History of the Clan Macrae


Governor James Macrae of Madras

Tradition about his Ancestry

There have been very few men who had a more romantic or a more successful and honorable career than Governor James Macrae of Madras, who, though by birth a native of the County of Ayr, is sometimes claimed as a descendant of the Macraes of Kintail. There is a Kintail tradition to the effect that some time during the first half of the seventeenth century a certain John Macrae, known in Kintail as Ian Dubh Mac Ian Oig (Black John, son of John the younger, Clan book p189-190), migrated to the south and settled for some time at Greenock, that either he or one of his sons afterwards moved farther south to the town of Ayr or its neighborhood, and that he was the grandfather of Governor James Macrae of Madras. At the same time, the name Macrae or M’Cra appears more than once in connection with Ayr (In the Register of the Great Seal, Aug 25 1534, mention is made of Thomas M’Cra, Sergeant or Constable of the Sheriff of Ayr, but the name occurs in Ayr as far back as 1477) many generations before the time to which this tradition refers, and it is quite possible that, notwithstanding the Kintail tradition, Governor Macrae may have belonged to an old Ayrshire family of that name. But, on the other hand, it may be mentioned that, besides this Kintail tradition, there are traditions (again referred to in chapters 20 and 21 of the Clan Book) also among other families of the name to the effect that they are descended from certain Macraes who left Kintail and settled in the south-west of Scotland about the middle of the 17th century.

His Humble Birth

Of Governor Macrae’s ancestry, however, nothing beyond the Kintail tradition appears to be known. He was born in the neighborhood of Ayr about the year 1677.


His parents were in poor circumstances, and at an early age James was employed in herding cattle. He lost his father while still very young, and his mother then moved to a small thatched cottage in one of the suburbs of Ayr. Here she earned her living as a washerwoman, while her son added to the earnings by serving as an errand boy in the town.

Goes to Sea

By some means or other he contrived to acquire an education—perhaps through the kindness of a fiddler of the town of Ayr called Hugh Macguire, and about 1692 went to sea. It is generally supposed that he was not heard of again in Ayr until he returned home after an absence of about 40 years.

Mission to Sumatra

In 1720 he is mentioned as Captain Macrae, then serving under the Honorable East India Company, and conducting a special mission to the English settlement on the West Coast of Sumatra.  So successfully did he fulfill the object of that mission, and deal with certain commercial abuses which prevailed there at the time, that he was appointed Deputy-Governor of Fort St. David, with reversion of the Governorship of Fort-George.

Governor of Madras

He was afterwards appointed Governor of the Presidency of Madras, and assumed charge of office on Jan 15 1725. His rule is said to have been stern and arbitrary, but highly acceptable to the Company, as he reformed many abuses, reduced expenditure, and greatly increased the Company’s revenues. The first Protestant Mission was inaugurated at Madras during his rule in 1726, and in the following year a general survey of the town and suburbs was made under his direction. He is said to have been emphatically a commercial Governor, effecting fiscal reforms on all hands, correcting various abuses and greatly developing and increasing the commerce of the Presidency, while many improvements of various kinds were carried out as the result of his intelligent and energetic policy. The old records of Madras reveal many facts most creditable to the rule of Governor James Macrae, who thus occupies a high and honorable place in the long list of eminent statesmen who have made our Indian Empire what it is. He resigned the Governorship on the May 14 1730, and on Jan 21 1731, set sail for Scotland.

Return to Scotland

On his return to Scotland he found himself a perfect stranger, but a diligent search led to the discovery of some relatives or friends, whom he had treated with great kindness, and among whom he made a liberal distribution of his wealth. He bought several estates in the West of Scotland, and fixed his own residence at Orangefield, in Ayrshire. He was admitted a burgess of Ayr on Aug 1 1733, and in 1735 he presented Glasgow with a bronze statue of William III.

His Death

He died on Jul 21 1744, and was buried in Monktoun Churchyard, where he is commemorated by a monument which was erected in 1750. Governor Macrae died unmarried, and the exact degree of relationship between himself and the family which he adopted appears to be somewhat doubtful. They were the grandchildren of Hugh Macguire, to whose kindness, as already mentioned, Governor Macrae is said to have been indebted for such education as he received in his childhood, and they are also mentioned as his sister’s children. It is quite possible that a son of Hugh Macguire, also called Hugh, may have married Governor Macrae’s sister. In that case, then, both descriptions might be correct. (The writer of the article on Governor Macrae in the Dictionary of national Biography speaks of the family he adopted simply as the grand-children of his old benefactor, Hugh Macguire, but in J. Talboys Wheeler’s Madras in the Olden Time (a work to which the author of the Clan Book is indebted for most of the information contained in this chapter) they are mentioned as the children of Governor Macrae’s sister, Mrs. Hugh Macguire.)

