Obituary: Rev Alasdair Macdonell, MA, BD

Inspiring and much-admired former minister of St Mary's Church in Haddington. Picture: Jodie Gill
Inspiring and much-admired former minister of St Mary's Church in Haddington. Picture: Jodie Gill
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Born: 28 September, 1927, in Saskatchewan, Canada. Died: 8 April, 2015, in Gifford, East Lothian aged 87.

For more than a decade, the Rev Alasdair Macdonell was the admired and respected minister at the historic kirk of St Mary’s in Haddington, East Lothian. From 1979 until his retirement in 1992 he was an inspiring figure in the parish and throughout the rural community. His warm personality welcomed anyone to his kirk; he was a man with exceptional pastoral skills, modest to a fault and with an air of genial humanity.

Alasdair William Macdonell was born in Canada, where his father had founded a church in the prairies. He returned to Scotland aged eight for his education and attended Morgan Academy and Dundee High School, then won a scholarship to Fettes College in 1940. There he displayed his sporting and academic talents – he was head of the college, in the 1st XV and leader of the orchestra and won several scholastic prizes.

After national service in the Royal Signals, Macdonell read classics at Pembroke College, Cambridge and from 1951-54 read theology at New College, Edinburgh.

He was assistant at two of the capital’s great kirks – firstly to the Rev Ronald Selby Wright at the Canongate and then to the Rev Harry Whitley at St Giles’ Cathedral.

Macdonell’s first charge was at Burnhead, Uddingston, where with typical dedication and enthusiasm he did much to bolster the community spirit during testing times for the collieries.

The Rev Stewart McGregor, past minister at neighbouring parish Cumbernauld, recalls Macdonell’s time at Uddingston: “Alasdair had a unique individual style, a light touch, a generous spirit and a great sense of fun which prompted many apt and cheerful observations.”

Macdonell’s next charge was in Tarves and Barthol Chapel in Aberdeenshire which was expanding rapidly with the arrival of companies servicing North Sea oil. Macdonell brought to the fine Victorian Barthol Chapel and its neighbour at Tarves a sense of vigour and enthusiasm as the parish doubled in size.

From his childhood in Canada Macdonell had been a keen skater and while in Aberdeenshire the family would await a severe frost so they could skate at Haddo or East Saltoun. Macdonell would test the ice with a rope tied round his middle, the other end fastened to a fence post.

Macdonell was an inspired appointment for the church in Haddington. His grace of manner and strong Christian beliefs captured the very essence of the friendly East Lothian people and countryside.

He was closely involved in The Lothian Trust which had been founded in 1967 by the late Duchess of Hamilton to restore some of the derelict buildings in the town – notably Haddington House – and then make them available for musical and social events.

The festival has expanded considerably over the years with concerts at St Mary’s by the likes of Yehudi Menuhin and exhibitions by Robin Philipson. Macdonell memorably welcomed the Queen Mother to a concert at St Mary’s before a ball at Lennoxlove.

Macdonell did much to revitalise the twinning with Aubigny in France – the French welcomed the Scots – fêtes écossaises – and the French folk arrived to the skirl of the pipes in Haddington.

Macdonell’s enthusiasm for the venture has resulted in students having exchange visits for a term. He was also an enthusiastic member of the annual Whitekirk pilgrimage which has been visited by pilgrims since the 14th century.

Typical of Macdonell’s support for an ecumenical spirit between the churches came when Holy Trinity, the Catholic Church in Haddington, was damaged by fire. Macdonell immediately offered Holy Trinity the use of St Mary’s for their services.

Such gracious and kindly acts were characteristic of a man with firmly held Christian beliefs and a desire to help anyone who needed it. His ease in chatting to his parishioners is remembered with a special affection. “Alasdair knew what to say and when to say it,” one recalled. “He always sent a card or rang on the anniversary of a family death. But it was also his compassionate nature. He welcomed everyone with real warmth.”

Macdonell remained a passionate fiddle player all his life. He learnt the technique of playing Scottish reels and airs in his early 20s and formed the Auld Reekie Dance Band. It gained a wide popularity for weddings, ceilidhs, Burns Nights and harvest suppers. Macdonell’s daughter Lucy recalled that her mother forbade her father from accepting a gig on a Saturday night as it might upset the sermon the next day.

Macdonell and his wife Meg retired to Gifford, where he became a much-loved figure in the town. He served as a locum at St Andrews, Musselburgh, and conducted many services for colleagues. Rev Macdonell is survived by Meg, his wife of 60 years, and their five children.