McDonald was born and educated in Boat of Bridge, near Boharm in Banffshire. In 1852 he entered the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh, and later at the Royal Scottish Academy. He was a pupil of Robert Scott Lauder, and his work reflects his masters’ strong use of light and shadow. His early pictures focussed on domestic genre scenes and landscapes, but he developed an interest in episodes from Scotland’s history. He drew on popular subjects such as Jacobite history or old clan rivalry, and presented a romanticised, theatrical version of real events. His work was admired in its day, even attracting the eye of Queen Victoria.