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Clan Donald Magazine No 12 (1991) Online

Sir John HA Macdonald (Lord Kingsburgh) By Norman AM Macdonald WS

John Hay Athole Macdonald, who was the first President of the Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh from its formation in 1891. and of the Clan Donald Society (originally called the MacDonald Society) of Glasgow from its initial inception in 1889, both of which offices he held until his death in 1919. was described as the most versatile Scotsman of his day.

The Presidency in his day was more an honorary position than it subsequently became. He took a close interest in Clan affairs, and presided at general meetings, dinners and gatherings; he was known to give personal financial help on occasion to members in need. However, he did not play an active part in the management of the Societies through their Councils.

John HA Macdonald was born in Edinburgh in 1836. The male descent on his father's side can be directly traced through the Chiefs of Sleat, back to Hugh Macdonald, the first Chief, and beyond to the Lords of the Isles. The 9th Chief of Sleat, Sir James Mor Macdonald (1643-1678), son of Sir Donald Gorm Macdonald, gave his third son, John, a wadset of Totscor and other lands in Skye. and following this line one finds that John (described as of Bernisdale), who died about 1710, was succeeded by his son, Norman, who died about 1740. This Norman married Margaret, daughter of Rev. Donald Nicolson of Scorrybreac, Minister of Kilmuir, the 12th Chief of Clan Nicolson. Their son, John (of Kinlochdale), who was drowned in 1748, was the father of Norman Macdonald of Bernisdale and Scalpay, Skye. John HA Macdonald's grandfather. Norman married in 1770 his cousin Susannah Macalister, daughter of Ranald Macalister of Loup, who farmed at Skirinish, Skye, and Anne, who was the daughter of Alexander Macdonald VI of Kingsburgh and sister of Allan Macdonald VII of Kingsburgh, who married the famous Flora Macdonald.

Anne Macalister (as she then was) helped to look after the Prince when he was sheltered for the night at Kingsburgh House during his time on the run in 1746. She served supper to the company, and by all accounts, including the one she left, it was a highly entertaining evening. Twenty-seven years later, having married Lauchlan MacKinnon of Corrychatachan after the death of Ranald Macalister, she entertained two other famous guests, in the persons of Boswell and Johnson, when they stayed at her house outside Broadford in Skye.

Norman Macdonald, John HA Macdonald's Grandfather, became tacksman of the Island of Scalpay. He was a very cultivated and well-travelled man for his time. Born in 1740, he was an exact contemporary and close friend and companion of the exceptionally gifted Sir James Macdonald, 8th Baronet of Sleat, ("The Scottish Marcellus'). Sir James went on the Grand Tour; he knew Adam Smith and David Hume and met some of the other leading intellectual figures of the day. He spoke fluently as many as a dozen languages. Norman Macdonald went with him to France, and he accompanied him to Southern Italy when Sir James travelled there for the sake of his health in the winter of 1765. staying with him until Sir James's death in Rome the following year at the tragically young age of 24.

Norman is believed to have been sent at one time by the Government to Newfoundland in charge of Skye emigrants.

Norman and Susannah Macdonald had sixteen children - eight sons and eight daughters - mostly brought up on Scalpay. John HA Macdonald's father, Matthew Norman, born in 1793, was the youngest son and penultimate child. Of Matthew's brothers, six became soldiers, two being distinguished Generals - one Lt. Gen. Sir John Macdonald. who became Colonel of the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment and Adjutant-General of the Forces, and the other Lt. Gen. Alexander Macdonald, Colonel Commandant of the Royal Horse Artillery, who is famed for his part (with Norman Ramsay) in "the brilliant feat of arms" at Fuentes d'Onoro in the Peninsular War.

Matthew was named after another famed soldier - his Uncle, Col. Matthew Macalister. He did not, however, pursue a military career himself. Acting on the wishes of his father, he studied law and entered the legal profession, being admitted as a Writer to the Signet in Edinburgh in 1815. He built up a busy practice and devoted himself to many causes. He was active in the Midlothian Yeomanry and in the Royal Company of Archers. Handsome of figure, very active in mind and body, much of his character and his diversity of interests came down to his son. John.

Matthew Norman married three times. His second wife, Grace Hay, daughter of Sir John Hay, Bart. of Smithfield and Haystoun in Peebleshire, was John HA Macdonald's mother. Grace died very shortly after Johns birth, and six years later Matthew Norman married again. His third wife was Agnes Hume of Ninewells, Berwickshire, the daughter of David Hume, Baron of the Exchequer and Professor of Scots Law at Edinburgh University, and grand-niece of David Hume, the philosopher and historian. As Agnes Hume succeeded to the estate of Ninewells, Matthew assumed the name Macdonald Hume. As John's step-mother for twenty-one years until her death in 1864, when he was 27, she played an important part in his early life and upbringing.

