‘Cruel and distressing rumours’: The strange case of Fighting Mac.

Andy Beaton is a postgraduate student on the MLitt History programme at the University of the Highlands and Islands. He says:’ having lived in the Dingwall area for some years I was aware of Sir Hector Macdonald as a figure in local history. I subsequently became interested in the events surrounding his death and memorialisation during my participation in the British Identities module of my studies.’

About 2pm on Wednesday 25th March 1903 a waiter opened the door of a bedroom on the first floor of the Hotel Regina in Paris. Inside, on the floor beside the bed, lay the body of Major General Sir Hector Macdonald. He was holding a nine-millimetre revolver, a bullet from which was lodged in the right temple of his skull. Macdonald’s face was covered in blood. Death had been instantaneous.[1]

Within hours, the rumour mill was spinning and the world’s media eagerly devouring every detail. Gossip and innuendos concerning his sexuality had been following Macdonald for some time before his suicide. Newspapers, at least, were quick to link the latter to conflicting rumours of an impending court martial.[2]

In Britain – and especially in Scotland – Hector Macdonald was a national hero: ‘the ideal British soldier; the true Highland warrior[3] Macdonald was exceptional in more than one way – he was a very rare example of a Victorian soldier who had risen from the ranks to become not only a general but also a knight of the realm. The son of a crofter from Mulbuie on the Black Isle, nowhere was ‘Fighting Mac’ held in higher esteem than in his native Highlands.

Macdonald’s funeral and interment at Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh were conducted without full military honours at the explicit request of his widow. The public response to his death was unprecedented.[4] The week after his interment saw perhaps as many as 100,000 mourners file past the grave. [5] According to the Inverness Courier ‘probably the majority of the visitors were Highlanders or people connected with the Highlands’. [6] That the mourners were mostly of Highland origin cannot truly be known. However the claim does hint at the extent of Macdonald’s celebrity status there. Floral tributes from Caledonian Societies at home as well as from as far afield as Australia were among the multitude adorning the grave.[7]

In Dingwall, a few miles from his birthplace, Macdonald was, first and foremost, a local hero. Alluding to the controversies already swirling around his death, Reverend J.R. Macpherson urged the congregation to put aside ‘the buried facts and the unknown thoughts’. [8] But neither Rev. Macpherson’s parishioners nor the wider Scottish public had any intention of forgetting Macdonald. Within three months of his death, a committee, headed by no less than the Duke of Argyll, was gathering significant financial support for the construction of a fitting memorial.

In September 1905, the laying of its foundation stone was alone sufficient to attract a crowd of ‘several thousand persons’ to the site on Mitchell Hill, overlooking Dingwall.[9] Speaking at the ceremony, the Liberal MP for Ross and Cromarty, James Galloway Weir, declared that Sir Hector had been ‘driven to his doom by a society clique.’ [10] Weir was voicing a theory – current within days of his death and still held by some today – that the crofter’s son, always an outsider among the public school educated elite of the army, was the victim of a conspiracy to destroy him.

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The Dingwall Memorial. Photo: Andy Beaton.

Not for the first time following the unexpected death of a popular hero, wild theories and urban myths circulated after Fighting Mac’s suicide. He was not dead but had adopted the persona of General Kuroki, leading the army of Imperial Japan against the Russians. Alternatively, as a family friend was apparently told, he had been seen walking along an Edinburgh street. ‘All these, as you can understand, are cruel and distressing rumours’, said his widow, Lady Macdonald, to a Scottish newspaper in 1907.[11]

In 2012, an annual service of commemoration at the Macdonald Memorial was instituted by the Clan Donald Society of the Highlands and Islands. One of the aims of the event has been to keep alive the memory of one of Ross-shire’s favourite sons, whose death brought to a controversial end one of the most remarkable military careers of the Victorian era.[12]

[1] Inverness Courier, 27 March 1903

[2] The Scotsman, 27 March 1903

[3] Edward M Spiers, The Scottish Soldier and Empire, 1854-1902  (Edinburgh, 2006), 206

[4] Spiers, The Scottish Soldier, 206

[5] Spiers, The Scottish Soldier, 206-7

[6] Inverness Courier,  3 April 1903

[7] Inverness Courier, 3 April 1903.

[8] Spiers, The Scottish Soldier, 206-7

[9] Nottingham Evening Post, 25 September 1905

[10] Nottingham Evening Post, 25 September 1905

[11] Aberdeen People’s Journal,  13 April 1907

[12] Ross-shire Journal, 2 March 2017