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
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
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.
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.
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
½d 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.
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.
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.
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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