The issue of rent.
During the 1990s the club was embroiled in a long-running dispute, firstly with the Gordon District Council - the successors of the Ellon Town Council in the first local government re-organisation in 1975 - and then with the Aberdeenshire Council which came into being when the Gordon District Council was abolished in 1996.
The dispute would not be resolved for more than two decades.
It concerned the question of rent for the original nine holes - the “back nine” as they are now known.
As mentioned earlier, Dr Barnardo’s Homes for children had been given the feu-superiority of the McDonald Parklands and the golf course by Sir James, after his disagreement with Ellon Town Council.
However Dr Barnardo’s quickly realised that not only did they not benefit in any way from having the feu-superiority, it was in fact costing them money, as they were now responsible for organising, and paying for, the inspections to confirm that the park was being maintained to the standard agreed between them and Sir James.
They therefore put the feu-superiority up for sale on the open market in 1990 and it was bought by the Gordon District Council for £10,000.
Clearly the Gordon District Council now felt that it had to make some effort to re-coup the £10,000 spent on acquiring the feu-superiority and that could only be done by asking the golf club to pay rent. Even though the club had known that the feu-superiority was up for sale, it was in no financial position to consider buying it. However Mr Bill Bruce, to whom reference has already been made, said, in yet a further example of his generosity towards the club, that had he known about the sale, he would have considered buying it on behalf of the club
The golf club only became aware of what was happening when, in May of that year, Mr Alan Grant Director of Legal Services to Gordon District Council met with the club captain Mr George Ironside and the secretary Mr Fred Chadwick.
At the meeting he told George and Fred that the Council’s recent acquisition of the feu-superiority, had raised both problems and opportunities regarding the management of both the golf course and the McDonald Parklands. It seemed initially that he was referring only to the care and maintenance of the McDonald Park but then came the hammer-blow. He said that in his opinion, there did not appear to be any formal agreement, other than “some clauses” in the original Minute of Agreement and Blench Charter, that gave the golf club the right to occupy and play on, the golf course.
Worse was to follow.
Mr Grant went on to say that “in spite of the clear wishes of the donor” Sir James, the club had not paid any rent since it first occupied the land more than 60 years previously. It should be pointed out that the wishes of Sir James, to which he referred, were laid down in the Minute of Agreement, which stated that the rent for playing over the land he donated as a golf course, would be “one penny Scots - if asked” - surely as clear an indication as there could be, that Sir James never intended that the club should pay any rent.
Mr Grant then said that henceforth, rent would have to be paid. And furthermore, since the club had played over the course for the preceding 62 years without paying rent, this would have to be taken into account and the possibility of back rent for this period would be considered. He did agree that the rent “if asked” in 1927, was intended to be a “peppercorn” one, but went on to say, that if a formal lease between the golf club and the Aberdeenshire Council was now entered into, the Council could not agree to a nominal rent and that one reflecting current market value would be looked for.
He justified this statement by saying that other clubs in Aberdeenshire were paying a market value rent and that the McDonald Ellon golf club, irrespective of what was recorded in the Minute of Agreement, would be expected to do the same.
He then said that the club could make an appeal to the Secretary of State for Scotland, as he had the authority to allow the continuation of the payment of a peppercorn rent, but in his opinion this was most unlikely and were he (the Secretary of State) to turn down the appeal, then the council would have no option but to charge the club a full market value rent.
He did discuss other options available to the club “to safeguard the continued usage of the ground”. For example he suggested that the Council could offer to sell the course to the club, but at full market price - something the club could not even contemplate.
He went on to say that the club and Council could agree to do nothing whatsoever about the “new situation”, but in his opinion the problem with doing that, was that it exposed the club to a degree of insecurity, in that the Council could, in theory, seek to develop the land in such a way that it could no longer function as a golf course.
Once again he seemed to have been oblivious to the terms of the Blench Charter and Minute of Agreement: both documents were still in existence and remained legally binding. The golf course could not be used for anything but golf and also that less than 20 years previously the land had been re-zoned for leisure and recreation!
