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See all 3 images IT is axiomatic that when you take a view on a historical matter you should always do so in the context provided by history. That is why I disagreed with the Scottish Government ’s decision last year to remove references to Sir John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada, from the Scotland .org website following what the Government called “the legitimate concerns raised by Canadian indigenous communities about his legacy”.

I am glad to say that articles about Macdonald have been restored to the website with a description of the controversies that surround Macdonald to this day, almost 128 years after his death.

That is something that should have been included when the articles were first posted.

For as the recent brouhaha over Green MSP Ross Greer’s spat with Piers Morgan about Winston Churchill demonstrated, it is just plain wrong to alight on one or even several aspects of a great person’s life and say that these aspects define the person entirely. With historical figures you have to take a balanced view of them within the context of the times and culture they lived in because to do otherwise is too simplistic. Revisionism is perfectly justifiable, but only if it’s done in a nuanced fashion.

As we shall see, Sir John Alexander Macdonald is rightly feted for his magnificent achievements in the creation of Canada, but just as last week’s Back In The Day profiled Scottish-Canadian hero, Andrew Mackenzie, as an explorer keen to expand the British Empire, so we will acknowledge Macdonald’s motivations and examine his conduct. For like Mackenzie, Macdonald, too, was a creature of Empire and a British subject through and through.

Born in Ramshorn Parish in Glasgow city centre on January 11, 1815 – there’s a blue plaque on Ramshorn Kirk in Ingram Street to commemorate him – Macdonald was the son of a perennially unsuccessful businessman named Hugh and his wife Helen, nee Shaw. In a bid to start afresh and probably throw off his debts, Hugh Macdonald took his family to Kingston, now in Ontario but then part of Upper Canada.

Though he was only five when they emigrated, Macdonald remained proud of his Scottish roots all his life.

Hugh Macdonald tried running shops and taverns but with no success. The family also suffered tragedy when an employee beat John’s younger brother James to death as seven-year-old John watched.

The family had enough money to get John Macdonald an education of sorts but could not afford to send him to university. British North America, as the land was then known, had no law schools so he became an apprentice lawyer and was called to the Bar in 1836 at the age of 21. He soon became prominent in legal circles as a renowned criminal defence lawyer.

He was also growing wealthy and after his father died in 1841 he was able to take an extended holiday in Britain where he met, and later married, his cousin Isabella Clark.

Having been voted in as an alderman, after the UK Parliament merged Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada in 1841, Macdonald stood for election to the new legislature in Canada West – as Upper Canada became, Lower Canada becoming Canada East – and was rapidly successful, winning the Kingston seat as a Conservative in 1844 and becoming a Queen’s Counsel two years later followed by a spell as a Government minister until the Conservatives lost the 1848 election. Macdonald kept his seat but family tragedy struck again with the loss of his son John Jnr in that same year.

It was noted that Macdonald took to drink […]

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