Obituary: Rev Donald Macdonald, Free Presbyterian minister, central in protest against ferry sailings on the Sabbath

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The Reverend Donald Macdonald, Free Presbyterian minister of Staffin, Isle of Skye. Born 23 February 1952; died 31 October 2019.

Though almost 53 when he finally became a minister – and even that was briefly postponed by a hurricane - Donald Macdonald had been in full-time Christian service for many years, largely with the Free Presbyterian Church.

And when finally ordained, it was not of his own doing but by insistence of the Hebrideans he served as a ‘missionary,’ or salaried lay-preacher.

Donald Alexander Kerr Macdonald was born in Inverness on 23 February 1952, son of Alexander and Margaret. His father was Free Presbyterian missionary in Scourie, Sutherland, and was in 1959 redeployed to Stoer, the family settling in the hamlet of Clashmore.

His death, when Donald was only nine, was a severe blow, but for years to come, and to the distress of his mother, the lad showed no interest in spiritual things.

Donald found employment with the Northern Lighthouse Board, serving at such daunting spots as Skerryvore, Ailsa Craig and Ardnamurchan. And it was in that remote community he seems to have come to a personal, saving knowledge of Christ – and under the preaching of the Kilchoan Free Church minister, Rev John Nicholls, which may explain Donald’s lifelong dislike of pulpit attacks on other denominations.

Nevertheless it was in the Free Presbyterian congregation of Lochinver, Stoer and Drumbeg that he professed faith in October 1976. And, practical, unassuming, he fast won respect, for he was soon invited by the late Rev John Walter Ross to work for his Blythswood Tract Society in Lochcarron and, in 1983, quietly head-hunted by the late Rev Duncan MacLean to serve as his lay assistant in South Harris.

That was no sinecure. Free Presbyterian services were kept in at least ten different villages and, thanks to population shifts between the wars, the main church at Finsbay was increasingly off-centre.

Donald was soon elected to the local eldership, took at least four services a week, and enthusiastically supported the building of a handsome new church in far more convenient Leverburgh (with an adjacent care-home for the elderly.)

Meanwhile, a teacher from Bayhead, Finsbay, Mairi Ann Morrison, warm, clever, had been intrigued to hear of this new missionary – ‘and, when he walked in the door, I knew’. They were married in October 1984, settling with her widowed father.

At its best, the Free Presbyterian Church is a close-knit and profoundly Christ-centred fellowship but, too often – and especially in the late 1980s – it hit headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Through all this Donald and Mairi Ann were a loyal and calming presence, rooted in their community, keeping an open, most hospitable home and eschewing silly ecclesiastical politics.

Desperate for sustained, secure male employment as the Harris population bled out, Donald from 1990 supported plans for a controversial super-quarry at Lingerbay – finally sunk, early this century, by mainland environmentalists and local political pygmies.

The continued decline since of Harris’s native Gaelic-speaking community, with schools closed hither and yon, has dolefully vindicated him.

He was also central, in 1991, in bid to defeat Caledonian MacBrayne to force a Sabbath ferries on Harris against its will, notably in organising a mass prayer-meeting in Tarbert with ministers of all island churches. The day was won, the Secretary of State personally countermanding CalMac’s plans.

Nevertheless, and thanks to further nonsense, Donald’s bid in 1995 to be received as a student for the Free Presbyterian ministry – having secured a good degree from the Open University – was not sustained by the Outer Isles Presbytery. Much hurt, he put the matter aside and stuck to his duties in Harris.

In March 1999 the Free Presbyterian minister of North Uist suddenly died, leaving not a single male communicant able to conduct public worship. With ministers by then in both Harris charges and with several preaching-stations now closed, Donald was reposted in August 2000.

There was much to be done in North Uist. There had never been a Sabbath school for the children: Donald and Mairi Ann organised one, 21 attending at its peak. Churchgoing picked up, as Donald went tirelessly in and out amongst the people; Mairi Ann secured post at Paible School and, deeply, they involved themselves in their new community.

They were then stunned in 2003 to learn that, behind their backs, the entire congregation had as one petitioned Presbytery that Donald be ordained as their minister. ‘And it came from the people,’ he glowed afterwards, ‘I had nothing to do with it.’

Synod sensibly insisted he undergo some further training; but the crave was granted and, on Monday 14 February 2005, Donald Macdonald was ordained and inducted in the charge.

Donald loved ordinary folk of every hue and believed regular, pastoral visitation mattered almost as much as prayer and study – and that a local minister should take keen interest in the practical needs of his community.

The clerical collar he donned reluctantly: the frock-coat he eschewed save for weddings and the sacraments. And he preached, always, to those in front of him; not to ministers beside him.

He was convinced, too, that his Church had been done great harm by too many ministers staying in the same rural charge for decades, and – in spite of his love for Uist – in October 2017 he accepted a call to Staffin, in northern Skye.

But, within the year, he was gravely ill – though, despite draining treatment and what, one fears, was latterly dreadful pain, kept yet at his work, conducting his last service only on 16 October. Donald Macdonald passed quietly away, on 31 October in Broadford Hospital.

Once, during a time of maximal ecclesiastical silliness and amidst sore discouragement, he never forgot an evening on Ayrshire holiday when his heart soared at the sight of blazing, glorious sunset behind Ailsa Craig – ‘and I could only think of that patience, that amazing patience, the Lord has with his people.’

The Reverend Donald Macdonald is survived by his wife, Mairi Ann, their children, Margaret and John, four grandchildren, and his younger brother John Hugh.

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