Posts tagged ‘Black Isle’

February 13, 2020

When Buckhaven was nearly the Torremolinos of Escocia: herein lies a fishy tail


Scotland’s European credentials are well established but it may surprise you to know that Buckhaven in Fife just missed out on being the Torremolinos of, well, Spain when Philip II of Spain took a liking to the place and a boat-load of Spaniards were so fixated gazing at this little Fife gem their ship ran aground. Might have been part of the plan for they don’t appear to have left but struck up relationships with the Fifers who were soon speaking with Spanish accents and conversing in Spanish, shouldn’t it have been the other way round? So taken were Buckhaveners and Spaniards they kept marrying each other, tell me any old fishing community which didn’t, and evolved their own distinctive dialect.

And it wasn’t only Buckhaven that Phillip II was interested in. To be fair he was mainly interested in extending his empire – but he recognised quality when he saw it. On the west coast, Ailsa Craig, (now famous for its granite curling stones) whose natives paid their land rents with solan geese, seabird feathers and rabbit skins and caught an awful lot of cod was where Philip thought he would begin his annexation of the British Isles by having a castle built. Why start with Ailsa Craig. Well, why not?

Spanish wrecks littered the seas and beaches of Scotland. Their love of the place was second only to the Dutch’s. Their links with northeastern Scotland are long. Aberdeen’s sold salt herring and cod to the continent as far back as the 12th century and of such importance was this trade the Dutch word for salt cod is Labberdaan, its old spelling was haberdien – a corruption of Aberdeen.

White fish and pink. For hundreds of years salmon, fished out of Aberdeen’s two rivers, the Dee and Don, was exported, at first to the Continent and then around the whole world, in mind-blowing quantities.

In 1705, two years before the union, the Scottish parliament copied the Dutch example and remitted duties on everything herring-related, and other fish taxes. Fortunes were accumulated. Amsterdam is said to have been founded on the bones of Scottish herring (the stone for its Stadthouse was quarried and shipped out from the Firth of Forth but that is another story.)

With the waters around Orkney and Shetland teeming with fish they attracted the attention of European fishing boats. Don’t say I’m not contemporary. In 1633 1500 herring busses (vessels) protected by 20 armed ships and a further 400 dogger-boats went about in convoy as they fished. They were looking for cod, not difficult then, and caught them by rod and line. Sounds a slow business but tens of thousands were employed fishing. So thick on the water were these fishing vessels in what came to be known as the North Sea an area off England was named Dogger Bank.

Dutch dogger vessel

It’s as if fishing wars have always been with us. Post-union government bounties were offered to encourage more vessels take to sea to catch ever more fish, such was their value to the economy. The trouble was, and oh, how redolent this is of today, preferential treatment was provided to the biggest vessels over small fishing boats. After union with England, Scotland fishing trade declined, partly through the application of a salt tax (fish goes off quickly so must be cured for export and salt was one means of curing it.) Regulations surrounding the tax were complex and cumbersome. Salt was also difficult to acquire without having red tape attached. The setup was so confusing and risky potential fishers were put off from signing contracts.

When in 1720 an attempt was made to resurrect Scotland’s languishing fishing trade cash was paid to 2,000 of what were described as Scotland’s principal people. They failed but pocketed the cash. Similar failures followed, under royal patronage. Each one cost money. Each failed. Commissioners appointed to oversee every new scheme were richly rewarded. Always the same people. For them failure meant hardship for someone else, not them. They pocketed the cash. A lot of it.

Scotland’s water were then as now sources of incredible wealth, not always well-handled in the best interests of the people of Scotland. Bressay Sound at Shetland had one of the finest harbours in the British Isles in 1800. The fishing grounds here were almost monopolised by the Dutch; like those folk down the east coast many Shetlanders could communicate in Dutch. English vessels, too, headed north to fish for herring, ling, tusk, sea otters and seals. Sponges were sought and ambergris – a secretion of the bile duct in sperm whales that is disgorged into the sea and once used as for medicines, although Charles II loved to eat this stinking waste product. Whalers passed through this busy area on their way to and from Greenland and the Davis’ Straits from Dundee, Aberdeen, Arbroath and Peterhead.

