Obituary: The Rev Kenny Macdonald, minister who never stopped believing lost daughter was alive

The Reverend Kenneth MacKinnon MacDonald, minister, born Skinidin, Isle of Skye, 8 January 1935; died Bonar Bridge, Sutherland, 21 January 2018, aged 83.

Kenneth MacDonald with the very last picture  from her bus-pass  of his missing daughter Alison
Kenneth MacDonald with the very last picture  from her bus-pass  of his missing daughter Alison

The Reverend Kenny MacDonald, a much-loved minister of the Free Church of Scotland, has died after a brief illness. He was 83 years old.

Though almost 50 when finally ordained, and only ever in one pastoral charge – an 11-year stint in Rosskeen, by the Cromarty Firth – Kenny MacDonald’s labours there were notably blessed.

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But the gentle, quizzically funny Skyeman was best known as the indefatigable father of 19-year old Alison MacDonald – who, on 17 August 1981, holidaying with a friend in the Kashmiri hamlet of Sonamarg in northern India, disappeared.

Over the decades, time and again, Kenny initiated search after search; frequently visited Kashmir himself; lobbied authorities at home and abroad, tirelessly kept Alison’s name in public memory – and never for a moment believed she had died, by mishap or otherwise.

Kenny MacDonald was born in Skinidin, in the Duirinish parish of Skye, on 9 January 1935 – the son of a crofter who was also the township’s general merchant, and the sixth of eight children. They were Free Church people. “We had family worship night and morning and all decisions were made on Scriptural grounds,” he recalled in 1986.

“But I don’t want to give the impression of a strict upbringing. It was a very happy carefree homelife within the bounds of Christianity.”

After education in Colbost, Dunvegan and Portree, he left school at 18 and, having completed National Service, seeing action at Aden, in 1957 began what would prove a quarter-century career with HM Customs and Excise.

Always an ardent sportsman, Kenny sparkled on the football pitch. No Hebridean has been capped more times for Scotland’s national amateur side; he played a few games for St Johnstone and was spotted in 1958 by Billy Nicholson, who fought to sign him for Tottenham Hotspur.

Kenny, now 24 and a Customs officer at Heathrow, reluctantly declined, for he was now engaged – to Reta Cromarty, a blonde Orcadian of Nordic beauty. By year’s end they had married, at Ashford in Middlesex: Reta, his strength and stay to the end, bore him four children.

In 1962 the MacDonalds removed to Aberdeen and then, in 1967, to the Isle of Lewis, where they enjoyed crofting life amidst stock and poultry and the whipcord-fit Kenny proved a pillar of Back Football Club.

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In 1974, representing the Back district, he was among the first elected members of the new Western Isles Islands Council – but by 1976 Kenny MacDonald felt called to the ministry, though it was not until October 1980, settled with his family in a Marchmont tenement-canyon, that he began studies in the Free Church College. Ten months later, Alison went missing.

Some 200 European girls vanish in India every year; it took the authorities six days to alert the MacDonalds and it then took the family time to convince the Foreign Office – and the public – that Alison, upright and academic, a judo greenbelt who politely declined to compete on Sunday, was no drop-out dippy-hippy.

Local police thought she might have fallen into the foaming River Sindh and drowned; perhaps met misadventure in the wild and mountainous country. But, within days of reaching Kashmir, amidst shifty eyes and shifting stories, Kenny MacDonald smelt a rat. It became his fixed conviction – one he held for the rest of his life – that his daughter had been kidnapped and enslaved into marriage.

And there is much tantalising anecdotal evidence that he was right – reports, early this century, that fair-haired children had been sighted in some high valley; a taped, 2007 talk of a Kashmiri mountain-fighter not only speaking some English but with an unmistakable West Highland accent.

Kenny began his ministry in a parish still reeling from the closure of the British Aluminium plant in Invergordon at Christmas 1981, without warning and with the loss of a thousand jobs.

Many were still unemployed, or in desperate debt; families were breaking up, men hitting the bottle. Kenny threw himself into the community; visited ceaselessly; kept an open manse and preached Christ – often to the point of tears.

His services were never longer than an hour, his worship was most reverent and he always dressed in a neat grey suit with clerical collar. Not that he was remotely stuffy: outwith the pulpit he seemed invariably in beloved, faded jeans and a shaggy Dennis the Menace jumper.

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The Rosskeen congregation grew so much he was granted an ordained assistant, Rev. Derek Lamont. Yet Kenny never gave vainglorious interviews or preened on Gaelic telly of his “success”. Amidst the people, he spoke only of Jesus: among the media, all he would discuss otherwise was Alison.

That nightmare in itself would have broken many a man, never mind another blow – a diagnosis, in 1995, of multiple sclerosis and the subsequent loss of his sight and much of his agility, all the crueller for a man of fanatical physical fitness.

He retired that year, without fuss, and thereafter Kenny and Reta made their home first in Resolis, then Dunvegan, and finally Golspie. For a year or two, following unfortunate Free Church division, he served as locum-minister from 2000 of Portree Free Church – serenely, cheerfully, and, again, with remarkable increase.

The MacDonald family’s quest for Alison never stopped. It never will. Only in 2015 there was a renewed campaign and the offer of a £20,000 reward for information – and no proof has ever surfaced that she is dead.

“We miss her every day,” said Kenny Macdonald. “At times it is like a knife in the heart – when you see her friends getting married and having babies and them growing up. But Alison is always here. She is still a part of our lives and one day she will walk through our door again.’

Despite that and other trials, this luminous Christian was to the end the happiest, most thankful of men. The Rev. Kenneth MacDonald is survived by his wife, Reta, daughters Mairi (and presumably Alison), sons Sam and Derek, seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.