Obituaries: Roddy Macdonald, agriculturalist and member of Scottish Land Court

Roderick (Roddy) Macdonald. Agriculturalist and member of the Scottish Land Court. Born: 6 February 1927 on Benbecula. Died: 3 June 2022 at Balerno, aged 95

Recognising that Scotland has complex and sometimes convoluted legislation surrounding farming, the Scottish Land Court was established more than a hundred years ago to sort out problems relating to rental values, tenancy issues and crofting disputes.

The Court is a hybrid organisation comprising both learned legal minds and lay members, the latter providing practical input.

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Importantly, on account of its remit covering the crofting counties, its constitution requires that at least one member of the Court be a Gaelic speaker.

Roddy Macdonald loved the land (Picture: Martin Crothall)Roddy Macdonald loved the land (Picture: Martin Crothall)
Roddy Macdonald loved the land (Picture: Martin Crothall)

Roddy Macdonald, who died recently, fulfilled that function admirably for a number of years, having been brought up on Gaelic-speaking Skye.

Illustrating the unique nature of the Court and, incidentally, his own reputation for fairness, he used to recall a case in South Uist where the Court had been asked to fix rents for some 350 crofts.

When the case was called in a local hall, one of the crofters rose to say that he and his colleagues would wish to give their evidence in Gaelic. They should have intimated this fact to the Court beforehand, so an interpreter could have been arranged.

However, that would have meant sisting the proceedings to another date and all the upset that would have caused but, having come so far, Roddy decided common sense had to dictate and he offered to act as interpreter provided all the parties agreed.

His reputation for fairness was such that they did and thus it was that he translated for the crofters, their lawyers and for the landlord whose estate factor had no Gaelic. Afterwards, he noted with some satisfaction that no appeal had followed.

On another occasion, he demonstrated his independence of mind and a steely determination to ensure what he saw as being right when he differed from his fellow Court members, including the chairman. Roddy wrote a dissenting opinion which was upheld on appeal to the Court of Session.

Roddy may have been a lay member, but this amiable yet ferociously fair-minded man did not shy away from putting forward a dissenting view if that was how he saw the outcome of a dispute.

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Roddy came to the Land Court with a formidable background knowledge and experience in a whole range of land issues, having already had a distinguished career within the Department of Agriculture, in which role he had used his natural charm and affection for the countryside, especially crofting communities, to get projects underway.

It was while on secondment from the Department to head up the Land Development Division of the newly created Highlands and Islands Development Board in Inverness that he became involved in a number of schemes far removed from traditional crofting.

The most notable of these was the reclamation of the Vallay Strand area in North Uist where a commercial horticultural company agreed to support a plan to grow and market bulbs in the light sandy soil.

Despite their interest in the project and the importation of relevant Dutch expertise, the scheme ultimately foundered when a technical committee appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland identified certain problems which eventually led to the commercial company losing interest and withdrawing.

Later in life, Roddy would visit the site and wonder if the conversion of the strand into a mini polder growing a sea of flowers could have provided economic salvation for North Uist, and indeed, a wider area. He called it “a vision unfulfilled”.

Roddy had been born on the family croft on Benbecula but as an infant moved, along with brothers Archie, Charlie and John, to his mother’s family croft in Borve on the Isle of Skye. Two more siblings, Angus and Morag, were born there.

His links to the crofting world were further strengthened by his having been named after the son of his aunt and uncle who had, sadly, died of meningitis aged four.

As a child, Roddy spent many early summer holidays on their Treaslane croft. On their passing he inherited it and cherished it until the end of his life.

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A move from Borve came when his father, who was focused on ensuring his offspring would have an education that could take them away from crofting if they so wished, moved the family to within a few hundred yards of Portree High School.

Roddy prospered at school, gaining qualifications that took him to Aberdeen University where he enrolled for a degree in agriculture.

However, his education was interrupted by the Second World War and, after his first year at university he was conscripted into the Royal Corps of Signals, encoding and decoding top secret signals.

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This saw him serve in Tripoli where – demonstrating what Lord Minginish QC, delivering Roddy’s eulogy, described as a knack of always landing on his feet – he found himself living in what had been Mussolini’s HQ in North Africa.

After demob Roddy resumed his studies and, in due course, graduated with a BSc in agriculture.

His first step into the world of business saw him employed as a technical adviser with the agrichemicals company Bayer, based in York. The salary was good but the big attraction in these austere post war years was that the job came with a car.

He gained promotion and moved to Perth where, in due course, a friend, Charlie Mackay, alerted him to a Lands Officer vacancy at the Department of Agriculture.

So, in 1954, Roddy left commercial life and moved into public service, relocating to Inverness.

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He was not long started with the Department when he was offered a scholarship with the Kellogg Foundation to take a postgraduate degree at Michigan State University, an opportunity of which he took full advantage in terms of expanding his knowledge and keeping in touch with two of his older brothers, Archie and Charlie, who were already established in successful careers in Canada.

Back in Inverness with his MSc degree under his belt, Roddy’s Lands Officer post had an added benefit in that it brought him into more regular contact with Betty Macleod, a Kincraig-born state registered nurse whom he married and with whom he celebrated their Diamond wedding anniversary in April this year.

Just prior to his stint with the HIDB, Roddy and Betty had relocated to Thurso due to a promotion within the Department. He described Caithness as “an excellent agricultural county” where he enjoyed “a lot of interesting work”.

Later, Roddy applied for and got a more senior Department position, which saw a move to Edinburgh and his dealing with land issues in major projects such as the power station at Dunbar and the extension of Edinburgh Airport. Not long after, he became Assistant Chief Agricultural Officer for Scotland.

Together, Roddy and Betty raised their three daughters, Jane, Shona and Kathryn, and in due course, welcomed son-in-law Scott and grandchildren Roddie and Kate.

He had been a doughty shinty player in his student days, gaining a Blue while at Aberdeen, but his lifestyle did not suit his continuing in the sport. Instead, he took up golf, latterly playing out at Baberton where he enjoyed what he described as “social golf”.

Throughout his life Roddy was a proud Gael, embracing the language and endorsing the culture.

On a Sunday, he would attend morning service at Currie Kirk, where he served as an elder for more than 40 years, dash home for a coffee, then head off to Greyfriars Kirk for the Gaelic service, where he often performed the role of precentor.

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Roddy Macdonald lived a full and good life and he contributed a great deal both to his country and its people.

Slàn leat, a charaid, gus am bris an là agus an teich na sgàilean. (Farewell friend, until the day breaks and the shadows flee.)


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