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Wednesday 7 June 2017

Father Andrew MacDonell, M.B.E., M.C., O.S.B.

On his brief visit to Father Andrew MacDonell (1870–1960), Calum Maclean recorded a lengthy anecdote about the Beast of Barrisdale. It is a great pity that Maclean did not seem to have another opportunity to record more from the retired priest and former Benedictine monk. Maclean only makes two brief mentions of MacDonell in his diaries, the first dating to 12 June 1954: “We did go out to Spean Bridge and there met Fr Andrew MacDonell, who had returned from Canada” and on the next day Maclean recollects that he “talked to Fr MacDonell for part of the morning.” Unfortunately, Maclean does not seem to have left any other impression he may have had about the retired priest. Judging from the brief obituary which appeared in The Inverness Courier, the priest’s biography would have made interesting reading:

The funeral of Rev. Father Andrew Macdonell, O.S.B., whose death, at the age of 90 years, in Glasgow last week, is mourned by many old friends up and down the Great Glen, took place on Friday from the Abbey Church, Fort Augustus, to the Abbey Cemetrey. Before the funeral, the Abbot of Fort Augustus, the Right Rev. Celestine Haworth, O.S.B., officiated at the Solemn Requiem Mass in the church, and also at the interment. Father Andrew was a native of Invergarry, and was educated at the Abbey School. He was ordained at Fort Augustus in 1896, and some years later as appointed parish priest of Fort Augustus, Glengarry and Glenmoriston.
A born oganiser, Father Andrew had a tireless energy, which soon found an outlet in various directions that, at the core, had one single purpose — the welfare of the people and community. Creed never entered into it. Among the many things he accomplished in his ten years as parish priest were the following: ― the revival of the native game of shinty; the securing for Fort Augustus of its first (Queen’s) district nurse — “a great blessing in itself,” — as not a few ailing old people put it —; the founding of the Gleann Mor Gathering and Highland Games (now, alas! a thing for the past); and the formation of the Fort Augustus Pipe Band, which, also died many years ago.
In 1912 he went to Canada to organise the settlement in Alberta of many emigrants from the Highlands and Islands, but in 1914, on the outbreak of the First World War, he immediately enlisted as a padre with the Canadian Highlanders, and served in France until 1918. His courage under fire, when comforting the wounded, earned him the Military Cross, and for his great work for the emigrants after the war, he was made a Member of the British Empire. He was a classical scholar as well as a Gaelic scholar, and reference to these cultural attainments were made by by the writer’s late father when he spoke at a farewell gathering held on the eve of his departure for Canada, when Father Andrew was presented with a purse of sovereigns and an illuminated address. The function was held in the Lovat Arms Hotel on July 22, 1912, and the presentation was made by the late Captain John Macdonald, of the R.M.S. “Glengarry,” remembered throughout the Great Glen and in Inverness.
As far as Father Andrew’s old friends in Fort Augustus, Glengarry and Glenmoriston are concerned, this small tribute to him might fittingly end in the words spoken by the writer’s father on that night in June, 1912, when he bade him farewell: — “Time and tide might now divide us, but neither will efface his memory form the hearts of those he leaves behind.” To this might well be added the native Gaelic-speakers’ tribute: — “Caraid nan Gaidheal.”

This short and uncritical obituary, however, belies a controversial issue. MacDonell is perhaps best remembered for his involvement with the recruitment of emigrants to Canada. At the age of eighty-five, he was awarded an M.B.E. for his role as emigrant agent but this honour was not greeted with such universal acclaim, particularly by those in the Southern Outer Hebrides, the island which he had scoured for most of his recruits during the 1920s.

