Obituary: Donnie MacKenzie, cattle breeder and shinty official

Donnie MacKenzie
Donnie MacKenzie
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Donnie MacKenzie, cattle breeder and camanachd president. Born: 13 October 1932 in Fort Augustus. Died: 16 December 2018 in Fort William, aged 86.

Four greats of the game of shinty will carry the coffin of one of their own in respectful silence from a tiny Highland kirk to his final resting place in the village graveyard tomorrow.

The sporting community of Lochaber and beyond, as well as the wider world of cattle breeding and agricultural shows, is mourning the loss of Donnie MacKenzie, who has died, aged 86.

Donnie MacKenzie Sr, of Spean Bridge, Inverness-Shire, was a kenspeckle figure wherever camans were raised in competition and cattle and sheep were safely grazed.

He was one of the Highland sport’s most knowledgeable and committed friends and peerless in the business of buying, rearing and breeding quality cattle.

He had been in failing health for several months and died in the Belford Hospital, Fort William.

Donnie was a man who had lived and breathed the Lochaber air all his life.

He was an accomplished stockman and breeder of Charolais cattle, working from the Inverlochy Castle Farm on the outskirts of Fort William.

He was employed, too, for a time at the Long John Distillery at Lochy Bridge in the shadow of Ben Nevis before it was bought by Whitbread, one of the UK’s largest brewers.

The farmhouse to which the MacKenzie family had moved from nearby Ben View Crescent was to be a regular “dropping-in” point for shinty players. The Gaelic game of shinty dates back nearly 2,000 years, and it can claim hurling as a cousin, and hockey and golf as descendants.

Shinty fans on their way to and from committee meetings and games called in there for many years, with Donnie and his late wife Dympna the most hospitable of hosts.

Born in Fort Augustus, the son of a shepherd, Donnie and his family eventually moved to Spean Bridge.

It is no surprise that Donnie was steeped in the traditions of Lochaber. He worked for nearly all his adult life, a total of 38 years, at the sharp end of the agricultural industry.

He introduced ground-breaking methods, innovative cattle-breeding and agricultural changes to the Great Glen Cattle Ranch at Inverlochy Castle, owned by Joseph Hobbs.

Hobbs, who was known as “the Great Gatsby” of the Highlands, was a shipping magnate, naval veteran, bootlegger and the cattle rancher who brought cowboys to Scotland.He was also one of the leading lights of the 20th century Scotch whisky industry.

Donnie MacKenzie started out as a tractor-man, but eventually became as well-known and comfortable at the Perth Bull Sales as he was at shinty venues throughout the north of Scotland.

His skill as a cattle breeder earned him the historic achievement of having sold the most expensive bull ever to come from Lochaber, a magnificent Charolais specimen which gleaned 5,000 guineas.

He also held the record for a steer at the Ben Nevis Auction Mart, nearly £2,000. These prices have been exceeded since then but they continue to be legendary in Lochaber.

Donnie was also a long-term participant in the Lochaber Agricultural Show and a judge at the prestigious Black Isle Cattle Show.

He eventually took over the lease of the farm on the Hobbs’ estate where he had been the stockman and divided his time between that onerous responsibility and a singular contribution to shinty over many years.

MacKenzie shared his time between his three great loves, agriculture, shinty and family.He served on numerous shinty committees and groups, but most notably undertook roles on the Disciplinary Committee and as Secretary, Chairman and President of his home team, Lochaber Camanachd.

He was the second President of the Camanachd Association Referees’ Association from 1981-86, succeeding his great friend Douglas MacKintosh of Newtonmore.

The silver-mounted caman he was presented with for his contribution to the fledgling referees’ body will be placed on his coffin.

Donnie had been a shinty player himself, most often as a goalkeeper with Spean Bridge, but photographic evidence has emerged, to the shinty community’s surprise, of him playing in the colours of nearby and great rivals, Fort William.

Hugh Dan MacLellan, the BBC Alba broadcaster of rugby, shinty and Gaelic games, will be one of the coffin carriers. The others are John MacKenzie of Newtonmore; David McMaster of Strathpeffer; and Iain MacPhee of Lochgilphead.

Donnie was the second youngest of a family of eight. Margaret is the only surviving family member. His siblings were Neil (Torlundy), Murdo (Cannich), John, Harry, Annie and Katy.

He is survived by his son, Donnie, himself a former shinty player and the last Secretary of the Camanachd Association (1982-86) before it appointed a full-time official.

Donnie MacKenzie’s funeral will take place tomorrow at Duncansburgh and Kilmonivaig Parish Church of Scotland in Spean Bridge.

Donnie, who will give the eulogy, said: “My father’s achievements in cattle breeding were remarkable, but he wasn’t one to shout about his success. His two great passions in life were agriculture and shinty. It is for his involvement in these things that he will be long be remembered in Lochaber and beyond.”

The final committal will take place at Blarour Cemetery.

BILL HEANEY