Barbara MacKay, Lady Reay, lived from 1620 to 1690. She was the wife of a highland laird and resident of Balnakeil House, near Durness. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Barbara MacKay was born in Scourie, the daughter of Hugh MacKay of Scourie and Ann Corbett. She became the second wife of John MacKay, 2nd Lord Reay, who held extensive lands in Strathnaver, in Caithness and in north-west Sutherland. One of the family homes was in the old summer palace of the Bishops of Caithness, Balnakeil House overlooking Balnakeil Bay near Durness. The "modern" Balnakeil House shown in the header image was built half a century later. One visitor in Barbara's day reported that the family household included a tutor for the six children of Lord and Lady Reay, a harpist and a piper, and a fool.
Barbara MacKay herself was described as intelligent and attractive, as well as being a noted historian and an accomplished poet. The family lived in turbulent times and were staunchly Royalist. John MacKay took part in the military campaigns of James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, and was imprisoned in 1649. Barbara travelled to London to plead his case personally with Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell, not a man known for his flexibility, undertook not to pursue MacKay if he escaped: and Barbara then arranged her husband's escape. In 1664 she returned to London, this time to try to gain the support of Charles II in a land dispute with the MacKay's neighbours, the Gordons.
The MacKay's eldest son and heir was Donald. He was killed, apparently accidentally, in an explosion not long before the death in 1681 of his father the 2nd Lord Reay. Barbara's grandson, the 3 year old George MacKay, became 3rd Lord Reay and Barbara spent the last decade of her life helping bring him up and educate him in the complex politics of the Scotland of the day.
This biography draws on research first published in "The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women".