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Significant Scots
John MacDonald


MACDONALD, LIEUTENANT-COLONEL JOHN, F.R S., F.A.S.—This scientific soldier and voluminous writer possessed, by the mere accident of birth, a distinction which his productions in authorship, excellent though they were, would have failed to acquire; for he was the son of Flora Macdonald, that heroine whose name is so intimately connected with the romantic history of "the young Chevalier." All know the dangers she underwent, and the address she exhibited, in procuring his escape from his pursuers in 1746, and the enthusiasm which her romantic fidelity excited among the Jacobites of the day, after her exertions had been successful. She was the daughter of Mr. Macdonald, a tacksman or gentleman farmer of Melton, in South Uist; and in 1746, the period of her adventurous career, she was about twenty-four years old. After her return from London, whither she was summoned to answer for her political offence in effecting the escape of such an enemy, she married; but notwithstanding the rich gifts with which her generous conduct had been rewarded by the adherents of the Stuart cause in the great metropolis, she and her husband had become so poor at the time of Dr. Johnson’s visit to her in 1773, that they had resolved to emigrate to America. This they afterwards did; but either having not succeeded to their wish, or finding the love of country too strong for voluntary exile, they returned to Skye, where Flora died, on the 4th of March, 1790, leaving behind her a son, John, the subject of the present memoir, and a daughter, married to a Mr. Macleod, a distant relation to the chief of that name. "It is remarkable," writes Sir Walter Scott, "that this distinguished lady signed her name Flory, instead of the more classical orthography. Her marriage contract, which is in my possession, bears the name spelled Flory."

At an early period John Macdonald went to India, and on his way thither had occasion to reside for a short time in London. This was at a period when the alarm of the Jacobite war of 1715 and 1745 had ceased to be remembered, and when the Celtic dress had not as yet become familiar to the English eye. At this transition period, the Highland costume of our young Scottish adventurer appears to have excited as much astonishment, and also displeasure, as the kaross of the Caffre, or the sheep-skin of the Tartar would have done, had they been paraded upon the pavement of Cheapside. Writing of this event in the "Gentleman’s Magazine," in 1828, he says, "I well recollect my arrival in London, about half a century ago, on my way to India, and the disapprobation expressed in the streets of my tartan dress; but now I see with satisfaction the variegated Highland manufacture prevalent, as a favourite and tasteful costume, from the humble cottage to the superb castle. To Sir Walter Scott’s elegant and fascinating writings we are to ascribe this wonderful revolution in public sentiment."

As it was to the scientific departments of the military profession that Macdonald devoted his labours, his career to the close was that of a studious observer and philosophic writer, rather than a stirring, adventurous soldier. He passed many years in the service of the East India Company, and attained the rank of Captain of Engineers on the Bengal establishment. While thus employed, the important subject of the diurnal variation of the magnetic needle occupied much of his attention, and on this he made a series of observations in 1794 and the two following years, at Bencoolen, Sumatra, and St. Helena, which he communicated in 1798 to the Royal Society, who published them in their Transactions, and elected him a Fellow in 1800. About the last-mentioned period he also returned to Britain, and was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the Royal Clan-Alpine Regiment, and commandant of the Royal Edinburgh Artillery.

After his arrival, the life of Colonel Macdonald was one of diligent useful authorship, so that his history from this period is best comprised in the titles of his works, and the dates of their publication. Of these we give the following list:—

In 1803 he published "Rules and Regulations for the Field Exercise and Maneuvres of the French Infantry, issued August 1, 1791; translated from the French, with Explanatory Notes and Illustrative References to the British and Prussian systems of tactics," &c., &c., in two volumes 12mo.

In 1804, when he belonged to the 1st Battalion of Cinque Ports Volunteers, and when every kind of military instruction was most needed for our home-bred soldiery, while in training against the menaced invasion of the country from France, Colonel Macdonald published another work, in one volume, entitled, "The Experienced Officer; or, Instructions by the General of Division, Wimpffen, to his sons, and to all young men intended for the military profession, being a series of rules laid down by General Wimpffen, to enable officers of every rank to carry on war in all its branches and descriptions, from the least important enterprises and expeditions, to the decisive battles which involve the fate of empires. With Notes and an Introduction."

In 1807, while chief engineer at Fort Marlborough, he published "Instructions for the Conduct of Infantry on actual Service." This was also translated from the French, and published in two volumes, with explanatory notes.

In 1808 appeared his first work upon a subject which had employed his attention for years. This was "A Treatise on Telegraphic Communication, Naval, Military, and Political," 8vo, in which he proposed a different plan from that hitherto adopted.

In 1811, Colonel Macdonald produced a work in startling contrast to his former subjects, but which was only one among the studies of a comprehensive philosophic mind, under the title of "A Treatise, explanatory of the Principles constituting the Practice and Theory of the Violoncello." This work was published in one volume folio.

In 1812, reverting to his military avocations, he published a translation of "The Formations and Manoeuvres of Infantry, by the Chevalier Duteil," l2mo. This was the last of his productions in military science, and, as may be surmised from the date, the last that was needed—for the French science of warfare was now well understood by our armies, as their hostile instructors were learning to their cost. This fact, however, shows the judiciousness of the plan which Macdonald had adopted as an expositor of warlike science, and indicates in some measure the probable benefit with which his own individual labours were followed.

In 1816, Colonel Macdonald returned to the important subject of telegraph communication, by publishing his "Telegraphic Dictionary," a laborious work, containing 150,000 words, phrases, and sentences. The estimate formed of the value of this work was shown by the directors of the East India Company, who voted the sum of £400 to assist in defraying the expense of publication; it was also highly recommended by the Secretary of the Admiralty, and the Adjutant-General of the Army.

In addition to these separate productions, Colonel Macdonald was a contributor to the "Gentleman’s Magazine" for several years, until the close of his life; but the subjects of these essays are too numerous to specify. They were chiefly connected, however, with the philosophical studies which had occupied his attention from an early period, and were characterized by the philanthropy that had always animated his pen in seeking to promote the best interests of society. The same spirit was manifested in his personal exertions; and during the last twelve or fifteen years of his life, which were spent in Exeter, the charitable institutions of that city always found him an active co-operator, as well as liberal contributor. He died there on the 16th of August, 1831, aged seventy-two, and was buried in Exeter Cathedral.


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