John Macdonald spent six years at The Edinburgh Academy, during part of which time he had as a tutor at home Alexander (later Sheriff) Nicolson (known as "The Celt"), a close friend of the family, who became well-known as the first conqueror of the Cuillin peak named after him - Sgurr Alasdair and he then entered Edinburgh University at the age of 15 for a year's study of mathematics, chemistry and natural philosophy. This laid the foundation for his life-long interest in applied science and innovative work in that field. He spent the next three years on the continent, mainly at the University of Basle in Switzerland, studying French and German in preparation for the Army Entrance Examination. However, it was decided that a better future for him would be in the Law. and after taking a law degree at Edinburgh University, and studying for the Scottish Bar. he was admitted as an Advocate in 1859.

Not entering the Army was a great disappointment to him, but side by side with his legal career he was able to pursue his close interest in military matters through his long association with the Volunteer Force. The call to form an auxiliary Force for national defence had gone out in 1859, and he was among the first to join the Advocates' Company. He rose very quickly in rank, and commanded the Queen's Rifle Volunteer Brigade and the Forth Brigade, becoming the first Volunteer officer to receive the rank of Brigadier-General. He also became Adjutant-General of the Royal Company of Archers (the Sovereign's bodyguard in Scotland).

With his customary eye for the practical and exercise of good sense, and through persistent efforts with the War Office over many years, he brought about many reforms of the drill book and of training and tactics - "My 30 Years' War", he calls it. Much of the out-dated, conservative military thinking was done away with as a result.

One of his many inventions was a portable field telegraph.  Another major innovation which he claims to have made related to maps. In his book, "Fifty Years of It", sub-titled "The Experiences and Struggles of a Volunteer of 1859", he writes that, as a result of trying to decipher the terrain from inadequate maps when on Army manoeuvres, he introduced the system of having varying colouring of contours on maps, to distinguish the gradations of higher and lower ground. His involvement with the Volunteers led to a further innovation; he realised that communications would be greatly improved by the use of d  stamped cards such as had been introduced in Austria. He wrote to Gladstone and as a result of his exertions postcards were introduced in Britain. He was among the first to own and drive a car, and he saw early on the benefits of motor transport in military operations as well as in domestic and commercial use. He later became Honorary Colonel of the Army Motor Reserve.

In the event, as he says, as a Volunteer he was able to enjoy a much longer life in soldiering (and wield more influence) than if he had been in the Regular Army. He was dubbed "The Heaven-Born Soldier."

He took a keen interest in rifle-shooting, being a founder of the Scottish Rifle Association, and captaining the Scottish team; he captained the British team in the International Rifle match at the Philadelphia Centenary Exhibition in 1876.

His early practice at the Bar was mainly as a criminal defence Counsel; he excelled in jury trials where his love of the theatrical could be brought into play. In 1867 his "Practical Treatise on the Criminal Law of Scotland" was published. It remained the leading text-book on Criminal Law for nearly 100 years, and is still often referred to in the Courts. During his early years at the Bar he also wrote regular political and other articles for "The Scotsman" and "The Courant" newspapers, and later contributed regularly to Blackwood's Magazine on a variety of subjects, mainly political.

His first official legal appointment was as Sheriff of Ross, Cromarty and Sutherland, which he held until his appointment as Solicitor-General in 1876. He held that office until the fall of Disraeli's Government in 1880, when he took silk and was appointed Sheriff of Perthshire. He was elected Dean of the Faculty of Advocates in 1882.

Having stood unsuccessfully as Conservative candidate in three Parliamentary elections - two in the City of Edinburgh, and one in the Haddington Burghs - he was elected as MP for Edinburgh and St. Andrews' Universities in 1885. This was when Lord Salisbury became Prime Minister for the first time, and Macdonald was appointed Lord Advocate, the principal Law Officer for Scotland. It was a crucial time in Scottish political history. The position of Secretary for Scotland was re-instated that year for the first time since the '45, and the Scottish Office was set up. He was the first Lord Advocate to serve as part of the new regime; it was he, in fact, who secured Dover House in Whitehall as the London home of the Scottish Office, where it still remains.

For a long time there had been no more powerful figure in Scotland than the Lord Advocate, who exercised immense powers in the realms not only of law, but of politics and patronage. Although these latter powers had waned very considerably, and were further diminished by the advent of the Secretary for Scotland, some residue remained, and in fact for much of his time as Lord Advocate. Macdonald was the chief Scottish spokesman in the House of Commons for the Government, as, apart from a period of fifteen months when his friend AJ Balfour was Scottish Secretary, the holder of that office was in the House of Lords, in the persons of, first, the Duke of Richmond and Gordon (the first to be appointed), and, later, the Marquis of Lothian.

