Chapter Five:  The Early Years

Following the death of his parents in 1926, Sir James leased both the golf course and the park to the Town Council.


The course opened for play in 1927, but within sixteen months he had fallen out with the Council, torn up the lease agreement.  Under a new set of rules, he now donated the golf course and park to the Council.


This meant that the Town Council would now become the Trustees of the properties, holding them in trust for the people of Ellon.


So what had caused the rift that prompted Sir McDonald to change things after such a short time?


As mentioned earlier, Sir James divided his time between Ellon and Southern Africa. It became increasingly obvious to him on his trips home, that the Town Council was failing in its duty properly to look after and maintain, the park as had been agreed. The overall standard of care and maintenance was poor, but his main concern was with how badly the trees were being cared for, with no effort being made to replace those, which had either become damaged or had died off. The late Mr George Raeburn, the local solicitor, who had succeeded his father Mr A J Raeburn and who was, for a long time, clerk to the Town Council of Ellon, was the legal adviser to both the club and Sir James. Acting on behalf of the latter, he confirmed that Sir James was entirely justified in his criticisms - the council, quite simply was not doing the job it had agreed to do.

Sir James immediately terminated the lease, and instead gifted both the park and golf course to the Town Council. His action in so doing might have seemed somewhat strange, but in fact Sir James was effectively handing over both the golf course and park, to the people of Ellon. The Ellon Town Council would now become the Trustees of the policies, holding both "in trust in perpetuity", for the people of Ellon.


The lease agreement was immediately withdrawn and a new set of rules for the care and maintenance of both the park and golf course introduced.


This agreement took the form of a Blench Charter (literally a White Paper) supplemented by a Minute of Agreement.


These two documents were authenticated and verified with the Keeper of the Registers and Records in the Court of Session in Edinburgh.


They are still in existence today and are still legally binding documents. Blench Charters are now obsolete but in the 1900s were a common feature of land and property conveyance.


The Blench Charter did three things: it gave details of the dimensions and the boundaries of the property or land in question; it conferred rights of use or occupancy - thus making it clear that the land in question was to be used only as a park and golf course; and finally it could stipulate the rent (or as was the case in those days feu-duty) to be charged for the use of the land or property. Now this question of rent would become of great significance in years to come, and it is important to note exactly what was said in the Blench Charter.


The Blench Charter stated that - the town Council would make, "for payment to me (Sir James) by the said Council, the sum of one penny Scots at Whitsunday yearly, if asked only.”


The rent asked for clearly indicated Mr McDonalds wish that it be a token rent, a peppercorn rent, and not in any way to reflect the value of the properties. In fact he never collected any rent, but some fifty years later others would try to, the significance of which will be looked at in due course.


The Minute of Agreement contained a long list of the rules and regulations for the care and maintenance of the park and all the buildings on it. But it also laid down conditions for the running of the golf club, which would be a joint venture between the Town Council and the Golf Club - in the form of a Management Committee as previously mentioned. And it is obvious from the wording of the agreement, that following his earlier experiences with the Council, Sir James would now retain significant control over both the running of the park and, to a lesser degree, the golf club.

This is supported by the wording of the first clause in the Minute of Agreement, which states and I quote -“that notwithstanding the granting and recording of said Blench Charter, the donor shall, during his life, have full control of the McDonald Park, as if said Charter had not been granted”. That could not be any clearer - he would be in charge.


There then followed a long list of terms and conditions as follows:

  • He would retain all sporting rights over the McDonald Park.

  • The park had to be known for all time as the "McDonald Parklands", as a memorial to his parents.

  • He alone would have the responsibility for deciding the percentages of the various trees that would be grown in the park.

  • There would be no Sunday golf.

  • Picnics in the park would be forbidden.

  • No fires would be allowed in the park.

  • The golf club would be run by a Committee of Management, comprising members of both the golf club and the Town Council in equal numbers.

  • While alive, he would be solely responsible for the McDonald Park ensuring that it was kept in good condition taking upon himself tasks such as supervising the cutting of the grass, trimming tree branches, planting shrubs, and so on.

  • He further instructed that after his death, the Town Council, acting as Trustees for the gift, must continue to maintain the park in the condition in which it had been while he was alive, and to that end he bequeathed a sum of £200 per annum.


    By this time the golf club had be in existence for over a year, and concerned that it might, in time, no longer continue to function as he had meant it to, he stated in his will that “at no time shall said course be turned into a free municipal one”. He also reiterated the duties and responsibilities of the Management Committee.


    One of the more important rules however and one which would become of great significance in years to come, was the one whereby he transferred the Feu-superiority of the properties from the Town Council to the Dr Barnardos Homes for Children.


    This meant that they, Dr Barnardos, were now entitled to collect the rent or Feu-duty - “one penny Scots at Whitsunday - “…if asked only”.


    To define “Feu-Superiority”: superiority simply means the ownership of a piece ground, while “feu” may be explained as the perpetual lease at a fixed rent for a piece of land held by such a lease. The word “feu” originates from old French for “fee” - a payment made in olden days, by a vassal to his superior. This payment could be in the form of money or kind (e.g. grain) in return for not having to enlist and do military service for his master.


    While he was alive, Sir James himself would be responsible for supervising the Councils maintenance of the park. However, after his death, as Dr Barnardos now held the feu-superiority, they would have the task of monitoring the Councils work. And to that end, they were given the authority to have an official from the Forestry Commission inspect the policies every three years or so, to ensure that the park was being maintained in accordance with his wishes. Should it not be, and then the McDonald Park would be handed over to Dr Barnardos Homes.


    However, the conditions relating to the golf course were somewhat different.

    Even if the McDonald Park did become the property of Barnardos, the Council would nevertheless continue to have the responsibility of ensuring that golf continued to be played over the course. The exact wording in the Blench Charter was that the Council retained “a perpetual servitude right of using said golf course as such”. In other words the golf course had to remain a golf course and it could not be developed for any other purpose irrespective of who owned it. Now as stated above, Dr Barnardo’s had the authority to have the park inspected every three years or so, but in reality these checks were infrequent, if indeed they were carried out at all. Until that is, when a chain of events was set in motion, that would have significant consequences for the golf club.


In the early 1960s, Miss Scott, the niece of Sir James, who had formally opened the club in 1927, reported to the late Charles G Brown, senior partner in the law firm of Burnett and Reid, Aberdeen that in her opinion the McDonald Park was not being properly looked after. The complaint was forwarded both to the Standard Bank of South Africa. Who were acting as Trustees for the now late Sir James, and also to Dr Barnardo’s. The latter, as required by the terms of the Minute of Agreement, sent an official from the Forestry Commission to Ellon, and he, along with Mr Raeburn, spent the better part of two days inspecting the park. They concluded the complaints were justified and had to be remedied.


This episode must have brought home to Dr Barnardo’s, the fact that ownership of the Feu-superiority, far from being in any way profitable, was a liability. Like Sir James before them, they had never asked for the rental to be paid. Not surprisingly then, in 1990, Dr Barnardos decided to put the Feu-superiority up for sale but the golf club was not informed of this decision.


The Gordon District Council, successors to the Ellon Town Council, bought the feu-superiority for £10,000 and, in doing so, set in motion a chain of events, which would be of huge significance for the McDonald Golf Club, and would not be resolved for more than almost two decades. This issue will be looked at later.

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