‘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

‘Hector the Hero’?

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.

ImageCelebrations for MacDonald in Dingwall (Photos courtesy of Dingwall museum – no images of the Tain or Invergordon events are available)

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.

ImageOpening of the MacDonald monument in Dingwall

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.

Information from:

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