26/4/67. Last Monday morning at breakfast time Margaret and I were each studying our copy of the six-monthly University obituary notices, reflecting on the instability of human glory, and unaware that the mortal remains of Alexander Macdonald were lying stiff and cold on the floor of his home in Lanarkshire Highlands. The next name to be added to the University obituary! He had apparently had a cerebral thrombosis in the evening before and as he lived alone no one would be aware until his daily help came on the following morning. Age 83, a bit tottery, but running his own show, he did not complain, and in his old age he tended to revert a bit to the family type, a bit of a "loner" in his rugged independence.
Up until lately Alec, apart from Bill Mackay, was the cousin I knew longest and best. Right up till War I he visited our house perhaps two or three times per year, giving my father news of his mother (Isabella) and brothers. He had so many brothers I got quite mixed up between them and they always seemed to be coming or going, or on the high seas, or having adventures. He and my father were firm friends, and in this I expect he acted as his mother's representative, for she rarely if ever came to our house, while my father's visits to her house would be perhaps one per year. The transport was awkward then.
I think Alec started life as a pupil teacher, and with the aid of evening classes passed his University preliminary examinations and possibly a little late graduated as M.A. and continued around Airdrie and Coatbridge as a teacher. In due course he married Barbara Wyness of Airdrie, by whom he had a son, Dr. Alistair Macdonald, and Agnes (Nana) now Mrs. Gibson, living in Bearsden, Glasgow, with her husband and daughter.
When War I occurred Alec found himself in the Royal Artillery with a commission, and I think he went to France with his corps. In War II, being too old for service abroad, and being then headmaster of a school he was deeply immersed in Civil Defence schemes.
He used to tell me of the machinations which went on in the political sphere in regard to appointments and promotions in the teaching profession in Lanarkshire. In spite of these he was a headmaster for a fair number of years. I think he retired before he had reached the full retiring age, following the strain of the war.
Soon after War II ended his wife died from Chronic Bronchiectasis, and in due course Alec settled down in a house, built of granite, with walls a foot thick, situated in the village of Crawford, south of Lanark. A bleak spot and not far from the summit of the main railway line between England and Scotland. There he dispensed hospitality to ourselves and various members of our family and from there he occasionally sent us cheerful notes. We also exchanged a phone call at New Year's Eve. He enjoyed being looked on as the head of the Mackay family, even though his name was Macdonald.
Until late in life he had jet black hair, and a round rather pleasant face. He was of medium height, good complexion. In his seventies he developed a slight tremour of his hands, and in his eighties a little imbalance, probably due to cerebral thrombosis. He attributed it to "an old football injury". He had played football a lot, and got a trial for Airdrionians. He was a member of Drumpelier Cricket Club. He therefore enjoyed games, and also fishing, and at one time motor cycling. (His motor cycles and motor cars were invariably second hand and they seemed to be continually in a state of dismemberment in Alec's backyard, while he tinkered to improve their performance. J.H.)
I never heard of him going to church, nor did he argue on religion. He conformed to the usual Mackay pattern of conforming to Non-conformity without passion or excitement. I cannot remember him telling a short story, but I do remember his favourite phrases: "Now, where was I? As I was saying. That reminds me... but to come back to what I was telling you. Ugh! Mind you, I'm not saying that...".
He had a fine rich voice, without a Glasgow accent or Highland accent. I used to enjoy when he quoted or recited poetry, best of all when he gave us:
"Bury me in Auld Kirkbride Where the Lord's redeemed anes lie, Near the auld grey kirk, on the bleak hillside, under the starry sky."
That was good and we would have a drink with it.
Little did we dream that Dr. Alistair his son would go into medical practice in Kirkbride, a village in Cumberland. I think however it is a different one from the poet's, but I am not sure.
Twenty or more years after the death of my father I was often amused to see Alec in the same posture as my old man, e.g. seated cross legged in our garden, chin on his hand, elbow on the arm of the chair... just thinking!
When Jessie Petterson was here some years ago we got him to read from the big family bible to us all (It was the Murray Bible really). All a small gesture to the past!
