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Macdonald, Sir Georgelocked

  • A. O. Curle
  • , revised by L. J. F. Keppie

Sir George Macdonald (1862–1940)

by Maurice Greiffenhagen, 1929

© reserved; photograph courtesy the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Macdonald, Sir George (1862–1940), classical scholar and civil servant, was born at Elgin on 30 January 1862, the third son of James Macdonald, a master at Elgin Academy and an antiquary, and his wife, Margaret Raff. He was educated at Ayr Academy, of which his father was then rector, and at Edinburgh University, where he graduated with first-class honours in classics in 1882. After periods of study in Germany and France, he entered Balliol College, Oxford, in 1884, and obtained a first class in classical moderations (1885) and in literae humaniores (1887). From 1887 to 1892 he was a member of the staff of the Kelvinside Academy, Glasgow, where his father was now rector, and was subsequently (1892–1904) a senior assistant in Greek at Glasgow University. He married in 1897 Margaret Tannahill, daughter of George Younger, a Glasgow merchant; they had a son and a daughter who predeceased her father.

In 1904 Macdonald left academic life on appointment as senior examiner at the Scottish education department. He was soon placed in charge of the department's Edinburgh office, at a time (1908 onwards) when a growing part of its administration was being transferred from London. His career culminated in appointment as secretary of the Scottish education department (1922–8). In educational circles Macdonald is best remembered for establishing the Leaving Certificate Examination and for introducing the first superannuation scheme for teachers in Scotland. With colleagues he was stiff and formal, even autocratic, though at the same time his natural kindness and integrity were visible to all. He was appointed CB in 1916 and KCB in 1927 for his services to the Scottish education department.

Besides being a distinguished administrator, Macdonald was also a skilled numismatist and an eminent authority on Romano-British history and antiquities. The Hunterian collection of coins in Glasgow University had long claimed his attention; between 1899 and 1906 he produced his catalogue of Greek Coins in the Hunterian Museum, a work which placed him in the front rank of numismatists and which was ‘crowned’ by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and which brought him the award of the prix Allier de Hauteroche (1907). In 1905 he was made honorary curator of the Hunter Coin Cabinet, a post he retained until his death. He delivered in Edinburgh the Rhind lectures in archaeology which were published as Coin Types: their Origin and Development (1905). Several important surveys by him of newly found Roman coins appeared in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. In 1935 he was president of the Royal Numismatic Society, which had awarded him its medal in 1913.

With an interest inherited from his father in the Antonine wall between the Forth and the Clyde, Macdonald devoted much of his leisure to establishing its line and in excavating its forts. A course of Dalrymple lectures delivered in Glasgow in 1910 on this subject subsequently formed the main strand of his Roman Wall in Scotland (1911), of which a revised and enlarged edition appeared in 1934, incorporating the results of much excavation and fieldwork over the previous two decades by himself and others. A close friendship with F. J. Haverfield led to the publication in 1924, after Haverfield's death, of his Ford lectures in their joint names under the title of The Roman Occupation of Britain. Macdonald's authoritative work on Romano-British history was fully recognized abroad, especially in Germany.

Macdonald's interests came together in appointments to the royal commission on national museums and galleries (1927–30) and the subsequent standing commission (1931); he was also a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland on its institution in 1927. From 1918 onwards he was one of the two reporters for the Carnegie Trust for the universities of Scotland under the research scheme. He was also a member of the University Grants Committee from 1933 onwards. Many academic honours were conferred upon him. He received honorary degrees from the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Oxford, and Cambridge. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1913, and an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1933 and of Balliol College, Oxford, in 1936; he was also an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy and a trustee of the National Library of Scotland. He was president of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies (1921–6) and of the Classical Associations of England and Wales (1931) and of Scotland (1936). A volume of the Journal of Roman Studies (22, 1932) was issued in his honour, with a bibliography of his writings. At the time of his death he was president of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, chairman of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, and vice-chairman of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland. He died of a heart attack in Edinburgh on 9 August 1940, and was buried at Dean cemetery, on the 13th.


  • A. O. Curle, ‘Sir George Macdonald, 1862–1940’, PBA, 27 (1941), 433–51
  • I. A. Richmond, ‘Sir George Macdonald’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 4th ser., 19 (1941), 177–87
  • A. Graham, ‘In piam veterum memoriam’, The Scottish antiquarian tradition, ed. A. S. Bell (1981), 212–26
  • ‘A bibliography of Sir George Macdonald's published writings’, Journal of Roman Studies, 22 (1932), 3–8
  • J. G. C. Anderson, ‘Sir George Macdonald: a bibliographical supplement’, Journal of Roman Studies, 30 (1940), 129–30
  • Scottish biographies (1938)
  • The Times (12 Aug 1940)
  • Glasgow Herald (10 Aug 1940)
  • Glasgow Herald (14 Aug 1940)
  • CCI (1940)


  • U. Edin. L., corresp. and papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to O. G. S. Crawford


  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1917, NPG
  • M. Greiffenhagen, oils, 1929, priv. coll. [see illus.]
  • W. and E. Drummond Young, photograph, repro. in ‘A bibliography of Sir George Macdonald's published writings’, frontispiece

Wealth at Death

£15,659 11s. 4d.: confirmation, 16 Oct 1940, CCI

Proceedings of the British Academy