The Early Evolution of Today’s Clan Donald USA By William Naylor McDonald, III, FSA Scot

This is about our adventures with Donald J. Macdonald of Edinburgh who inspired the creation of Clan Donald societies where Highlanders have escaped with their lives … It deals with people and events in North America and Scotland in the decade after the present High Chief assumed the title. It was a time when Ellice McDonald, Jr. took charge of both Clan Donald USA and its world home on the Isle of Skye. Quite unexpectedly and unconsciously we operated with a few others in making Donald J.’s vision for a Clan Donald of the present a reality.

When the present High Chief assumed his title in 1971 and death duties made it necessary to sell the last of Clan Donald’s ancestral land including three castles, he turned to Donald J. Macdonald of Castleton, president of the Clan Donald Society of Edinburgh. For years Donald J. and his wife, Bunty, had entertained visiting clansfolk, helping them to find family records and encouraging them to start Clan Donald societies in their own areas. There was the hope in 1971 that these fledgling societies could raise money enough to buy the ancestral lands for a world home on the Isle of Skye. So the Clan Donald Lands Trust was created and the handsome young High Chief and his Lady Claire set out to charm the clan and raise money.

As a member of the family which called itself the Glengarry McDonalds of Virginia, I grew up with pictures of Invergarry Castle and in 1957 I fulfilled a lifetime wish to go there. A thriving correspondence resulted with Donald J. which developed into a tour of Clan Donald country in 1967, our 25th wedding anniversary. I was interested but not prepared for Lord Macdonald’s letter in the spring of 1971.

The letter said that I was in charge of his efforts to raise money in the United States. Lord Macdonald would arrive at Kennedy Airport in New York on May 27 and I would meet him. The first official visit would be in Texas.

It took almost ten years to become the warm friend of movers and shakers in the Texas area and find out why Texas was selected. I was already aware of a few people in this country and in Canada who cared deeply. For us Clan Donald took on the proportions of a cause which gave no hint of the indelible experience which would mark the rest of our lives. Many of us have fallen by the wayside for various reasons. All of us take satisfaction in having contributed to the American rebirth of our ancient way of life today.

When Lord Macdonald got back to New York from Texas, we faced the fact together that serious money was needed to buy the last ancestral lands on the Isle of Skye. Problems about getting the money appeared to be up to us to solve. We had no idea that three affluent clansmen would emerge within the next few weeks. Individually or collectively they would rescue the Clan Donald Lands Trust from one horrendous difficulty after another during the next six years.

Nestor J. MacDonald was the first to commit important financial backing. A prominent industrialist, he was an influential member of the St. Andrews Society of New York and was in the early stages of building the Grandfather Mountain Games of Linville, North Carolina, into the biggest in the world. He had been informed of the High Chief’s plans as an officer in the almost defunct Clan Donald USA started by Reginald Macdonald in Pittsburgh in 1954. He and his wife, Helen, invited me to lunch at the Union League Club on the day that the High Chief landed. A crucial association was then established.

Soon after came a telephone call from a John H. Macdonald, a Toronto newspaperman, who turned out to be managing the Canadian segment of Lord Macdonald’s fund-raising trip. John’s interest in Clan Donald had led him to Donald J. Macdonald in 1960 and the beginning of a clan society in Canada. His calls were almost weekly for the next four years as he involved David MacDonald Stewart, president, MacDonald Tobacco Co. as a major backer.

I have always considered the Ellice McDonald association with Clan Donald and my connection with it as highly unlikely. My interest in Scotland had involved me with a small group who worked with Lady Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton, originator of “Bundles for Britain” during World War II and the American Scottish Foundation which still runs the annual very social Scottish ball in New York City. One afternoon in her apartment casually opening mail, she exclaimed over a check It was from an Ellice McDonald Jr. of Invergarry, Montchanin, Delaware. The combination of his name with Invergarry rang many bells because I grew up in a family which made much of being Glengarry McDonalds. During my 1957 visit to Invergarry Castle in the Great Glen, I discovered that Edward Ellice, a member of Parliament, had built the present manor house on the castle property in 1869.

Before the High Chief arrived, I had written to the Ellice McDonalds and had received a cordial reply. This gave me the courage to ask them if they would like to meet Lord and Lady Macdonald. Their affirmative answer led to a visit to their home and another substantial contribution.

