Sir John A. Macdonald of Clan Donald by Lt. Col. Gordon D. Leggett ED KCLJ UE

We are here this afternoon to commemorate a great Canadian who passed to his reward 91 years ago today. He laboured unceasingly for a better Canada and we should be pleased and thankful for his lifework among his people.

Called the Father of Confederation, the Chief Architect of Confederation, Father of our Dominion, Père de la Patrie, the Cabinet Maker, Old Tomorrow, the Wizard of the North, Builder of our Nation, Old Reynard, the Old Chieftain, the Old Chief, and Canada’s Myth Maker, Sir John A. Macdonald was truly a giant amongst the men of his times.

Sir John A. was well prepared to assume the position of the first Prime Minister of Canada at Confederation, having had much good experience in various departments of local and provincial government such as Member of the Executive Council of the Province of Canada in 1848, Receiver General 1847, Commissioner of Crown Lands 1847-48, Attorney-General Canada West, 1854-58, Postmaster-General, Minister of Militia Affairs 1861, Delegate to the Charlottetown Conference and Quebec Conference 1864, and Chairman of the London (England) Conference in 1866-67. He took a leading part in bringing about the Confederation of the Provinces of Canada. Sir John A. was not bilingual but greatly respected by the majority of his French-speaking friends.

Multi-culturism had come to Canada with the mass influx of United Empire Loyalists into the Maritimes in 1783 and into Upper Canada in 1784 and does not appear to have been an issue at the time of Confederation. Sir John A, in addition to becoming Prime Minister of Canada, assumed the portfolios of Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, a load which he carried until 1873. He also and at various times acted as Minister of the Interior, Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, President of the Privy Council, Minister of Railways and Canals and was a Member of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1872 on.

In recognition of these and other services, Sir John A. was made a Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath at the time of Confederation and raised to Knight Grand Cross of this Order in 1884. He was the only Canadian to have ever been so honoured.

It is thought that Sir John A. had neither the time nor the advice of knowledgeable people on the traditions of this Order which include the allotment of a stall in the Chapel of Henry the Seventh in Westminster Abbey and the provision of a banner and plate with his personal coat of arms. It is also possible that this procedure had been allowed to lapse and was not generally practised during the life of Sir John A. It is also known that in 1812, due to the Napoleonic Wars, more Knights were created than could be accommodated and the ceremony was not generally in force until restored in 1913 by King George V.

As part of the installation tradition, when a Knight Grand Cross died, his banner was removed from the stall but his plate of arms was left affixed to the back of the stall for posterity. Since Knights were not given stalls during the lifetime of Sir John A. this may partly explain both the lack of a banner bearing his coat of arms and the absence of the traditional plate in the Abbey. The truth is that Sir John A. Macdonald did not have a coat of arms until this was brought to the attention of his Clanspeople. Then, due to the efforts of the Clan Donald Society of Canada, a posthumous award of a coat of arms was petitioned for by his great-grandson, Hugh Alexander Macdonald Gainsford, and granted by the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, 28 May 1970. The original document was presented to the Dominion Archives by the Clan Donald Society in 1970 for posterity. Mr Gainsford is a great-grandson of Sir Hugh John Macdonald QC KCB, a former premier of Manitoba and the only surviving son of Sir John A’s marriages.

In 1972 the absence of Sir John A. Macdonald’s plate bearing his Armorials, which should have been in the Chapel in Westminster Abbey, was noted by the Commission of Canadian Studies, which had been set up, with Canada Council, by the Association of Universities and Colleges. This was brought to the attention of Conrad Swan, York Herald at Arms and Genealogist of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. Dr Swan immediately took the action necessary to have a bronze stall-plate, 7½ inches by 5 inches, bearing the arms of Sir John A. Macdonald made and affixed in a very important position close to the altar in the Chapel in the Abbey.

This plate was unveiled by the Canadian High Commissioner to Britain, Mr J.M. Turner, on Dominion Day, 1st July 1974. Sir John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada, is the only Canadian ever to be so highly honoured within the Order and commemorated in the Order’s Chapel.

