Biography:Sir Alexander MacDonald

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Sir Alexander MacDonald

 Given name:     Alexander
 Middle name:     
 Family name:     MacDonald
 Place of birth:     
 Place of death:     
 Year of birth:     c. 1745
 Year of death:     1795
 Profile:     Composer
 Source of information:     Keith Norman MacDonald - MacDonald Bards from Medieval Times (1900)

Biographical notes

Sm ALEXANDER, 1st LORD MACDONALD [1]. Among our clan bards the distinguished subject of the present sketch deserves a high place. Sir Alexander MacDonald, sixteenth baron, and ninth baronet of Sleat, was on the 17th of July, 1766, created a peer of Ireland by the title of Baron MacDonald of Sleat and County Antrim.* In May 1761 he obtained a commission as ensign in the Coldstream regiment of Foot Guards, and on the 3rd of INIay, 1768, he married Elizabeth Diana, eldest daughter of Godfrey Bosville of Gunthwaite, county of York, by whom he had a family of seven sons and three daughters. He was educated at Eton, and turned out a highly accomplished scholar and musician, and a very keen politician. He took a considerable interest in literature, and was elected a member of the Society of Antiqiiaries. His taste for music led him to encourage those who took an interest in the arts. A celebrated harper named O'Kane, who travelled in the Highlands in those days, was often entertained by his Lordship, and he used to be delighted and charmed with his performances. Gunn, in his work on the harp, published in 1805, remarks that " no one was better able to feel and to estimate the superior talents of O'Kane, for I can vouch Lord MacDonald to have been one of our best amateurs on the violin, and one of the best judges of musical talents of that period. There had been for a great length of time in the family a valuable harp key ; it was finely ornamented with gold and silver, and with a precious stone. This key is said to have been worth eighty or one hundred guineas, and on this occasion our itinerant harper had the good fortune of being presented by Lord MacDonald with this curious and valuable implement of his profession. " In December, 1777, letters of service were issued to his Lordship to raise a regiment in the Highlands, with an offer of a lieutenant-colonelcy, He declined the rank, but recommended that it should be given to Major MacDonald, Lochgarry, who was in consequence at once appointed. Lochgarry raised a fine body of men, numbering 1086, which was afterwards known as the 76th or * MacKenzie's History of the MacDonalds. MacDonald Highlanders. His Lordship was distinguished from the other barons of the family by the appellation of the " Morair Ban," or the fair-haired lord, and " being an English-bred chieftain and given to increasing his rents, he was somewhat unpopular with his principal tenants, several of whom combined to keep the lands at the old rents, and many of them feeling keenly the hard pressure of the times, were forced to emigrate."* At the time of Dr. Johnson's visit to Skye there was an emigrant ship, called the Nestor, in Portree Harbour to carry off the emigrants. Dr. Johnson's profound intellect saw at a glance the mistake of " educating a young heir to a great estate, at a distance from, and in ignorance of the country where he has so high a stake ; he cannot acquire a knowledge of the people, can form no local attachment, be a stranger to his own property and to his tenants, is often disgusted with both, although the one is valuable by its produce, and the other estimable in character." In continuation of the same .subject Boswell records the following conversation as having occurred between his lordship and Dr. Johnson : — " Were I in your place, sir," said Johnson, " in seven years I would make this an independent island, I would roast oxen whole, and liang out a flag to the MacDonalds." Sir Alexander was still stating difficulties. " Nay, sir," con- tinued Johnson, " if you are born" to object, I have done with yon ; sir, I would have a magazine of arms." Sir Alexander, " They would rust." To which Johnson replied : " Let tliere be men to keep them clean ; your ancestors did not let them rust. Four years after this. Sir Alexander found that arms put in the hands of his people would not be suffered to ruse, and that when an opportunity offered they were ready to take them up in defence of their country."! Besides being a first-rate player on the violin of classical and general music, Ìiis lordship com- posed a number of strathspeys and reels, still very popular, such as " Lord MacDonald'sreel," " Mrs MacLeod, Raasay," " Mrs MacKinnon, Corry," and several others. A famous Sleat violinist, named " Iain Ruadh (John Roy) Kennedy," was a great favourite of his and used often to be entertained at Armadale, in a musical capacity, and it is said that on one occasion, at least, his lordship tied Kennedy's arm to a chair, but the result was almost the same as if it had been free. The following is a selection from his poetical effusions : — * History and traditions of the Isle of Skye. t General Stewart's Sketches of the Highlanders, vol. II., pp. 21-420.