Herds of grampuses (dolphins), sea otters, whales, fish of every description from round to flat were fished off Orkney including coalfish. Coalfish was a mainstay food for many of Scotland’s poorest folk. In Orkney the youngest fish were sillocks, year-olds were cooths and, I think, mature ones, Sethes. Orcadians preferred these wee fish to herring. They also harvested lots of sponges, corals, corallines, large oysters, mussels, cockles etc. and all kinds of unusual things washed ashore from the Atlantic including Molucca or Orkney beans. How they used these mimosa scandens seeds I don’t know – they might have roasted and eaten them or made them into drinks, used them as soaps or threw them at each other. Beyond exotic seeds many varieties of fish were landed. And the odd man. At least once a fin-man or Laplander turned up in his skin canoe.

Orkney beans

Situated between Orkney and Shetland is Fair Isle. Writing about 1800 one commentator described islanders living ‘almost in a state of nature’, whatever that means. His point was that crews on those fishing vessels from Holland and England fishing in the seas around the island raided not only their waters but stole everything they could lift from the island, leaving the people with next to nothing.

In addition to sea fishing carried out on an industrial scale, local communities fished in bays off their villages, in rivers and lochs. At the Solway Firth four distinct methods of catching fish were employed.

  1. Leister – a 4-pronged fork, its prongs turned slightly to one side, and attached to a long shaft of about 20 -24 feet was run along the sand on its edge or thrown at fish. Some expert fishers could spear fish from galloping horses, at great distances. This method was, apparently, very successful.
  2.  Haaving or hauling where the fisher stood in the current trapping fish with a small hand net.
  3.  Pock or small nets were fixed to stakes in rivers to catch fish swimming downstream.
  4.  Boat nets were used to catch salmon.

Fish provided food, oil for lamps and goods to barter for other items. Because fish was readily available it was an important source of income all around Scotland’s coasts. In the Black Isle or Ardmeanach to give it its old name, Rosemarkie’s salmon fishers preserved their catches in ice stored in an ice house near the shore , a deep, dark, dank echoing play place for local children that is now locked up, probably wisely. Avoch was a thriving fishing port taking large quantities of herring until recent times. Cromarty was another Black Isle fishing village, and Munlochy on the Moray Firth also had an excellent fishing station.

West Kilbride was known for its cod and white fisheries. Loch Leven for perch, pike, char, eels and especially its trout. Hebridean waters were rich sources of fish. Lewis took vast quantities of white fish, herring, trout and salmon as well as shellfish. Creeks around the rocky island of Muck provided shelter for fishing boats landing ling and cod. There, oil was extracted from cearban or sunfish – basking sharks. This oil was once popular as medicine and sold to Glasgow merchants. Seals were killed for their oil, too.

In addition to fish fish, shellfish were gathered from pools, off rocks, trapped in the water. It is patently obvious mussels were gathered at Musselburgh and there and Fisherrow were associated with good quality shellfish. Not only there, of course. Dornoch, Cramond and Inchmickery Island had their own enormous oyster beds, until overfishing of them put an end to that. Burntisland oysters were renowned, as were/are those from Loch Fyne. Loch Fyne also operated hundreds of herring boats. The harbour at Inverary at the head of Loch Fyne was called Slochk Ichopper, the gullet where vessels bought or bartered fish. Bartering herring for French wine took place at an area given the name, Frenchman’s point.

Men fished on boats but women and children were involved in all other aspects of the trade; preparing lines and nets, baiting lines, cleaning and processing fish and selling it. Local trading was hard graft for the wicker creels women carried on their backs were heavy before being loaded with wet fish and fishwives would walk long distances to make sales. As a point of interest, we often hear about fishwives but women hawkers sold all kinds produce in towns and country – kailwives sold vegetables and saltwives sold salt, for example.

The diversity of Scotland’s fishing trade began to dwindle when it stopped being a collective activity and became increasingly concentrated into fewer hands, of major businessmen. In addition, back in 1800 some small communities struggled to keep boats at sea and in rivers because their villages were targeted by the British Navy, eager to take away their fit and healthy young men who were able seamen. As with the army when men were needed all eyes turned northwards to Scotland. London could never get enough of Scots men, not only fit and strong but obedient. This was especially true during times of war – which was most of the time. Johnshaven, south of Aberdeen, lost many of its men to press-gangs.

Back in the day fishing was a community enterprise not confined to the handful of billionaire interests that we have now in the white fish industry but, as we’ve seen by the 18th century, public money found its way into the pockets of the rich through subsidies and enticements. During Scotland’s independent centuries fishing as a trade flourished, it was an important source of revenue for the nation, despite the attentions of Spaniards, Dutch and, yes, English seamen. Post-union whaling was for a fairly brief period enabled by virtue of larger vessels capable of sailing to inhospitable places such as Greenland and the Davis’ Straits. Risks were great, though not for the moneyed men behind voyages to harpoon the whale who waited in the warm comforts of their homes for the expected huge profits to further inflate their fortunes. And there was part of that that went straight into Westminster’s coffers; Scotland’s first oil bonanza went the same way as its second. It is hard for us to appreciate the degree of wealth generated from whaling, white fish and salmon. Good riddance to whaling and as for fishing, Scotland’s waters are no longer stuffed with fish as they once were; greed and overfishing have diminished stocks in our seas, rivers and lochs – denial, greed and short-termism has afflicted the trade of fishing for a very long time.

