‘Fighting Mac’, Major General Sir Hector Archibald MacDonald, Knight Commander of the Bath, Distinguished Service Order, Aide de Camp, Doctor of Laws, was a name on everyone’s lips in the closing years of Victoria’s reign. Born near the Highland village of Conon Bridge in 1853, he joined the ‘Gay Gordons’ as a teenager, commencing a meteoric rise through army ranks which took him to India, the Boer War in Transvaal, Sudan and Ceylon, picking up regular promotions and medals on the way.
Clandestinely, he married his wife, Christina, during a stint at Edinburgh Castle in 1884, and their son, Hector, was born following a home leave in 1886 – all kept secret from the War Office, who did not approve of married officers.
But rare visits home didn’t allow much of a love life. In the Transvaal, late in 1900, while his Brigade was guarding a concentration camp, he took enough of an interest in a Boer prisoner for army top brass, Roberts and Kitchener, to mention their concerns in official papers – however none of this stopped him being knighted in 1901.
Back in India, in 1902, now Aide-de-Camp to Edward VII, Mac’s behaviour was apparently the cause of ‘grave suspicions’ – no details, of course, exist, as in those days any references to sex had to be read between the lines.
However, the shit was about to hit the fan. He was quickly moved to command the troops in Ceylon, and soon formed a close bond with a local family’s boys, causing tongues to wag. But the bombshell in March 1902 was his alleged discovery in a sexual act with schoolboys on a train. He exposed himself, and mutual touching or masturbation probably occurred.
His world collapsed. Charged and sent back home, he visited his wife and son, presumably telling them of the charges. Lord Roberts told Mac he could only stay in the army by clearing his name at a court martial in Ceylon. Breaking his journey there in a Paris hotel, on March 25th he saw his story had now reached the press, went to his room and shot himself in the head.
His widow, Lady MacDonald, quickly arranged a small, private funeral in Edinburgh’s Dean Cemetery, just after six in the morning. She knew the whole story, but the public, who idolised Mac and didn’t believe a word of the unspecified ‘grave charges’, were furious with her for not allowing them to bid him farewell at a fitting ceremony. Thousands visited his grave in the weeks to come.
A ‘Committee of Scots’, possibly funded by Andrew Carnegie, went to Ceylon and satisfied themselves that there was not ‘the SLIGHTEST PARTICLE of truth’ in the charges against Mac, but it has to be said that his suicide and his widow’s efforts to keep his funeral private cast some doubt over this. Needless to say, any military papers which might clarify things have never come to light.
Hector MacDonald’s adoring public subscribed to his monument in Dingwall and he was commemorated in verse by the poet Robert Service and with the touching lament, Hector the Hero, by the ‘Strathspey King’ James Scott Skinner.
Alan Findlay, from UnDividingLines 3, out October 25th.