McKay was born in Addison, near Blaydon, County Durham, the third child of Agnes (née O'Neil) and Peter McKay, a coalminer. His father was originally from Newry, County Armagh, Ireland, and his mother was originally from Stranraer, Wigtownshire, Scotland. He followed his father into the pits at the age of 12. At the age of 27 the Miner's Union sent him to Ruskin College, Oxford where he obtained, with distinction, a Diploma in Economics and Political Science. He then resumed his career in the coal mining industry as a Checkweighman.
McKay was elected as Member of Parliament for Wallsend at the 1945 general election, and was re-elected at four subsequent elections until his retirement at the 1964 general election, where he was succeeded by Ted Garrett. He was made a Freeman of the Borough of Wallsend on 25 April 1963, an honour shared with Aneurin Bevan, who was granted it on 18 October 1952.
- Leigh Rayment's Peerage Pages [self-published source][better source needed]
- North East England Mining Archive and Research Centre
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by John McKay
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
| Member of Parliament for Wallsend
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