Toronto with 2,000 Pipers

We met the following August in Toronto where we were treated as honored guests. That year the Canadian National Exposition had a Scottish theme and featured a tattoo in its massive stadium. The honored guests were driven around the track in a landau drawn by prancing horses like the Queen at Ascot. The world’s top pipe bands were invited to perform and more than 2,000 pipers marched down Toronto’s main street deafening and dazzling all comers.

Including Lord and Lady Macdonald, five clan chiefs and their wives were honored guests. Between the welcomes of the gala urban gatherings and a simple rural one of the Grand River Valley branch of Clan Donald, we got a thorough exposure to clan related possibilities for the 20th century.

Early Office-Bearers

It is significant that Donald Thurber and his wife, Peggy, of Detroit had also checked into our Toronto hotel, called us and were included in the festivities that weekend. They were the first to begin Clan Donald in the Great Lakes region inviting the Clanranald chief to an early gathering at their Michigan home. Nothing like this had happened in the United States since the 1964 death of Reginald MacDonald. According to Donald J. it was up to us to do something about that.

Many of the original office-bearers of the reborn Clan Donald USA came from members of my McDonald family – cousin Kirk as treasurer, cousin Graeme for the West Coast. My great-grandfather Angus had two wives, each of whom had nine children so I had a lot of cousins over the country to choose from. With Lord Macdonald, I. was able in 1971 to prevail upon cousin Robertson Macdonald of Nashville to be High Commissioner of a clan society which simply wasn’t there nationally. Nestor was his deputy. It was scattered in bits and pieces the country over. Through Robertson I found out about Clan Donald south which was still fighting the Civil War with rebel yells and the Confederate flag unfurled. This contingent turned out to be the nucleus of the southeast region of Clan Donald including Scot John R.H. McDonald of Chattanooga, Tennessee, who later produced two unparalleled booklets about the clan tartans and castles with new information and photos.

Jim McDonald of Savannah, today genealogist of the clan in this country, took over the Southeast and the Rev. Robert G. Carroon, now our Archivist, assumed responsibility for the Midwest. Ellice became Maryland-Delaware Commissioner.

I took over the Northeast from Maine through Virginia. The late Jim McDonald of Connecticut, a Clanranald and bon vivant, became the close friend of his Chief. For several summers later their families spent vacations together when the children were small. Jim drove a huge camper to Highland games in Nova Scotia where Clanranalds predominate. When the children were older, a flotilla led by Clanranald’s “Birlinn” explored Clanranald country in the Outer Hebrides. Nothing was missed on South Uist including the cave where Prince Charles was hidden before Flora MacDonald managed to take him “over the sea to Skye”.

Jim’s membership in the St Andrew’s Country Club in Hastings, New York, made possible gala gatherings of Northeast members. Bill Javane who later became Maine Commissioner concocted a reasonable facsimile of haggis and carried it shoulder high behind a piper to Nestor MacDonald who recited Burns’ “Ode”.

Betty, the wife of Gordon Silvie of Whippany, New Jersey, who was in charge of New York State, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, created a display of Clan Donald-tartaned items from Christmas tree ornaments to waste baskets.

Earliest CDLT Visitors

With a job on Wall Street and oversight over Clan Donald in the Northeast, I was also closely involved in the Clan Donald Lands Trust. Benefactors Ellice, Nestor and David Stewart had poured money into Skye. As a result at the request of Nestor and Ellice, my wife and I made hasty arrangements to spend the long Thanksgiving Day weekend of 1971 in Scotland and give them a report. Arrangements were made for a private plane to meet us at Prestwick Airport early Thanksgiving morning, pick up Donald J. at the Edinburgh airport, thence to Skye to be met by Eddie Buchan, Lord Macdonald’s gamekeeper. The weather was very threatening over the Sound of Sleat. It was at this point that the pilot told us that he was low on gas and had to fly back to Glasgow. All depended on wind direction on Skye or on the mainland at Plockton. Eddie Buchan got the message by radio so when the plane drove through thick fog, the wind sock blew in a way safe enough for us to land on a bumpy Plockton pasture. The resourceful Eddie was there ahead of us. Donald J. and I were in the front seat of his estate Landrover and Ruth prone in the back with luggage.

Long after dark we arrived at the Ardvasar Hotel, then owned by Lord Macdonald, in the little village close to Armadale Castle. Much refurbished since, it has become a comfortable place to stay. We shivered in our bedroom while we took still-used pictures of the sun rising over the Sound of Sleat at 8.30 am.