His Heirs

On obtaining some information about her, Governor Macrae is said to have written to his sister, Mrs. Hugh Macguire, at Ayr, enclosing a large sum of money, and offering to provide for herself and family. The surprise of Mrs. Macguire and her husband, who is said to have been a poor man, earning his living partly as a carpenter and partly as a fiddler, was, of course, unbounded, and "they are said to have given way to their delight by indulging in a luxury which will serve to illustrate both their ideas of happiness, and the state of poverty in which they had been living. They procured a loaf of sugar and a bottle of brandy, and scooping out a hold in the sugar loaf they poured in the brandy, and supped up the sweetened spirit with spoons until the excess of their felicity compelled them to close their eyes in peaceful slumber." (J. Talboys Wheeler’s Madras in the Olden Time) Governor Macrae made liberal provisions for the Macguire family, as follows:—

Their Marriages and Descendants

1. The eldest daughter married Mr. Charles Dalrymple, Sheriff-Clerk of Ayr, and received the estate of Orangefield.

2. Margaret married Mr. James Erskine, who received the estate of Alva, and was afterwards elevated to the bench under the title of Lord Alva.

3. Elizabeth married William Cunningham, 13th Earl of Glencairn, in Aug 1744, and died at Coats, near Edinburgh, on June 24 1801, leaving issue—

a. William, Lord Kilmaurs, died unmarried in 1768.

b. James, 14th Earl of Glencairn, died unmarried on Jan 30 1791. This was the Earl of Glencairn so frequently referred to in the works of Robert Burns, and on whose death the poet wrote his well-known "Lament for James, Earl of Glencairn."

c. John, 15th and last Earl of Glencairn, born in 1750, was an officer in the 14th Dragoons, but afterwards took orders in the Church of England. He married, in 1785, Lady Isabella Erskine, 2nd daughter of the 10th Earl of Buchan, and widow of William Leslie Hamilton. He died without issue on Sep 24 1796, when the title became extinct.

d. Harriet married Sir Alexander Don, Bart. Of Newton-Don, Roxburgh, and had a son—Sir Alexander Don, Bart., who succeeded to the barony of Ochiltree on the death of his grandmother, the Countess of Glencairn in 1801.

4. The fourth daughter married James Macrae, of whom next.

James Macrae, who married the fourth daughter of Hugh Macguire, received the barony of Houston, in Renfrewshire. He appears to have been a young gentleman of doubtful origin, said to have been the nephew of Governor Macrae, but supposed to have been his natural son. (This account of James Macrae is from J. Talboys Wheeler’s Madras in the Olden Time, but the writer of the article in the Dictionary of National Biography says that he was the son of Hugh Macguire (in which case he was probably the nephew of Governor Macrae), and that he adopted the name Macrae as one of Governor Macrae’s heirs. This would seem to be borne out by his service if heirship, and in that case he could not, of course, have married a daughter of Hugh Macguire, as stated by J. Talboys Wheeler.) He was a Captain in the Army, and on Apr 4 1758, was served heir general to Hugh Macguire of Drumdow, who is there mentioned as his father, and who died in 1753. Captain Macrae died on Oct 16 1760, leaving issue, at least one son—

James, of Houston, and afterwards of Holmains, in Dumfriesshire, was also a Captain in the Army. In consequence of an insult which Captain Macrae received, or thought he had received, one night at the theater door in Edinburgh, from one of the servants of Sir George Ramsay, Bart. Of Bamff, in Perthshire, a quarrel arose between Sir George and himself. The quarrel led to a duel between them on Musselburgh Links, in which Sir George Ramsay was killed, in 1790. After this Captain Macrae appears to have lived abroad. He married, about 1787, Maria Cecilia, daughter of Judge Le Maistre, of the Supreme Court of Judicature in India, and by her, who died in 1806, had issue as below. Captain Macrae died in France on Jan 10 1820.

1. James Charles, Esq. Of Holmains, J.P. and D.L., was born on Jan 2 1791. He married on June 26 1820, Margaret Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Alexander Grierson, Bart. Mr. Macrae sold Holmains, and went to live at Reading, where he died about 1876. He appears to have been the last representative in the mail line of this family.

2. Marie Le Maistre married J. P. Davis, Esq., of London.

Next: The Rev. James Macrae of Sauchieburn