John MacDonald, Salesman, Clothier, Founder of the Clan Donald Society, Glasgow By Angus MacDonald, a Past President

The Clan Donald Society of Glasgow – formed in 1889 under its first title, the MacDonald Society – was to spearhead similar societies in Edinburgh, Greenock and Aberdeen. It was to include in its membership men and women from all parts of the world, many in exalted positions – notably the Lord Justice Clerk of Scotland. It was to organise splendid concerts and balls in grand halls, full of men and women colourfully dressed in Highland costume and expensive ball gowns and tartan sashes. It was to last for 100 years with peaks and troughs of vigour. Yet it was all set in motion by one man in humble social circumstances.

John MacDonald lived at 14 Buchan Street – a side street in the Gorbals district on the south side of the River Clyde inhabited also by plumbers, brass finishers, book binders, boot closers, wire workers and carters. His home near a Baptist church and a school was just round the corner from the prestigious terraced houses of Carlton Place facing the river (from which was to come a future president of the society). It was also, of course, not far away from scenes of great poverty.

John would have had a 15 minutes walk across the Glasgow Bridge to his place of employment in Jamaica Street nearer the centre of the city. His employer was Hugh Morrison, a clothier, outfitter and Highland costume maker who must have been in business in quite a big way for he had other well-placed premises near St Enoch Railway Station at Howard Street. John is described as a salesman though the words clothier and warehouseman also occur in records.

Humbly situated John might have been, and there are indications that he was a small man, but humility, it would seem, was not one of his outstanding characteristics – at least according to letters of his which appeared in print in the “Oban Times”. He was, after all, a MacDonald and not unnaturally proud of it. Being a Gaelic speaker, it is likely that his parents had been or indeed still were resident in the Highlands or Western Isles. Poor but proud Highlanders like him, as well as Irish had been continuously flowing into this bulging boisterous city and were still doing so.

In his Highland pride John had been involved in Highland affairs in Glasgow for about 20 years and, indeed, he was to claim later, he was “not ashamed” of his record in these activities. It was a pride and involvement that was to be well demonstrated later in a rip-roaring row about Clan Donald in the correspondence columns of the “Oban Times”. John seems to have been a vigorous, intelligent, well-meaning man – if perhaps a touch self important and opinionative.

Five years after he started it all, however, John appears to have been ousted from office, or agreed to step down. He is recorded as being present at two April meetings in 1894 when there was talk of “strengthening and reorganising the society”. At the second of those meetings when a new council and office-bearers were appointed, he was either not asked or refused to accept office. After that he fades completely from the picture.

That is, except for one further minute reference at a meeting in the following month of May. It was then that the new secretary told the MacDonald Society council he had requested and received from “the late secretary” certain letters and other papers relating to the affairs of the society. He added that he had also received a letter from “the late secretary” which indicated that he still retained “a considerable mass of correspondence relating to the society.” The new secretary was then instructed by the council to request John to send him all such papers. There is, however, no record that John did so and the fact that to this day there is no minute book for those first vital years may suggest he did not.

A year later, in the 1895 annual report there is an intriguing but unspecific reference to previous “unusual difficulties” and of the society having “fallen into abeyance”.

The latter comment, however, does not fit in with the fact that annual gatherings with John MacDonald as secretary took place in 1891, 1892 and 1893 with “Oban Times” reports which indicated much popular support, vigour and apparent enjoyment. The society’s newly formed choir is recorded as giving a concert in Apnl 1893, and a Gaelic and English concert in Greenock in March 1894 was reported to have been held under the auspices of “the flourishing Clan MacDonald Association.”

It may be, however, that the words “fallen into abeyance” refer to the absence of annual – or for that matter other business meetings in 1892 and 1893. Certainly no reports of such meetings can be found in the Oban Times newspaper files although those meetings of 1890 and 1891 are well reported. Even if no business meetings took place in the latter years, it would seem unfair that all the blame should be laid at the door of the secretary who from 1890 operated with the aid of an assistant secretary, Ranald W. MacDonald (a deputy superintendent at the Board of Trade).

There was also the president, of course, appointed in the same year of 1890- and for the next 31 years. He was Sir John Hay Athole MacDonald, Lord Justice Clerk of Scotland who could, however, only be a figure-head, albeit a magnificent one. Local leadership must therefore have fallen to the two vice-presidents appointed at the same time.

