So how did Sir James come to acquire this land?
The answer lies in the history of the Ellon Castle Estates and the story begins in 1752, when George, the third Earl of Aberdeen, who already owned vast amounts of land in the area, bought Ellon castle and its estates for £17,000 - well over £500,000 in today's terms. He had a reputation for buying vast amounts of land, and at one time, his estates included not only Ellon but also Kinmuck, Ardgrain, Waterton, Fechil, and Auchterellon – a huge area.
Now on buying the castle, he immediately enlarged it, adding on two wings, and set up home there with his mistress, Miss Penelope Dering, a young lady from Sussex, with whom he had two children, Alexander and Penelope.
When he died, in 1801, (in the castle at Ellon), his only legitimate son, the Hon. William Gordon, inherited the castle and estates. By the terms of the will, should he (William) die without heirs, and then the properties would revert to his half-brother Alexander. However William’s succession to the properties heralded the start of a disastrous period for the Ellon Castle Estates, which would culminate, more than a century later, in their being broken up and sold.
William was, for a time, MP for Aberdeenshire, but he never lived in Ellon, had no interest in the estates or castle, and by the time of his death in 1845, the estates had become run down and the castle was in disrepair.
Alexander, (William’s half-brother), inherited the estates and the castle. Now Alexander was a wholly different character compared to his half-brother. He had spent his childhood in Ellon and loved the place. When William died, Alexander was in the army, but he bought out his commission and returned to live in Ellon. And although he had been left £25,000 by his father, Alexander, because of a somewhat excessive life-style, was £4000 in debt when the castle and estates eventually became his. However, he hoped that the annual rental income from the estates – something in the order of £11,000 – would eliminate his debt and enable him to restore the properties to their original condition.
Unfortunately, due to a combination of ill-conceived spending and the severe agricultural depression of the mid-1860s, he was unable to do either.
Among many costly building projects undertaken by him, were the building of a new castle (he reckoned the castle he had inherited was beyond repair) and the construction of a wall (some 10 feet in height) known as “the Deer dykes”, which still stretches along the Peterhead road from the town of Ellon. Apparently, he had the dykes built to help provide employment for the masons, who had been left without work, following the completion of the castle! With such a philanthropic outlook it was little wonder that he was unable to sort out the financial mess he had inherited!
Alexander died in 1873. The castle remained unoccupied until his grandson, Arthur John Lewis Gordon, became the owner, in the early 1880s. But by this time the estates were heavily mortgaged. Arthur Gordon also failed in his efforts to resolve the situation and clear the debts, and in 1913 he was forced to put the properties into administration. He died in 1918.
Soon after, in 1919, the estates were broken up and sold off and it was at this time, that Sir James McDonald bought the land that would in time become the McDonald Park and golf course. Besides the land for these projects, Sir James also bought many other properties and sites, in and around Ellon, including the areas of the old curling pond, for a time the site of what was known as the 'trim-track', Gordon Terrace, Gordon Place, and Ythan Terrace.
Development of the land.
Having bought the land, the first thing Sir James did was to build a retirement house for his parents, so that, as he himself said, “they would forever be able to look out across the pleasant fields of the McDonald Parklands”. It should be remembered, that at this time there were no trees on the land that would become the golf course and park, so the view from the house would have been very different to that today.
He decreed that the Park would be known for all time as the “McDonald Park”, as a tribute to, and in memory of, his parents.
The house Sir James built for his parents was only recently demolished as it had fallen into disrepair, but after his death in 1942, it had been occupied by the green-keepers John Buchan, his son Willie, as well as club stewards and latterly by green-keeper Bill Shepherd.
Sir James himself took sole responsibility for deciding how the land should be divided up between the park and the golf course. It was he who decided where trees should be planted: how many, which varieties, which shrubs and bushes should be put in and where, and he determined where the pathways through the park should be. But the feature of which he was proudest was what he termed “The Avenue”. This was the pathway, which runs from the entrance to the park on Hospital Road, bisecting the present day 18th and 17th holes, running behind the 16th, 15th, 14th, and 13th, to where it exits on the Auchnagatt Road just across from the now demolished Ellon Academy building.
To get some idea as to how it might have looked in Sir James' day, it is necessary to imagine the golf course with no trees whatsoever: the verges of the Avenue, now overgrown with weeds and rough grass, were planted out in shrubs, mostly rhododendrons, bushes and lovely flowering plants of all varieties. Together they formed a stunning walkway of which Sir James was inordinately proud. The Avenue was about 40 yards wide at some points, bordered on both sides by dry-stone dykes running its entire length, so the whole area must have been of outstanding beauty.
Woe betide anyone caught dropping so much as a sweetie paper!
Only the remnants of the dykes remain. And for as long as he was associated with the golf club Sir James made it his responsibility to ensure that the park was kept in pristine condition, making sure that damaged trees, shrubs, or flowers were promptly replaced. In all, it took Sir James the best part of seven years to lay out the park exactly as he wanted it.
Having completed the recreational park, he the then turned his attention to the golf course.
Sir James decided to employ Mr Stewart Burns, the professional at nearby Cruden Bay Golf Club, to design and supervise the laying out of the proposed course.
