In 1930 the journalist George Nairn returned to Scotland from New Zealand in search of some “old country “nostalgia. His parents had left Scotland in 1900 and settled at a sheep station in North Island, but George had aspirations of greater goals. As a free-lance journalist Nairn traveled extensively and while in Australia struck up a friendship with the poet “ Banjo Paterson “ who had recently penned the lyrics of Waltzing Matilda to the antique tune “ Marching with Malborough” Paterson rekindled Nairn’s interest in rural activities, particularly droving and this prompted the New Zealand journalist to return to Scotland.
Nairn’s visit to Skye brought him in contact with McDonald, a drover, who greatly prized the sobriquet “ The Meanest Man In The World “ It was said of McDonald that he once promised his brother James a fat lamb for Christmas, but renaged on the deal when the lamb started to get well again. Nairn was astonished at the stark poverty, which characterized McDonald’s lifestyle and remarked that McDonald lived on “pieces “oatmeal and salt baked into a cake and cut into several pieces. Yet many Scottish crofters lived on oatmeal and fish “When did you ever see such fine horses as in England and such fine men as in Scotland? “An appraisal of the virtue of oats.
Nairn records that even in mid winter McDonald was reluctant to allow his wife to light a fire until the very walls of the croft house glistened with frost and a local joke about McDonald was that a neighbour visiting the croft in mid winter was once heard to utter “ for god sake, McDonald, open the door and let some warmth in “ The tale is clearly apocryphal but McDonald’s life-style was harsh in the extreme.
McDonald kept a leggy gaunt strain of Bearded Collie, blue grey in colour and spiteful with strangers. Their owner was reluctant to feed meat of any sort to his collies and for most of the year they lived on the oatmeal diet that sustained their master. At lambing time the condition of the dogs improved dramatically as the dogs gorged on sheep’s afterbirth, and the trappings of lambing. Nairn compared the diet of these wretched collies to the lot of the better-fed dogs of North Island New Zealand and the Smithfield collies of Australia and marvelled how McDonald’s dogs survived the harsh lifestyle inflicted on them by McDonald.
What amazed Nairn even more were tales of droving told by the loquacious McDonald. Even in mid winter McDonald swam his stock across the waterways between Skye and the mainland, to avoid ferry charges, and then drove the cattle across the mountains to Falkirk market. On arriving at Falkirk, McDonald not only sold the cattle but also the Bearded collie, which accompanied him on the drive. The collie, Nan, would on being released on the farm of the new owner, set out for home and returned to Skye. McDonald told Nairn that he had sold the dog eleven times and each time the dog had returned to its breeder. McDonald was unable to produce Nan, but shortly before Nairn’s departure, the wretched dog crawled out of the water and happily greeted McDonald, McDonald’s eyes supposedly filled with tears as he introduced Nairn to Old Nan. McDonald said I shall not sell her again as I fill the English know her. Old Nan was allowed little respite for McDonald ordered his wife to “give the dog a piece for we are leaving for market tomorrow. What eventually became of this canine boomerang is unknown, but Nairn wrote of the collie “What a noble creature. “ What a shame the master is so ignoble”.
Yet some of McDonald’s tales of droving are a shade questionable to say the least. It is said that Old Nan was born during a drive in mid-winter when the snow covered the mountain trails over which McDonald drove his cattle. Supposedly a bitch gave birth to a litter of puppies in the snow as she drove her cattle. McDonald supposedly kept one bitch puppy warm in his jacket until the drive stopped for the night and then allowed the puppy to suckle. Tom Muirhead once told me that he had often heard the tale and believed it, but AHW Grant of Granton-on Spey stated that he had heard similar tales of a Grampian drover who lived shortly before the start of World War 1.
What was certain was that McDonald refrained from grooming his collies despite the fact that their fur became terribly balled up with mud and pieces of herbage. Instead he sheared them along with the sheep and weighed in their clippings along with the wool. Tom Muirhead of Dunsyre once told me that this was a common practice on Skye as late as the 1960’s and it is fairly certain that Muirhead’s now World famous strain of Bearded collie was descended from the long coated gaunt collies of the self-styled meanest man in the world who so captivated Nairn with his tales of cattle drives.