The Tree of a Son of Skye

History | Culture | Ancestry

Spinners, Weavers and Radicals – The Life of Donald MacDonald (1795-1879)

In an earlier post I touched upon the origins of the MacDonalds as a family from Skye. I also explained that at some point in the late 18th century my MacDonald family moved from the Hebrides to Renfrewshire. That story focused primarily on my 5x Great Grandfather Alexander MacDonald but I would like to continue the story of my family by speaking a little about his son, my 4x Great Grandfather Donald MacDonald.

Donald MacDonald was actually born as ‘Daniel’ MacDonald in the Middle Church Parish of Paisley on the 25th of July 1795.  In 18th and 19th century Scotland, Daniel and Donald were seen as interchangeable names, particularly as having a Gaelic name in the lowlands was unfashionable when an anglicised equivalent was available. Throughout his life he showed a preference for the use of ‘Donald’ and most written records refer to him using this name.


Donald (Daniel) MacDonald’s birth extract from 1795.

Donald MacDonald's brother was also born in Paisley in 1800.

Donald MacDonald’s brother Alexander was also born in Paisley, in January 1800.

As previously explained, Donald MacDonald was the son of Alexander MacDonald, a native of Skye who had moved to the lowlands sometime between 1781 and 1795 following the death of his first wife.  Donald’s mother was Agnes Fletcher and although little is known about her, it seems possible that she was a native of Renfrewshire.

Paisley at this time was primarily built upon the weaving trade and it was in the early stages of a rapid industrial expansion. The population was steadily increasing and the weavers of Paisley were a well paid, highly skilled and relatively well educated social group.  Handloom weavers had the ability to set their own hours of work, giving them the ability to set aside time for reading and for debating, this gave them a good deal of self awareness and political savvy that had not been open to previous generations. Alexander MacDonald was a weaver by trade, and that undoubtedly must have influenced his decision to move to Paisley, which along with Glasgow was at the very centre of the weaving industry in Scotland.

Donald’s birth is registered as being in the ‘Middle Church Parish’ of Paisley. The Middle Church of Paisley was built in 1781 in response to Paisley’s growing population and the over crowding that was beginning to become problematic in the existing churches.  It was initially built to sit 1,520 people, 865 for those that subscribed to the construction of the building and 655 for the rest of the community. The construction of the new church led to the reorganisation of the parishes in Paisley. The High Church, which still figures prominently in the Paisley skyline at the top of Church Hill, primarily served the western section of the town. The Middle Church, which sits slightly lower down Church Hill, served the central areas, in addition to “all of the town’s property” north of School Wynd and Dyers Wynd. The Laigh Church, at the foot of New Street, served the central and southern areas of the town and in recent years it has been converted into an arts centre. Between 1758 and 1768, the Laigh Church minister was John Witherspoon, who later became a founding father of the United States.

The Middle Church as it appears today.

The Middle Church as it appears today (left-centre).

When Alexander MacDonald and Agnes Fletcher’s second son Alexander was born in 1800, it showed that they had moved from the Middle Church to the High Church Parish of Paisley. Knowing the general divisions of the parishes in Paisley gives us a vague idea of where the MacDonald family lived at that time but unfortunately we can’t be any more specific than the descriptions given above.

After 1800 the MacDonald family disappear from the records. Alexander MacDonald and Agnes Fletcher are not listed as having any further children and their ultimate fate after 1800 remains a mystery. Donald MacDonald reappears in 1819, when his marriage record shows that he has subsequently moved to Glasgow and married a woman named Jean Pollock. The record also shows that Donald has taken up employment in the same industry as his  father, and is now a cotton spinner.

The marriage record of Donald MacDonald and Jean Pollock, dated 1819.

The marriage record of Donald MacDonald and Jean Pollock, dated 1819.

It’s unfortunate that no records of the family exist between 1800 and 1819 as the cotton weavers of Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire were central to the political instability that culminated in the events of the Radical War of 1820.

During the French Revolution, the British state had repressed demands for political reform as the nobility feared that their privileges would be steadily eroded. In the 18th century, Scotland had become one of the first countries in the world to have nearly full rates of literacy, with many people reading about the egalitarian values of the Church of Scotland. Scots had access to the works of the revolutionary thinkers of  America and France and they became inspired by works such as Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Fueled by these enlightenment ideals, the artisan classes, and weavers in particular, agitated for a more representative democratic system.