It was an extremely critical time in Scotland. The dominant issue of the 1880s was the unrest in the Highlands and Islands, caused by the distressed conditions and deep-felt grievances in the crofting communities. The maintenance of law and order, for which the Lord Advocate had prime responsibility in Scotland, soon proved a difficult and delicate matter. There were concerted campaigns of non-payment of rents and rates, there were illegal seizures and occupations of land, there were deforcements of Sheriff officers, preventing the law being carried out. Troops were sent to help the beleaguered local police force, a step first taken by Gladstone's Government, and later under Salisbury. As Lord Advocate, Macdonald had to advise on many contentious matters such as the strict demarcation lines for the use of troops, and the definition of their role in distinction to that of the police. The Sheriff of Inverness, the notorious Sheriff Ivory, always prone to exceed his powers of office and enflame already highly sensitive situations, had on a number of occasions to be kept in line. The Lord Advocate also had the responsibility of deciding on the action to be taken on behalf of the Crown in bringing offenders to trial. Feelings were running high, and many of the prosecutions and the sentences imposed aroused heated debate.

In addition to his legal role Macdonald was often the leading spokesman in the House of Commons for the Government's Scottish policies, including putting forward its proposals for voluntary emigration and other schemes to alleviate the situation in the Highlands and Islands.

The disturbances continued throughout his time in Parliament. The passing of the Crofters' Act in 1886 righted some of the main grievances, notably by introducing fair rents and fixity of tenure, but it soon became clear that it would not resolve some of the worst problems arising out of the acute shortage of land, and the plight of the smaller croft-holders and in particular of the cottars, who had no right to any land, persisted.

Aside from the crofting disturbances, Macdonald dealt with a plethora of matters, large and small, in his Parliamentary capacity. The most important legislation, which he introduced and steered through, was the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Bill 1887, which considerably simplified proceedings in criminal cases.

His political career and term as Lord Advocate came to an end when he was appointed Lord Justice-Clerk in the autumn of 1888, taking the title of Lord Kingsburgh through his family connection with the Macdonalds of Kingsburgh. As such he was head of the judicial criminal administration in Scotland, a position to which he was well suited. He was not so happy in the civil law role, which the Lord Justice-Clerk also assumes, as President of the Second Division of the Court of Session.

As Lord Justice-Clerk he presided over many famous trials, most notably the Goatfell (Arran). and Monson (Ardlamont) murder cases in 1889 and 1893.

Throughout his career he pursued a remarkable range of activities - as soldier, as reformer, inventor and innovator, as a pioneer of motoring and the development of roads, as a writer of articles, memoirs and stories (including a popular children's story book on the lines of "Alice in Wonderland", illustrated by Charles Doyle), as a lecturer on many subjects from the uses of electricity to education, architecture and the environment, and as a sportsman. He was a Fellow of the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh. In addition to the Presidency of the Clan Donald Societies, other offices he held included President of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, first President of the Royal Scottish Automobile Club, President of the Cockburn Association, President of the Scottish Amateur Athletic-Association, and Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, St. Andrews. He acted as arbiter in disputes in international Rugby Football.

He was created KCB in 1900 and GCB in 1916. Although a Lord in name he always preferred to be known as Sir John.

He followed his father as a devout member of the Catholic Apostolic Church, with which the name of Edward Irving is closely associated. He became both an Archdeacon and an Archangel of the Church, high positions which occupied much of his time.

Sir John Macdonald retired from the bench in 1915. His reminiscences "Life Jottings of an Old Edinburgh Citizen", were published that year.

His last publication was an account in Chambers' Journal. "To Somewhere in France and Back", describing his pilgrimage in 1916 to the grave of one of his sons. Jack, who had been killed at the Front while working as a Captain with the War Graves Commission. Sir John was by then 79. It was the only time he heard the guns of war fired in earnest.

When he died in 1919 he was esteemed as the Grand Old Man of Edinburgh. He had been offered and accepted the Freedom of the City, which was to have been officially conferred on him on about the day he died. The funeral was a big public occasion, the procession, led by the Lord Provost, Sir John Lorne MacLeod, moving along crowd-lined streets from the Catholic Apostolic Church to St. Cuthbert's Churchyard at the west end of Princes Street, where pipers played the lament. "The Land o' the Leal" at the graveside.

Although he never lived in the lands of his paternal ancestors, he was proud to call himself a Highlander, and he displayed in his life many of the characteristics of a Highland gentleman, inherited from his father and grandfather and generations before. A tall and imposing figure, he was nicknamed "Jumbo": Lord Macmillan wrote of him:- "Macdonald's personality was outstanding, his humanity all-embracing, his mind vigorous, and his sympathies warm. He was in his element at public gatherings of a social character". His closest concerns had as their aim the common good and its improvement, and he devoted himself whole-heartedly to the many causes which held his interest.

Sir John married in 1864 Adelaide Jeanette Doran, of Wexford, Ireland, who died in 1870. They had three sons.

Editor's Note: The author who is a Writer to the Signet and Hon. Librarian of the Society is a great-grandson of Lord Kingsburgh. and is currently writing a book about him.

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