That morning we got never-duplicated shots of the Cuillins covered with snow. That view on the other side of the Sleat Peninsula is the most gorgeous we have ever seen anywhere.

Armadale Castle was the main focus of our trip so we found ourselves marvelling at its interior so carefully contrived by the great architect Gillespie Graham. Only recently had it been emptied of furniture to be sold at auction, and the entire structure left to dry rot. We found the castle and its surroundings full of potential. In 1976 Canadian David Stewart restored the original North end.

We gained more insight when Donald J. arranged for us to have tea with the Dowager Lady Anne, the High Chief’s mother, at Ostaig House. Here she was living with family possessions rescued from the castle. We remember particularly a small painting of Flora in her mid-twenties at the time when she rescued the Prince. There was also a gold chess set presented by Napoleon’s Marshal MacDonald to the Lord Macdonald of his time. Before she died we visited Lady Macdonald in the Rose Cottage behind the castle which has become the impressive library of the Clan Donald Center.

The father of the present librarian was Air Vice-Marshall Calum MacDonald, the chairman of the first executive committee of the Clan Donald Lands Trust which featured clan chiefs and Scottish businessmen controlling the destiny of the Skye project. The three large donors were far off in North America. To them I felt a strong responsibility particularly after I made another trip in 1973 to report on an Executive Committee meeting held at Kinloch Lodge, now a hotel and the home of the High Chief.

As the disciple of Donald J. I put Clan Donald at the heart of every decision made in connection with the Skye operation. Naturally the large contributors wanted to keep track of the finances. Too late and without an opportunity to be involved, they heard that over 25,000 acres had been sold for 12 pounds an acre. There was the further uncertainty about the resident director who made no bones about wanting to turn the property into a wild life preserve. Making the most of the ancestral lands of Clan Donald seemed to be far from the minds of the native committee members.

Progress was made in 1976 when Armadale Castle’s north-end was restored by the Canadian benefactor, David Stewart.

Differences came to a head when the first International Gathering of the Clans was announced for Edinburgh in 1977. A Greek steamship company approached Clan Donald representatives in Scotland about chartering a cruise ship to sail around Scotland to visit spots of special interest. Without looking at the fine print for an escape clause, Clan Donald was committed. The very upsetting outcome was that the three North American benefactors had to pay off a substantial loss. The voyage of the “Calypso” became known as the “Collapso”.

As passengers of the cruise, we can report that some good things happened as a result. Clansfolk came from all parts of the world. Forrest and Helen MacDonald of California were on board. With their friend, Douglas MacDonald, they have made Clan Donald on the West Coast perhaps the busiest and most innovative of any part of Clan Donald.

Much against his will Ellice McDonald Jr. felt obligated to become chairman of the Executive Committee.

Islay, The “Hearth of Our Race”

In 1973 Donald J. and his wife accompanied us on further exploration of Clan Donald country. This would include Islay and its Loch Finlaggan, the headquarters of Clan Donald’s domination of western Scotland and its more than 500 Hebrides as Lords of the Isles. This is noted in few history books.

Nothing could be done about Loch Finlaggan without the permission of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

There were no signs showing its location. There was nothing that could be done to protect the designs on its remaining sculptured stones – the art form which was brought to its height during the Lordship period. In spite of this Donald J. had managed to accumulate a bank account in Edinburgh earmarked for Loch Finlaggan.

To get there, we boarded an ocean going feny at Tarbert on Kintyre which finally docked by the Port Askaig Hotel in the Sound of Jura where we stayed. Not far away and up the hill and behind a school lay desolate Loch Finlaggan.

The next day Donald J. gingerly opened the battered farm gate which led to the barnyard of the farm house where we would have the best view. Before our car had stopped there, a shrill woman’s voice told us to get out. Apparently animals had escaped when other intruders had left the gates open. I was able to get one good picture later used in Donald’s “Clan Donald” before we beat a hasty retreat.

We didn’t get a further look at Loch Finlaggan for eight years. This was made possible by Lord Margadale, then owner of the estate where the loch is located. He arranged with his gamekeeper to row us to the big island where the Lords of the Isles lived. (The Lords of the Isles were buried with kings at lona). At that time we had the momentous experience of touching what we thought was the slab with the imprint of a left foot used in the inauguration of a Lord of the Isles.