This political pressure was heightened when the earnings of weavers halved between 1800 and 1808. This decrease in pay was followed by an economic depression that resulted from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Just a year later 40,000 people protested on Glasgow Green demanding cheaper food prices and a more representative government. Discontent with the Government grew further when the British Army attacked a protest in Manchester, killing 15 and wounding up to 700 people. In Paisley, a similar rally in September 1819 led to a week of rioting, primarily instigated by Radical Weavers.

In 1820 the Scottish Radicals demanded a Scottish Parliament and had a banner which read ' Scotland Free or a Desert'. Today, the 1820 society uses a replica of this banner and can be seen at Yes Scotland events.

In 1820 the Scottish Radicals demanded independence for Scotland and marched with a banner that read ‘Scotland Free or a Desert’. Almost 200 years later, the 1820 society uses a replica of the original banner and it is often seen at independence events.

As a cotton spinner in Glasgow, Donald MacDonald would definitely have been aware, if not involved, in these events. It’s unclear if his father Alexander MacDonald was still alive in 1819, but as a weaver he too would have been affected by the changes going on around him. By 1820 the Government was alarmed and feared an imminent outbreak of revolutionary violence. The Government began infiltrating radical groups, while workers began to engage in military drills and the construction of rudimentary weapons such as pikes. Rumors even began circulating that Marshal MacDonald of France was mustering an army of 50,000 Frenchmen at Cathkin Braes to help overthrow the Government.

In April 1820 another alarming incident for the government took place when the Port Glasgow militia was escorting radical prisoners from Paisley to Greenock jail. On making their way through Greenock itself, the militia was met with a barrage of abuse. The militia disregarded it and continued through the town, but they were met with ever increasing hostility. After dropping their prisoners off at the jail on Bank Street the crowd began to pelt the militia with stones. The Port Glasgow militia had to fight their way back through the town and they eventually opened fire on the crowd somewhere on Cathcart Street, probably near to where the James Watt pub now stands. 8 people were killed, including an eight year old boy, while 10 others were wounded. The enraged crowd stormed Greenock jail, freeing the prisoners before taking off for Port Glasgow to take out their revenge. The crowd was only halted with officials managed to calm them before they reached Port Glasgow.

In 1820 the people of Greenock stormed the Prison on Bank Street. It was later demolished to make way for the railway line.

In 1820 the people of Greenock stormed the Prison on Bank Street. It was later demolished to make way for the railway line. The same view today can be seen (here)

The events of the Radical War culminated in massive strike action and a protest that was attended by 60,000 people. A ‘provisional government’ was declared in Glasgow and workers marching to seize the Carron ironworks near Falkirk fought a small battle against government troops at Bonnymuir. The leaders of the uprising – Andrew Hardie, James Wilson and John Baird, were executed by beheading, while many others were transported to Australia.

Unfortunately we will never know what Donald MacDonald or his father Alexander MacDonald thought about these events, or how intimately they were involved. However, it is undeniable that they found themselves at the centre of turbulent events that must have affected their livelihoods and that of the MacDonald family. The 1820 uprising is a little known chapter of Scottish history, but its political ramifications continue to shape Scottish politics right up until the present day.

The next few years saw Donald MacDonald and his family change address on numerous occasions. Between 1823 and 1830 he lived in the Renfrewshire town of Crosslee, where there was a small cotton mill in operation. My 3x Great Grandfather John MacDonald was born there in 1825.

Crosslee as it appeared in 1857,a small village built around a central cotton mill.

Crosslee as it appeared in 1857, a small village built around a central cotton mill.

Birth record of my 4x Great Grandfather John MacDonald, born in Crosslee, Renfrewshire.

Birth record of my 4x Great Grandfather John MacDonald, born in Crosslee, Renfrewshire.

Crosslee as it appears today. The former location of the cotton mill is marked in red and is now covered by trees. Little of the original buildings remain, although one example of pre-20th century architecture in Crosslee can be seen (here)

Crosslee as it appears today. The former location of the cotton mill is marked in red and the site is now covered by trees. Little of the town’s original buildings remain, although one example of pre-20th century architecture in Crosslee can be seen (here)

The family moved to Laurieston in the Gorbals area of Glasgow around 1830, where they remained until at least 1836. In 1841 Donald, his wife, and his seven children are  listed as living in the small weaving community of Springvale, north of Glasgow.

Springvale as it appeared in 1858. Originally an isolated weaving village in rural Lanarkshire, it was eventually consumed by industrial Glasgow as part of Springburn.

Springvale as it appeared in 1858. Originally an isolated weaving village in rural Lanarkshire, it was eventually consumed by industrial Glasgow as part of Springburn.

Donald MacDonald listed on the 1841 census as a Cotton Spinner. 3 of his 7 children worked as Cotton Piercers.

