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Highland hero


In March 1903, within three weeks of his 50th birthday, the Gaelic-speaking son of a poor Scottish Highland farmer (‘crofter’) blew his brains out with a pistol in a Paris hotel room. The reason? A classic Victorian scandal, with its full share of rumour, hypocrisy and refusal to face reality.

Eachann MacDhòmhnaill (or, as he would become known in English, Hector MacDonald) joined the Gordon Highlanders regiment in 1871, at the age of 17, and rose through the ranks of the British army to end up, shortly before his death, as a major-general (one of the very few men to do so, at least back in those days, on merit alone). But his lowly background, plus the fact that he was Scottish rather than English, may in the end have been his undoing.

He saved the supremely arrogant and incompetent General Kitchener’s bacon with a skilful manoeuvre at the 1898 Battle of Omdurman (in modern-day Sudan); and although Kitchener was typically given full credit for the bloody victory (in which 10,000 Sudanese soldiers but only 47 British ones were killed, and the nasty ‘dum-dum’ bullets were used by the British side to horrifying effect – they expanded inside the target’s body, causing maximum tissue damage and shock), MacDonald was also widely praised (especially in Scotland) for his action. The following year – when the use of dum-dums in international warfare was banned by the Hague Convention – the Boer War broke out in South Africa; and MacDonald once again distinguished himself. He was knighted and nicknamed ‘Fighting Mac’, and at least one poem was written in his honour.

By the time the Boer War ended in 1902, with another British victory, MacDonald had been rewarded with a posting to Britain’s Indian colony, and then – just a year before his suicide – to neighbouring Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), as commander-in-chief of the imperial troops there. And it was in Ceylon that things in his life went badly wrong.

As so often, the facts are disputed. MacDonald’s many supporters continue to claim the whole thing was a fabrication born of British upper-class snobbery. The fellow simply wasn’t ‘one of us’, and could not be permitted to penetrate the ranks of the establishment; worse still, he was a Scot, presumably with an audible Highland accent. One way or another, he had to be got rid of – and he was, in the tried-and-tested British manner: sex.

Rumours soon began to circulate among Ceylon’s colonial elite that MacDonald ‘did not like ladies’; and specific accusations soon followed. He was allegedly having sex with the teenage sons of a local dignitary; and another witness had ‘surprised’ him in a railway carriage ‘with four Sinhalese boys’ (the Sinhala were, and are, the majority population on the island). Just how old these various young males were seems not to have been recorded; and in any case that hardly mattered, for – unlike today – sex with someone ‘under-age’ was not condemned on those grounds alone.

The problem – as in the then very recent Oscar Wilde case – was not so much one of age as of sexual orientation, and above all social status. If the teenagers had not been the sons of someone influential, few people would have cared. And the other difficulty was, of course, homosexuality: peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum (‘that horrible crime not to be named among Christians’), as it was coyly referred to at the time. Some dalliance with a native girl of lowly descent would have aroused little comment; but MacDonald had broken all the established rules.

Or had he? His enemies would have crafted their accusations carefully: sexual relations between males, involving the families of influential people, were in many people’s minds the ultimate horror. At this historical distance we simply can’t know for sure if Hector MacDonald was gay, or bisexual. No incriminating love letters have been discovered – and of course they too could be fabricated. But we do have to consider other background details.

At the time of the accusations MacDonald was thought to be unmarried – an unusual state of affairs for a man approaching 50 and in such a position, in Victorian Britain (or rather Edwardian Britain, for the aging queen had died in 1901). After he committed suicide it transpired that he had in fact been married for 19 years, and even had a son – but had only seen his wife four times during that time. Other leading military men’s wartime correspondence with their wives has survived; MacDonald’s has not. You can’t help wondering if this was a ‘marriage of convenience’. Just a year after the wedding, Britain introduced its draconian new legislation against homosexuality which was to blight millions of men’s lives for the next 80 years. Such was the prevailing mentality.

If the accusations had been false, why did MacDonald do so little to rebut them, if only by revealing his marriage and the birth of his son? For whatever reasons, he did not. Before long he was sent home to London; and it has been suggested that the new king told him the best thing he could do was shoot himself. In short, no-one seems to have been in much doubt that the accusations were true. The main concern was to avoid a public scandal that would tarnish the army’s, and the British Empire’s, image.

The governor of Ceylon eventually advised him to return and ‘clear his name’ at a court-martial – amazingly, despite the change in British law, what he had supposedly done was not a criminal offence in the British colony Ceylon. Then, while staying at a hotel in Paris, he read in the newspapers that ‘serious charges’ were to be laid against him; and after breakfast he went up to his room and shot himself through the head.

Once again, you can’t help thinking that he knew he was unlikely to be acquitted – and hence that the accusations were true. MacDonald had been fêted as a military hero, and could surely have mounted a defence with strong public support; but there were evidently enough witnesses to bring him down if the facts ever came out.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Eachann MacDhòmhnaill was the victim of social snobbery and homophobic prejudice; though today he would probably have been accused, and convicted, of paedophilia. But in those days that wasn’t a crime.

Perhaps worse still, he was assumed by his presumed homosexuality to be a risk to military discipline. The grounds for such an accusation have never been proven; but being sexually unorthodox has long been deemed a valid ground to exclude people from the armed forces. Only last week the increasingly bizarre American president Donald Trump stated that transgender people should never be allowed to serve in the US military. Why? Simply because he needs something to distract attention from his many other domestic and international policy blunders – and sexual minorities are always a welcome target. As a businessman, Trump knows that freaking out the stupids – which America is sadly only too full of – is a fail-safe strategy.

The problem is that Hector MacDonald was a paragon of military courage – so how could he possibly be homosexual? Once again, Victorian refusal to face reality.

We gay people are quite as brave – or quite as cowardly – as anyone else. No more, and no less. And who we’re sexually attracted to makes no fucking difference.


One Comment
  1. monika sears permalink

    It does make a difference. Not being ‘one of us’, whatever the definition of ‘us’ may be, makes you untrustworthy. That’s it and ever shall be
    For example who, in the Vatican, would trust an undersized little brown Jew were he to breeze in? Simply not one of us..

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