Denomination

The Late Dr Ian R. MacDonald: An Appreciation

January 23, 2020

by Prof. Donald Macleod 

Dr Ian MacDonald

I first met Dr Ian MacDonald in June 1963.  I was on a student-placement in Lochcarron and was about to begin the mid-week meeting when in walked two of the best-known figures in the Free Church, Professor R. A. Finlayson and Dr Ian MacDonald.  My heart sank.  It was bad enough having to face the venerable elders of Lochcarron, but the presence of two such eminences really notched up the pressure. 

In the event they couldn’t have been kinder, and, in the case of Dr Ian, the encounter was the beginning of a life-long friendship which ended only with his death on Monday 16th December last.   

A Scientist

Born in Inverness in 1930, the son of a self-educated railway clerk and the grandson of an Abriachan crofter, Ian MacDonald was a man of many gifts and wide interests. 

First and foremost, he was a scientist, with a PhD in Botany at a time when PhDs were few and far between; and this degree, awarded by Aberdeen University in 1955, launched him on a career as a plant physiologist.  His original research was into the absorption of phosphate by sugar-beet and, having secured his PhD, Dr Ian began work as a research scientist at the MacAulay Institute for Soil Research in Aberdeen.  There he would pursue his interest in the theoretical aspects of botany for the rest of his professional life.

Apart from one brief interlude.  In 1960, supported by a Fulbright Fellowship, and accompanied by his wife, May, he spent a year at the University of California, conducting research into the way plants absorb anions (negative ions).  The plant he chose for his experiments was potato-tubers, and throughout his life, he remained an expert not only on the cell-chemistry of these humble plants but on their taste and table-quality.  Over the years I tasted, appreciatively, virtually every variety of spud at Sunday-dinners at the ever-hospitable home in Cults, but though they always lived up to my expectations they didn’t always live up to Dr Ian’s, and now and again there would be a sigh of disappointment, ‘May, where did you get these potatoes?’

On his return home he took up what would be a life-long research project, exploring the relative influences of light and gravity on the germination and development of seedlings; and pioneering, for the purposes of this research, the use of infra-red and video-camera photography.  What the research showed (in laymen’s terms) was that, however weighed-down and compacted the growing-medium, the seedlings always made for the light.  The question was, which features of the cell-chemistry accounted for this pattern. Towards the end of his professional career, Dr Ian was working with UK colleagues assessing the feasibility of conducting their research under the conditions of micro-gravity, but although working at the cutting-edge of a rapidly moving discipline, he never betrayed any sense of a tension between science and religion; or indeed any interest in the issue.  To him, the question of evolution was a non-question, and the impression I had was that, far from viewing evidence for design as evidence against evolution, he regarded evolution as itself a tool of the Great Designer.

A Historian

But science was not his only interest.  Dr Ian was as much a man of the Humanities as a man of Science.  He was an avid collector of books.  He also loved, and even revered, words, whether spoken or written and used them with elegance and precision, especially in public prayer.  He could also, on occasion, use them to the consternation of those they were addressed to.  There is a well-attested story of the first time an overhead-projector was used in the local prayer-meeting.  ‘What,’ asked a fellow-elder, ‘did you think of the OHP?’  ‘There’s not much unction in an epidiascope,’ came the reply. 

His great love, however, was history, and especially church history, and this, along with his literary skills, became apparent in two major publications, Glasgow’s Gaelic Churches (1995) and Aberdeen and the Highland Churches (2000).  Each traces the fortunes of Highland religion in a major urban setting, and according to no less an authority than Professor Donald Meek, these are ground-breaking studies that offer a social, spiritual and cultural biography of the communities whose stories they tell.  Nor are they of merely parochial interest.  Though their immediate focus is on the challenges faced by Highlanders surrounded by a foreign language and forced to acquire new skills in the shipyards of the Clyde and the granite-quarries of Aberdeen, the story Dr Ian tells has been repeated in the experience of many cultures the world over, including America’s Hispanics and modern Scotland’s Koreans and Nigerians.

But Dr Ian’s interest in church history was not confined to the Gaelic diaspora.  He had a comprehensive knowledge of the story of Scottish Presbyterianism, and it was through this historical lens that he viewed our growing tendency to distance ourselves from our past.  He knew that all traditional practices had begun as innovations, but he knew, too, that behind every historic ‘innovation’ there lay rigorous thought and keen theological scrutiny.  There had been good theological reasons for the traditions; there had to be equally good theological reasons for change.   

A Lifetime of Service to the Church

But above all, Dr Ian was a man who gave a lifetime of service to the church, and this service was never narrowly denominational.  He served on the committees of both the local YMCA and the Aberdeen Evangelistic Association, and he could count among his friends such stalwarts as the Reverend William Still and Professor Howard Marshall.  Nor did his loyalties blind him to the merits of other traditions.  Much as he loved the Free Church form of worship, he also admired the disciplined liturgy and magnificent prose of the Book of Common Prayer.  Indeed, so deeply was Anglican language imprinted on his mind that once, when giving the Intimations in Bon Accord, he announced (in my hearing) that a certain event would take place, not, ‘after the Benediction,’ but, ‘after the Nunc Dimittis.’ 

