Murdo Ewen Macdonald, who has died at the age of 89, was one of Scotland's foremost preachers and theologians of
his times. He was also a Hebridean polymath - philosopher, psychologist, Gael, war hero, man of physical and intellectual courage, mimic and
conqueror of every Munro.
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Never were the stereotypes
of Highland religiosity more actively disputed in one of its own clerical offspring. There was nothing narrow or bleak about Murdo Ewen's life and work. He radiated humanity, good humour and profound belief in the democratic intellect which had carried him from
a Harris croft to the peaks of
For many within the Church of Scotland, he was the best Moderator it never had. But
radical politics, an unerring
willingness to confront humbug and a Gaelic tongue were never universally popular credentials. His reputation as a preacher filled the pews around Scotland and his academic status brought him to Glasgow University as professor of practical theology, from which he retired in 1984.
Part of Murdo Ewen's appeal lay in this constant straddling of identities which gave him such amusement. He loved telling the story of an encounter on the Skye ferry. Returning from a climbing expedition and dressed accordingly, he was speaking Gaelic with an old lady when one of his enthusiastic students spotted him and cried: ''Professor, professor . . .''. When pleasantries had been completed, Murdo Ewen returned to his conversation and the old lady said quizzically in Gaelic: ''Professor? That will be your nick-name?'' Murdo Ewen agreed that this was the case and they chatted happily on.
Murdo Ewen's formal education began at Drinishadder School in the Bays of Harris, the rocky lands to which his forebears had been cleared. The school then drew more than 60 children from the villages of Drinishadder, Scadabay and Meavig. All of them went there with Gaelic as their sole language and most ended their formal education at 14. Murdo Ewen won bursaries first
to Tarbert; then to Kingussie
Secondary on the mainland before progressing to St Andrews University in 1933.
There is little doubt that his
personal experience, and the influences exerted by teachers in each of these greatly varying establishments, made Murdo Ewen a lifelong believer in the virtues of egalitarian, state education. While at St Andrews, he became the Scottish Universities middle-weight boxing champion and his friends included John Brown, father of the current Chancellor of the Exchequer. Their shared calling was to the parish ministry of the Church of Scotland - in Murdo Ewen's case, he accepted a call to Portree and declined a scholarship which would've taken him to Cambridge University.
He was inducted in June, 1939 and caused an instant commotion by closing one of the two church buildings in which he was expected to preach. As usual, this arrangement was the product of past schisms rather than anything more spiritual and Murdo Ewen was not inclined to inherit it. While this made him enemies among grandees of the community, he was able to prevail because his charisma soon made services ''standing room only''. It was a pattern that was to be repeated.
Murdo Ewen's ministry in Portree was cut short by the call to arms. In April, 1940, he was commissioned chaplain (fourth Class) with the rank of captain in the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. His first overseas mission took him to Aruba in the Caribbean, where he met Betty Russell, daughter of an
oil executive and of Scottish descent, who would become his wife of more than 50 years.
Thereafter, however, Murdo Ewen responded to a national appeal for volunteers to join the First Parachute Brigade. After training, they embarked for North Africa with a view to landing behind enemy lines, capturing an airfield and linking up with the First Army. The
mission was a catastrophe and the Paras found themselves
surrounded more than 50 miles behind enemy lines.
A German bullet hit Murdo Ewen and the decision was taken that if others were to survive, the wounded would have to be left behind. Contrary to his expectations, Murdo Ewen found himself in the hands of humane German soldiers who dug a grave and then propped him up while he gave a Christian burial to a friend who had been killed. He then fainted from loss of blood.
Encounters with ''good Germans'' represent a recurring theme in Murdo Ewen's extraordinary wartime experiences - and hence his subsequent view of humanity. Even when he and a fellow prisoner, Dr James MacGavin, succeeded in blowing up a German transport plane which had carried them from Tunisia to Naples, with the help of an incendiary time-pencil concealed in Murdo Ewen's sling, a benevolent German colonel appeared to save them from the firing squad.
After hospital treatment, Murdo Ewen ended up in Stalag Luft III and became a supporting player in the tragic drama which was later immortalised in celluloid as The Great Escape. He was one of those whose job it was, over a period of more than a year, to dispose of sand dug from the tunnel through which 76 men made their way out on 24th March, 1944. Some 50 of them were subsequently shot and only three made it back to their home countries.
By the time of the break-out, Murdo Ewen had become chaplain to the American forces in Stalag Luft III, who lacked one of their own. This was to become one of the most rewarding experiences of his life and the basis of close friendships which were maintained to the day he died. He was awarded the American bronze star medal for the ''inspiring leadership and example'' and particularly his ''exceptional counselling to those suffering from mental depression and deterioration''.
When the war ended, Murdo Ewen accepted a call to Old Partick, where he again became a noted crowd-puller as well as an industrial chaplain to the shipyards. His reputation spread and, after three years, he got a call from one of the most
up-market congregations in Scotland, St George's West in Edinburgh. In those days, the transfers of ministers attracted at least a modicum of the
attention now reserved for
footballers and the move
was greeted with a headline saying: ''Crofter's son called to
Scotland's premier pulpit''.
As in Portree, Murdo Ewen soon had internal business to sort out. St George's West operated a system of seat-letting with the remainder of the congregation left to queue at a sort
of tradesmen's entrance. At his first Kirk Session meeting, he decreed that this system must end. When some distinguished elders demurred, Murdo Ewen took out his watch and gave them a minute to agree - or he was off. They agreed.
He spent 16 happy and rewarding years there while also travelling extensively abroad as a preacher and lecturer. He loved visiting the United States and meeting up with his dear friends who had shared the experiences of Stalag Luft III. One of them wrote of these reunions: ''Listening to Padre Mac on Sunday morning has become an institution. He comes back to us time after time from far away Scotland to re-inspire us with an urgent message, ecumenical in nature, and somehow always touching us in a way that sends us home reassured, thoughtful and confident of God's providence.''
Murdo Ewen did not fear direct involvement in politics and he came to speak for me in every election campaign I fought. His denunciations of Thatcherism as ''evil'' carried a moral authority with which no occupant of a lower pulpit could compete. I remember after an eve-of-poll meeting in Saltcoats, we all adjourned to a pub across the road. When I told Murdo Ewen that it was owned by Bobby Lennox, he was ecstatic - he had been captain of the ''Celtic'' team in the PoW camp and had supported them since that time. When Bobby appeared in person, Murdo Ewen's joy was complete.
One of his last outings was to the christening of Gordon and Sarah Brown's son, John.
Gordon said yesterday: ''Murdo Ewen was a truly great man - principled, persuasive, humorous - and a family friend for over 50 years. When I last met him, though frail, he was as engaging, interested and committed as ever to the great causes he believed in. His beliefs shone through everything he did.''
Murdo Ewen was pre-deceased by his wife Betty
in 1997 and they are survived by their two sons, Alan