I think he had never thrown his bonnet over a windmill. He was a good steady friend to our family.
Alec was a modest man, never boastful about the fish he caught. Perhaps modesty explains the following incident narrated to me by Frank, who was 7 years younger. Alec was a candidate for a headship somewhere in Lanarkshire, and to enhance his chances he decided to seek the support of George Buchanan, our cousin, then a local M.P. At George's house Alec surprisingly refused to go in and sent Frank instead. George was most helpful and willing, and acted on the phone at once, despite the fact he had a crowded ante-room. He obtained the firm promise of the Chairman of the appointing committee to vote for Alec. Alec in this matter would not write his own application for the job, but got Frank to do it for him! Finally when the committee met, the chairman failed to vote for Alec. Alex felt the broken promise greatly.
Frank Macdonald, Alec's younger brother sent me the following in October 1967:
"Alec was six years older than me, George and Margaret came in between. I think that at eleven or twelve years I must have felt he was very much the "big brother" only to be spoken to by invitation, and not to be asked questions. Meg's presence seemed to divide the family into two parts, her elder brothers, Alan, Bill, Alec and George in one section, Jim, Dan and myself in the other section. Certainly I do not remember anyone of the seniors taking any interest in the juniors.
Yet years later Alec took a keen interest in Jim while at school and particularly when he was a student in forestry at the West of Scotland College with a view to joining the Indian Afforestation Department. But then there was fifteen years difference between these two and Alec had graduated Master of Arts and was a teacher by profession, and these were the only two sons left at home.
When I was an apprentice in law I had to get along on my own, as best I could, as indeed Alec himself had to do when studying to become a teacher. My years in law were part of my training to become an Estate Factor. As a further step in this direction I went to the Benmore Estate office near Sandbank, Argyll and only got home at long intervals, consequently seeing very little of Alec. Then when he married, Mother persuaded me to find a new home for her at Sandbank, so again we two saw less and less of each other. Alec joined the Royal Artillery in October 1914, after being rejected three times because of defective eyesight. I got into the Argylls, 8th Battalion, T.A.
We only met once during the war when he, Bill and Dan visited me in Saint Bartholomews Hospital, Rochester, in or about June 1917, after I had been wounded at Arras. (Frank was wounded on the north bank of the Scarpe Canal while RLM's battalion of the Argylls was moving forward along the south bank, only a mile or so away).
In September 1917 after I had been discharged from the Army I went to the Breadalbane Estate Office, Kenmore and in 1921 gave up Estate Management to become tenant of the Breadalbane Arms Hotel at Aberfeldy. Again Mother persuaded me to find her a home nearby and it was only when I succeeded that Alec and I met frequently. My wife was very fond of them all, and our three kids got along well together. Grannie Macdonald was always very happy to have her brood around her. It was only at this time that Alec and I really got to know and appreciate each other. Although not always seeing eye to eye I think we respected each other for what we were.
Alec was well liked by all who met him in the hotel, and he became friendly with the families in the district. He was a good mixer and could be quite entertaining on occasion, especially if there was a piano handy. He was made a curler in the hotel and became a member of the local club.
Jean too took him out to parties, she liked him so much. As a youngster she had been a pupil of his, and had occasionally been strapped by him for some misdemeanor or other. This was always good ground for banter. Now she was the "strapper" and he the "strapped". As a young man Alec was pretty good at sport. He played football, cricket and golf. He was also a crack shot with rifle and gun.
He was well spoken of by his fellow officers. I met three men on separate occasions who had served alongside him. Each told me they would never have reached officer rank but for his help in coaching and tuition. His forte was signals and as forward observation officer directing the guns.
As a teacher he rated very highly with staff, pupils, parents and Directors of Education. He was a strict disciplinarian both as to staff and pupils but at the same time he encouraged both sets to join together in school plays, singing and games.
During World War II he worked very hard as chief billeting officer for his area, and was especially commended for his efforts in the care of displaced families from the Clydeside Blitz".
Frank. 16th Sept. 1967
P.S. June 1967
Alec died in hospital five days after discovery by his daily help. So Nana told me. RLM.