The Doctor Who actor discovers that, despite hailing from Scotland, his family tree leads him through Ireland's often troubled history
David was born in Bathgate, a post-industrial town between Glasgow and Edinburgh, in 1971. His father, Alexander McDonald, is a minister in the Church of Scotland (when David began acting another performer was already known by that name, leading him to draw inspiration for an alternative from a Smash Hits article about the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant).
Beginning his historical investigations by focusing on his father’s side of the family, David quickly discovers that the paper trail goes cold relatively early on. This means David's hope of tracing his family back to the time of the clans would take a huge amount of research, so he instead turns his attention to the ancestry of his maternal grandfather, Archie McLeod. His forebears originally hailed from the Isle of Mull, where they lived as small tenant farmers until they were driven off their land and into the cities during the Highland Clearances of the early 19th century. David’s mother Helen remembers that, when she was born, Archie worked as an engineer’s machinist at John Brown’s shipyard on Clydebank, but she also recalls him earlier being a professional footballer.
To find out more about Archie’s footballing career, David pays a visit to his Uncle John. He reveals that, after being capped for the Scottish Juniors, Archie was signed by Derry City Football Club. David follows the trail to Londonderry in Northern Ireland, where Archie had arrived as a 24 year old in 1932.
David has two much older cousins in Londonderry, Billy and Barry, who he’s never met before. They are Catholics: their mother, David’s great-aunt Maisie, broke with family tradition and married a Catholic. Billy and Barry are also life-long supporters of Derry [City] FC and have been season ticket holders for forty years. Not only are they able to tell David plenty about Archie, who was a famous and popular footballer in his day, they also take him to a match where he meets men whose fathers and grandfathers had cheered Archie on. Archie is still a celebrity in the town - he is still the highest goal scorer in Derry City history - but his career, though brilliant, didn’t last long.
During a match in 1938 he sustained serious injuries, which ended his career. In those days footballers were paid nothing like the sums awarded to their modern counterparts and there was no insurance, so he was forced to return to Glasgow to work in the shipyards. During his heyday in Londonderry Archie had married a local beauty queen called Nellie Blair, and it is her trail that David follows next.
Making contact with two Protestants cousins, Billy and Betty, David learns that the Blairs were a prominent Protestant family. The lives of both Nellie’s father, William, and his grandfather were affected by the political battles that surrounded Irish independence and Northern Ireland’s secession from the Republic.
In 1912, many Protestants, including David’s great grandfather William and his great-great grandfather James, signed the Ulster Covenant against Home Rule, the implementation of which was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. William joined up as a member of the Hamilton Marching Band, which David learns led Orange Day parades and played concerts for the local community. A newspaper article from 1915 reveals that the whole band signed up for the war and became the battalion band for the 10th Inniskilling Fusiliers, who saw serious action on the Somme. The article also makes reference to the fact that William Blair was a member of the attached Medical Corps. Band members would automatically have been seconded to work as stretcher-bearers on the battlefield.
The years immediately after the Great War saw William’s father, James, on the local Londonderry Council, stormily asserting the right of Northern Ireland to remain separate from the Republic. Although this aim was eventually achieved, it did little to assuage the sectarian tensions that affected David’s family. Maisie and her Catholic husband were not ostracized by her Protestant relatives, but the tensions have politicised David’s cousin Barry, who has since been involved in civil rights work and cross-community relations.
At the end of David’s visit to Londonderry, Barry takes him back to Derry City FC, where Archie McLeod used to play. Watching Protestant and Catholic youngsters play football together, David is witness to living embodiments of the principles espoused in 1998’s Good Friday Agreement, and its hope of bringing thirty years of sectarian bloodshed to an end.