Archibald McKay was born in the Townhead district of Kilmarnock on 28 June 1801, son of Alexander McKay of Kildonan, and Janet McGill, daughter of a Kilmarnock shoemaker. Alexander had been posted to Kilmarnock while serving with the Sutherland Fencibles, and upon the regiment disbanding in 1797 the couple settled in Kilmarnock.
McKay received a rudimentary early schooling from various ‘masters’ in the town. At thirteen he was bound as apprentice to a handloom weaver, the while attending evening grammar classes to continue his education. He did not take kindly to weaving, and the fluctuations in the profitability of the trade at the time persuaded him to turn instead to bookbinding, by which he successfully made his living throughout his life. He married young, in 1820, but all but one of the children born to him and his first wife died in infancy. After his first wife’s death he married again, in 1867.
McKay’s mother’s father had been acquainted with Robert Burns, and she herself was a keen reader, a taste she fostered among her children; by his seventeenth year McKay was contributing poetical pieces to the weekly Kilmarnock Miscellany. His first publication was in broadsheet form, Drouthie Tam, a satire of which his older self disapproved, and excluded from later editions of his work. At the time, though, it was immensely popular, and was rushed through several printings. Perhaps its popularity (and disowning) were because it depicted still-living characters well-known in Kilmarnock. Two small collections were produced, one in 1832, and another in 1844. A collected edition, Ingleside Lilts, appeared in1855, then in several updated editions with new poems each time.
James Paterson, author of The Contemporaries of Burns and the More Recent Poets of Ayrshire (1840) was of the opinion that McKay was a better prose writer than poet, judging by essays McKay had written for the Forensic Society, a newly established debating society, and certainly it is as a historian that he is best known today. The well-known book History of Kilmarnock appeared in 1848, and went through several editions, being revised in 1909 by William Findlay.
McKay opened a small stationer’s shop, and then a circulating library. His premises became, in the words of William Findlay, ‘the acknowledged howf of all the literati of the town’. He was an early member and office-bearer of the Kilmarnock Burns Club, being an enthusiastic and knowledgeable Burnsite. Appreciation of his contribution to the cultural life of the town was demonstrated by a dinner given in his honour on the occasion of the second edition of his History in 1858.
McKay was knocked down by the gale-force wind that swept across Scotland on the night of the Tay Bridge disaster in 1879, and never completely recovered. He died on 14 April 1883 and was given a public funeral, attended by Kilmarnock’s Provost and members of the Town Council.
McKay attracted rather more than just a local reputation for his poetry. His best known piece is probably ‘My First Bawbee’, which still circulates on the internet today, and several of his songs were set to music and gained a wide popularity.
D.H. Edwards has summed up McKay’s appeal in his biographical entry in Modern Scottish Poets, Second Series, 1881:
Mr M’Kay’s poems are marked by great simplicity and perspicuity of style, and genuine humour, with frequent touches of true pathos. The domestic and ordinary life of the humbler classes he has studied well and understands thoroughly, and the scenes of ‘the cottage homes of Scotland’ are described by him most perfectly, and in a way which never fails to interest.
From the Library Catalogue