79 days ago

Seven years ago I came across a scrap of paper among my mother’s family tree research which sparked my curiosity. Apparently we had a Mackay ancestor who was not only a comedian and friend of Walter Scott but also the origin of the well-known phrase The Real Mackay. I wanted to know more and soon discovered my five times great uncle, Charles Mackay, had been a hugely popular comedian and was widely known as The Real Mackay in his day. He even toured a solo show of that name in the 1840s. Kirsty Archer-Thompson, curator at Abbotsford House, wrote of him in her 2017 exhibition: Rob Roy on Stage and Screen saying ‘Mackay was so sought after in the role that he attained an almost cult status, so much so that theatres would sometimes use his name to advertise a performance with which he was not involved in any way’. His most iconic role was Bailie Nicol Jarvie in Rob Roy, which he played well over a thousand times.

But was it true that he was the origin of the phrase The Real Mackay, as my family claimed?

Google the origins of the phrase and you’ll see over 34 million answers, many from America where it quickly became The Real McCoy. Suggestions about the origin abound, most from the late Victorian era:  a Canadian inventor, an American boxer, a smuggler, a feuding family. Many agree the phrase was first used to advertise whisky in Scotland, though, and it’s a matter of record that G. Mackay and Co, whisky distillers in Edinburgh, were using it as an advertising slogan by 1870. But its association with whisky predates this because the earliest surviving printed record of the phrase appears in a tract deploring the evils of drink. Published in 1856, the year before Charles Mackay died, The De’il’s Halloween refers to whisky as ‘a drappie o’ the real Mckay’.

Page from 'Glasgow Tracts, 1830-56' written by 'Young Glasgow' published by George Logan, printed by Robert Mitchell, 62 Argyle Street.  University of Glasgow Library Special Collections

All this research was very interesting, and it was thrilling to discover that the 1854 portrait of Charles Mackay by Sir Daniel Macnee in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery that I’ve used for my book cover had once belonged to my family, but I was making no progress establishing the true origin of the phrase.

 I had found an old letter from my mother’s cousin by this time, telling the same story:

‘Aunt Evelyn remembers a story about a Charles MacKay, an actor. Apparently there was a successful stage adaptation of Scott's novel "Rob Roy". It made a great hit in Edinburgh because of the performance of Charles MacKay. One evening he could not appear and the capacity audience was so incensed that it put up a mighty roar of "it's no’ the real Mackay!" This gave rise to the phrase. Aunt Evelyn says that Scott wrote all this in a letter to the Scotsman.’

I doubt there was ever a letter from Walter Scott to The Scotsman, certainly nothing has come to light yet. But in the Scottish National Library I was able to look at some of the letters Scott and Mackay exchanged and they seemed on very friendly terms.

I nearly gave up my quest when I discovered a widely held belief in the Mackay clan that the phrase refers to a child of two Mackay parents. ‘A Mackay through and through – the genuine article for sure.’ So writes Charlotte Fairbairn, cousin of the current clan chief, in her book The Real Mackays. How long the phrase has been used in this way is not clear, though. It could be centuries, or it might have been adopted by the clan in the Victorian era. John Baker of the American Dialect Society says ‘"It's no’ the real Mackay," means it’s not genuine.’ He goes on to write that ‘the ancient family or clan of Mackay was so famous for its integrity, honesty, and uprightness that its name passed into a proverb, and anything not fundamentally correct, or with the least suspicion of not being genuine, was said not to be the real Mackay.’ Both these theories may be true. Either way, it was beginning to seem the clan claimed the origin of the phrase as its own.

Then one day a random google search brought up a discussion on the Guardian Semantic Enigmas thread with several of the above theories outlined by contributors. There was also a theory from Aberfoyle’s award-winning historian and author, Louis Stott:

“The 'real mccoy' is an American corruption of the 'real mackay'. One very possible origin of this phrase is connected with the stage version of Scott's famous novel Rob Roy. The part of Bailie Nichol Jarvie, a popular comic character, was played in Edinburgh for many years by an actor called Mackay. One evening he did not appear and was replaced by another actor. The memorable phrase "That's no’ the real Mackay" was uttered sotto voce by a member of the audience. This use of the phrase originated in the 1820s. It was undoubtedly this phrase which RLS [Robert Louis Stevenson] had in mind when he described himself as 'the real Mackay' [in a letter in 1883].”

So, it was true!

To cap it all, I then discovered a letter in the Scotsman in 1931 from a Mr Skinner, who said he had spoken to Charles Mackay’s granddaughter about the understudy incident, and she had confirmed the story.

I now had three separate sources of the same story, including my family’s, but somehow it no longer mattered whether the famous phrase was coined for Charles Mackay. I knew for certain he had made it his own. He’d put it on everyone’s lips and on playbills across the country throughout his 40-year career as Scotland’s finest 19th century comedian and I was proud to call him my ancestor.

I felt I knew him by this time and had a lot of sympathy for the underlying tragedies he overcame throughout his life. I knew a comprehensive account of his life didn’t yet exist, or I would have found it, and most mentions of him in academic books and papers had some small part of his story slightly wrong, too. I wanted to set the record straight. So, I decided to write a book. A historical novel, rather than a biography, because I wanted to bring Charles and his family to life. I began by gathering everything I could find that people had written about him, all the documented incidents, addresses, dates, all his speeches and letters, and so much more that I can hardly remember it all, and I began to sew it all together into a family saga with my imagination.

I hope I’ve done him justice, that he would forgive my misinterpretations and assumptions, and most of all that it would make him smile to be remembered again with love and respect.