
Alexander was succeeded by his son, Kenneth a'Bhlair. Kenneth earned his name by his victory over the MacDonalds at Blār-na-Pāirc in 1491 in Strathpeffer. The eldest of his sons, Kenneth Og, held the chiefship very briefly until he was murdered by the Laird of Buchanan in 1497. His half-brother, John of Killin, became the 9th Chief of Kintail. John was a man of cunning, who recognized the King's power in the north, so he built his clan's fortunes by using the law rather than the sword.
In 1509, he obtained a royal charter of Kintail, Eilean Donan and other lands erected into a barony; he received seven further charters of land in the course of his long reign, as well as the revenue from gathering the customs of Inverness and the keepership pf Sleat Castle. He was taken prisoner at Flodden in 1513, but was rescued by a woman in whose house his English escort stopped for the night: but an amazing coincidence she had once been shipwrecked and sheltered in the MacKenzie country.
After his return to Scotland, he was appointed Lieutenant of Wester Ross. In 1547, at the age of 65, he fought at the Battle of Pinkie where he was wounded. His resourcefulness did not desert him in old age. When the young Queen Mary sent her chamberlain north to assess the wealth of he Highland chiefs, MacKenzie filled his house at Killin with dogs and cattle, his servants creating such squalor with discarded offal and straw that the disgusted courtiers left at dawn. They reported to the Queen that the Highland chiefs lived like princes except for MacKenzie. As a result of his deception, he was assessed much less than the others, though by now he had created a small empire in the Highlands.
John's son and grandson both continued the expansion of MacKenzie power. During the chiefship of his grandson, Colin, a feud erupted with the MacDonnells of Glengarry which continued into the time of Colin's son, Kenneth, 12th of Kintail, who succeeded in 1594. By 1607, the MacDonnells were defeated and their lands of Lochalsh and Lochcarron ceded to the MacKenzies by royal charter.
Two years later, after the failure of the Fife Adventurers' efforts to colonize the island of Lewis in the name of James VI, MacKenzie managed to buy their rights from the king and established himself as overlord of the former MacLeod lands of Lewis and the mainland. He was raised to the peerage as Lord MacKenzie of Kintail, and his son, Colin, was created Earl of Seaforth in 1623.
Their enlarged territory now amounted to a small Kingdom. Their great castle at Eilean Donan was held for them by the Macraes, nicknamed 'MacKenzie's Shirt of Mail'. George, 2nd Earl of Seaforth, at first opposed Montrose, but became disillusioned with the Covenanters, and joined the Royalists in 1646. From then on, the MacKenzies adhered strongly to the House of Stuart and their cause, and this led to their undoing.
Seaforth followed Charles II into exile, where he held the empty title of Secretary of State. His son, Kenneth, 3rd Earl, fought in the royal army at Worcester and led an unsuccessful Highland rebellion against Cromwell in 1654. The Restoration brought a return to prosperity for the MacKenzies, but at the Revolution, the 4th Earl went into exile with James VII. He returned to Scotland and raised his clan for the Stuart cause, but was forced to surrender to General MacKay, and remained in prison until 1697.
William, the 5th Earl, brought 3,000 men to the Jacobite army in 1715, and fought at Sheriffmuir. He fled to France, and his estates and peerage were forfeited. Four years later, he was the prime \mover in the smallest of he Jacobite rebellions, the 'nineteen'. In May of 1719, Seaforth, the Earl of Marischal and the Marquess of Tullibane landed in Kintail with 300 Spanish troops. They were joined by 500 MacKenzies and by Rob Roy and his wild MacGregors, but were defeated at Glenshiel. Eileen Donan was blown up by English sailors but Seaforth managed to escape to France, and was pardoned in 1726.
During the 'forty-five', his impoverished heir, Kenneth, was reluctant to join the rising and even sent a token force of officers to command the government's Independent Companies of Highlanders.
Nevertheless, at least 500 MacKenzies did fight for Prince Charlie. After Culloden, and the persecution of all Highlanders, many MacKenzies were forced to flee their homeland. They made their mark on the world in ways few people realize.
In 1771, the MacKenzie chief was again created Earl of Seaforth, and in 1778, he raised the 1st Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders, a regiment which still wears the MacKenzie tartan.
In 1979, the Earl of Cromartie was recognized by the Lord Lyon as the Chief of Clan MacKenzie. Among famous MacKenzies who went overseas, are Alexander MacKenzie, explorer and factor of the Hudson Bay Company, who gave his name to Canada's longest river. Also Canadian Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, an outstanding UN peacekeeper in Yugoslavia who is a household word in Canada.
Perhaps the most outstanding MacKenzie of all was Field Marshal August von Mackensen of the Imperial German Army, who was the brilliant tactician who commanded the combined German/Austrian forces on the Eastern front in 1915, when his armies overran Russian positions, Serbia, and eventually Rumania and the Ukraine, effectively taking Russia out of the war.
Think of the grand things some of those Highlanders could have accomplished at home if British leaders had been more tolerant.