Professor Donald Macleod shares some memories of the late Rev. Kenny MacDonald.
It was a sombre way to begin the Lord’s Day: a phone-call from Rory MacDonald to tell me that his brother, Kenny, had passed away; and it was a jolt to realise, after I had done the arithmetic, that he was eighty-three years of age. When I last saw him fifteen months ago he still had the looks of the great Pakistani cricketer, Imran Khan and the pent-up energy of a coiled spring.
We’d better get the football out of the way first. Born in Skinidin, near Dunvegan, in January 1935, it was his boyhood passion, a passion he shared with his brothers, Rory and Donald. But he was no ordinary school-playground footballer. He went on to play for Scotland’s amateur international team, played in the FA Amateur Cup Final at Wembley before a crowd of 60,000, signed as a professional for Tottenham Hotspur (then managed by the legendary Billy Nicholson), and crowned his career by playing for Back in the Lewis and Harris Football League.
(Kenny was capped for the Scotland Amateur Football Team)
It was a long way from White Hart Lane, but the League contained what is recognised as one of the fiercest rivalries in world football, that between Back and Point, and Kenny entered into the rivalry manfully. He once told me of a visit he paid to an injured Point player in hospital and squeezed his hand so hard that the poor man yelped. ‘I hope it hurt,’ he said. To such depths has the ‘beautiful game’ sunk.
Kenny’s ministry, a ministry of total commitment, began in the parish of Rosskeen in 1985. The building of an aluminium smelter in Invergordon in the late sixties had led to a massive influx of population, particularly to Alness, but when the smelter closed in 1981 the area was left with massive social problems, particularly drug-abuse. Kenny was little inclined to dismiss people simply because society saw them as pariahs, and even less inclined to judge young people by their outward appearance. When I once made an unkind reference to Boy George he immediately rose to his defence (though he himself could sometimes be waspish, it was only when speaking of ministers who had no passion for their work). And although he was happy to wear clerical attire when in the pulpit, and to conduct the Services with formal reverence, the rest of the time he dressed very informally: so much so that after one attempted pastoral visit a woman is said to have alerted the police that there was a man going round pretending to be a minister.
(L-R Kenny MacDonald, Robert Macleod and Ian Allan outside The Free Church College, June 1984 after receiving their licences to preach - Photo by Rev. George Thompson)
But his accessibility, and his willingness to accept all others as his human equals paid rich dividends. His predecessor, John L. Mackay, had bequeathed a well-organised congregation and a well-taught core of committed members: sufficiently well taught, in fact, to give a warm welcome to the ‘wrong’ sort of people. Kenny was the bridge, however, between these potential drop-outs and the church, and his manse became a round-the-clock drop-in centre: so much so, it was said, that the whiff of cannabis was never far away. At the same time his attention to his preaching never flagged. Whether he ever read many books on ‘communication’ may be doubted, but that he could communicate could never be doubted. His carefully-pitched vocabulary gave freshness to old truths, and his passion (sometimes to the point of weeping) gave them force and power.
But before his ministry had even begun, tragedy had struck. In the summer of 1981, his daughter, Alison, then a 19-year old student at Aberdeen University, set off for India with a fellow-student, Elizabeth Merry. They eventually reached Srinagar, in the Kashmir valley. Under the Raj, it had been a favoured retreat of ex-pats seeking relief from the heat of the Indian summer. Today, it is a modern city and a popular tourist resort. They stayed for a time on one of Srinagar’s famed house-boats and then headed north-east to Sonamarg, a village with a permanent population of just over 300 people. The area was a focal point of Kashmiri unrest, patrolled by the Indian army, but it is easy to imagine Alison, raised in a crofting community, enjoying the tranquillity, even at a height of 5,000 feet. When Elizabeth, accompanied by a local guide and his ponies, set off to explore the hinterland, Alison stayed behind, but when Elizabeth returned there was no sign of her. Distraught, she telegrammed her father: ‘Alison missing six days in hills in spite search. Contact Mr MacDonald ….’
Many parents would have fought hard to dissuade their daughter from back-packing in India, but Kenny and his wife, Reta, had a different attitude. They believed strongly that children should have their independence and find their own frontiers. But from the moment that Kenny received the news he, almost literally, moved heaven and earth in his attempts to find Alison. Yet, whatever the inward turmoil, it didn’t show outwardly. We were close neighbours at the time, but whenever I called, fresh coffee, not moans, was the first thing on the agenda.
He was off to India almost immediately, conducting his own enquiries on the ground, chasing up local police-chiefs, checking out army-bases, talking to local residents, following up any contacts the girls might have had in Srinagar, seeking information on European tourists who had been in Sonamarg at the time of Alison’s disappearance; and, not least, organising and leading searches of the local river and its crevice-ridden banks. But nothing. From the moment on 17th August 1981 that she bought three apples at a stall in Sonamarg, Alison was never seen again.
(Kenny never gave up hope of finding his daughter Alison)
But still the search continued, and the story is well covered in Quentin Macfarlane’s account, Alison: A Father’s Search for His Missing Daughter. Kenny made many more visits to India, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by Reta. Significant rewards were offered for information, the help of the Foreign Office was enlisted, personal friends with links to the diplomatic services offered help and advice and, of course, there was huge media interest. Press attention is seldom welcome, but Kenny was fully aware that the daily coverage stimulated prayer and kept up pressure on the Government. He knew, too, that UK coverage of the story was being picked up in India, and there was always a possibility that something might jog somebody’s memory.
Thirty-six years have passed since Alison’s disappearance: years passed in the determined pursuit of every lead, even the highly implausible. To the very end, Kenny clung to the hope that he would see Alison before he died. Many dismissed this as wishful thinking, but I could never share this view. Granted, Kenny had his own share of Highland mysticism, and he had also adopted the widespread Evangelical belief that if one were close to the Lord one could then expect direct knowledge of his will. But, thinking rationally, there was no conclusive evidence that Alison was dead, and so long as such evidence was lacking hope had every right to stay alive.
The remarkable thing is that through all the anguish and through all the uncertainty Kenny and Reta never wavered in their Christian faith and never allowed their personal tragedy to divert them from their ministry to others; and while we can never know why God permits some of his children to endure such pain, there can be no doubt that the publicity surrounding Kenny’s experience, and particularly the way he dealt with it, gave a new aura to his ministry, not only in Rosskeen, but far beyond it.
But the Rosskeen ministry would end under the shadow of another inscrutable providence. Around 1995, Kenny began to lose his sight and was quickly diagnosed with MS (Multiple Sclerosis). This seriously impaired his balance and his mobility, leaving him unable to leave the house unaccompanied, and increasingly dependent on Reta. As usual, his reaction was positive, almost aggressive: a strict diet, a rigorous exercise regime and a swim in the North Sea first thing every morning (all to the accompaniment of his favourite refrain, ‘No pain, no gain’); and although he no longer felt able to continue his ministry in Rosskeen, he continued to preach, although his sermon-notes were a sight to behold. I still have letters written in a gargantuan scrawl. But not only did he preach: he also undertook a succession of locum ministries in vacant congregations: most notably in Portree, where his calmness, energy and pastoral commitment gave stability and vigour to a congregation demoralised by division. Since then, they have gone from strength to strength.
Why does God allow so many who have served him so long and so faithfully to end their days in the shadows of weakness, sorrow and pain? And why do the most splendid gifts sometimes have to be exercised by broken hearts?
I have no answer. But I know that the life of Kenny and Reta MacDonald has been a Triumph of Grace.