We begin the new year with a post from Ben Thomas. Ben is a third year history PhD at Aberdeen University working on a thesis that explores the relationship between the Highlands and the British Empire at the end of the nineteenth century. His research looks at the impact of the Empire ‘back home’ in the Highlands, and seeks to understand the ways in which Empire shaped and affected how the people of the Highlands engaged with the British state.
The date is March 25, 1903, and a prominent British general lies dead in a hotel bedroom in Paris. General Sir Hector Archibald MacDonald was the son of a crofter from Mulbuie. He had taken his own life after ‘grave charges’ of paedophilia in Ceylon were brought against him. However, to his Scottish compatriots, and in particular the people of the Highlands, ‘there is but one opinion as to the charges, namely, that they are groundless and incapable of being established’. The Town Councils of Tain and Dingwall passed special resolutions regretting that MacDonald’s widow had opted for a quick and private burial in Edinburgh, instead stating their desire that he be reinterred with ceremony in the Highlands.
Why, after facing such serious accusations, did the people of the Highlands rally around their fallen hero? The answer is suggested by a visit MacDonald paid to his homeland in May 1899. He had been granted leave in the wake of Britain’s decisive victory at Omdurman – a battle at which he was widely believed to have saved the day by a timely manoeuvring of the Sudanese troops under his command. Although his tour began in London and saw him visit Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, in the minds of commentators his visit home to the Highlands that was the main attraction. Taking in Dingwall, Tain, Invergordon, Mulbuie and Inverness, this whirlwind trip saw him meet with rapturous responses. Civic holidays were granted by the authorities and the streets of the towns were bedecked with bunting and flags for his arrival.
Although the newspaper reports of MacDonald’s visit were monopolised by the events in Dingwall, Inverness and Mulbuie, the celebrations in Tain and Invergordon were equally exuberant. In both towns MacDonald was given a guard of honour by the local Volunteers, and in Invergordon his carriage was drawn along the High Street by local men. In both places his recent military success was highlighted with a welcoming rendition of ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’, whilst in Tain his Highland roots were celebrated with a banner reading ‘failte do ar gaisgeach gaidhealch’ (welcome to our Highland hero). Tain also treated him to a cake and wine banquet – at which around 300 people were present to celebrate his achievements – and MacDonald was presented with an address in the form of an illuminated star, which included pictures of Inverness, Tain, Omdurman, Majuba Hill and Kandahar.
MacDonald’s homecoming was an opportunity for the people of the Highlands to celebrate their own place within the wider British nation and Empire. It was the distinctly ‘Highland’ contribution to the cause of Empire that was being celebrated in MacDonald’s homecoming celebrations, filtered through the person and career of Hector MacDonald. Tain’s Provost Fraser told the gathered crowd that ‘they met to do honour to a man whose heroism was already part of the glorious history of the British army’, whilst both the Tain and Dingwall addresses praised MacDonald for the sense of honour that his actions had reflected on the people of Ross-shire. Ever modest, MacDonald’s replies throughout these celebrations often passed the accolades onto the army, but it is also apparent from his brief speeches that he took great pride in his birthplace, and enjoyed meeting old friends and comrades during his tour ‘home’.
MacDonald’s status as a particularly ‘Highland’ hero helps explain why Highlanders showed such sorrow and anger at his death, and why many here saw the charges as part of a conspiracy designed to discredit a man who had ruffled a few establishment feathers in his desire for army reform. Indeed, MacDonald’s memorial on Dingwall’s Mitchell Hill, erected in 1907, stands as a lasting monument to Ross-shires’ native son, and to the service of this particular Highlander in the name of the British Empire.
As one local newspaper put it:
‘Sir Hector’s presence in the county, just after his Omduman triumphs, when he had reached what was destined to be virtually the zenith of a brilliant, glorious, and romantic career, brought his personality nearer to the hearts of his fellow countrymen than otherwise it would have been.’
MacDonald was also commemorated in the tune ‘Hector the Hero‘, composed by James Scott Skinner and played here by Aly Bain, Phil Cunningham and others.
Ross-Shire Journal, March 27, 1903
Ross-Shire Journal, April 3, 1903
Aberdeen Journal, May 12, 1899
Aberdeen Journal, May 13, 1899
Inverness Courier, May 16, 1899