In the contentious story of Highland emigration, why does the figure of MacDonell remain particularly controversial and enigmatic? Opinion was divided as to whether he engineered a ‘notable piece of work in Canadian land settlement’ or an ill-conceived and mismanaged fiasco. Although undoubtedly a man of great vision, determination and talent, his emigration policies did not meet with great success. By orchestrating the relocation of crofters from Barra, South Uist and Benbecula to the Canadian prairies, he was unwittingly stoking the fire of the vehemently anti-Catholic policy of Lady Emily Gordon Cathcart, who in 1878 had inherited those islands from her first husband, son of one of the most notorious evicting landlords of the 19th-century clearances, Colonel John Gordon of Cluny.

Emigration had for long been the estate management’s favourite weapon against unwanted tenants and Lady Cathcart’s enthusiasm for colonising western Canada was allegedly tinged more by her share-holding interests in the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Hudson’s Bay Company than by a concern for the well-being of the colonists.

The question on which the jury is still out is whether MacDonell fully understood what he was doing by aiding and abetting the modern clearance policies of a woman who in the 1880s had been caricatured by one South Uist priest as “the Sultana.”

MacDonell’s career as an emigration agent began in 1912. For eight years after his training and ordination at Fort Augustus Abbey he had been in charge of the Catholic mission to the surrounding districts of Glenmoriston and Glengarry, but in 1912 ― at the request of a Canadian Archbishop ― he began to organise the removal of orphaned children to a training farm in Vancouver Island.

War service in France and the award of the Military Cross were followed by a return to Canada. MacDonell’s initial plan to confine his recruitment activity to the transfer of war orphans from the Highlands was soon dropped in favour of a more ambitious programme to bring Highland veterans and their families to Ontario under the British and Canadian governments’ collaborative soldier settlement scheme. In 1922 he extended his horizons even further when he was able to tap into a bigger government funding pot allocated to promote general land settlement and training schemes in the dominions.

On 15th April 1923, nearly three-hundred emigrants embarked at Lochboisdale, South Uist, on the Canadian Pacific liner, the Marloch bound for Red Deer, Alberta, just six days before the departure of her more famous sister ship, the Metagama, from Stornoway. Recruited by the Castlebay priest, Donald MacIntyre, on the instruction of MacDonell, they were allegedly bound for farmsteads in northern Alberta. But the fanfare that accompanied their departure from the Hebrides and their arrival in Saint John, New Brunswick, was soon replaced by a torrent of criticism from the emigrants about poor planning, inadequate accommodation and jobs that did not materialise and from the Canadian authorities about the influx of “a clannish people of peculiar psychology.”

For more than a decade MacDonell pursued his dream of creating a Hebridean colony on the Canadian prairies. But although over 1,300 colonists (not all of whom were Highlanders) crossed the Atlantic under his auspices, the enterprise fell victim to poor administration, economic depression and his own unrealistic expectations. MacDonell was later director of the Catholic Society of Canada, based in Montreal. In 1928 the Canadian government revoked his rights as an official agent and by 1939 his colonists were still in debt to the tune of over $50,000.

Back home, his name was tarnished by his association with Lady Cathcart and, as public criticism grew, the Scottish Catholic hierarchy distanced itself completely from his ventures.

Although this brief biographical sketch can hardly do justice to a long and varied career, it remains a pity that more recordings of the priest were not undertaken by Maclean. It would have been fascinating indeed to have heard MacDonell’s side of the story but by then he may not have been willing to reminisce about such a controversial subject in which he had been a key-player as an advocate and a willing enabler.

Anon., ‘Obituary’, Inverness Courier, no. 11929 (2 December, 1960), 5
Creagan-an-Fhithich [Fr Andrew MacDonell], ‘The Wild Beast of Barrisdale’, The Oban Times (1906)
Marjory Harper, Emigration from Scotland Between the Wars: Opportunity or Exile? (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), pp. 101–05
Andrew MacDonell, ‘The Beast of Barrisdale’, Tocher, vol. 56 (Summer, 2000), pp. 407–11
SSS NB 16, pp. 1397–1408

Portrait of Fr Andrew MacDonell taken in Montreal, c. 1928

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