He had a similarly catholic attitude to versions of the Bible.  Almost to the end, he conducted Family Worship every evening but, while deeply attached to the Authorised Version, it had long been his practice to read successively through different translations, and over the years I heard him use the Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible, Today’s English Bible and the NIV.  I even have a vague memory that one year the version of choice was the Jerusalem Bible, the translation officially sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church.

But yes, he was a Free Churchman, and for well-nigh seventy years he loved and served her, not for her own sake, but as an instrument of Christian good.

Much of this service was devoted to the Church nationally.  As early as March 1954, he was the Convener of the first residential Free Church Youth Conference, and in the years that followed he served both as a General Trustee and as a member of innumerable boards and committees.  But I remember him best as a speaker in the General Assembly where, in an era of outstanding contributors, he always commanded attention and respect.  He had, too, his own brand of humour.  I especially remember an occasion when the Assembly was discussing the standards expected of new candidates for the ministry.  Dr Ian clearly thought the bar was set too low: so low, indeed, that it reminded him of a recent visit to his bank, where he had noticed a collection-box inviting contributions to the Aberdeen Soup-kitchen.  Attached to it was a notice, ‘No one ever turned away.’  That, he suggested, might be a very good principle for a soup-kitchen; it was not a good principle when it came to selecting candidates for the Christian ministry.  

But his main contribution to the Church was through his commitment to the Aberdeen congregation.  In the years after the war, things were at a low ebb: so low, indeed, that its very survival was in question.  The congregation had been vacant since the translation of the Reverend Duncan Leitch to Kingussie in 1940, attendances had plummeted, there was only one elder, total givings amounted to little over £200, and remittances to central funds had fallen below the level usually required before a congregation could call a minister.  The powers-that-be, however, wisely overlooked this irregularity, and Rev. Hugh G. Mackay was inducted to the charge in 1948: a salutary warning against abandoning a congregation on merely financial grounds.  Had the work in Aberdeen been discontinued at that point, the whole subsequent history of the Free Church would have been very different.   

Ian MacDonald arrived in Aberdeen a few months after Mr Mackay, and his arrival was an immediate encouragement.  He gave his wholehearted support to every congregational venture, he taught in the Sunday School, and he became an enthusiastic member of the local Free Church Students’ Association (founded for the specific purpose of encouraging students to integrate their studies with their faith).  Then, after his marriage to May Salmond in 1958, the hospitality of their home was extended not only to students but to visitors from near and far, including generations of preachers who supplied the pulpit during successive vacancies. 

In 1959, Dr Ian was ordained to the eldership, and for the next sixty years, he provided continuity in a congregation where there was a constant turn-over of students, communicants, elders and even ministers (he served under five in all).  For forty-two of those years, he was also Session Clerk, and it is safe to say that no one in the Church, not even its successive Clerks of Assembly, had a better grasp of Presbyterian Practice and Procedure.

And then there was the part he played, along with the Reverend Hector Cameron, in securing the building which is now home to Bon Accord Free Church.  By the 1970s, under the ministries of Douglas MacMillan and Mr Cameron, the congregation had grown to the point that the old Dee Street premises were no longer adequate.  The new building, purchased in 1977 for the remarkable sum of £22,000 (due in no small measure to the generosity of the outgoing Church of Scotland congregation, delighted to know that it would continue to be used as a place of worship), was ideal.  It was central; it could seat 700 people; and having been originally constructed as a Free Church, and still retaining the distinctive features of Reformation architecture, it was well adapted to the congregation’s form of worship.

Dr Ian enjoyed many blessings in his long life, but foremost among them was his marriage to his beloved wife, May.  A gifted musician, and a pioneer in her own profession as a specialist teacher of children suffering from impaired language-development, May was nevertheless prepared to sacrifice her own professional aspirations to his; and, though born and brought up a Baptist, to commit herself wholeheartedly, and from deep personal conviction, to the life and work of the Free Church. 

In her final years, vascular dementia took from May her ability to engage in conversation and deprived Dr Ian to a large extent of her companionship, but he was determined that she would be cared for at home to the very end.  The physical demands were exhausting, and he had to learn domestic skills he had never needed before, but with the help of dedicated professionals and a committed family, his wish was granted.  Yet the parting, when it came suddenly on 19th October, was a shock from which, already terminally ill himself, he never recovered.        

In my last conversation with him, our thoughts turned to the hope and assurance with which we face the end.  ‘I have no fears on that score,’ he said firmly.

Dr Ian is survived by his sister, Nan; his daughters, Fiona and Ann; and his sons, James, Robert and Fraser.