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Macdonald, Murdo Ewen [known as Murdo Ewen] (1914–2004), Church of Scotland minister, was born on 28 August 1914 at Plocrapool on the Hebridean island of Harris, the son of Donald Alick Macdonald, a crofter and fisherman, and his wife, Catherine, née Campbell, a weaver. He was educated at Drinishadder, the local primary school in Harris, and then at Kingussie secondary school, Inverness-shire, before taking degrees in arts and in theology at the University of St Andrews. There he distinguished himself academically, as well as physically—he was the Scottish universities middleweight boxing champion—and as an extraordinarily vibrant personality with a very ready wit. On completing his studies in 1939 he was ordained as minister of Portree on the Isle of Skye, where he quickly developed a reputation as a compelling preacher, both in Gaelic and in English.

In April 1940 Macdonald volunteered to join the armed forces as a chaplain, and he served first with the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders on the island of Aruba in the Caribbean, where he met his American-born wife, Elizabeth (Betty) Russell (d. 1997), an English teacher, with whom he had two sons, Alasdair and Alan. In 1942 he volunteered to serve with the second battalion of the 1st Parachute brigade in north Africa. He was dropped with a detachment of troops behind the German lines, where he was wounded and taken prisoner. Following an adventurous journey, in the course of which he and a fellow prisoner were able to blow up the German plane that had taken them to Naples, he was imprisoned at Stalag Luft III in Silesia where he ministered to his fellow prisoners. While his new ‘parishioners’ were digging escape tunnels Murdo Ewen (as he was already universally known) sat apparently reading, but actually keeping an eye on the guards, and warning the tunnellers if any approached. In March 1944 seventy-six allied airmen escaped through the tunnels; all but three were recaptured and fifty were executed. During this time of fear, despair, and anger, Macdonald provided support, encouragement, and hope to all the prisoners in outstanding fashion. When the American prisoners of war were moved to a separate compound they asked for Murdo Ewen to go with them as their chaplain, which he did. He had, in the harsh and fearful conditions of a prisoner-of-war camp in the later stages of the war, a truly remarkable ministry, out of which came a network of lasting American friendships. In recognition of this ministry he was awarded the United States bronze star.

After his repatriation Macdonald was called in 1947 to be minister of Partick Old Parish Church in Glasgow. He quickly established a reputation as a charismatic preacher, a caring pastor, and a passionate radical who lauded the coming of the welfare state, and frequently denounced private schools from the pulpit. After just two years he became minister of St George's West Church in Edinburgh, at that time without question the most distinguished pulpit in Scotland. He attracted large congregations, especially of students, and was undoubtedly one of the outstanding preachers of his day. One study reported that on an average Sunday some 400 students worshipped in St George's West, to say nothing of the large and influential regular congregation. Macdonald's warmth, enthusiasm, and wide reading—skilfully deployed—deeply influenced several generations of Edinburgh students. Many people in the professions, in teaching, and above all in the Christian ministry, felt that he had helped shape their vocations. Macdonald preached frequently overseas and was held in particular esteem in the United States. In his sermons he engaged seriously and intelligently with contemporary liberal theology, with existentialism, with a massive range of reading, and, of course, with the scriptures. But he was not usually an expository preacher like his contemporary James Stuart Stewart. He also used tales from his own experience of the prison camp and elsewhere to good effect in his sermons. Selections of these were published as The Vitality of Faith (1955) and The Call to Obey (1963).

In 1963 Macdonald left St George's West to take up the chair of practical theology at Trinity College in the University of Glasgow. Despite his immense reading and his remarkable career as a preacher and pastor, he did not take easily to the academic life, or make the impression his sponsors expected. But if his teaching and his research were on the whole unremarkable, his warm and caring personality and his radical commitment, to say nothing of his extraordinary life story, had a deep influence on generations of young men—and some women—who were preparing for ministry in Scotland or elsewhere. He retired from university teaching in 1984 and later wrote an autobiographical essay, Padre Mac, which was printed by the Stornoway Gazette. He declared his greatest achievement to be the climbing of every Munro in Scotland.

Murdo Macdonald died on 6 June 2004 of arteriosclerosis at Eastwoodhill Home, 238 Fenwick Road, Giffnock, Renfrewshire. His wife having predeceased him, he was survived by their two sons. Among Macdonald's close friends—whom he met at university—was John Brown, minister at Kirkcaldy, Fife, and father of the Labour prime minister Gordon Brown. At the time of Macdonald's funeral Brown, himself a friend of the minister, described him as ‘a truly great man—principled, persuasive, humorous … When I last met him, though frail, he was engaging, interested and committed as ever to the great causes he believed in. His beliefs shone through everything that he did’ (The Herald, 12 June 2004). For the poet Iain Crichton Smith he was
for want of a better term, the Happy Warrior of whom Wordsworth wrote: exuberant, life enhancing, hostile to injustice, a lover of the marvellous particulars of the world, yet aware of the darkness … By their fruits ye shall know them. And because we respect Murdo Ewen, we respect his God also. (Padre Mac, 4, quoted in The Scotsman, 14 June 2004)


Duncan B. Forrester

Sources  

M. E. Macdonald, Padre Mac: the man from Harris (privately printed, Stornaway Gazette, c.2002) · Aberdeen Press and Journal (11 June 2004) · The Herald [Glasgow] (12 June 2004) · The Scotsman (14 June 2004) · The Times (22 June 2004); (14 July 2004) · personal knowledge (2008) · private information (2008) · b. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

St George's West Church, Edinburgh, records and printed sermons


Likenesses  

obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£5881.09: confirmation, 3 Nov 2005, CCI