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James Ramsay MacDonald

The Prime Minister From Lossiemouth

Image of James Ramsay MacDonaldJames Ramsay MacDonald from Lossiemouth was the first British Labour prime minister.  MacDonald played a conspicuous part in the political history of 20th century Britain and yet never forgot his Lossiemouth roots.

As part of the Moray Connections programme a Ramsay MacDonald trail has been established in his home town and will be launched at the Family History Fair in Lossiemouth Library on 29th August, the building he opened in January 1904.

The story of Ramsay MacDonald is told within the trail leaflet by his granddaughter Iona Kielhorn and forms much of the following narrative.

James Ramsay MacDonald, the illegitimate son of a servant girl, Annie Ramsay, and a ploughman, John MacDonald, who had met working at Claydales farm, Alves, was born in Gregory Place, Lossiemouth in 1866.  Very soon after his birth his mother moved with him to her mother’s cottage (Isabella Ramsay nee Allan) in Allan Lane.  From there JRM or Jimmie as he was then known went to Drainie Public (Parish) School.  A very talented pupil, he became a pupil teacher at 15.

His aim was to study science at a London college.  He secured odd jobs in Bristol and London while trying to pass entrance exams, living on a weekly packet of oatmeal from his mother in Lossie.  He started talking on political platforms and met his wife Margaret Gladstone while doing this.  Initially involved with the Liberal party, he was attracted to join Labour.

His wife’s family was well off compared to Ramsay’s and Margaret’s money enabled JRM to travel abroad and meet socialists and other politicians all over the world – South Africa after the Boer war, USA, Australia, India, Canada etc.  MPs were not paid at all until 1911.

All his life JRM thought of Lossiemouth as a lifeline to escape London stress.  In 1909 he built his house, the Hillocks, for his mother to look after his 6 children while he was abroad.  2 were born in Lossie and the older ones started school there.  In 1910 his mother Annie Ramsay died and in 1911 his wife Margaret died.

Certain elements of Lossie did not admire JRM.  He was not allowed to build the Hillocks on Prospect Terrace as he had wanted (“Red bastards don’t build up here”) and in 1916 his stand against Britain’s entry into the 1st World War saw him expelled from Moray Golf Club.  This ban was not lifted till 1929, when JRM was Prime Minister for the second time.  JRM, however, refused to return to Moray Golf Club but continued playing at Spey Bay.  In 1915 the word “traitor” was smeared in white paint on the Hillocks’ outside wall!

Ramsay MacDonald first became a Labour MP for Leicester in 1905 and leader of the Labour party in 1911.

He became the first Socialist Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1924 with the support of the Liberals but the government barely survived a year in office.  In 1929 he became Prime Minister for the second time but there was a worldwide economic recession and the necessary public expenditure cuts split the Labour Party.  In 1931 he became Prime Minister of a National Government, a largely Conservative dominated administration and soldiered on as PM until 1935.  While he was working in 10 Downing Street nearly all the parlour maids and kitchen staff were from Lossiemouth as JRM liked the sound of the accent around him.

Between 1924 and 1934 JRM flew from Croydon to Lossie, landing on farmer Mustard’s field in Muirton.  The pilot would then collect fuel with a bucket from the garage on the Elgin Road/Inchbroom Road junction for the return journey!

In 1932 at a Peace Conference in Geneva JRM was secretly told that his friend, Kurt Hahn, headmaster of a modern-thinking school in Salem, Germany, has been imprisoned by Adolf Hitler, and asked to help free him.  Within weeks Kurt Hahn was out of prison and in Moray planning his new school.  JRM’s letter to the German ambassador can be seen framed in Gordonstoun School today.

JRM refused to accept a knighthood 3 times.  On 5th November 1937 he and his daughter set sail on the liner Reina del Pacifica, for South America, but on 9th November MacDonald died of heart failure following a game of deck quoits.  His body was returned to Britain on the cruiser HMS Apollo.  After a memorial service in Westminster Abbey his ashes were brought up to Lossiemouth by train and buried in the family grave in Spynie.

Whatever one’s views of Ramsay MacDonald’s politics, the reality is that this man from Moray was able to claim a political first, as well as influencing our history.