Ranald MacDonald

Backed by Walter Scott and a galaxy of starry-eyed admirers, Ranald made a bold attempt to demonstrate that it was possible, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, to be a true clan chief on traditional lines. His experiment appeared to suceeed for a while thanks to a most un-traditional situation, the kelp boom. This allowed him to convert his land to sheep-walks while keeping his tenantry on the island; but it didn't provide a sound enough economic basis to prevent the idealistic tory from bankruptcy.

Lived
10 May 1777 - 15 April 1838
Origin
Boisdale, South Uist (see picture below)
Father
Colin Macdonald of Boisdale. Both he and his father Alexander MacDonald, first of Boisdale, were known in the Highlands as shrewd businessmen. This was aided by Alexander not being a Jacobite. Although he was imprisoned for protecting the Pretender when he was in hiding in Uist, he was freed following a memorial from the Presbytery of Uist testifying to his opposition to any rebellion and his estates escaped unscathed. His son was able to extend them and, marrying twice, was able to divide them and give one to the eldest son of each marriage. Ranald was the eldest son of his second marriage.
Mother
Isabella Campbell, daughter of Lieutenant Robert Campbell of the 99th regiment, afterwards of Glenfalloch, and sister of John Campbell, 6th Earl of Breadalbane.
Address
Ulva House on his estate (see image below) and 34 Frederick Street. He is not in the Edinburgh Directory from 1816-20, presumably giving up the house due to his financial collapse (see below). In 1825 he reappeared briefly at 7 Albyn Place, but this West End address was only kept for two years: after another absence, he found a permanent home in the modest gentility of Gardner Crescent, with an entry in the Edinburgh Directory almost bigger than his house: 'Sir Reg. Steuart Seton MacDonald, of Staffa and Touch, advocate, Sheriff of Stirlingshire; hon. sec. to the High. and Agric. Soc. of Scot, New Club, 17 Gardner's Cresc.'
Estate
The Ulva estates consisted of Ulva, Gometra and Staffa by which he was designated, and comprised 5,000 acres.
      Ranald Macdonald is remembered fondly by historians of the area. He was resident, he did not depopulate the land, he arranged lots of land so that the smallest had two cows, he built modern watermills for grinding corn, he ensured tenants' children received education. He was also a famous champion of Highland culture, employing a piper, encouraging his guests to learn a few Gaelic phrases with which to address the tenantry, and so on. The MacDonald of Staffa tartan (below) was one of the first to be designated. Even when one remembers that his story was told by his many well-treated, highly literate southern guests to whom he showed the estate, rather than his tenants, there are enough hard facts (the new watermills, the new minister, the diet of the tenantry, the 126 children at school out of a total population of under 600 etc) for us to give Ranald credit for a genuinely idealistic attempt to be a model tory landlord. (5)
      He does not, however, appear to have been as canny a businessman as his father and grandfather, and however good his intentions, the people on his estates suffered as a result. The economic necessity of depopulation may only have been staved off by the boom in kelp, which transformed these small, rocky, tide-swept islands from marginal lands to rich natural resource. The sympathetic historians of the island nevertheless hint that Ranald was making the same changes in land use as other landlords of the first-phase clearances: 'Even in Ranald's time, it appears, the old shieling custom still prevailed', they write, 'but this time hallowed practice could hardly continue after the interior of the island was being let as a sheepwalk.' By 1813 a new plan of Ulva shows that 'a 1559-acre sheep walk filled the whole interior'. (5) The population still grew, however, thanks to the necessity of large amounts of labour for the kelp shores, which allowed a population to be sustained on a monetary rather than a subsistence basis. His residency and attention to his workers' welfare enabled him to escape the charge of cynical capitalism levelled at many kelp landlords.
      But Ranald went bankrupt. With the end of the kelp boom, he was left with a population, a lifestyle, and debts, which he could not sustain. His estates were conveyed to a trust in 1817, and most were sold in 1821, leaving him laird only of the remote rock of Staffa. Subsequent landlords of Ulva were forced, reluctantly it seems, to clear the overpopulated island. (5)
      A study of a much larger proprietor, but of the same period and in the same region, Lord Seaforth, shows the confused policy-making of a man who wished to be a good clan chief and live an aristocratic lifestyle, yet who inherited huge debts and did not have a hard-nosed commercial sense. The result in Seaforth's case was that, rather than evict tenants to make more profit out of sheep, he sold land to purchasers whom he knew would evict them anyway (3). Ranald's attempt to demonstrate high-minded Tory ideals was bolder than Seaforth's, and began from a firmer basis, but was essentially economically unviable, sustained only for a short time by the kelp boom.
Political views
Tory. Walter Scott wrote of him,
Staffa, sprung from high Macdonald,
Worthy branch of old Clan-Ranald,
Staffa, king of all kind fellows,
Well befall thy hills and valleys,
Lakes and inlets, deeps and shallows,
Cliffs of darkness, caves of wonder,
Echoing the Atlantic thunder;
Mountains which the grey mist covers,
Where the Chieftan spirit hovers,
Pausing while his pinions quiver,
Stretched to quit our land for ever!
Each kind infuence reign above thee!
Warmer heart, 'twixt this and Jaffa
Beats not, than in heart of Staffa!
Religious views
He became an elder in the Church of Scotland around the same time as he qualified as an advocate. Participation in the local established church and defending its interests in the General Assembly were important components of his landlord ideal, and not inconsistent with preferring an Episcopal congregation for his private worship.
Profession
Although he became an advocate in 1798, he appears never to have practiced at the bar: the success of his predecessors and the profits of kelp encouraged him to believe that he could make a career as a laird. It is interesting to compare him to his clansman Coll MacDonald, who built up his profession, under no illusions that his estate could be self-supporting. After his financial collapse he was assisted by his father-in-law, of whom he was heir, to become Sheriff of Stirlingshire. Law caught up with him eventually.
Assessed taxes 1811
His house had 7 windows and a rental value of £50. This is a modest establishment for a man of his class (Coll MacDonald, who lived in a larger house in the next street west, is again an interesting comparison). Ranald married between this assessment and the one the following year but his address and tax remain the same. This gives additional weight to the argument that Ranald was genuine in his desire to live a distinctive lifestyle as a clan chief: keeping up with the British ruling class would have required (as in the case of Georgina Lamont's father) a grander Edinburgh establishment, even if it were unaffordable.
Chapel connection
1812 (baptism)
Married on
23 Jan 1812
Spouse
Elizabeth Steuart
Children
Henry James (1812), Isabella (1816)

MacDonald of
Staffa tartan

Ulva House

The early 18thC
Boisdale House
South Uist

Sources

  1. Registers of Charlotte Chapel (NAS CH12/3)
  2. Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1818
  3. Finlay McKichan, 'Lord Seaforth and Highland estate management in the First Phase of Clearance (1783-1815)' The Scottish Historical Review, Volume 86, Number 1: No. 221, April 2007, pp. 50-68
  4. A. and A. MacDonald, The Clan Donald, vol.3 (Northern Counties Publishing Company, Inverness, 1904) p.295
  5. R. W. Munro and Alan Macquarrie 'Travellers' Tales' in Clan MacQuarrie: A History (Online Edition accessed 5 August 2011)

Back to index