Donald MacDonald listed on the 1841 census as a Cotton Spinner in Springvale. 3 of his 7 children worked as Cotton Piecers – an extremely dangerous job.


The approximate location of the Springvale cotton mill today. The land was later used as a factory for the construction of golf balls in the earlier 20th century, one of Donald MacDonald’s Great-Granddaughters worked there in 1911. Modern housing now occupies part of the site.  The area around Cowlair’s Road now exemplifies Glasgow’s industrial decline of recent decades. (view here)

Around 1848 the family was living at Broad Street in the East End of Glasgow, shortly afterwards they moved again to nearby Wright Street. The street itself no longer exists, as it was swallowed up by the expansion of the Tennents Brewery on Duke Street.

Donald MacDonald appears on the March 1851 census alongside his wife Jean Pollock, but his life would soon change dramatically. In June 1851 his wife died suddenly, she was only about 50 years old. Poor law records reveal that in 1851, two of Donald MacDonald’s children were still young enough to be living with their parents. When Jean Pollock died, Donald was unable to look after them as he could no longer work as a cotton spinner due to his failing eye sight. The children subsequently were sent to live with their sister Jean MacDonald, who was married to a school teacher named James More.

Donald MacDonald left Glasgow following the death of his wife and returned to his father’s birthplace of Skye to live near his half-brother Niel MacDonald. A poor law record erroneously lists Donald as having moved to “Ardervasan, Broadford” on Skye, when he had in fact moved to Ardvasar in the southern Skye parish of Sleat. After meeting with his brother in Ardvasar, records show that Donald MacDonald lived on the nearby estate of Armadale, which was at that time the home of the Lords of Sleat. Donald MacDonald’s brother Niel was a manager of horses and had previously worked at the Armadale estate, while two of Niel’s daughters were employed as personal assistants to the Bosville-MacDonalds at Kingston House, Westminster and Birdsall House, Yorkshire.

On the 1st of January 1852, Donald MacDonald remarried, barely 6 months after the death of his first wife. His second wife was named Margaret MacPherson, a native of Calligary. The census of April 1861 shows them as living together in Calligary and Donald working as an Agricultural Labourer. However, Donald MacDonald became a widower for a second time when Margaret MacPherson died in December 1861.

Poor Law Record relating to Donald MacDonald dated 22nd Oct 1851.

Poor Law Record relating to Donald MacDonald dated 22nd Oct 1851.

The record of Donald MacDonald's second marriage to Margaret MacPherson.

The record of Donald MacDonald’s second marriage to Margaret MacPherson.

A postcard from the early 20th century showing the Ardvasar Inn and the township of Calligary (Calgary). Donald's half brother Niel was listed as living in the Ardvasar Inn in 1861.

A postcard from the early 20th century showing the Ardvasar Inn (far-right of picture) and the township of Calligary/Calgary (back-left). In 1861, Donald lived at Calligary, while his half-brother Niel is listed as living at the Ardvasar Inn.

The townships of Calligary, Ardvasar and Armadale are in close proximity to each other

The townships of Calligary, Ardvasar and Armadale are in close proximity to each other. The ferry from the mainland also arrives at Armadale.

A mere 7 weeks after his second wife died, Donald MacDonald married his third wife, Margaret Nicolson, on the 28th of January, 1862 at the Manse of Sleat (view here). The minister who married the couple was Rev. John Forbes, the ancestor of the English comedian David Mitchell. When Mitchell appeared on the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?, Rev Forbes and the Manse of Sleat were discussed extensively. (view the show here).

A picture believed to show Rev John Forbes. He married Donald MacDonald to his third wife in 1862.

A picture believed to show Rev John Forbes.

The living conditions on Sleat in the 19th century were a source of significant concern to the governing authorities. Numerous reports spoke of the destitution and poverty experienced by the people. A newspaper report from 1850 stated that –

“It would be improper to conceal from the public, the disagreeable opinion I have formed with regard to the destitute condition of a very large portion of the people of  Skye. The houses of the lowers classes in this island are wretchedly destitute of every necessary and comfort; their children are naked, and they have very little either bed or body clothing. The countenance of the people denote that they have undergone most poignant privations; and their general appearance, coupled with the very miserable state of their dwellings, plainly announce that they have suffered much from the recent calamity which deeply affected the whole highlands of Scotland.”

