The Kay Family Association UK

Kays Everywhere

A local historian who has extensively researched Lancashire family history once said ‘whatever you do, don’t touch the Kays’. Anyone who has tried to research their family history in the south of Lancashire or the West Riding of Yorkshire will heartily agree – there were so many of them. The earliest references that we have found to the name Kay in various parts of the country are Norfolk (1197), Northants (1199), Gloucestershire (1199), London (1207), Yorkshire (1219), Lancashire (1246), Worcestershire (1275), Sussex (1296), Suffolk (1327), Staffordshire (1331), Cumberland (1484), Cambridgeshire (1492), Somerset (1500) and Lincolnshire (1506). We’ve quite clearly got Kays all over the country from early days, not all stemming from the same stock. So where did they live?

The main source for this page is Ancestry’s analysis of the 1891 Census ( which analyses surnames by county. Also worth looking at are , where you can drill down at look at the distribution of a surname at a more local level, and which includes a facility to search overseas. However you do have to get the surname right, and synonyms are not handled. Our main variants are Kay, Kaye, Key and Keay (all four figure among our membership). MacKay and McKay definitely have to be included; these are not restricted to Scotland, the names were often used in the north of England. Cay is an obvious phonetic match so is included. So also are Key, MacKie and McKie – we have a member whose surname is Key and whose ancestry can be traced to the West Riding of Yorkshire; his DNA (see Project 50) puts him firmly in the same group as many of our Kay and Kaye members, so phonetic variants on Key have to be considered valid as well. Okey, which is a synonym for Kay offered by Family Search, has not been included – there were very few of them in 1891! This analysis covers England (including the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands), Scotland and Wales, and the names we’ve looked at and their frequencies are:

12677 (43.2%)
2817 (9.3%)
66 (20.9%)
15560 (26.0%)
224 (0.8%)
20 (0.1%)
2 (0.6%)
246 (0.4%)
3953 (13.5%)
118 (0.4%)
13 (4.1%)
4084 (6.8%)
137 (0.5%)
3 (0%)
11 (3.5%)
151 (0.3%)
4037 (13.8%)
190 (0.6%)
80 (25.3%)
4307 (7.2%)
1228 (4.2%)
135 (0.4%)
22 (7.0%)
1385 (2.3%)
45 (0.2%)
2 (0%)
6 (1.9%)
53 (0.1%)
255 (0.9%)
7 (0.02%)
15 (4.7%)
277 (0.5%)
766 (2.6%)
461 (1.5%)
3 (0.9%)
1230 (2.1%)
195 (0.7%)
43 (0.1%)
17 (5.4%)
255 (0.4%)
2401 (8.2%)
8839 (29.2%)
29 (9.2%)
11269 (18.8%)
1410 (4.8%)
12659 (41.9%)
14069 (23.5%)
1237 (4.2%)
3428 (11.3%)
47 (14.9%)
4712 (7.9%)
732 (2.5%)
1485 (4.9%)
5 (1.6%)
31 (0.1%)
12 (0.04%)
43 (0.1%)

If MacKay and its variants are included, there were marginally more Kays living north of the border in Scotland than in England. Clan MacKay is an obvious contributor to this; centred on Sutherland in the far north of Scotland, together with the neighbouring counties of Ross & Cromarty and Caithness, we find 29% of the Scottish MacKays and McKays. The great majority of the rest lived in the Lowlands, along a line between Wigtownshire in the west to East Lothian in the east. Whether these were homegrown, or were MacKays who had come south, we will never know, but it may be worth noting that while there was a slight majority in favour of the MacKay spelling in the north, the further south you go, the more the McKay spelling prevailed. The south is also where we find the Kays, most predominately in Lanarkshire and Midlothian. This area is also where the Scottish coal mining industry was centred, and it is known that there was a migration of Lancashire miners to work in Scotland.

In England, the name Kay and its variants was more common in the north, the biggest concentrations by far being in Lancashire (31% of the total for England) and Yorkshire (22%). Following them in the north were Durham (5%), Cheshire (3%) and Northumberland (2%). Moving south, Staffordshire (3%), Derby (2%), Nottinghamshire (2%) and Warwickshire (2%) all had a Kay presence, though it has to be said that in 1891 there were Kays in every county in England. But the most significant presence after Lancashire and Yorkshire was the City of London, with 10% of the national total. London was always going to attract people from all over the country (and Scotland it would seem – a third of those living there were called MacKay, McKay or McKie) but this is a very high number; from the early records we’ve seen, some of them had been there for a long time.

It will come as no surprise to readers of a Yorkshire origin to find that the great majority of Kayes (75% of them) lived in Yorkshire. What does surprise, and may shatter a few cherished illusions, is that the Kaye variant was by no means as common in that county as might have been thought; slightly less than half (46%) of those living in the county spelt their name with an ‘e’ and the Kays without an ‘e’ were not far behind them with 38% of the total for the county. Contrast Lancashire, where less than 5% put an ‘e’ in their name.

In some parts of Cumberland, ‘Kay’ and ‘McKie’ are treated as synonymous – there are entries in Family Search that are clearly for the same person where both versions are used. In fact, names with the Mac and Mc prefixes were just as common as those without in Cumberland, Durham and Northumberland. We assume this is due to a shared ancestry rather than an incursion of Scots.

Cay was often used in 17th and 18th century registers, but generally died out except in Aberdeenshire in Scotland and a small section of north east England around Sunderland. In 1891 it was also to be found in London, Cambridgeshire and Warwickshire. Key was, as expected, used in Yorkshire, but also occurred in a number of other widely distributed counties – London (where there were as many Keys as Kays), Cheshire, Cornwall (where it was almost universal), Cumberland, Derbyshire, Essex, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire being the top of the list.

The Roman name Caius has been suggested as a possible origin for our surname and is assumed to be the root of ‘Kei’ who appeared in early Welsh legends. But there were actually very few Kays living in Wales in 1891 – only 316 families – and, as might be expected, the Key variant was slightly more common than Kay, though there were some MacKays as well. Presumably this was the origin of the Key variant in Cornwall. Likewise the suggestion that the Manx Kie or MacKie might a possible origin is not born out by the figures – there was just one MacKie there in 1891, compared with 42 Kays, 62 Kayes and 10 MacKays. Our DNA study suggested a separate origin for these Kays, one has to assume Scandinavian.