The third in a series of blogs exploring aspects of the Strathnaver Museum refurbishment project.
The building work on the refurbished museum is nearing completion and we will soon be turning our attention to the mammoth task of returning the 1,000s of objects held in Strathnaver Museum’s collection to their new homes.
One such object is the ship’s bell from HMS Mackay which sat on the dresser in the former Mackay Room from 1995 to 2021.
HMS Mackay was ordered in April 1917 under the War Emergency Programme of the First World War. Launching on 21st December 1918 she was commissioned in June 1919. During the interwar years she served as part of the Royal Navy’s destroyer flotillas.
Her service in the Second World War saw her perform defence and patrol duties in the English Channel and North Sea, as well as taking part in operations including the evacuation of Dunkirk, Normandy invasion and assisting in the re-opening of Norwegian ports.
HMS Mackay was the first Royal Navy ship to carry the Mackay name. She was one of eight Admiralty Class Flotilla Leaders with Scottish names, often referred to as the ‘Scott Class’, built by Cammel Laird at Birkenhead. Armed with five 4.7 inch guns and one 3-inch AA and two two-pounders, six 21-inch torpedo tubes, she was capable of 36.5 knots. She carried the pendant number D70.
Serving with both the Atlantic and Mediterranean Fleets between the wars, she was attached to the 2nd Submarine Flotilla, Home Fleet in 1938. At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 HMS Mackay was deployed as Leader of 11th Destroyer Flotilla at Plymouth for convoy defence and anti-submarine patrol in the English Channel.
On the 26th May 1940 she took part in the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk (Operation Dynamo) embarked 581 troops for return passage to Dover. Unfortunately she was grounded off Dunkirk when she was damaged in a collision with HM Destroyer Montrose. She was one of 19 destroyers damaged during the evacuation and was withdrawn from service for repair before continuing defence and patrol duties.
Evacuation from Dunkirk, May-June 1940 © IWM (H 1640)
During 1941 she was given a refit during which an RAF radar outfit modified for naval use was fitted to give warning of approaching aircraft.
She was diverted from Flotilla exercises in February 1942 and led the 2nd Division in the attack to intercept German warships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen that were on passage through the English Channel from Brest to Wilhelmshaven. This was during the ‘Channel Dash’ of the German Battle Fleet through the Straits of Dover on 12 February.
In March 1942 she was nominated for conversion to Short Range Escort and by April was under conversion. Radar Type 271 was fitted to provide warming of surface attacks and for navigational use.
A Convoy to Russia, March 1942. © IWM (A 8207)
During Warships Week 18-24 April 1942 HMS Mackay was adopted by Wigtownshire and of the £300,000 target £274,905 was raised by public subscription. Controversially, she had first been offered by the Admiralty to Morayshire as an alternative to HMS Moray, their preferred choice. Such conflicts between local wishes and ships available for adoption were often a cause of controversy and may have hindered local commitment to Warship Weeks in some areas.
Following conversion she returned for duty with the Home Fleet and was deployed to provide Distant Cover for Russian Convoy and to support the allied garrison at Spitsbergen (Operation Gearbox). In October she resumed flotilla duties for Convoy defence at Harwich and took part in enemy action whilst defending North Sea convoys.
15 February 1943, Harwich on board HMS Mackay. © IWM (A 14549)
In April 1944 she was nominated for duty in support of the planned allied landings in Normandy (Operation Neptune). The convoy comprised of 25 Motor Tanker ships and four others taking Pre-loaded British Build-up Division to the Eastern Task Force area.
HMS Mackay then returned to Harwich to continue convoy defence and patrol duties. During this time the Atlantic Convoys were re-routed through the English Channel as the threat from air attacks had been removed due to the loss of air bases in western France. However, threats continued with extensive attacks by E-Boats, submersibles and mine laying.
On May 16th HMS Mackay deployed in support of operations to re-occupy ports in Norway. She escorted minesweepers with HM Destroyer Viceroy during clearance operations before entry into Trondheim.
HMS Viceroy © IWM (FL 5440)
After VJ Day HMS Mackay was reduced to Reserve and placed on the Disposal List in 1946. The ship was sold to BISCO for demolition by Metal Industries on 18th February 1947. For her final journey she arrived in tow at Charlestown, Fife to be broken-up in February 1948.
Fortunately for us a small piece of HMS Mackay’s illustrious military service survives in her ship’s bell which was presented to Dr George Mackay, Edinburgh by the officers and crew of HMS Mackay as a sign of appreciation of his support and hospitality.
Dr Mackay was a noted surgeon who in his time was a President of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was seanachaidh (clan historian) for Clan Mackay for over 40 years and published a number of works such as ‘The Scots Dutch Brigade’ and ‘Mackay Regiments’. Dr Mackay also served as a Royal Archer, a ceremonial unit that serves as the sovereign’s bodyguard in Scotland. Dr Mackay took great interest in HMS Mackay and in those who served in her on her many visits to Leith and he would welcome and provide hospitality to her officers and crew.
The bell passed to Dr Mackay’s son Kenneth, a former President of the Clan Mackay Society, and following Kenneth’s death his widow, Stephanie, kindly presented it to Strathnaver Museum on 27th July 1995 on behalf of Kenneth’s children; Iain Murray Mackay and Margaret Ann Mackay.
The ship’s bell from HMS Mackay will be displayed in a custom built exhibition case in the refurbished Mackay Centre located on the first floor of the main museum building.
If you have any stories or photographs of HMS Mackay we would love to hear them. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edited 23 August 2023 with additional information provided by Margaret Ann Mackay.