Sir John A. was never a robust man and following the death of his father he took a trip to Great Britain which he had not seen since coming to Canada as a child in 1820. This visit to his mother country greatly influenced his future. He met a lass who was to become his wife and he developed a love for England and Scotland. This feeling continued to grow with the years and strongly influenced his political career. He enjoyed being entertained in the old country and as a very eligible, witty, and personable young bachelor, he was invited everywhere. The sights, folklore, and traditions of Oxford, Cambridge, London, and Edinburgh interested him greatly but he finally went to see his relatives in Scotland. There he fell in love with Isabella Clark and when she came to Kingston a year later they were married on 1st September 1843, in St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

A complete suit of Highland dress including all accessories which might be required by a Highland gentleman was supplied Sir John by T. Buckmaster, Tailor and Army Clothier, 155 George Street, Edinburgh, and it is noted that he received “a fine silk velvet Highland Jacket, Tartan Kilt, and instructions for dressing”. There is no record of the tartan supplied and there is no record of any picture of him in Highland regalia.

It is not certain what tartan was worn by our first Prime Minister nor are we certain which branch of the Clan received his allegiance. An article published in The Whig-Standard on 9th January 1965, by Lt. Col. George F. G. Stanley, now Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick, says “John Alexander Macdonald was born in the Parish of Ramshorn, Glasgow, Scotland, Jan. 11th 1815. His father and mother were both of Highland stock”.

McCaughan of Hallyverdagh in his genealogical report to the Clan Donald Society in 1969 says, “It is not exactly known which branch of Clan Donald this distinguished family descended from, but there is no doubt that the family had been for several generations in Sutherland, Scotland, and originally came from the Isles and are therefore descended from the house of Isla or Macdonald of the Isles”.

Evelyn Purvis Earle in her book “Linger in Leeds” says “Sir John A. Macdonald was directly descended from the Earl of Kintyre. These Macdonalds were Lords of the Isles”.

John D. Light in an article published in the Magazine of the Heraldry Society of Canada states, “Macdonald, like many in the 19th and 20th centuries, was one who desired a coat of arms but was unable or unwilling to research the matter properly”. He therefore “assumed” a likely coat. This was rectified through the work of the Clan Donald Society of Canada who obtained a posthumous grant of arms to Sir John on 28th May 1970.

The propensity of individuals to assume arms improperly is regrettable  and  a  constant  difficulty  to  researchers. Nevertheless, when the plate was commissioned by Sir John there were few people in Canada who had any knowledge of heraldry; and in the light of subsequent events we can see that this bookplate represents the beginnings of what has proved to be renaissance in matters heraldic in Canada. As such, even apart from its illustrious owner, it is a valuable item.

In September of 1979,1 had the honour of drawing this to the attention of Sir Ian Macdonald of Sleat and received the following in reply.

Dear Colonel Leggett.

Thank you for your most interesting letter of the 21st of September about the important part the Arms of Sleat played in the early history of Canada and Sir John A. Macdonald. I did not know that my family’s Arms had been incorporated by Canada’s First Prime Minister but I consider it a great honour for our family that such an important gentleman should want to be associated with the family of Sleat.

Yours sincerely

Ian Macdonald of Sleat.

What a wonderful reply from such a fine chief and Highland gentleman. It is my thought that Sir John A. apparently had a desire to be associated with the Sleat branch of Clan Donald. It is known that engravings of arms with Sir John A.’s name beneath them have been found; and they have been represented as his arms in the stained glass window of Memorial Hall in the Municipal Building at Kingston, Ontario. These actually are the arms of the Chief of the Sleat branch of Clan Donald.

At this time may I take a moment to commend His Worship, The Mayor, and the people of Kingston for their very fine effort in the Proclamation of Sir John A. Macdonald Day on 15th February of this year. I have heard much favourable comment on the proclamation honouring Kingston’s favourite son. I trust that from now on this day will become a yearly event.

A word about Sir John A. Macdonald’s Clan which is known the world over as Clan Donald. There is no such identity as Clan MacDonald. Clan Donald is descended from Donald of Islay who was descended from Somerled, Lord of the Isles. There are eight branches mostly headed by Chiefs and composed of Septs and Clefts or adherents which are too numerous to count. It is acknowledged that Clan Donald is the largest Highland Clan in Scotland.

Today, the Clan Donald Society of Canada is here to honour one of our own who could possibly be described as one of the most important exports from Scotland. We are very proud of him and his many achievements. We venerate his memory on this, the 91st anniversary of his passing. Let us all remember our great leader and chieftain. Let us all remember him with one word of his native tongue.