Murdo Ewen Macdonald


Born: 28 August, 1914, on Harris

Died: 6 June, 2004, in Glasgow, aged 89

MURDO Ewen Macdonald was one of Scotland’s greatest preachers, often drawing on the wartime experience which influenced him so profoundly and never shrinking from reaching practical political or social conclusions, however unpopular these might be.

He went to school on Harris and in Kingussie, and after studying arts and divinity at the University of St Andrews (which later conferred on him an honorary doctor of divinity degree), in 1939 he was ordained as a minister of the Church of Scotland and inducted to the parish of Portree.

He joined up in 1940, serving first as chaplain to the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders in the West Indies, where he met his wife, Betty, and then (in 1942) in the First Parachute Brigade. He was wounded and taken prisoner in North Africa in November 1942, and spent the next two and a half years in prison, mostly in the infamous Stalag Luft III and acting as chaplain to United States prisoners. For his ministry work, he was awarded the American Bronze Star.

After the war, he served as minister at Partick Old Parish Church, Glasgow (1947-1949) and St George’s West Parish Church, Edinburgh (1949-1963). He was appointed professor of practical theology at Trinity College, University of Glasgow, from which he retired in 1984.

Such a bare statement of his biography can give no impression of the impact he made on his contemporaries. He proved himself capable of arresting the attention and addressing the needs of both young and old, whether members of his congregation at the morning service or the young people who filled the gallery in the evening. His sermons, meticulously prepared but delivered without a note, were always theologically informed yet devoid of the pious religiosity he so detested. They were also generously illustrated from a wealth of literary sources. It was no wonder he was in such demand all over the world, especially in the US.

It was not just as a preacher, though, that he excelled. It was probably his Gaelic upbringing which gave his prayers such spiritual depth and beauty. Under his ministry, the congregations he served in exemplary fashion flourished in giving as in outreach.

Away from the pulpit, his natural friendliness and humanity were self-evident. Over the years, at open house in the manse after the evening service, hundreds of young people must have enjoyed the hospitality he and his wife provided, Murdo entertaining with story after story, an infectious laugh and his wicked gift of mimicry. Devoid of pomposity, he was quite ready to admit to occasional absent-mindedness - he didn’t mind it being called "goofiness".

At Glasgow University, he won a host of friends among the staff, and, most importantly, among the students. It was not so much the content of his lectures as his personality which impressed. It is no coincidence that, in the opinion of many, the best preachers in Scotland today are those who studied at Trinity College in Murdo Macdonald’s time.

He was a close friend of John Brown, the father of Gordon Brown, the Chancellor. In fact, Murdo spoke at a meeting in support of Gordon when he first stood as a Labour parliamentary candidate in Fife.

He maintained his links with the Browns, and one of his last public ceremonies was the christening of the Chancellor’s son, John.

Despite Murdo’s fame and success, he never forgot his Highland roots or his beloved Harris. Next to his love of the mountains - he had climbed the Matterhorn but the achievement of which he was proudest was having climbed all the Munros of Scotland - was his delight in escorting his friends to the Hebrides and to his home and speaking his native language there.

lain Crichton Smith once wrote of him: "Let me call him, for want of a better term, the Happy Warrior of whom Wordsworth wrote: exuberant, life enhancing, hostile to injustice, a lover of the marvellous particulars of the world, yet aware of the darkness and not a narrow Jesuitical theologian examining his navel by the comforting light of a demonic inferno. By their fruits ye shall know them. And, because we respect Murdo Ewen, we respect his God also."

He is survived by his two sons, Alasdair and Alan.