The Tree of a Son of Skye

History | Culture | Ancestry

The Unlikely Collision of Politics and Genealogy

I generally like to keep politics away from this blog and focus exclusively on Scottish history and genealogy. However, an interesting coincidence happened to me during the independence referendum campaign that was simply too good not to mention.1557263_720735081339720_2934838758160579119_o As some of my subscribers already know, I campaigned in favour of Scottish independence in Thursday’s referendum. In the weeks leading up to the vote the media bombarded us with hysterical pronouncements about the divisive nature of the decision and the carnage that would inevitable result on the streets between rival political supporters. Indeed, many unionists that I spoke to seethed with anger at Alex Salmond for “dividing the nation”.

My own view is that the ‘divided nation’ narrative was simply a campaign tactic to undermine the legitimacy of the entire referendum process. When people regurgitated the ‘divided nation’ myth it was evident that they hadn’t actually experienced this first hand and what they really meant was that they resented the fact that other people had differing views from them in what was a democratic process. They want us to go away because we have a different opinion, yet it would have been just as easy for them to give up on their views, thereby eliminating the ‘division’ that they professed to dislike. Their basic logic therefore is something along the lines of, ‘We want you to give up your views for the sake of unity but don’t you dare ask us to give up ours.’

My personal experience on the campaign trail was mostly positive. I did encounter some people on both sides who were rude and rather unpleasant but I never saw anything that would constitute outright abuse.

The referendum should be rightly remembered as a triumph of Scottish democracy. With a turnout of 85%, it has undoubtedly resulted in a re-engagement in politics from people who previously had little interest in what was happening at either Holyrood or Westminster. The referendum has also seen the re-emergence of grass-roots politics with people packing out town halls and innumerable groups springing up to discuss how to make improvements in their particular part of society.

Back to the Future - The referendum was a rebirth of town hall politics.

The referendum was the rebirth of town hall politics.

With this in mind I want to relay an encounter I had with one particular unionist during the campaign.

In the last week before the vote on Scottish independence,  I was leafleting a block of flats in East Renfrewshire when a very pleasant elderly man opened a door for me as I was entering his building. We started chatting and he also helped me to put the leaflets in all of his neighbours post boxes. He introduced himself, his name was Angus, and he began to explain without any bitterness whatsoever that he was ‘on the other side of the debate’ from me and had been campaigning for a No vote alongside his wife. He said that he felt no animosity towards Yes activists and he was relaxed about the idea that people were getting to have their say on the issue.

After talking for a few minutes and diverting from politics we realised that we both had a shared love of the highlands and islands because of our family connections to that part of Scotland. His Mum was a MacDonald and he often worked on the fishing boats in Stornoway as a young man. Like any true Gael, Angus was trying to figure out how our respective MacDonald families could potentially be related. I also explained that my grandfather, Neil Hardie, had been the Chief Engineer on the King George V, the ship that serviced the Oban-Mull-Iona-Fort William route. Upon hearing this his eyes lit up and he ran into his house to get something for me.


The TS King George V – My Grandfather was the Chief Engineer of the ship until it was retired from service in 1974.


The TS King George V at Iona.

When Angus returned he had a book of Caledonian MacBrayne ships and he showed me that his Great Uncle, John MacKinnon, had been the captain of the King George V. We figured out that my Grandfather and his Great Uncle had actually worked together aboard the King George V during the late 1950s and early 1960s. He began to speak about his experiences aboard the ship, many of which chimed exactly with the stories my Mum had told me of her family holidays on-board ‘The George’, as she was affectionately known.

I explained to Angus just how much The George meant to my family because of my Grandfather. I also told him that my Grandfather was in fact the very last Chief Engineer aboard the ship before it was taken out of service, meaning that he was able to keep any item from the ship to have as a memento of his service. My Grandfather decided to take the ships’s original flare guns and the engine room’s brass clock. My Uncle later received the flare guns, which have subsequently been gifted to me, while my Aunt still has the original brass clock.

Angus shook my hand and wished me the best of luck on the campaign trail, we promised to keep in touch and we are now in correspondence about our respective family experiences on one of Scotland’s last great turbine steamers.

Captain John MacKinnon aboard the Claymore.

Captain John MacKinnon (right) aboard the Claymore. He retired in 1963 and died in 1975.

The marriage of Captain MacKinnon (seated centre) to Elizabeth Lamont.

The marriage of Captain MacKinnon (seated centre) to Elizabeth Lamont.

When I recently emailed Angus, I sent a scanned copy of my Grandfather’s log book which shows the ships that he worked on between the 1950s and 1970s. It was only then that I realised the book shows the signature of Captain MacKinnon, confirming beyond any doubt that my Grandfather and Angus’ Great Uncle had indeed known each other.

The Seaman log book used by my Grandfather, Neil Hardie.

My Grandfather’s log book, showing Captain MacKinnon’s signature on the right hand side of the page.

So there you have it – a chance meeting during the referendum between a nationalist and a unionist has led to a new found connection. It hardly constitutes ‘division’ and if this is the new Scotland of political engagement between people on the street, then I can firmly say that I support it.


Useful Links

Personal Recollections of Captain John MacKinnon

Ships of CalMac – Crew Member Profile of Neil Hardie

Clydebuilt – TS King George V

Wikipedia – TS King George V

Stewart Bremner Design

National Collective – Imagine a Better Scotland

To Iona by King George V


4 comments on “The Unlikely Collision of Politics and Genealogy

  1. chmjr2
    September 24, 2014

    You have met a real gentlemen. If we all were that civil with each other the world would be so much better off. Enjoyed your post very much.

    • Colin MacDonald
      September 25, 2014

      Thanks very much and yes you are correct. Angus was very respectful and courteous to me even though we were on opposite sides of the referendum debate.

  2. Gill E Shaw
    September 24, 2014

    I’ve read this twice Collin and thoroughly enjoyed it….fate with it’s twists and it’s turns……XX

    • Colin MacDonald
      September 25, 2014

      I’m really glad you enjoyed it Gill. Life certainly throws up some strange coincidences from time to time.

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