James, of 108 West Regent Street, was one of a clutch of lawyers -or Writers as they were called – who were to play a prominent part in the society for years to come. The other vice-president was Thomas, of 85 Beilfield Street, Dennistoun, an office clerk who was to give no less lengthy and worthy service. The “retirement” of James as vice-president, if not from the council, the following year is somewhat surprising. He it was who had chaired the first general meeting in October 1889 and on the alleged reorganisation in 1894 was quickly back in the forefront as joint secretary with no less than five meetings in that year being held in his own business offices. It may also be significant that it was he, with another John, the first treasurer (and superintendent to the Mission for the Outdoor Blind in Glasgow and the West of Scotland) who proposed and seconded the holding of the special reorganisation meeting in 1894.

It is, of course, likely that the organisation John MacDonald of Buchan Street helped bring into existence had grown beyond the means of such as himself to handle as secretary, or had developed in ways he did not foresee or approve. It must also be remembered that even in the best of societies there is no guarantee of freedom from stresses and strains in personal relationships. In a completely new society – even though one concerned with kinship, perhaps even because – there were likely to be considerable growing pains.

There must therefore be at least a strong suspicion that John and the MacDonald Society did not part the best of friends which seems a great pity for undoubtedly he deserved much credit for taking that vital first step which no one else seemed prepared to do. And it should be noted that indeed he took that step all on his own. In his letter to the Oban Times in February 1889- a principal medium of communication for Highlanders in Glasgow, there is no indication that he is acting other than as an individual.

As has been mentioned already, he had been active in Highland affairs in the city for years. He had seen the MacKay Society spring up and prosper only a year previously and he appeared jealous of their success – an emotion that was later to spill over into rancorous correspondence.

In his letter, he quotes a Gaelic proverb which well fitted his mood – “S’e am farmad a ni treabhadh”. (Farmad means envy or grudge at another’s success.) A literal translation is “Emulation makes ploughing” but perhaps it is better expressed, “One man’s achievements spurs on his neighbour to similar deeds.”

The letter, which appeared in the correspondence column of the “Oban Times” on February 16, from John MacDonald 14 Buchan Street, was headed Clan MacDonald Society and was as follows:

“Sir, will you kindly give me space to bring before those of my clansmen who may be in favour of forming such an association as above the desirability of making an effort to do so as early as possible. We have a Gaelic proverb which says “S’e am farmad a ni treabhadh” and, in view of the apparent success of the lately formed Clan MacKay Association and also that the Clan Cameron are moving in the same direction, I think it behoves our clan to bestir themselves.

In point of numbers, our clan is the most numerous of all the Highland clans and in point of historic interest we are surely second to none. The idea of forming such a clan association is not to me a new one. About 12 months ago I expressed my surprise that, while in America such societies were both numerous and prosperous, we had in Scotland no such clan association with the single exception of the Clan Gregor Society.

The benefits to be derived from such associations are many but I am not going to take up your space by referring to them just now. My present object is to interest my clansmen in the matter and to say that I shall be pleased to hear from any of them who may be in favour of forming such an association with the view of making arrangements for a meeting at an early date to form a committee in furtherance of the object in view.

I shall be glad to hear from and have the views and opinions of clansmen and clanswomen from all parts but particularly from those in and around Glasgow who may wish to assist in forming a Clan MacDonald Association.”

The known events which followed the publication of that fateful letter can be summed up as follows:


May 21 A “well-attended” meeting of members of the cian was heid in Aitken’s Temperance Hotel (114 Argyle Street) and a committee appointed to draw up a constitution.

Oct. 22 General meeting in Blythswood Hotel. Argyle Street, chaired by James (the Writer), Constitution agreed. Secretary instructed to issue it with a circular in printed form to “every member of the clan who could be procured. Decisions – later to prove source of much controversy -to call the society the Clan MacDonald Society and to restrict it to those with the surname MacDonald or MacDonell.


Jan. 4 General meeting chaired by Thomas who was to serve as one of the auditors up to 1911. Ranald (Clerk to the Signet who was an active member until 1897 when he received “a good appointment in Central Africa”) was appointed assistant secretary.