Stewart Burns was born in Stirling in 1899, the son of a gardener, who himself was an accomplished player. He had his introduction to golf at the Kings Park Golf Club, Stirling, where the local professional, a Mr Duncan, gave him his first lessons.
While still a boy, he enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and saw service in the Great War of 1914-18. After the war he took up golf as a profession and, following a spell at Falkirk Tryst Golf Club, he moved to Cruden Bay (1924-1925) and from there went to Hendon Golf Club near London.
It is not known if Burns had any previous experience of golf course design, but he certainly was a player of some considerable repute. He had been the Scottish Professional Champion in 1925 and 1927 and won again for a third time at Balgownie, Aberdeen in 1928, by the huge margin of 11 shots. With a final round 68 (a course record at the time) he won outright “the handsome silver trophy (presented by the late Sir Peter J Mackie), a gold badge and a cheque for £35” - as the Stirling Observer newspaper reported - justifiably proud of the achievement of one of its own.
Burns played for Scotland against England in 1932, but the high point of his career should have been in 1929 when he was selected for the Great Britain and Ireland Ryder Cup team to play against the USA – on the second occasion the match was played. Ten players were selected for each team and while it was agreed, in the inaugural match two years earlier, that only eight of the 10 would take part in the contest, the Americans departed from this arrangement in 1929, and used all 10 over the two days of the competition.
However the Great Britain and Irish team captain George Duncan (Open Champion 1920), who was born in Methlick, and who turned down the opportunity to join Aberdeen F.C. opting instead to play golf, stuck by the procedure agreed two years previously and played only eight of his squad. The unfortunate two left out were Burns and Percy Alliss (father of Peter Alliss). As an aside, the British team avenged its defeat in the first match, with Captain Duncan beating the legendary Walter Hagen by 10 and 8 in their singles match.
Stewart Burns had three fields at his disposal, on which to lay out the golf course. The first was the site of today's 13th, 14th, and 15th holes. The second field is where today's 16th, 17th and 18th holes are and the third contains holes 10, 11, and 12 of the present day layout.
He put the opening three holes into the first field, but instead of running lengthwise as they do today, they criss-crossed today's fairways.
The first tee was situated near the old iron gate that can still be seen at the edge of the Auchnagatt road and the hole ran up to a green approximately where the present 14th green is. The green was not built up as today’s 14th is, but simply followed the natural contours of the ground resulting in a green that was on a very severe slope, making putting fiendishly difficult. As Adam Robbie, a former club captain and champion said, no putts were ever conceded on that green.
The second hole ran from a tee adjacent to the first green back down across the present 14th fairway towards the Auchnagatt road, to a green situated approximately where the present 13th is.
The third hole ran from there back up to the present 15th green.
It would appear that the direction of the first three holes was changed quite soon after they were laid out, due almost certainly, to the fact that putting on the first green was virtually impossible. This is confirmed by Norval Dawson - the first Junior convenor - who said that he joined the club in 1946 and although he remembers the course being closed during the war years, he cannot ever recall holes one, two and three running in any direction, other than that which they follow today.
Club records are available from 1937 onwards, but there is no mention in them of any alterations being made to the first three holes and it would therefore be reasonable to assume, that the changes were made during the first ten years of the club's existence.
Norval also recalls seeing Sir James on a few occasions and describes him as being a small dapper man, with his trademark moustache and always dressed in a tweed jacket and plus fours. He also remembers Sir James having to reprimand the late Norman Smith for sneaking through a hedge on to the course telling him if he was caught doing so again his membership would be cancelled.
Remarkably the other six holes, apart from minor changes, have remained much as Burns designed them.
In the second field Burns laid out his fourth and fifth holes. Access to the fourth tee (the present 16th) was gained then, as now, by the path through the trees - although when the course was laid out there were no trees of any consequence. The trees that had been planted were in their infancy and the course, therefore, had a completely different appearance to what it is today.
The fourth tee has since been extended of course, but the original was in much the same area as the present 16th. The green however was situated well to the right of the present green much nearer the woods.
The fifth hole crossed the “Avenue”. Its tee position is virtually unchanged, but the green was well to the right of the present one, making the hole almost straight from tee to green. The short walk from the fifth green to the sixth tee (today’s 18th) remains unchanged, except that in those days there were no trees bordering the path.
The construction of Burns' sixth hole posed a problem. The land bought by Sir James extended only as far as the Avenue. The ground beyond the Avenue belonged to Mr A J Raeburn, a local solicitor whose son George would succeed him in the business and who would become clerk to the Ellon town Council for many years. Sir James bought Mr Raeburn's field thus getting access to the third field by way of a path, which ran behind the hospital, the site of the present day clubhouse.
Hole number seven (today's 10th),virtually unchanged since then, measured 225 yards, about 100 yards shorter than today, and had four bunkers across the fairway at its mid-point.
Apart from both being a little shorter than they are today, the eighth and the ninth, (today’s 11th and 12th) are virtually as Stewart Burns designed them, although both greens have been developed and enlarged over the years.
By and large, Stewart Burns’ design plan has stood the test of time and for that he deserves great credit. “The back nine”, as it is now known remains a delightful nine holes, scenically beautiful, but not easy to score on - many a good card has been ruined by these final two holes.