Chapter Four:  Sir James Gordon McDonald K.G.B. O.B.E.

Now it has been noted that Sir James was hugely involved in the running, maintenance and general management of the McDonald Parklands, but he also had great influence and played a large part in the affairs of the golf club, from its early days, through to his death in 1942.


It might be appropriate at this point to consider the man himself.


James Gordon McDonald, was one of Ellon's most distinguished sons. He was born in Ellon in 1867, the son of Johannah Tough, and Hugh McDonald. Hugh McDonald was the “Land Steward”, (Estate Factor would be the present day equivalent) and Gamekeeper of the Ellon Castle estates. He served as Provost of the Ellon Town Council from 1918-1921. 


J. G. McDonald, who was always referred to locally as J.G., was brought up in Ellon and attended the local parish school, before completing his education at Robert Gordons College in Aberdeen.

In 1890, when he was 23 years of age, he left Scotland for South Africa, where he would have an illustrious career.


He went first to the Transvaal, but soon moved on to what was then Rhodesia, where he became attached to the staff of Cecil Rhodes, whose constant companion he would remain until Rhodes' death in 1902. In his early time in Rhodesia, McDonald was involved in farming, forestry, mining, ranching, and estate management, but his later career was in the fields of finance and gold mining.

Cecil Rhodes, who was largely responsible for setting up the diamond and gold mining industries in Rhodesia, appointed him General Manager of the Goldfields Rhodesian Development Company – a company that had the responsibility for the mining and financial interests, not only for Rhodesian companies, but also for many others throughout Southern Africa.


Because of his extensive knowledge and experience in business and commerce, he acted as a confidential adviser to local governors and Government ministers, and he was knighted in 1929 for his services to the British Government.


He joined the Home Guard at its inception in 1940 during World War two, even though by then he was in his seventies, and was appointed an Intelligence Officer for Aberdeenshire. He wrote several books, two of which were devoted to his mentor Cecil Rhodes - Rhodes - a Life and Rhodes - a Heritage”.


As mentioned earlier, Sir James continued to be responsible for the McDonald Parklands even after he had handed them over to the Town Council. His influence also extended to the running of the golf club and continued for the duration of his lifetime. He was quite capable of taking decisions without consulting the other members of the Management committee.


There are many examples of Sir James influence, among them, his displeasure at the length of the grass on the edge of the 1st tee: his opinion that the greens required watering: the fairways needed an application of lime to combat moss and so on, and all had to be acted upon.


Notes with his instructions were left with the secretary, to be passed to the green-keeper, who carried out his orders without question. Everyone was in awe of Sir James none more so than Willie Buchan with whom he had a good relationship. On hearing that a visit by Sir James was imminent, Willie would carefully rake the ground around the house of Sir James’ late parents and no one was allowed to walk on this area until Sir James’ arrival – his footprints would be the first on the newly prepared surface!


Structural alterations on the course also demanded his attention. The relaying of a green could not be done without his consent, and it was he who decided where additional bunkers should be sited.

In 1941 a motion to allow the playing of golf on a Sunday was put forward by the captain of the day Mr Arthur P Davidson who ran a grocery shop in Market Street. The motion was carried at the meeting but the Greens Committee had to get Sir James approval before the change could be implemented. This was readily given and although the original Blench Charter had contained a clause stipulating that there should be no play on a Sunday, Sir James informed the committee that the reasons for this were no longer applicable and he would happily sign an addendum to the Charter, confirming his support for the change. No record exists as to why Sir James agreed to the proposal but the likeliest explanation is that it was taken in an attempt to encourage people to join the club.


While the everyday affairs of the golf club were the concern of the aforementioned "Greens Committee" (appointed by the membership), its overall management lay in the hands of the "Management Committee".


The "Management Committee" comprised ten members, five representatives from the Ellon Town Council, and five from the Golf Club. The composition and functions of these committees will be described in more detail later. But neither committee was entirely free from the influence of Sir James: no decision of any significance could be implemented without his blessing.


After his retirement, Sir James divided his time between South Africa and Ellon.


He returned to Ellon every year, often with a party of friends to indulge his main hobby of shooting and during this time, lived in the Station Hotel.


He even had a wing added to the hotel, at his own expense, for his own exclusive use, and when he returned to South Africa, the wing was closed and remained unused until his return the following year. On his trips to Ellon he would frequently call at the local school, to address the pupils, and the visits, by an important gentleman from abroad, but one who had hailed from Ellon, were keenly anticipated and caused a great deal of interest and excitement. 


Sir James never married, but his close friend and companion was Mr Henry Herrington, a mining engineer, who was appointed Vice President of the McDonald Golf Club, and whose name is perpetuated in the Herrington Trophy, awarded annually to the winner of the mens championship.


Sir James died in December 1942, when the Ceramic, on which he and Herrington were travelling back to South Africa, was torpedoed. All on board perished, bar one passenger who was picked up by a German submarine.


As a result of his successful career in Southern Africa, Sir James had become a very wealthy man, but he had always retained a strong bond with, and a great affection for, his home village: feelings that were reflected in his gift of a park and golf course to the community.

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