Feb. 22 General meeting presided over by John (Mission to the Blind superintendent). Lord Kingsburgh elected president and Clanranald (Admiral Sir Reginald John MacDonald) to be asked to be “chief of the society”. Eighteen councillors appointed, among them Aeneas MacDonell of Morar and Alistair MacDonald of Edinburgh.

Apr. 19 Clanranald is elected chief. Resolved that clan crest and coat of arms should be crest of the society. Membership now said to be 100.

Sept. 13 Clanranald welcomed by deputation to Glasgow. Piped from railway station to Bath Hotel where toasted “with Highland honours.”


Feb.7 First social gathering held in the Berkeley hall. St. Andrews Halls chaired by Lord Kingsburgh supported by Aeneas MacDonell of Morar and including on the platform Alexander MacDonald Govan Town Clerk, who was to chair the reorganisation meetings in April 1894 and to lead the society throughout that year and well into the next. Also on the platform. Alexander Carmichael the great Celtic antiquarian, and Rev. Angus MacDonald. Killearnan. who was to be one of the society’s famous historians. During the course of the evening, a Gaelic song composed specially for the occasion by Mrs Mary MacPherson (a MacDonald by birth and the clan society’s bardess) was sung by her. A John MacDonald (it could have been secretary) also sung Gaelic songs which it was reported “took well”. The event was so popular that many people could not get into the hall and an apology to those denied admittance had to be printed the following week in the “Oban Times”.

Apr. 24 Two members from Glasgow go through to Edinburgh to help found the Edinburgh society – Alexander MacDonald, who was probably the Govan Town Clerk, and John the secretary.

May 9 Annual meeting. Aeneas MacDonell in the chair. Move to include other than MacDonalds and MacDonells defeated. Secretary reports “branch” of the society formed in Edinburgh also that a branch was to be established in Greenock and that it was proposed to form branches in other districts of the Highlands. Membership said to be 270.


Feb. 5 Largely attended Clan gathering in the City Hall. Grand March led off by Aeneas MacDonell. Among those present were female representatives of the ancient family of Keppoch who came from London specially to attend. Grand March led off by Aeneas with Mrs MacDonell (great grand daughter of Keppoch of the ’45 who was killed at Culloden at the head of his clan). Next came Alexander Carmichael with one of Mrs MacDonell’s six daughters (probably Josephine) followed by Alexander MacDonald of Balranald with Alice MacDonell, bardess of the society and authoress of a special Ode to the Clan – Rouse ye children of MacDonald etc.


Jan. Annual gathering in the Grand Hall, Waterloo Rooms. Concert by Clan choir and solo artistes (all MacDonalds) chaired by Archbishop Alexander MacDonald of St Andrews and Edinburgh, attended also by representatives of clans MacKay, Campbell, Fraser, MacLeod, MacKenzie and of the Uist and Barra and Mull and lona Associations.

Apr. 20 Concert given by Clan MacDonald choir in the Waterloo Rooms. Among the songs, the Ode to the Clan written by Alice.


Mar. 31 Gaelic and English concert held by the Greenock branch of the Clan MacDonald Association (referred to as “this flourishing association”).

Apr. 13 Reorganisation meeting of “ladies and gentlemen interested in the Clan MacDonald Society. John (superintendent to the mission to the blind) and treasurer of the society proposed that assistant secretary Ranald W. (the lawyer) should be requested to call a general meeting of the society in order to consult as to measures which ought to be taken in the interests of the society. John the secretary was recorded as being present but it was not he who was asked to undertake this task.

Apr. 19 Social meeting of the Clan MacDonald Society was held in the Waterloo Rooms. Glasgow. under the presidency of Alexander MacDonald, Govan Town Clerk, who said, “This is the fourth annual meeting of the Clan MacDonald Society of Glasgow – but it isn’t to be regarded as being so in the sense of the three preceding large gatherings. It was. I believe, considered better that for this year at least we should call a halt to date to rearrange our ranks and strengthen our organisation before resuming in the usual period of the year, those large social assemblies which demand a great deal of preliminary labour and considerable expense

It was the start of a new regime but perhaps only in the sense that John of Buchan Street was no longer among the administrators or even on the council.