A renowned South Uist builder who prioritised the standard of his work and the training of young tradesmen has been honoured as a ‘prince among men’ after his sudden passing on Tuesday 7 March 2023.
John J. MacDonald, much better known as Seonaidh Bàn of West Gerinish, was proprietor of J.J MacDonald Contractors, a building firm which he began in 1968.
He passed away, following a short illness, at Raigmore hospital at the age of 76 – still running his firm, active on the croft and worried he was wasting time being in a hospital bed.
His youngest son Allan MacDonald said: “I’ve never come across anyone so dedicated to everything he did. He woke up early every day of his life and never took holidays.
“His death has come as a complete shock, not only to us but to everyone who knew him. He was fit, strong and active and had no desire to stop working.”
Seonaidh Bàn was born in 1946, the only child of Donald John MacDonald of West Gerinish and Marion MacAulay of Iochdar. His mother was a district nurse and his father a crofter who owned a lorry used for contracting and transport of seaweed to the processing factory.
John spent a good proportion of his early life with one or other of his parents on the road all across Uist, becoming acquainted with the people and expert at working out fellow islanders’ family connections or ‘sloinnidhean’.
Allan said: “Although he would be mortified to hear me say this, his Gaelic was as good as that of anyone. Some of the words and phrases he had, I don’t know if they are recorded anywhere, and he was a brilliant raconteur, full of funny stories he picked up from fellow islanders and workmates over the years.”
Fond of woodwork and carpentry, Seonaidh left school at 15 and undertook joinery works for neighbours and family. He also worked for his uncle in a garage in Iochdar before spending around 18 months driving a lorry for MacLeod’s Haulage in Loch Skipport, delivering goods to shops from Loch Skipport pier.
He then worked for around 2 years with Govan, a construction company carrying out maintenance and building contracts for the MOD in Balivanich.
In 1968, aged just 22, he started out on his own and built his first house, doing all the joinery and blockwork himself. Allan said: “He didn’t serve an apprenticeship – he was largely self-taught. In everything he did he was a perfectionist.
“The first house he built was for Seonaidh a’ Mhulaich (John MacLeod) in Iochdar. After building a few more houses on his own he took on his first apprentice and had others labouring with him.
“Together with his employees he must have built or renovated hundreds of houses in his time and employed a great many people. There must have been around 40 on the books when he worked on large housing schemes in Lochmaddy and Creagorry.
“The firm also made and delivered blocks to sites all over the island from the yard at the Old Mill in Iochdar. I remember him recounting that together with some workmates they would often load the 500 blocks by hand onto the lorry which would leave for delivery before 8am.
“He later set up a builder’s merchants at the yard. The firm was a big concern at that time but has now reduced in number, now with seven employees.”
As well as houses and housing schemes, over the years the firm has completed many significant contracts on the island including numerous community halls/buildings, the water treatment works at Market Stance, the HIE building in Liniclate, the CalMac pier building at Lochmaddy and, latterly, a number of community projects in Grimsay, including the Uist Woolmill.
Seonaidh married Margaret Joan MacInnes of Bornish in 1975 and they settled on his family croft, raising a family of two sons and a daughter.
He was always keen on animals, keeping cattle and sheep and devoting care and attention to their welfare. He would spend as long as it took to treat a poorly animal and restore it to health.
It was Fr Michael MacDonald who described Seonaidh as a ‘prince among men’ and ‘a gentleman’ or ‘duin’ uasal’ as he marked his passing at his funeral mass.
Endorsing his opinion was Seonaidh’s brother-in-law Fr Colin MacInnes, of Uist and Ecuador, who wrote of his sadness on hearing the news.
He said: “Whether he was busy or not I found that there was a warm welcome awaiting me. There was never any complaint if the business was going badly or if he had achieved some great success.
“His anecdotes were kind and amusing – I never heard him say anything bad about another person. I will miss Seonaidh. The whole family and indeed the islands will be poorer for his absence. Thank you Seonaidh for the example of your life.”
Others shared their own tributes on social media, one saying: “As a worker in the building trade myself I have heard many, many stories about Shonnie from the boys who have worked for him, not a bad word was said. It’s fair to say that our islands have lost a legendary figure.”
And a former employee said: “So sorry to hear this sad news. Seonaidh was a great man and everyone who worked for him through the years (including myself) had so much respect for him. He’ll be sadly missed by so many.”
A client for whom he undertook a number of projects said: “I just wanted to express my appreciation for all the work he did for us over the years, he made the islands a better place with his fairness and high quality work. I feel lucky to have known him.”
Another said: “What a terrible loss for the family and for the whole island. He was one of the most exceptional people I have ever met and was just so fantastic and good-humoured about all the building work. He was also so wise.”
And another client said: “I had a huge respect for him for all his many qualities as a real gentleman and I always regarded him as a true “elder statesman" of the Uist community.
“I am very sad at his passing, but I am very thankful for the life that he gave not only to myself but to his family and the whole of Uist. He will be sorely missed.”
Seonaidh Bàn’s long-term influence on the island he loved so well can never be adequately calculated, just as he himself never measured his success in financial terms.
His son Allan said: “He wasn’t in business for profit. It was infuriating at times but he didn’t seem to be concerned about that, he just cared about doing a good job. He also took pride in the fact he gave young people opportunities to learn a trade.”
“I have heard from so many people who have said ‘if your Dad hadn’t given me a chance, I don’t know where I would be.’ Over the years he trained so many people and although he didn’t like to talk about such things I know he was very proud of that.”
Another thing he didn’t like was being the centre of attention, as Allan said: “He would have been absolutely furious about this tribute!”
John J. MacDonald is mourned by his wife Margaret Joan, sons Dòmhnall Iain and Ailean in South Uist, daughter Sineag Nicholson in Glasgow, son-in-law Graham and grand-daughters Ceitidh and Iseabail.
He is also deeply regretted and missed by a wide circle of friends, neighbours and relations near and far.
The pictures are provided by the family.