The 17th Chief of Glengarry by Mary Batt.

In the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages, I found the record of his death: “Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell died 2nd June 1862 of rheumatic fever with congestion of the brain. Undertaker W. Murray & Co., George Street.”

The Otago Daily Times has two death notices, and they pointed out that for those times this is most unusual – most people hadn’t the money for one notice, and the fact that there are two suggests he was a man of importance. They read:

“At Dunedin, Otago, on his way to Canterbury on 2nd June 1862, Alexander Ronaldson MacDonnell, of Glengarry, Scotland, of fever, aged 28 years. Home papers please copy.” – O.D.T. June 3, 1852.

“Friends of the late A. Macdonnell of Glengarry, and resident of Culladon, Oamaru, Canterbury, New Zealand, are respectfully invited to follow his remains to the cemetery. The funeral will leave the Provincial Hotel, Stafford Street at 11.30 a.m. on Thursday 5th. – Spicer Murray and Co. George Street.”

You will notice that spelling varies; MacDonell sometimes having a capital D, sometimes two n’s and two l’s and sometimes one. Occasionally he is called Alastair instead of Alexander, and it would seem possible that the property mentioned above would be called Culloden.

At this stage we seemed to have come to the end of the road. The sexton of the Southern cemetery, (the only one open in 1862) could find no record of the burial, nor trace of a tombstone, until the Public Library in searching back copies of the Evening Star for some other enquiry, came on a photo of the monument in the paper for 30th August 1947. That was the key that opened the door – the Early Settlers found a spidery little note that read “Glengarry the Highland Chief Alastair Ranaldson MacDonell died in Dunedin on 2nd June 1862 aged 28. Buried in the Southern Cemetery and there is a monument to his name. Dr. Gordon McDonald MD, wrote several articles in the Dunedin Star 25 January 1930, 29 January 1930, and 1 February 1930.

When told, the Sexton of the Cemetery said “You mean the Glengarry memorial. Why didn’t you say so? We all know where that is and we are very proud of it.”

Summary of the story:

Alexander was overseas, somewhere in India when his father died. You will notice that his father was the last Highland Chief to be accompanied by his “tail” on his journeys. At home, Alastair found that his father had sold off the greater part of the estate to pay his debts, and the remaining land was not sufficient to pay the money still owing. On the advice of his mother, who is reported to be youthful, pretty and wise, he sold the remainder and came to New Zealand where he bought land at Culverden in Canterbury.

Glengarry came to New Zealand in the barque Oriental (Captain Macey) and landed at Nelson in October 1857, accompanied by his sister Miss MacDonell and a Mr Dodds as his manager. Shortly after his arrival, he bought a large tract of land in Canterbury Province called Culverden, and ran sheep and cattle on it while his plans were being matured as a new Glengarry Settlement. It appears that in 1860 he and his sister returned to Scotland, but his plans there miscarried. His sister remained at home, but his only brother Charles accompanied him on the return journey. They came via Melbourne, and it will be observed in his Aunt’s letter that Charles missed the New Zealand boat, and it is probable that Glengarry landed alone in Dunedin, as in this time, owing to the discovery of gold, Dunedin was the Principal centre of New Zealand.

It is thought that his death could well have been through lack of medical attention and care. This was just the time of the gold rush to Tuapeka, when men, women and children rushed from Dunedin to try their luck, and very few were left here. There was a cousin in New Zealand who was able to come to the funeral, but Dunedin people would not be aware of who he was.

An interesting sequel to this arose in the 1890s when it became known that the Chief of Glengarry lay in an unmarked grave in an obscure corner of the Anglican part of the Southern cemetery. After some letters to the paper, it was decided to form a committee to see about erecting a tombstone. The following committee was formed:

Mr D.C. Macdonald, Chief of the Gaelic Society of Dunedin.
Captain Norman Macdonald, Bluff,

Mr Duncan Macdonald, Sheep Farmer of Hindon,
Mr John Macdonald, Argyle Hotel, Dunedin.
Mr Simon Macdonald, Blacksmith, Dunedin,
Mr A.A. Macdonald, Sheep Farmer, Gore.
Mr John Macdonald, Merchant, Palmerston.
Mr Hugh Macdonald, Commercial Traveller.
Mr Lachland Macdonald, Ship’s Carpenter, Port Chalmers.
Mr Archibald Macdonald, Merchant, Lawrence.
Mr James Macdonald, Merchant, Gore.
Dr Gordon Macdon,ald, MD, Chairman and Secretary.

They raised the sum of £120, and erected the monument on the foundation of which appears the inscription which reads:

“Air Muir ‘s Air Tir

“In memory of Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell, 17th Chief of Glengarry, Scotland, who died in Dunedin, on 2 June 1862 aged 28 years and is buried here.”

Above is a base block with N Craggan (the rock). Over that another block with N Casteal (the Castle) and on top of the castle stands the Celtic cross with Glengarry across its arm. (Something has happened to the top of the cross, thought to be weathering, and the top lies broken off).

On the opposite sides of the foundation from the inscription, is a Gaelic writing which freely translated reads:

“Erected by the Scottish Gaels of Dunedin and their families and their friends throughout Otago as a National Memorial of a great Chief who has departed, and for the days that are gone.”

To complete the story of the Culverden property, it was evidently inherited by Charles, but when he came to takeover, all stock was regarded as “moveable property” and was sold, I think the money going to Alastair’s sister, but leaving Charles unable to continue farming.

Quite a number of poems were written about Glengarry at various times and here are two verses from different ones that appeared in the local paper. 

From the hills of the Highlands, the glens of the North,
Comes the spirit of freedom, rejoicingly forth,
And alights where the gum trees incessantly wave
O’er the grave of Glengarry, the last of the brave.
And she points me around him, the darkness and gloom,
And the sad, sombre veil that obscureth his tomb.

Oblivion? No that cannot be
The fate of one so great as he
Great is the greatness that aspires
The fame, the glory of his sires
Nor has his memory ceased to share
Some kindly clansman’s loving care,

For, standing by his grave today,
I saw a wreath of heather spray
Was placed upon his breast.
And there it lay at duty’s shrine
The badge of his ancestral line
Who lay below at rest.

Editorial Footnote: The foregoing article is the result of much research by Mrs McDonald of Dunedin, sister-in-law of Mrs Mary Batt, Hon. Secretary of the Clan Donald Society of New Zealand who kindly sent it in response to my request for a photograph of the grave of this Chief of Glengarry -N.H.M.