Donald MacDonald had previously lived in industrial Glasgow, where living conditions were often unpleasant and at times unhealthy and dangerous. His life on Skye brought different experiences, but an equally challenging environment in which to survive. Calligary was made up of twenty or more small stone crofts with thatched roofs. Housing and amenities were extremely rudimentary even by 19th century standards. The 1835 Statistical Account describes Sleat as a place in which people had no clothing, other than what they had been able to manufacture themselves. The account compiled by Rev Alexander McIvor also describes crime as being almost unknown in the parish, but people were idle, particular in winter through lack of industry. Crofters had difficulties in meeting both the financial obligations of paying rent and of supporting their families. While Lord MacDonald collected these rents from his estates in England, the people of Sleat are described as primarily surviving on a diet of potatoes with even oatmeal being considered a luxury item. Butcher’s meat was rarely eaten. McIvor concluded that the best thing for the people, and for Sleat, would be “extensive and well regulated emigration.”

The remains of a house in Calligary.

The remains of a blackhouse (stone house) in Calligary. Donald MacDonald would have lived in similar accommodation.

The view from Calligary looking towards the mainland, October 2014.

The view from Calligary looking towards the mainland, October 2014.

Donald MacDonald continued to live as a crofter at Calligary until his death at the age of 83 in 1879, he was outlived by his third wife who died in 1891. Donald’s half-brother Niel died at Ardvasar in 1874, at the age of 93.

It was the end of an extraordinary life, a life that encompassed a massive change in Scottish society. Born at the very beginning of Scotland’s transition to a fully industrialised society, he was at the very centre of the titanic political struggles that defined his generation. 19th century Scotland was also marked by a population shift from the highlands and islands to the industrialised central belt, but Donald made this journey in reverse, thereby restoring a little piece of MacDonald heritage in the isles. No doubt the quiet crofting lifestyle that he experienced on Skye during his later years must have seemed far removed from the choking congestion and activity of the industrialised Glasgow that he left in 1851.

He also left an incalculable legacy of descendants. From his 11 known children, I have so far been able to find at least 40 grand children, with possibly up to another 40 not yet accounted for. This means that there are potentially thousands of people living today who are the direct descendant of Donald MacDonald.

Family historians always love the idea of continuity, of the little romantic twists to stories that are otherwise defined by dates and numbers alone. Donald MacDonald was born in Paisley in 1795. Some 220 years later I now work in Paisley, and have done so for many years. It’s a nice thought that after all these centuries, Donald MacDonald’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandson, Colin MacDonald, still passes over the same ground as his forefather on a daily basis.


Useful Sources

The History of Paisley from the Roman Period to 1884

The Radical War of 1820

Description of Battle of Bonnymuir and the names of those killed and wounded in Greenock

Calligary – The Sleat Local History Society



7 comments on “Spinners, Weavers and Radicals – The Life of Donald MacDonald (1795-1879)

  1. Jan Walker
    July 3, 2014

    Yes it is a lovely thought that you walk where he may once have walked. He certainly didn’t seem one for sentiment , with three wives one quickly following the other! Very interesting story and typical of that era tinged with sadness.

    • Colin MacDonald
      July 3, 2014

      They were different times I suppose. We should probably try not to judge by the standards of our own time. The wives in quick succession took me by surprise too, but I think for the people back then it was a matter of survival under the pressure of more difficult times.

  2. Pingback: Marshal Étienne Jacques MacDonald of France – Tour of Scotland in 1825 | The Tree of a Son of Skye

  3. joy thibodeau
    February 10, 2017

    Hello Colin, I am very excited to read this! I have been searching for my ancestor Donald McDonald for almost ten years. I believe you may have found him. My Grandfather was Mark H Costello, his Mother was Agnes McCreadie who came to the USA in 1890. Her Mother was Christine McDonald, daughter of Donald McDonald and Jane(Jean?) Pollock.
    I would love to hear more, especially a more detailed family tree. Eventually I plan to come visit, so I can see for myself, where and who I come from.
    Thank you so much for all your research and hard work!
    Your Cousin,
    Joy Thibodeau

    • Colin MacDonald
      February 10, 2017

      Nice to hear from you Joy. It looks like we are indeed distantly related. I will email you with further details.

  4. Linda Macdonald
    March 24, 2018

    Colin, I loved reading this when I first received your wonderful email 2 years ago and now today I am enjoying it all over again. Thank you so very much for posting this wonderful story. Bill and I loved our trip to Scotland and are thrilled that our son Kenny Macdonald and his wife are planning a trip there in the fall. I will send you a pm regarding that. Again, thank you so very much for writing all this down for all us Macdonalds who benefit from your good works. Linda Macdonald

    • Colin MacDonald
      March 26, 2018

      Thanks Linda – good to hear from you. Please email me regarding your son’s trip. At the very least I could recommend some places for them to visit if he’s interested in the history.

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