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Clan Donald Magazine No 10 (1984) Online

The Saga of Fighting Mac by Kenneth I. E. MacLeod MD MPH FAPHA.

Growing up in the Black Isle as a son of the schoolhouse and with a father avidly interested in history, on many an occasion, while visiting the county town of Dingwall, the great tower on Mitchell Hill would be the subject of comment, usually terse and somewhat uncommunicative.

Apparently my father had reservations about discussing the story of Hector Archibald Macdonald with his growing son, other than to say that he was a great soldier and a man of undoubted bravery, a hero of note.

Why? Well, my interest in Macdonald faded over the years, as I had other issues, issues mainly concerned with studying for "Highers", for "Pre-Registration" in Medicine, and finally five long years of medical school to face. Then marriage and a brief career as a hospital resident and in the Indian Medical Service took me away from my homeland and my beloved Black Isle.

As our national poet put it, however, my "heart was in the Highlands", and I returned from India to serve for nigh eight years in Dingwall and Strathpeffer as a family physician, first of all working for the late Dr William Bruce, and then later on my own.

Again the tower on Mitchell Hill caught my eye as it does every Dingwallian and visitor to the Royal Burgh, and again my interest was revived, and again the questions.

The year was 1940, and by the happenstance of serving the family of Donald George Mackenzie of Rootfield, whose wife was none other than the surviving and youngest daughter of William Macdonald of Rootfield, who as a little girl had attended the opening in 1905 of the National Memorial to Major-General Sir Hector Archibald Macdonald on Mitchell Hill.

Further her father, William Macdonald JP, was none other than Sir Hector's favourite older brother [1], and lifetime confidante. When my duties to the children as physician were at an end on particular occasions, I would talk to Mrs Mackenzie about her famous uncle. These conversations led to the releasing to me of all the letters from Sir Hector to her father and other letters pertinent to his sudden and sad demise on 25 March 1903.

And thus began in earnest my forty-year plus research of the Saga of Fighting Mac, a search which brought me to the very threshold of the real truth. These research endeavours led in time to my three accounts, the first "High Endeavour", published as a serial in the North Star in Dingwall (1949-50). That account essentially traced the origins of the Macdonalds from their pristine home in the Beauly area to the hills of Strathconon, from which along with others they were evicted circa 1839, and the personal saga of William Macdonald, the father of Sir Hector and of his bold and vigorous wife, Ann Boyd, from whom without any doubt, Hector Macdonald derived much of his tenacity. It ended with the blank walls which surrounded the suicide of Sir Hector in an hotel in Paris, while under orders to return to Ceylon to face a court martial for alleged moral offences of an extremely "grave nature."

But I was determined to uncover the truth as to these offences and the rumours which then as now have surrounded them. One thing was certain, much although the powers-that-be wished to have the nation forget Macdonald, the nation did not forget, although naturally as the years sped by, discussions about the "Hero of Omdurman" subsided almost to a whisper [2].

Government sources were as reticent as ever. The word "cover-up" did not occur to me in these earlier days of my researches. But cover-up it later seemed to be, and the truth is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. But an opportunity came which uncovered some of the mystery, when Sir Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. I wrote to him about Hector Macdonald, pointing out that Macdonald was a man of the people, and that a Labour man and Prime Minister ought to be willing to aid in uncovering the truth. It was as a result of that letter, certain reference numbers were provided to me and led to the release of the available documents in the Public Record Office.

Copies of these documents were disturbing indeed, with the allegations directly from the Governor himself to the War Office, i.e. Sir Joseph West-Ridgeway to Lord Roberts. The letters from Roberts to Kitchener about Macdonald were even more disturbing.

My heart sank, because these damnable statements did seem that the Ceylon press which had damned Macdonald with faint praise and at least one with the caption "Feet of Clay" seemed at first glance to be only too conclusive of the possibility if not probability that Macdonald was indeed a pederast.

The more I thought about it the more I realised that although the allegations and statements pertinent to fighting Mac were in evidence so to speak, there was not one shred of real evidence. Then the extraordinary statements pertinent to Ridgeway's desire to have two editors of a native newspaper prosecuted and jailed for slanderous statements "made against me in an official capacity" opened the door once again. But copies of Native Opinion were unavailable either in the British Museum or anywhere else in India, or Ceylon.

My search continued. I advertised in the Ceylon press. An English author living in Ceylon proved of some help. Ceylon was now independent as Sri Lanka. I contacted the Government, and Eureka, the National Archives of Sri Lanka in Colombo had copies of Native Opinion. I paid for copies of the pertinent articles.

My researches were published in America, the first as "The Ranker", the second as "A Victim of Fate". Through the good offices of Dingwall ex-Provost "Sandy" Macrae, the first book was made available in Scotland. [3] Because of the highly sensitive nature of the material in the second book, it was decided to make it available directly from the author. Yet copies were sought from the major universities in North America and Britain, as well as, for example, by the National Library of Scotland.

Additionally, I received an extremely interesting letter about a certain family still resident in Sri Lanka, a family with members of which Sir Hector enjoyed friendly relationships. That letter had extremely sensitive information in it, the nature of which could only be verified by direct contact with the surviving members (grandchildren and great grandchildren of Sir Hector's friends). The statements if untrue could be considered to be libellous. I decided not to use this pertinent information and to seal the letter until 1903 [4], which was done.

But some of the items I did include in my accounts, because of one statement in the letter, namely that the male parent had served time as a felon in Ceylon for larceny. Hence I felt fairly certain in my mind that such a man could be "influenced" by the enemies of Sir Hector Macdonald to allege that "certain offences" had really taken place. This is discussed at length in my two accounts.

Yet nevertheless, attitudes today although still not enamoured of the idea that great men may also be homosexual or be guilty of sexual perversions of one kind or another, have changed. For that reason, I have accepted the point of view that whether Sir Hector Macdonald was guilty as charged or not, that this by itself does not detract from his fine qualities as a born soldier.

As the late Sir Ian Hamilton, who served with Macdonald in the Gordon Highlanders, put it. "In battle he was ever to the fore, that is where his gallantry shone out like a star…"

The loss of such a man in his fiftieth year of life was a loss even more to a nation soon to be engaged in a bitter world war, a war destined to change the face of Europe. Macdonald undoubtedly had the know-how and skill - far more than many officers bred from the so-called "officer-class" - and he was an innovator. As an illustration, he studied the mistakes made during the South African War, and made himself not too popular with the War Office on that account. These criticisms revealed a thinking soldier. He was more a De Gaulle type of military man than the average British senior officer.

Sleep on Macdonald, scion of a noble race of Highlanders. No Macdonald needs to feel ashamed for Hector Macdonald. He was what he was - a fine soldier, a gallant and brave leader. But he was a lonely, lonely man. The tragedy which ended his career and the circumstances surrounding it led to at least one and secondary tragedy, the tragedy of his young son Hector who died an embittered recluse in 1951. He lies buried beside (his ashes that is) the remains of Fighting Mac and Lady Macdonald (Chrissie) in the Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh. A fine memorial marks the grave, with a fine bust of Sir Hector, as often as not with a piece of Macdonald tartan on or about it.

We shall not forget, for the spirit of Hector Macdonald lives on.

Personal Note: Kenneth Iain Eachainn Macleod was born in Ullapool on 17 November 1912, the second child of the Headmaster Kenneth Macleod, MA FEIS, who became Rector of Fortrose Academy (1913-49). His mother was the Gaelic poetess, Christina Macleod, whose works are discussed in an article written by her grandniece, Catherine Macdonald (Dunn) in "The Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness" Vol. XLIX, pp.97-134. He emigrated to North America in 1949, not being enamoured of the British National Health Service.

Footnotes:

[1] There were five sons, Donald the oldest, then Ewen, then William, then John, and finally the youngest, Hector. (Return to text).

[2] So keen were the authorities to forget Macdonald, that as one illustration, the woman who caused him to be lionized in London after the Battle of Omdurman, his own county's leading lady, the sister of Stewart-Mackenzie of Seaforth and Castle Brahan, Lady Jeune, did not even mention him once in her own autobiography. (Return to text).

[3] The author gifted the bulk of the 1,000 copies of "The Ranker" to the Town Hall Museum in Dingwall, where there is an excellent exhibit of Macdonald memorabilia, to be sold in support of the Museum. "A Victim of Fate" is still available directly from K. I.E MacLeod, Deerfield Heights, RD3, Cortland, N.Y. 13045, The price $1.95, plus postage airmail $1.70 approximate. (Return to text).

[4] Presumably 2003 -R.K.W.M. (Return to text).

Footnote to the Online Edition:

For further information on Hector Macdonald, see Richard Reincke's excellent site: Major General Sir Hector Archibald Macdonald KCB DSC ADC LLD.

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