The Clan Donald Clock in Arisaig Church Tower by John R.H. McDonald

Reminiscences of the 1929 Dedication of the Memorial to the Clan Donald Poet Alasdair Mac Mhaigstir Alasdair, died c. 1770.

Over fifty years ago, I had but recently got my British driving licence and so was more than willing when my Dad asked me to drive a party of MacDonalds to Arisaig for this event of 15th June 1929.

Having been a few years before made a member of what was then The MacDonald Society of Glasgow, I had known something of the Clan-oriented activities of Mr J. Wiseman Macdonald LL.B., a Clanranald in law practice in Los Angeles, California. That modest but distinguished and effective Clansmen had acquired Castle Tioram, and had already made some arrangements for its restoration “from alienage to Macdonald dominion”, as he wrote.

He wished further to do something not only memorable but practical for the people then of Moidart. The Honorary Secretary of our Glasgow Clan Society, John D. Macdonald, “had the Gaelic”, and was an admirer of the Gaelic poetry of the great Clan Donald and Jacobite poet Alasdair Mac Mhaigstir Alasdairwho died in 1770 and bad been a graduate of Glasgow University as I became in 1929. Wiseman Macdonald adopted the idea of both commemoration and practicality in donating a three face Memorial Clock in the tower of St Mary’s Church, Arisaig, with a bronze tablet set in the wall of the tower.

The tablet is inscribed:

Bha an trathadair so air a chur suas le Clann Domhnuill mar chuimhneachan air Alasdair MacMhaigstir Alasdair, sar bhard a choisinn cliu neo bhasmhor agus a chuir maise air eachdraidh a chinnidh.

Which translates:

This clock was erected by the Clan Donald as a memorial of Alasdair, son of Mr Alasdair, a great bard who won undying fame and added lustre to the history of his Clan.

The church is built on a considerable elevation and the clock’s faces show for considerable distances north, west and south, to the service of the people in the district and the fishermen at sea and in port. Eastward rises a hill so that a fourth clock face in that direction would serve little purpose and the three faces furnished fulfill the function of Father Time.

The Dedication was attended by notabilities of Church and Civil Life. Included in the Gentlemen of The Cloth were his Lordship Dr Martin, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles; Canon MacNeil of Morar; Father MacKinnon of Arisaig; Father MacClymont of Campbeltown; the Reverend D. Logan of the Established Church of Scotland; and the Reverend A. MacLean of the United Free Church. In day-kilt Highland costume were Clan Donald Society members including President John McDonald; Honorary Secretary John D. Macdonald; Mr Peter Macdonald, a past President; Mr John D. Macdonald, ex-President of the Uist and Barra Association; Mr ran Macdonald; many of them with their ladies. There was Mr Alexander Macdonald, the Arisaig Secretary; Mr Laclilan Gillies of Morar; Mrs Ryan of Blar-a-cha, Roy Bridge; Miss Astley of Faire-na-Scuir, Arisaig; Miss Nicholson of Arisaig House, and many others.

Writing now for the Edinburgh Clan Donald Magazine, perhaps I should add that the considerable company at Arisaig may well have included Clansmen from Scotland’s Capital City. I recall there an octogenarian Mr Peter MacDonald who could claim attendance at over sixty consecutive “Islay” Gatherings, and I have learned that the grandfather of editor Norman, of Comunn Chlann Domhnaill Dun Eideann today, was a Peter MacDonald who I think in the twenties was a member of the Council of our Edinburgh Society.

Wiseman Macdonald made the Dedication Address and unveiled the Memorial plaque. Bishop Martin spoke in tribute to the Poet, and also to our transatlantic Clanranald clansman whose personality and liberality, said his Lordship, were worthy of a true Highland Chieftain. President John McDonald “was very happy in his remarks appropriate to the occasion and eulogistic of the bard.”

Alasdair MacMhaigstir Alasdair’s works were referred to, and quoted, both in the Gaelic and in a partial translation which the speaker said could not equal the wild beauty of the original Gaelic even in the following fervid lines:

Let them tear our bleeding bosoms
Let them drain our inmost veins;
In  our hearts is Charlie – Charlie,
While a spark of life remains. 

In Mr Wiseman Macdonald’s book, privately printed in 1930, he writes that the morning after the Dedication Ceremony the Honorary Secretary John D. Macdonald called on him for a copy his Dedication Address, “for the records of the Clan Donald Society, I promised to prepare one for him.” Observing Wiseman’s punctilious character, I feel sure that such was furnished and may now reside in these records. Certainly not long after the event a movie of the Arisaig affair was shown at a dinner party in the Central Hotel, where Wiseman Macdonald before returning to far off California told something of his plans and procedures at Castle Tioram, and thanked the assembled representatives of Clan Donald their work in connection with the Memorial to Alasdair MacMhaigstir Alasdair.


The Memorial Tablet with John McDonald, President of  The MacDonald Society, Glasgow (left) and J. Wiseman Macdonald, LL.B., of Los Angeles at the unveiling of The Clock in 1929.

SShapely Tower of the Church of St Mary, Arisaig, with Memorial Clock to Alasdair MacMhaigstir Alasdair.

SSt Mary’s Church and Presbytery – Arisaig (before the clock memorial to the Bard was installed.