To his credit he did say that the latter option was unlikely in the extreme “at that moment”, and that the reason for acquiring the superiority was to give the club some long-term security. That may well have been the case, but it is not unreasonable to conclude that the whole situation was something of a shambles. Nonetheless this was an extremely worrying development for the club. The option of buying the land was a non-starter - the price would be far beyond what the club could afford. The other option was to sit tight, do nothing and wait and see what happened.
In fact nothing did happen. The matter lay dormant for the next six years, until 1996, when, in a further local government reorganisation, the Gordon District Council was replaced by the Aberdeenshire Council.
Dialogue between the two parties was re-established.
Resolution of the matter was needed. Aberdeenshire Council began by seeking an opinion from the Aberdeen University Law Faculty; as to whether, having acquired the feu-superiority, it could now insist that the club enter into a formal lease, which would require it to pay rent for the land that it had occupied since 1927. There is no record of the outcome of these discussions, but as the subject was not raised for the next two years, it seems unlikely that Aberdeenshire Council got the answer it was looking for.
Nothing having happened for two years. Then Mr Gordon Daniels, Aberdeenshire Council’s Senior Estates Surveyor, informed the club that it was the Council’s intention to force it into a lease agreement. The club responded by saying that in its opinion, the reason Sir James set up the Blench Charter and Minute of Agreement, was to ensure that the club did not ever have to pay rent. Furthermore, while the club accepted that it had occupied the course for nearly 70 years, it had during this time, carried out very significant work at its own cost to maintain and improve the land.
Both sides in the dispute then sought a legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel in Edinburgh.
The view of the club’s Counsel, Mr Leonard Wallace Advocate was, to everyone’s surprise, that the club was in a “precarious” position. He argued that the club had no security of tenure over the back nine holes and advised that it should consider entering into negotiations with the Aberdeenshire Council, in order to obtain as favourable a lease agreement as possible. The Aberdeenshire Council also sought Queen’s Counsel’s opinion and was advised, by Douglas Armstrong Advocate, that it was entitled to demand rent from the club by way of a lease. He too stated that a lease would provide the club with some security of tenure.
Armed with this information and certain that it was in a position to ask for a market value rent for the land, Aberdeenshire Council informed the club that under Section 74 of the Local Government Act 1973, it could not “dispose of land for a consideration less than the best that can reasonably be obtained” - it was duty bound therefore to charge the going rate for the land. The Council also invoked the “Trusts (Scotland) Act “of 1921, claiming that this Act too, gave it the right to prepare a lease and to charge a commercial rent for the land.
There then followed a lengthy period of negotiation between the club and Aberdeenshire Council.
The golf club Council tried to negotiate what it thought was a fair rent (if there was to be one at all) and to persuade the Aberdeenshire Council that work done by its staff over the years should be taken into account in determining the level of rent to be charged. Several meetings were held with Aberdeenshire Council but despite the best efforts of the club’s solicitor and various club officials - among them Alan Strachan (the club captain at the time), George Ironside, Colin Grant and Duncan Castles - Aberdeenshire Council refused to budge on the matter.
Nothing happened for a further two years.
Then in January 2002, Mr Daniels again met with club officials and proposed a rent which varied slightly from that which he had previously suggested. His proposal was rejected. The club was determined to get the best possible outcome if rent was to be imposed.
Nine months later Aberdeenshire Council again raised the question of rent and the matter was discussed by the members at the Annual General Meeting of 2003, where it was agreed that the club should now at least meet with the Aberdeenshire Council and see what it had to suggest.
The golf club council had by now come round to the idea that it should perhaps pay rent. The club solicitor should be instructed to approach Aberdeenshire Council and suggest that the rent initially might be £3000 plus VAT per annum for at least 10 years, after which it would rise to £9000 plus VAT for the next five years, after which time the lease would be subject to re-negotiation.
However the meeting between the golf club solicitor and Aberdeenshire Council, thankfully never took place.
Unhappy at the outcome of the AGM, several members, amongst them some past captains as well as Bob Duncan and Bill Bruce met with the captain and vice-captain to express their unease at the prospect of the club entering into discussions with the Aberdeenshire Council on the subject of rent.
Bill Bruce, who of course had been a long time member of the club, attended the meeting and was very vociferous in his opposition to the club opening any form of dialogue with Aberdeenshire Council on the subject of rent. He was adamant that by doing so the club was in breach of the terms of the Blench Charter and the Minute of Agreement, which as has already been stated, were still legally binding documents.
