Nothing quite beats walking in the footsteps of a biographical subject. I'm currently researching a book on the first Labour Government formed in January 1924, as its centenary is approaching. The Morayshire town of Lossiemouth cropped up again and again in my preparatory reading, so I decided to spend a long weekend there shortly before the coronation.
James Ramsay MacDonald, who led the first Labour Administration as Prime Minister, was intimately acquainted with 'Lossie' yet had a complex relationship with the town of his birth. Born illegitimately in 1866, for decades he encountered class and political prejudice, refused permission to build a house for his mother in a desirable part of town and expelled from Moray Golf Club over his opposition to the First World War.
I'd read somewhere that MacDonald liked to walk the two miles from Lossie to Covesea Lighthouse along the coast, a route I found myself taking at least twice a day as it was the only way to get from the Silver Sands Holiday Park, where I was staying in a surprisingly comfortable 'pod', to Lossie. I was relatively lucky with the weather – Morayshire often enjoys a micro-climate – so stomping the sand dunes provided exercise and fruitful thinking time.
On a drizzly Sunday I walked even further to Spynie, which lies roughly halfway between Lossie and Elgin, where Ramsay MacDonald and family are buried in the rather isolated but charming Old Spynie churchyard. He died at sea in 1937, a recuperative voyage having failed to restore his long fragile health, and after lying-in-state in Bermuda, a return voyage and a funeral at Westminster Abbey, MacDonald was laid to rest on home turf.
His headstone is simple, which rather belies critics who smeared MacDonald as being addicted to glitz and glamour, and the plot is shared with his wife Margaret, who died young in 1911, and their six children, one of whom died in infancy. Ramsay's son Malcolm enjoyed a political career of his own, becoming High Commissioner in Canada and Governor of Kenya. His brother Alister was an architect, and his Art Deco buildings include a former cinema in Lossie itself.
Spynie Churchyard overlooks the 14th-century ruins of Spynie Palace, which for hundreds of years was the residence of pre-reformation Bishops of Moray. What still stands gives a clear sense of a substantial development, and one tower still bears the coats of arms of three bishops beneath the Royal Coat of Arms of Scotland. The Palace remained in use until 1682 when it was annexed to the Crown and rented for £12 a year. I imagine MacDonald must have known it well.
From the Palace I walked back to Lossiemouth along an old railway track which once connected Lossie with Elgin to the south. In December 1923, MacDonald arrived at Lossiemouth Station to a hero's welcome. Although not yet Prime Minister, the results of a recent General Election meant it was only a matter of time, so the Labour leader retreated to Morayshire to plan his first government, interrupted only by occasional rounds of golf, walks to Covesea and intrusive journalists.
In its day, The Hillocks was as famous as Chequers or Camp David. Following the death of his mother, it became MacDonald's Scottish retreat, and you can still find contemporary postcards of the modest two-storied house on eBay, many of them showing Ramsay and his children lined up in front. The house is still inhabited, remarkably, by Iona Kielhorn, one of MacDonald's granddaughters.
I met Iona at Lossie's fishing museum, fizzing with anger about a glossy Moray Golf Club publication which had attempted to justify its expulsion of her grandfather during the Great War (action which led to extensive and bitter litigation). Upstairs, she showed me a reconstruction of MacDonald's Hillocks study, its many books and articles providing a hint of his workaholic tendencies.
We then drove to The Hillocks, which was stuffed full of pictures and furniture which once adorned 10 Downing Street, as well as Ramsay's bed and even his bath. Iona has assumed the role of guardian of MacDonald's life and legacy, a responsibility she executes with considerable panache. Naturally interested in my research, we spent a convivial afternoon discussing various aspects of Ramsay's career. Over lunch, I realised that I was sitting in the very room in which he had decided who would administer the United Kingdom and its then Empire.
Iona and Ramsay overlapped by only a couple of years, and among the former's collection of family photographs are a couple of Iona at The Hillocks with her grandfather, who was by then Lord President of the Council having resigned as Prime Minister (on account of ill health) in 1935. She also showed me pictures of her parents' wedding, which took place at Chequers earlier that decade. Iona grew up in Leeds, so in spite of a thoroughly Scottish name, lacks a Scots accent.
I left Lossiemouth on a bank holiday and just as the Silver Sands Holiday Park was getting out its coronation bunting. From there I headed south to Elgin, where the local museum included a modest selection of MacDonald ephemera (including a bust by Jacob Epstein) and then along the coast to the charming towns of Forres and Findhorn. The remoteness of the region appealed to me, as I imagine it did to Ramsay MacDonald – consumed by affairs of state – more than a century ago.
David Torrance is a writer and historian