The Rt. Hon. Sir John A. Macdonald PC KCB GCB QC MP by Lt. Col. Gordon D. Leggett.

There is probably no man in Canada about whom so much has been written and of whom so much remains to be recorded. A man who officially was never born and, while he died in office as the First Prime Minister of Canada and was given one of the largest state funerals ever tendered a public dignitary in Ottawa, no one signed the death certificate. Could this situation have given base for the well-known saying, “Sir John A. Macdonald, you’ll never die?”

In 1967 a member of the Heraldry Society of Canada was overheard making the statement that Sir John A. Macdonald did not have a coat of arms of his own and, while it was known that several attempts had been made to correct this, it was thought that none had been carried through to completion. This story was related to the Toronto Branch of the Clan Donald Society of Canada which was at that time searching for a suitable Centennial Project. After much discussion and study, it was decided by the executive and concurred in by the general membership that the Genealogist, Mr. John A. McCaughan, should be authorised to do the research required in compiling a genealogical record of the antecedents of the First Prime Minister of Canada. What had at first been thought to be a few weeks’ work slowly stretched into several years of letter writing, searching old records, interviews, and the countless other issues which had evidently baffled former researchers. It was not until 1969 that the final evidence was assembled and the submission considered to be suitable for mailing to the Lord Lyon King of Arms, in Edinburgh.

The problem then arose regarding someone from Sir John’s immediate line who would be prepared to sign the petition. It was found that there was a direct descendant of Sir John’s, a great-grandson, Hugh Alexander Macdonald Gainsford, living in the city of Winnipeg and he most graciously volunteered to sign the petition for a posthumous award for his illustrious forebear. Mr. Gainsford is a grandson of Sir Hugh John Macdonald QC KCB, a former Premier of Manitoba, and the only surviving son of Sir John A’s marriages. It was also possible through this line to prove, beyond a doubt, that Sir John A. did exist and that Sir John’s pedigree was as many writers tell us it was.

The petition was favourably received by the Lord Lyon King of Arms on the 28th day of May 1970, and is entered on the 67th page of the 52nd Volume of the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland.

Having successfully completed this portion of the Centennial Project, it was then decided that the Coat of Arms should be presented to the people of Canada for posterity and that this should be done in the presence of Mr. Gainsford at the Annual Dinner of the Heraldry Society of Canada in Ottawa on the 24th October 1970. Twenty-five members of the Toronto Branch of the Clan Donald Society were piped into the dining hall by the Honorary Clan Donald Piper, Robert H. Macdonald BA. The framed Armorials, carried into the hall by Chief Inspector Wm. J. McBride OPP, and Staff-Sergeant Murdo Macdonald of the Metro Toronto Police, were presented by the President of the Toronto Branch, Lt. Col. Gordon D. Leggett, to the Rt. Hon. Allan McEachen, who, receiving them for the Dominion of Canada, handed them to Dr. W.I. Smith, Dominion Archivist, for preservation in the Public Archives of Canada for posterity. Following this presentation, a vellum copy of the extracts was presented by Lt. Col. Leggett to Mr. Hugh Alexander Macdonald Gainsford as a special memento of the historic occasion.

This memorable evening and the posthumous award of the Armorials was given considerable recognition in the majority of Canadian newspapers and various magazines. The Heraldry Society of Canada Quarterly made a very favourable comment on the work of the Clan Donald Society in subsequent issues and these were in turn reproduced in various American magazines.

Sir John A. Macdonald, the First Prime Minister of Canada, was appointed a Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath on 29th June 1867, and elevated to a Knight Grand Cross of the Order on 25th November 1884. A tradition of the Order was that a Knight Grand Cross was allotted a stall in the Order’s Westminster Abbey Chapel of Henry the Seventh. This went on from 1725 when the Order was formally established by King George I, until 1812. Then, so many Knights were created during the Napoleonic Wars that there were not enough stalls and the installation ceremony was dropped until 1913 when King George V restored it.

As part of the installation tradition, when a Knight Grand Cross died, his banner was then removed and his stall was given to another 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, who died in Ottawa in 1891, this may partially explain why no thought appears to have been given to a banner bearing his Coat of Arms and why there was no plaque in the Abbey.

However, in 1972 the absence of Sir John A. Macdonald’s plate bearing his Armorials which should have been in the Chapel of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath in Westminster Abbey, was noted by the Commission on Canadian Studies, set up with Canada Council in 1972, by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. This Point was taken up with Dr. Conrad Swan, York Herald of Arms, and Genealogist of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. Dr. Swan is the only non-Briton in the 450 year history of the College of Arms and comes from Duncan on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

It will be understood that Sir John A. did not have his own Coat of Arms until the posthumous award in 1970 and when this deficiency was pointed out, the Genealogist of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath immediately took the action necessary to have a bronze stall plate, 71/2 by 5 inches, bearing the Arms of Sir John A. Macdonald, made and affixed in a very important position on the side of one of the stalls close to the Altar in the Chapel in the Abbey. The plate was unveiled by the Canadian High Commissioner to Britain, Mr. J.W. Warren, on the 1st of July 1974. Sir John A. Macdonald is the only Canadian ever to be so highly honoured within the Order and commemorated in the Order’s Chapel.

The ceremony was attended by a delegation from Ottawa headed by Mrs. Muriel Fergusson, the first woman Speaker of the Canadian Senate, who read the lesson, and by Mr. Lucien Lamoureux, now Canadian Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, who gave the Eulogy. Other members from Ottawa were Senator Alastair Groshart, Mr. Ross Wicher MP and Mr. Barry Mather MP. The Very Reverend Dr. Edward F. Carpenter conducted the service.

Copies of this Coat of Arms have been presented to the Sir John A. Macdonald Collegiate in Toronto, the Clan Donald Log House in Doon Pioneer Village, and the United Empire Loyalist Museum in Adolphustown, Ontario. This has all been done under the auspices of the Toronto Branch of the Clan Donald Society. In addition, a copy has been presented to that great admirer of Sir John, the Right Honourable John C. Diefenbaker PC QC, who is now the only living former Prime Minister of Canada. Mr. Diefenbaker in his letter to the Clan Donald Society gratefully acknowledged the gift and stated that his copy will be included in his Macdonald papers which he is donating to the University of Saskatchewan. Mr. Diefenbaker is Chancellor of this splendid University.

As a fitting tribute to the First Prime Minister of Canada and his connection with Clan Donald, a specially framed copy of these Armorials was carried from Canada to Scotland this summer by Murdo Macdonald, President of the Toronto Branch of the Clan Donald Society, and presented to the Clan Donald Museum at Armadale on Skye.