Bill felt that Queen’s Counsel advice from an advocate should again be sought and he very generously paid the costs involved. The advice received this time, was that the club should not, under any circumstances, enter into any form of lease agreement with Aberdeenshire Council. Were it do so, the club would acknowledge the Council’s rights over it and so be unable to dispute any future rent increase the Council, as its landlord, might decide to impose.
The advocate said that his opinion was based on the fact that several of the clauses in the Minute of Agreement drawn up in 1928 between Sir James and the Town Council of Ellon, supported the club’s position that it was not required to pay rent.
The advocate’s findings and recommendations were discussed at a club council meeting attended by Bill Bruce. The possibility of challenging Aberdeenshire Council in court, over its attempt to extract rent was explored - it could be costly - but yet again Bill Bruce stepped in to help the club, generously offering to meet its expenses, if such action was undertaken.
The Aberdeenshire Council was then informed of these latest developments, and advised that the club would not be entering into any lease agreement. And there things remained until June 2007 when it was recognised by both parties that they needed to come to some form of compromise.
Representatives from both sides met to discuss how best an agreement could be reached whereby both parties would take part in the future running and maintenance of the golf course and the McDonald parklands.
An agreement, accepted by both parties, was drawn up and just as had happened with the original Minute of Agreement in 1928, this document too, was registered in “Books of the Lords of Council and Session” in Edinburgh.
In paragraph one, Aberdeenshire Council agreed that, as “statutory successors of the Provost, Magistrates, and Councillors of the of Ellon Town Council, it would hold in trust, for the people of Ellon, the subjects known as McDonald Park, by virtue of the Blench Charter by James Gordon McDonald, in favour of the said Provost, Magistrates, and Councillors, dated 9th October Nineteen hundred and Twenty-eight and recorded in the Division of the General Register of Sasines, applicable to the County of Aberdeen on Twenty-fourth January Nineteen hundred and Twenty-nine”. This statement simply confirmed what should have been accepted all along, namely that the Blench Charter and Minute of Agreement drawn up all of 80 years ago were incontrovertible. It beggars belief that the legal establishment failed to acknowledge this.
The agreement went on to state, that whilst the golf club had indeed enjoyed playing rights over the nine holes of the golf course since 1927, no formal agreement to “regulate the management thereof” had been entered into.
Both parties now considered it desirable that there should be such an agreement. A map was then drawn up which showed the land for which each party was responsible. Each would be accountable for the future general management and maintenance of its area.
The golf club would continue to function as a golf club and would have the sole right to charge for playing golf. Other paragraphs dealt with such issues as insurance cover for any liability against claims from people using both areas, keeping these areas litter free, the maintenance of boundary fences, the care and replacement of trees and so on - many of the conditions in this new agreement were similar to and reminiscent of, those in the original document of 1928.
In fact this new agreement should perhaps remind the golf club, that Aberdeenshire Council, as the successors of the Ellon Town Council, should still have a role to play in the management of the golf club - after all, the Management Committee had never been abolished. It had simply ceased to function!
Happily for the club the question of resurrecting the Management Committee has never been raised.
However Aberdeenshire Council will still retain a modicum of interest in the golf club, by virtue of the terms of the new agreement. It states that the Council reserves the right to require the golf club to produce evidence that their charges for playing golf are reasonable and comparable to other courses within Aberdeenshire; the Council’s permission will be required to create vehicle paths; the lopping of tree branches may require the Council’s consent; no new boundary fences or hedges may be installed without the Council’s agreement and so on.
The agreement, which took effect on 7 June 2007 and will continue for ninety-nine years, can only be terminated by the Aberdeenshire Council “following gross non-adherence of any of the terms and conditions by the golf club”. Should such an eventuality ever arise, the club would still be given two months in which to put matters right.
And so the possibility of having to pay rent for the “privilege” of playing golf on a course which Sir James McDonald had donated to the people of Ellon all those years ago, was finally resolved.
The contribution made by Bill Bruce in the affairs of the McDonald Ellon golf club over many years, has been inestimable. His advice over the years - not always followed - has been invaluable to the club none more so than the part he played in the vexed question of rent.
