James Mackay's father, James Mackay, was a railway signalman from Clashfern in Sutherland. Later in his life Mackay spoke of the important role his father played showing great courtesy and gentleness. James' mother was Janet Hymers. He was brought up in a family in which the strict disciple of the Free Presbyterian Church was observed, and the importance of Bible study and observance of the Sabbath was the way of life. His father had a deep interest in theology and, with his excellent memory, was very knowledgeable on the subject. It became an important part of the young boy's life and, in later years, he continued to be a devoted member of the Free Presbyterian Church.
Mackay attended George Heriot's School in Edinburgh and then entered the University of Edinburgh where he studied mathematics and natural philosophy (as physics was known in the university at that time). In 1947 he was awarded a scholarship to undertake further study in mathematics at the University of Cambridge and in the following year he graduated from Edinburgh with an MA with Honours in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. At this stage, rather than take up the scholarship in Cambridge, Mackay took a lectureship in the Mathematics Department of the University of St Andrews. He taught there for two academic years, 1948-49 and 1949-50. His professor at St Andrews was Turnbull, the Regius Professor of Mathematics, and he became a colleague of Dan Rutherford. In fact these two years were the final two years of Turnbull's tenure of the Regius Chair, for he retired in 1950. The classes at this time were small, and in 1948-49 Mackay taught a final year honours class of six mathematics students (one of whom went on to become a university lecturer researching in algebra).
After these two years teaching mathematics at St Andrews, Mackay went to Trinity College, Cambridge to take up the scholarship he had been awarded to study mathematics there. He received another scholarship in his second year, 1951-52, and graduated with a BA from Cambridge in 1952. He then changed topic and, returning to Edinburgh to study law, he was awarded the degree of LLB (with distinction) in 1955. In the same year he was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates, the members of the bar of Scotland. At this stage he took on a variety of both civil and criminal cases. Making use of his mathematical skills he specialised in complex tax cases where these skills could be put to good use. In 1958 Mackay married Elizabeth Gunn Hymers; they had three children, a son James born in 1958, and two daughters Elizabeth Janet born in 1961 and Shona Ruth born in 1968.
In 1965 Mackay was appointed Queen's Counsel and he was Sheriff Principal, Renfrew and Argyll, from 1972 to 1974. He was vice-Dean of the Faculty of Advocates from 1973 to 1976 when he was elected Dean of the Faculty, a position he held until 1979. In 1979, Mackay was appointed Lord Advocate, the senior law officer in Scotland, and was created a life peer becoming Baron Mackay of Clashfern, of Eddracchillis in Sutherland. He took this designation because of his father's birthplace. Mackay was Lord Advocate until 1984 when he became a Senator of the College of Justice in Scotland for 1984-85, then Lord of Appeal in Ordinary until 1987. Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister, appointed Mackay as Lord Chancellor on 27 October 1987. He held this position during the ten years in which the Conservative Party formed the government of Britain, making his tenure of the role of Lord Chancellor one of the longest in British history. As Lord Chancellor, Mackay was the Speaker of the House of Lords, the head of the judiciary, the custodian of the great seal, and the chief administrator of the legal system and courts. He was a cabinet minister with control of all judicial appointments except those reserved to the prime minister.
In 1986 Lord Mackay became headline news in the British Press for very unfortunate reasons. In that year he attended the funeral of a senior Roman Catholic judge, and in 1988 he again attended a funeral service in a Roman Catholic Church when another of his colleagues died. For this the Free Presbyterian Church stopped him being able to take communion. The Synod reviewed the action that the Church had taken against Mackay in 1989, and upheld its punishment. Later, with great sadness, he left the Free Presbyterian Church.
On St Andrews day (30 November) 1991, Lord Mackay was installed as Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He served in this capacity for 14 years and during that time conferred degrees on over 30,000 students:-
His last official act as Chancellor was to confer an honorary degree on his wife, Elizabeth, Lady Mackay, in recognition of her own important and valued contribution to the University during her husband's tenure as Chancellor.
Lord Mackay has received a great many honours in recognition of his outstanding achievements. The list is far too long to give in an article of this type so we mention only a few. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1984 and received their Royal Medal in 2003. He has received honorary degrees from the universities of Edinburgh (1983), Dundee (1983), Strathclyde (1985), Aberdeen (1987), St Andrews (1989), Cambridge (1989), William and Mary (1989), Birmingham (1990), Newcastle (1990), Bath (1994), Glasgow (1994), Oxford (1998), and De Montford (1999). He was also elected an honorary Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge in 1989 and of Girton College Cambridge in 1990. On 8 July 1999. The Queen attended the installation of Lord Mackay of Clashfern as Knight of the Order of the Thistle in a ceremony at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. The Queen approved that the Right Honourable the Lord Mackay of Clashfern KT be appointed Lord High Commissioner to the 2005 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and he was reappointed by the Queen to the 2006 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Lord Mackay has walking and travel as his recreations but, in keeping with his religious upbringing, never works or travels far on Sunday. This, he says:-
... serves as a good antidote to getting too high an opinion of yourself.
Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson