Saturday, 22 January 2011

Who's Who in Scottish Military history - Major General Sir Hector MacDonald

Today’s Who’s Who is about someone you have probably heard of - Major General Sir Hector MacDonald aka Fighting Mac. At the height of his fame he was lauded throughout the Empire as one of its most famous sons for his actions across two continents. There are too many actions to recount on a blog post so I’ll just concentrate on the end of his life.

He was the crofter’s son from Easter Ross who’d fought across Afghanistan and Africa and risen from private to general. But the fame which MacDonald had earned though his bravery and hard work also had made him powerful enemies because he was ‘stealing’ their plaudits.

MacDonald had always been an outsider in the army. He was the educated man amongst the drunken ‘squaddies’; the ex-ranker in the officers mess; and the couthy Scottish general amongst the Eton-educated staff officers. There is also speculation that he was a homosexual which of course was still a crime in the nineteenth century. No wonder McDonald felt so comfortable as an officer in the Egyptian Army where his many years in the Sudanese desert would have kept him away from the social straightjacket of the Victorian British Army.

In 1903 things came to a head. Kitchener wanted to sideline MacDonald because he was jealous of MacDonald’s reputation as the man who saved the day (and Kitchener’s back) at the Battle of Omdurman. Instead of a command on the North West Frontier amongst the type of men he knew, he was packed off to Ceylon. Perhaps it was seen as a cushy posting for a general who was exhausted and needed a good rest but MacDonald was a fish out of water. All he knew was soldiering and fighting. Diplomacy and interaction with an insular colonial community led to tensions.

Eventually matters came to a head and unsubstantiated allegations of inappropriate behaviour by MacDonald escalated into a threat of a court martial in India.

MacDonald rushed to London to see if his old friends could help him but he was cold shouldered and he quickly left to return to India. En-route he stopped off in Paris and rather improbably met up with Aliester Crowley for dinner. That fact is recorded in Crowley’s diary of the time. A fictionalised account of that meeting was turned into a novel by Jake Arnott called “The Devil’s Paintbrush”. In it Crowley is portrayed as a selfish buffoon but MacDonald comes across very sympathetically.

If it was pure fiction there may have been a happy ending with MacDonald running away to a South Sea island. But it was based on fact and so there is the unhappy ending of MacDonald killing himself in his Paris hotel room after the scandal is broken by an American newspaper.

It was a tragic end to a remarkable life but it never stopped him being remembered as a great man in his native land. His magnificent gravestone is in Edinburgh (tens of thousands of people passed his grave in the week after he was buried), and in Dingwall they built a tower. Not a monument to a man who shot himself rather than bring shame on his family; but a suitably grand tribute to one of our greatest soldiers.

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