By getting a second Queen’s Counsel advice, he completely changed the course of the disagreement between the golf club and Aberdeenshire Council. Without his intervention the club would be now tied into paying thousands of pounds in rent.
The golf club will forever be in his debt.
The new clubhouse
The highlight of the 1990s was of course the opening of the new clubhouse.
While he was captain in 1992, George Ironside first raised the possibility of building a new clubhouse.
The converted hospital been had in use for nearly 20 years. It had served its purpose well, but larger, more modern premises were required. Consideration was given to refurbishing and perhaps extending the converted hospital building but was rejected. The cost would have been prohibitive and the building was unsuitable for extending.
Now the club was on a sound financial footing: it had in excess of £200,000 in its development fund which was due entirely to the foresight and initiative of two council members of the mid-1970s. It has already been recorded that when the club purchased the land for the “new” nine holes, it also bought the embankment of the old small gauge railway line, which used to run from Ellon to Cruden Bay.
Sandy Jolly, a club member and a director with Barratt Developments and Dennis Christie a local solicitor who was then the club secretary, saw an opportunity which they thought might benefit the club in the long term.
Without any consultation with the club council, the captain, or indeed anyone at all, they submitted an application to Aberdeenshire County Planning Committee for permission to build a house on the embankment. The club only became aware of application when a list of planning applications was published in the local press.
All hell was let loose.
A specially convened council meeting was held to discuss the situation. Sandy and Dennis were present and were roundly criticised, accused of being disloyal, self centred and much worse. It was even suggested that they be dismissed from the council. The council was split down the middle over the matter.
One faction led by the captain was totally opposed to their action and wanted the application withdrawn. The other council members after some thought, decided that having a site to sell might not be such a bad idea - after all, if the application was successful, the sale of the site would bring in some much needed money.
Thankfully common sense prevailed and it was agreed that the application should be allowed to go ahead. A decision as to how to proceed if the application was successful would be taken at a later meeting.
The application was successful. However the club was advised that no further applications would be entertained. The site sold for £1000 - the gamble by the two-committee members had paid off.
In spite of the Planning authority’s assertion that no further development of the embankment would be allowed, over the next ten years permission for a further ten sites would be given, totalling eleven in all.
With land prices escalating over time, a total of around £250,000 was raised, money that would be set-aside in a development account and would, in large part, fund the building of the new clubhouse.
Of course it is entirely possible, indeed likely, that in years to come, councils would have realised the potential of the railway line embankment and made similar applications.
But the fact remains; it was Sandy and Dennis, in the mid 1970s, who first saw the potential of the embankment. They had the courage of their convictions to go ahead with the application and by so doing, laid the foundation of the fund which would, in years to come, enable the club to build the new clubhouse.
For that the club owes Sandy and Dennis a huge debt of gratitude.
The decision was taken to go ahead and build a new clubhouse from scratch, but the question of how to finance the project, required careful consideration. Even with a healthy development fund, augmented by the sale of the final plots, the money from the sale of the cottage which had been part of the old hospital complex, and a grant of £7,250 from the Gordon District, borrowing of around £135,000 would still be necessary.
The club council was comfortable with these figures. The loan would be serviced by adding a supplement of £15.00 to the annual subscriptions although this was later raised to £25.00. In 1993 three architects were asked to submit plans for a new clubhouse, one of the criteria for acceptance, being that bar trading would continue during construction. Only Taylor Design Services met that condition and so were awarded the contract. The plans were then put out to tender.
The best quote received, was that from Barratt Construction who offered to build the clubhouse for £430,000. That offer was accepted.
Work started on the new building in August 1994, proceeded uneventfully and seven months later on 23 March 1995, the new clubhouse was officially opened by Adam Robbie, the oldest surviving former club captain.
The Bill Deacon Centre
Towards the end of the 1990s work began and was completed on what was to be known as The Bill Deacon Centre – it opened in 2000. The club had built a large shed to be known as a “Course Management facility” to house green keeping equipment – tractors, mowers and fertiliser seeds and so on. It was decided to call the "facility" "The Bill Deacon Centre" in memory of Bill, a hugely popular and enthusiastic member, who was employed in air-sea rescue and who lost his life during a rescue mission.