Donald J. arranged for us to meet Graham Donald of Port Charlotte who had found that stone and was the author as Donald Grumach of six little booklets about the Lordship. He turned out to be a colorful character with an undisguised wooden leg. He was excited about finding the footprint stone and furious at the Royal and Ancient Monuments people for ignoring the find. (At that time we did not know that he had been in charge of questioning Rudolph Hess, the close associate of Hitler, who defected, escaped and parachuted onto the estate of the Duke of Hamilton.)

In more recent years we have had a lot of correspondence with Gloria Gilchrist. an English antiquarian who lived and worked on Islay for a short time and became intrigued with the Lords of the Isles. Wandering around Loch Finlaggan, she found herself resting by a boulder outcropping on the steep slope above the loch. She was astonished to see the rough outline of a human right foot in the rock. This footprint stone was in a prominent position where hundreds of people might witness the proceedings.

I checked with the late Dr Lamont of the University of Glasgow, a well known authority on sculptured stones. I have his letter saying that foot print stones were usually of the right foot in living rock. Lamont is the author of “The Sculptured Stones of Islay” which we kept close to us during our exploration of Islay. We made pilgrimages to the greatest of all – the Kildalton Cross – which dates back to 800 AD, matched only by the standing crosses of lona. We also saw the Kilchoman Cross near the ruins of the summer palace of the Lords of the Isles. This had a stone ball at its foot which women twisted wishing for the birth of a boy. From this point it was possible to see Ireland on a clear day. The ocean between was the haunt of German submarines during World Wars I and II. Bodies of their victims were washed ashore here.

Oronsay’s Best Preserved Stones

From the opposite northern shore of Islay, Donald J. pointed to Colonsay with its semi-attached island of Oronsay, approachable only at low tide. It is like the Clanranald Castle Tioram which only can be reached at low tide. There, 15 miles over the Atlantic Ocean was a MUST for another trip which we made a few years later. We solved the problem of getting there from Islay when we found that the harbour master of Colonsay would pick us up in his lobster boat in Islay if the weather was good.

We made all the arrangements before we left home and telephoned Colonsay about the weather after we arrived in Islay. Everything went off according to plan. One pleasant surprise was that our captain’s helper turned out to be one of Scotland’s top pipers. He was Andrew McNeill who had grown up on Oronsay and coped with the restrictions of the tide all of his life. We were further surprised that our captain had timed our arrival to the Oronsay tide. A car to take us there awaited our arrival. To our further astonishment a young photographer, Geoffrey Quick, from the Royal and Ancient Monuments Commission was there before us. He allowed us to use his lights in taking the pictures of the best preserved sculptured stones associated with Clan Donald’s Golden Period. Compared with the ruins of most buildings related to our clan, the ruins of this priory are the best preserved. It was built by John, Lord of the Isles in 1354. All Clan Donald Chiefs trace their lineage to him or to one of his two wives. His first wife was Arnie MacRuairidh whom he divorced to many the Scottish Stewart Princess Margaret.

On our 1971 return to the U.S. we presented a slide show with a written report halfway between the homes of Nestor and Ellice where they met for the first time at the Princeton, NJ. home of my cousin, Julia Davis. We were joined by another cousin Kirkpatrick. A portrait of Julia Davis’ father (her mother was Julia McDonald) presided over the dining room. He was John W. Davis, Ambassador to the Court of St. James who also represented the United States at the Versailles Peace conference ending World War I. Suggesting a significance for the occasion, luncheon was served on a tablecloth embroidered with the arms of the winning nations given to her father by the French people.

The 1970s were a time when Americans of many ethnic groups were caught up in exploring their unique culture and heritage. Our traditions as Highland Scots were so colorful that Highland Games and something like 100 clan societies were started in the United States. As an original office bearer, I set up card tables and later clan tents to attract new members. This meant sifting the eligible from those who were not I was always fascinated by the candidate’s expression when he found out that he “belonged” to a royal race, as Clanranald says, and that the chief of a clan is the first among equals. A stranger is treated as a long lost cousin so that feelings of brotherhood develop rapidly. Each member stands ready to share his capacities with the others in meeting the needs of his time.

Clan Donald of the l990s and its new members will build on huge advantages. Their world home on the Isle of Skye will be a finished inspiration. In addition a group of young historians have emerged in Scotland concentrating upon the four forgotten centuries when the MacDonalds were Kings and Lords of the Isles. During the last 20 years technological advances, particularly those which can be applied to archaeology, will reveal at least some Clan Donald treasures – especially at Loch Finlaggan.

Living in the world of today with all its complications, we deeply believe that the best is yet to come for Clan Donald.