Friday, August 21, 2015

M E M Donaldson

I did something a few days ago that I've wanted to do for a long time: find the grave of Mary Ethel Muir Donaldson, better known as M.E.M. Two of her books, Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands (1921), and Further Wanderings: Mainly in Argyll (1926), are some of the best you'll find on the islands and Highlands. I vividly remember the first time I read her tales of camping on Staffa and the Garvellachs, and her visit to Eilean Mor mhic O’Charmaig, where she dropped into the dark pit of St Carmaig’s cave.

Her photos are a wealth of information on things that have changed in the last century since she saw them. For example; the cross on the summit of Eilean Mor (now in a museum), the Keill and the Kilmory crosses (both have also been moved indoors), and the cottage on Staffa (now a sad pile of stones). To capture these images she toted around Green Maria, a wagon packed with her photographic gear. There is a wonderful picture of her with Green Maria that graces the cover of an excellent book about MEM by John Telfer Dunbar: Herself: The Life and Photographs of MEM Donaldson (1979).

As much as I admire MEM, based on the following excerpt from her preface to Further Wanderings, I doubt if she would have approved of me:

…one of the most crying needs of the day is, in my opinion, an Anti-American Association, to rid the entire country of its present curse of American atrocities…American films, plays, raucous jangles, and clumsy gyrations in place of music and dancing, cacophonic gibberish, and idiotically named cocktails…and the hideous American spelling of Highland names, such as Urgard, Cahoun, and Chissim.
When I dance it is indeed a clumsy gyration. And I spell my name 'Calhoun' - one of several variations of the Highland name Colquhoun that stem from a history of emigration from Scotland, to Ireland, and then on to the States. It is a name I am proud of - but I do pronounce it “Ca-hoon”, not “Cal-hoon”, when I’m in Scotland.

It was in reading John Dunbar's book that I learned MEM, who died in 1958, was buried in Oban. And so on a trip there, some 10 years ago, I spent several hours searching the large cemetery on the hilltop north of town for her grave. The search was unsuccessful, and there was no one in the office that could help me. Then, a week ago, while on a Hebridean cruise, I met Iain Thornber (Oban Times). Iain told me where her grave was, and so when the trip ended in Oban I drove up to the cemetery to find it.

I searched in the area where I'd been told it was, but I could still not find the grave. Fortunately, someone was mowing the lawn that knew where the manager was. I asked the manager if he could help, and he went into the office, returning a few minutes later with an old book that listed all the burials. He found the entry for MEM, and I was delighted to see that listed with it was the name 'Bonus'. Isabel Bonus had illustrated many of MEM's books. Using the site number from the book we soon found the grave, a large cross atop a three-tiered pedestal. The lettering on the memorial had so faded into the color of the stone, that it was no wonder I'd been unable to find it when I'd wandered around the cemetery in 2005.

The memorial reads as follows:
Here Lies The 
Folded Garment Of
Isabel Bonus

Beloved Friend Departed This
Life August 9th 1941
When Thou Rewardest Thy Saints
O' Lord Remember Her For Good

Here Also Lie The Mortal Remains Of
M.E.M Donaldson, Her Beloved Friend
Who Wrote Books In Defense of Scotlands
Faithful Remnant, the Scottish Episcopal 
Church, Departed This Life On 17th Jan. 1958
"God Be Merciful to Me a Sinner"

So next time you're in Oban be sure to pay a visit to its cemetery high above the sea. It has some amazing grave markers; like the giant memorial stone to David Hutcheson, who founded what would become Caledonian Macbrayne; and a pyramid that marks the grave of a banker from the early days of Oban. But before leaving be sure to pay your respects to a modest cross-stone memorial, near the highway along the south wall of the cemetery. It marks the grave of an amazing woman who left a legacy of books and photos that will be immortal.

Note: For more on the history of MEM, and Isabel Bonus, see this page.

Update - June 21, 2016
On May 30 (2016) I motored around Ardnamurachan Point aboard the ship Hjalmar Bjorge. We passed Sanna Bheg just before reaching the lighthouse, which gave a good view of what's left of MEM's house at Sanna Bheag. It was gutted by a fire in 1947, and MEM left it after that. It was rebuilt in 1967, but it is a sad remnant of its former glory. As you can see in the photo below, it now looks like a bomb shelter; or the utilitarian military housing they built on St Kilda.


  1. Thanks so much for writing about your successful persistence!

    Finding a copy of "Herself" in a used bookshop years ago, I snapped it up after just flicking though the pages. Having read it, I thought it had been rather bad of Telfer Dunbar to have only whetted my curiosity about my deceased "clan-cousin" since I would love to learn more about the fascinating life she must have led. But I could never find anything more.

    It would be interesting to know what the "folded garment" is meant to mean; presumably it's a metaphor, but a search didn't turn up anything obviously relevant. I hope it means that Isabel's remains are buried there too, since the photos in "Herself" make clear that they loved one another in life and had what was then called a "romantic" or "special" friendship.

    If I manage to get to Oban before I pop my clogs, I'll definitely visit the churchyard and leave a wee bouquet in memory of them twa.

    Again: thank you!

    -- Margaret MacDonald

    1. Margaret, thanks so much for your comment.

      Yes, there is very little information to be found on either MEM or Isabel Bonus. My wife did some research on She found nothing on MEM, but she did find the following reference to an Isabel Bonus:

      Mary Isabel BONUS was born in January 1875 in Croydon, Surrey to Mary Harriet TOMSON, age 33, and Charles William BONUS, age 35.

      My wife sent a note to the owner of the family tree where she found the above mention, asking if this was the Isabel Bonus associated with MEM, but it's been two months and there has been no response.

      As for the 'Folded Garment'. I did see the original burial index for the plot, and it lists both the 'Bonus' and 'Donaldson names. So I'd have to assume Isabel's remains, in some form, are probably buried there.

  2. How interesting to read about M E M Donaldson! Actually I was at Sanna Bay only last week and realised that the big house at the end of the bay (Sanna Bheag) must have been hers . . . or at least the site of, as I believed the original house had been destroyed. I was first introduced to her "Wanderings . . . " almost 40 years when I was given the 2 volume set by an elderly kinsman. I have also have "Herself", her biography by John Telfer Dunbar. I actually returned home via Oban and passed by the cemetery on the hill. A fine reason to return to Oban some day and further my interest in this remarkable woman!

  3. Thanks for commenting. Her house is still there in Sanna Bheag, but with its flat roof it is a sad sight compared to what it originally looked like. I have added a photo of it as it looks today to the post.

  4. I'm no theologian, but I think in the earlier note, "folded garment" is almost certainly a reference to Jesus's disciples discovery of the empty tomb, with "the linen clothes lying" and "the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself" (Gospel according to St John, chapter 20, verses 5 to 7). A reference to this on the gravestone would have signalled the belief that Isobel Bonus had laid aside her mortal body and would, like Jesus, be resurrected to eternal life - a belief which would have reflected MEM Donaldson's deeply-held religious views. So the "folded garment" represents the perishable human body, and indicates that Isobel Bonus is indeed buried there.