Hebridean pastorale and tribute to the democratic nature of the Scottish state education system, wartime memoir and plea for the liberalisation of the Free Presbyterian Church, this story of a boy born in 1914 begins on an isolated croft in the Bays of Harris and ends with his appointment to the Chair of Practical Theology at Glasgow University some sixty years later. A brief glance at the foreword and introductions to a tale of a life more than well lived, first published by The Stornoway Gazette in 1992, will tell any intending reader that the Reverend Professor Murdo Ewen MacDonald – “Padre Mac” to his wartime colleagues – was, indeed, a man respected, loved and occasionally feared far beyond the confines of his island homelands. From the foreword by Gordon Brown, MP and long-time family friend, the Prologue by the late writer and critic, Iain Crichton Smith, to tributes by family members, colleagues and fellow inmates of Stalag Luft 111, all have paid their respects to this Gaelic-speaking lad o’ pairts from the Isle of Harris.
The first four chapters of this book are a vignette a childhood idyll and the peculiarities of island life, where, for instance, unschooled mothers taught their sons to read classical Greek and Latin and it was not uncommon for two brothers to have the same forename. In the finest tradition of the Scottish working classes, the journey towards the Holy Grail of learning began within the local primary school, followed by scholarships to Kingussie Grammar School on the mainland and the then bleak streets of St Andrews, where Murdo Ewen trained for the ministry alongside John Brown, father of Gordon Brown.
Tales of student pranks at St Andrews in the 1930s are interspersed with ironic stories of respected academics and the medals he himself won. He tells, too, of the time he taught his brother (also, confusingly, Murdo) to swim with a rope round his neck (beaten by his father, not because he almost drowned the boy, but because it was the Sabbath). There are recollections of his time as a paratrooper and his ministry in Stalag Luft 111, where he played a key role in what came to be known as the Great Escape, where he was, he says, a “penguin”, hiding sand from the tunnels in his trouser legs to be shifted elsewhere. The book also recalls ordinary German soldiers, one of whom helped him to dig a roadside grave for a British prisoner who had not survived the Death March from the camp. But neither did this apparently even-tempered man of the cloth have too many regrets about giving a public school educated superior officer in British army a severe beating for his offensive attitude towards the Gaelic speaker.
Idealised in memory, this autobiography presents a man whose ambition was to move away from the poverty of the croft and the narrow religious confines of the Free Church into a more liberal ministry. A warm, confident style makes for easy reading and radiates much of the charisma and humour which seem to be characteristic of the man himself. Often self-deprecating, he is ever ready with a telling anecdote. But the general reader may sometimes find herself wondering to whom this story is directed. One suspects this is a document, an heirloom, for family and fellow islanders. Outside the family, women seem to have little place in the history of the sought-after preacher, whose ministries ranged from the Isle of Skye to Free St George’s in Edinburgh; family matters have taken second place to the demands of clerical ambition. This mountaineer, soldier, academic, anti-nuclear campaigner, had little truck with aristocratic snobbery, but nor does he appear to have any inclination to question his own motives. A biographer, this reader suggests, might possibly have seen things a little differently.