Prof Donald MacKinnon MA (1839-1914)

Joined the Society: 1871 (🌳 Original Member)

Portrait of Donald MacKinnon

Prof Donald MacKinnon MA was born on the Island of Colonsay in 1839. Some accounts claim that he grew up in material poverty, bringing his own peats to school to feed the school fire. What is certain is that Gaelic was his native language, and his Gaelic identity was to prove crucial for his ground-breaking impact at the University of Edinburgh.

As an undergraduate, he excelled at Philosophy. In 1871, while living on Cumberland Street in the New Town, he became a founding member of the Philosophy Society and was among its first Presidents. The subsequent year, he achieved 1st Class Honours in Philosophy. At that time, 1st Class Honours were attained by just one in every fifty students. Despite his early focus on Philosophy, his education was broad. He was awarded prizes in Latin, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Logic, Moral Philosophy and English Literature, and was further awarded the Hamilton Fellowship in 1869 – a significant honour, which also gave him the financial means to complete his degree.

However, when MacKinnon was a student, he did not have the opportunity to study the literature of his native language, Gaelic. That did not prevent him from becoming an active member of the young Celtic Society, itself only twenty years old at the time, and from continuing his studies of Gaelic language and literature outside of the university. After graduating, he made frequent contributions to An Ghàidheal magazine and Mac Talla newspaper, establishing his reputation as a first-class Gaelic scholar.

His chance to bring Gaelic into the academic mainstream came in 1882. With a £14,000 endowment, the University of Edinburgh was to establish the world’s first Chair specific to the study of Celtic cultures, languages and literatures. MacKinnon applied. Streams of testimonials poured in. Former teachers, fellow Gaelic scholars and even the University Principal wrote in support of his application, testifying to his exceptional scholarly qualities and unsurpassed mastery of Gaelic language and literature. He got the job, and served in it until his death in 1914. In his post, he inspired generations of students with his piercing intellect, humble manner and passion for his subject. Although he was not a prolific writer, he has left behind a huge collection of Gaelic manuscripts, which are currently held in the University Centre for Research Collections for the use of present and future researchers.

Back to People