John MacDonald was born in New Tolsta in 1925, the youngest of a family of seven. It was in that village that he was to be brought up and it was in the school at North Tolsta that he was to receive his early education. His parents were adherents in the Free Church of Scotland. John sustained the loss of his mother when he was only 11 years of age and, although she could not possibly take her place, the duty of looking after him was lovingly fulfilled by his oldest sister, Jessie. As a child, he was twice at death’s door – first, at the age of seven, when he was laid low for a whole year as a result of contracting a disease through contact with a pet rabbit; and again some years later, when he fell from rocks at Garry beach and was rescued from drowning by a man named Louis MacLeod, from Stornoway, who was awarded a medal for his action.
Staying on in education beyond the age of 14 was not then universal as it is now, and at that age John left school. The nation was at war and, after working at Stornoway Airport for a period of time, he was called up to serve in the Royal Navy. Based in ports on the southern English coast, he served on small but fast ships which operated in the English Channel prior to and after D-Day. He spoke of being tipped overboard on one occasion as a result of a sudden alteration of course. It appears that it was only as a result of his being young and strong, and thus able to keep himself afloat until the ship was able to turn round and rescue him, that he survived. After demobilisation, he went on to serve in the Merchant Navy as did so many of his contemporaries. At that time, notwithstanding the deliverances already mentioned, he was still “a stranger to grace and to God”, and years were to pass before the change came.
Having given up a sea-going career, he settled in London, where he was in the employment of the Post Office. In 1954, he was joined in marriage to Miss Annie MacLean from Breasclete and, as a result, came into contact with our congregation in London, which then worshipped in Eccleston Hall. The first Free Presbyterian minister he heard was the Rev Fraser Macdonald, who happened to be supplying in London, and he, being under concern, went to hear him. Shortly before his death, Mr MacDonald told a friend that the minister on that occasion described his case in a way that greatly encouraged him.
His connection with the London Free Church congregation came to an end when the minister insisted that he should be a member in full communion if he was to receive the privilege of Baptism for his children. Knowing himself to be unfit to take the step demanded, he decided to come under the ministry of the late Rev J P MacQueen and a Session which laid down no such condition. It was sufficient for them, as it had been for Sessions in the days of the fathers in Ross-shire, and elsewhere throughout the Highlands, that his profession be “uncontradicted” rather than “accredited”. In Eccleston Hall he was to become the Gaelic precentor. More than that, it was there, under the ministry of the Rev J P MacQueen, apparently, that he was to come fully out of darkness and into marvellous light. In 1956, he was received as a member in full communion. It was the London Kirk Session that was to recommend him to the Southern Presbytery as one who ought to be received as a student studying for the ministry.
He began his studies at Langside College, Glasgow, where he was able to gain sufficient “Highers” to enable him to enter the course in Arts which the Church had arranged. On completion of that course, he entered the Divinity course and, although his first year was interrupted for a while as a result of illness, he successfully completed his studies and was, in 1969, licensed by the Southern Presbytery. Later that year, he was ordained and inducted to the Staffin congregation. There, with much acceptance, he was to labour until he received a call to his native North Tolsta and he was inducted to that congregation on 5 February 1981. For ten years, he laboured there until he was forced, through ill health, to resign from that charge. He then came to live in Stornoway but continued to preach the gospel as long as he was able, supplying vacant pulpits on the mainland as well as throughout the Western Isles. After a prolonged period of illness, he passed away in the Western Isles Hospital on 25 November 2000.
John MacDonald often quoted the words of the Apostle: “For me to live is Christ”, and that, we believe is what he sincerely sought to live up to. He served His Master faithfully and well, and He does not require more than that. Those whom He calls to the ministry have their own gifts and He assigns them their portion where they will be most useful to Him. John MacDonald was a faithful pastor who looked after the flocks over which he was called to exercise oversight by the Chief Shepherd and, when He at last shall appear, we believe that a crown of glory shall be this faithful pastor’s portion.
His like-minded wife followed him to the house appointed for all living within a week. We anew express our sympathy with their two sons and their daughter, who mourn their loss.
Rev John MacLeod
[This obituary was originally printed in the January 2002 issue of the Free Presbyterian Magazine.]