Obituary: Donald John MacPherson, Lovat Scout

Born: 9 February, 1918 on North Uist. Died: 3 December, 2013, in Inverness, aged 95

Donald John MacPherson: One of the last of the Lovat Scouts, who rode to war from his family croft on North Uist
Donald John MacPherson: One of the last of the Lovat Scouts, who rode to war from his family croft on North Uist

When Donald John MacPherson left the machair of North Uist on his mare Jessie, in September 1939, he was riding to war as a member of the British Army’s last mounted observer regiment. As one of the Lovat Scouts – the legendary army raised by Lord Lovat – he was to provide reconnaissance and protection on horseback in what had earlier been envisaged as a small theatre of war.

But as Hitler’s domination and relentless march across Europe gained momentum, it became clear that that was not going to be the case and within months the unit’s ponies had been disposed of and the mostly Gaelic-speaking crofters of company B had become foot soldiers.

For MacPherson, a piper who had joined the Territorial Army at 15, it was a decision that would take him to the defence of the Faroe Islands, to gruelling mountain training in the Canadian Rockies and to combat in Italy as the war in Europe drew to a close

On his safe return to North Uist, he took over the family croft and later ran a guest-house in Inverness before becoming caretaker at Castle Stuart on the Moray Firth.

When he died, he was one of the very last of the Lovat Scouts, a regiment renowned for its fearless reputation for stealth, stalking and sniping.

Donald John MacPherson was born in his father’s thatched crofthouse at Claddach Baleshare in North Uist, during the Great War, a period that saw the Lovat Scouts become the British Army’s first sniper unit. He attended Carinish Primary and on leaving school worked on the family croft.

He followed the long tradition of crofters and fishermen in the Outer Hebrides who joined the Territorial Army, signing up, in 1933 at the age of 15, initially with the Cameron Highlanders.

But, as he explained in Roger Hutchinson’s book The Silent Weaver, the story of another Lovat Scout, he was daft about horses and used to ride bareback with his hands waving free. So, four years later, he was referred to the Lovat Scouts – a horse troop, one of the last active British horse regiments and the only one with bridles hand-fashioned from coastal marram grass.

MacPherson was 21 when Germany invaded Poland on 1 September, 1939 and recalled a knock on the door at 1am the following morning, signalling his call-up.

A couple of days later, after prime minister Neville Chamberlain declared war with Germany, he and more than 100 other Lovat Scots – motto Je Suis Prest (I am ready) – left the Uists and Benbecula. MacPherson rode his horse to the dock at Lochmaddy and took a steamer to Kyle of Lochalsh, then the train to muster at Beauly’s Beaufort Castle.

They spent seven months training in the Highlands before moving to Nottinghamshire in April 1940. By this time, Germany had invaded Denmark and Norway – Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg would subsequently fall – and it was no longer to be a “small theatre of war”.

The Lovat Scouts were no longer a mounted reconnaissance unit but infantry and had to give up their ponies.

The Scouts were sent to defend the Faroes Islands against a potential German invasion and spent almost two years there during which time they managed to shoot down a Heinkel bomber with a Bren gun.

MacPherson loved his time on the islands where he practised with the regimental pipe band on Torshavn football pitch and discovered telephones and electricity, which had not yet been installed at his North Uist homeland.

In the summer of 1942, he was part of the guard for the Royal Family at Balmoral. The Scouts then became a mountain reconnaissance regiment, for the 52nd Lowland Division, training in Scotland and Wales, and he later sailed on the SS Mauretania to New York, going by train to the Rockies for intensive training in mountain craft and skiing.

He went on to serve in Italy, where the Scouts landed at Naples in July 1944 as a reconnaissance regiment. On one occasion, while stalking an enemy defensive position under cover of darkness, he and his colleagues came under fire but they had managed to get so close to the target that the fixed guns could not reach them and they were able to escape between the illuminated lines of tracer fire.

He discovered while on active service that both his parents had died and after being demobbed at Aldershot he returned to run the family croft.

He met a local girl, Rachel, at a dance in Lochmaddy, and it was love at first sight. They married in 1947 and had three sons, the youngest of whom made headlines when he was born in an air ambulance en route from Lochmaddy Hospital to Renfrew in 1957.

In the mid-1960s, with their boys due to finish their schooling on the mainland, the family moved to Inverness to avoid being separated and to give their sons greater opportunities in the future.

MacPherson undertook various driving jobs, he and his wife worked as custodians at the former youth hostel on Old Edinburgh Road and they bought and ran a guest-house in the Highland capital until Rachel MacPherson was diagnosed with breast cancer. They sold up and semi-retired, but as her health improved, MacPherson took on the post of caretaker at Castle Stuart.

During his time at Castle Stuart, the Canada-based owners paid for the couple to visit Toronto and as part of MacPherson’s duties he would drive their silver London cab and tend to the gardens.

Along with his family, music and Gaelic had always been an integral part of his life – he could name a tune within a few notes – and he was staunchly proud of his island upbringing. He loved returning to Uist and did so many times, keeping in touch with former neighbours and visiting the graves of his parents and parents-in-law.

Widowed in 1988, he spent 25 years in sheltered housing, happily helping other residents and only very reluctantly gave up driving at the age of 90. He is survived by his sons Murdo, Dougie and Alastair and extended family.