Meaning and Probable Origin of the Name
According to the most competent authorities, the name Macrae or Macrath, as it is written in Gaelic, means "son of Grace or Luck,"1 and, so far as at present known, it occurs first in The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, under the year of our Lord 448, a certain "Macraith2 the Wise" being mentioned in that year as a member of the household of St. Patrick. We meet with it occasionally in Ireland from that date onwards, and in the eleventh and twelfth centuries it was frequently used in that country as the personal name of lords, poets, and more especially ecclesiastics.
The name first appears in Scotland at a somewhat later date. In a Gaelic manuscript of the eleventh century, called The Prophecy of Saint Berchan, we find the term Macrath applied to one of the successors of Kenneth Macalpin, -- King Gregory who reigned at Scone during the last quarter of the ninth century, and was one of the greatest of the early Scottish Kings. This seems to be the first instance of the name Macrae or Macrath in Scotland. Gregory the Macrath was not only prosperous in worldly affairs and in his wars against his enemies, but was also a sincere supporter and benefactor of the Scottish Church, which he delivered from the oppression of the Picts, and favored with his support and protection.3 Considering the meaning of the name, and the connection in which it first appears both in Ireland and in Scotland, it is not unreasonable to suppose that it may have been first given as a distinguishing personal name to men who were supposed to be endowed with more than an ordinary measure of sanctity and grace. The name Macrae had thus in all probability an ecclesiastical origin.
In a genealogy of the Mackenzies contained in The Black Book of Clanranald, we find it stated that Gilleoin of the Aird, from whom the old Earls Gillanders of Ross and the Mackenzies of Kintail are traced, was the son of Macrath (McRrath).4 Supposing the genealogy to be correct, this Macrath would have lived not earlier than the tenth century. By that time Christianity was fairly established in the Highlands of Scotland, and as the name Gilleoin means the servent of St. John, it is not at all unlikely that Macrath also may have been so named from some family connection with the early Church in the Highlands.5
The name Macrae (McRaa) occurs also in The Dean of Lismore's Book under circumstances which might well have entitled the bearer of it to be called, if not a son of grace, at all events a son of luck.6
Next: Its First Appearance as a Surname
1. Macbain's Gaelic Dictionary.
2. Raith in Macraith is the old genitive form of Rath.
3. Appendix B.
4. Reliquiae Celticae, Vol. II., page 300.
5. In a Gaelic MS. of 1450, containing genealogies of several Highland families, and published with an English translation in The Transactions of the Iona Club, an ancestor of the Macleans is also mentioned as Gilleoin, son of Macrath (Gilleain me Icrait). This helps to confirm the tradition mentioned below, that the Macraes, Mackenzies, and Macleans were of the same ancestry, but it is not easy to make anything satisfactory out of those old genealogies.
6. Appendix B.