November 11, 2014

A Highland soldier’s letters to his cousin from the trenches in 1916 & 1917

A young man from the Black Isle  serving with the Seaforth Highlanders wrote to his young cousin Bella back home in Ross and Cromarty. The letters are fragile and very faded now as they were written in pencil on flimsy paper almost 100 years ago. At the bottom of the first letter is a signature of Gemmell whose job it was to censor outgoing mail to make sure no information that might have been regarded as useful to the enemy leaked out. Roddie Bisset’s letters are all about friends and family. We can just imagine how much he longed to be back home with them, farming on the beautiful Black Isle instead of being stuck in the nightmare existence of the trenches. Trenches letter 1916 Highland soldier    December 13th 1916 Dear Cousin I received your most welcome letter and Parcel. I don’t know how to thank you for the parcel. We have fair good weather out here as yet. I believe you had a bad time of it at home. Tell John I will look after the turnip seed bag alright. He will get it if I will be ever able to see him. I had a letter from Whitebog they tell me that Frank is called up. If so, they will miss him very much. This is my address now 40422 Pte Bisset.R A Company 3 Platoon 7th Seaforth Highlanders B.E.F. France We all heard out here that Dan was to get married at the term. Have nothing to tell you as the news are scarce. Hoping this finds you all well, As I could not be in better health. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas. I Remain Your Loving Cousin Roddie   John Gemmell trenches letter 2 1916 Highland soldier  


trenches letter 3 1917 - Highland soldier

18th March 1917 My Dear Cousin Just a note in answer to your letter and Parcel. Well I thank you very much as I was in the trenches at the time, we have very good weather just now, hoping you have the same and getting on with your work as the winter was so bad. I had a letter from Jhonnie, he says the same. How is Dan getting on. tell him that I told you, if he is wise to stop where he is. you will be all thinking long for the wedding and if it will be a big turnout, for he will not get Annie McIntyre Lambton, for they are a fellow here writing her steady. How is Dan -?-? Donald. I never seen his goodself since a while but I see Plenty of Rosemarkie & Fortrose boys. Willie Cameron Rosemarkie is home for his commision. He was seeing them at home. I believe they have a great – trenches letter 4 1917 Highland soldier This is where the letter ends. I don’t have the next page. I don’t know if Roddie made it back home to Scotland.

Discovered after blogging that Roddie was killed 3 weeks after writing to Bella. He was 26 years old and was never again to walk the beach at Rosemarkie, gaze out at the Souters at the Cromarty Firth or return the turnip seed bag to Bella’s husband John. Young Roddie lies buried in POINT du JOUR Military Cemetery (Athies) Pas de Calais, France. Whitebog was where some of the family rented a farm.

December 12, 2013

The Scandal of Sir Hector Macdonald

Sir Hector Macdonald’s memorial in Dingwall

Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall (2)


‘A mistake has been made in some quarters (says the “Daily Mail”) as to the attitude of the War Office authorities concerning the funeral. It was said they had directed the British military attache in Paris to make arrangements for the interment of the remains in France. The War Office we understand, has no “locus standi” for making such arrangements, and all they did was to request the British Embassy in Paris, out of consideration for the relatives, to hold itself prepared to make arrangements for local burial in the even of the friends desiring it, and further desiring that the arrangements should rest with the Government.’ (Edinburgh Evening News 31 March 1903)

How many of Britain’s war heroes have been dispatched in such a peremptory fashion?  Who was this man who had fallen so far from grace to be shuffled off with no pomp nor the usual dignities of  burial?

 Sir Hector MacDonald


The late Sir Hector Archibald Macdonald was one of the best-known soldiers of his generation, and his marvellous career had made his name a household word throughout Scotland …No Scottish soldier of recent times had such a rapid rise to fame. He was a “ranker” at 20, and a brigadier-general in one of the most sanguinary battles of modern times at 46. The deceased soldier was the son of a Ross-shire crofter, and was born in 1852 at Dingwall. His education was interrupted by periods of cattle-herding, and later, in his early “teens,” he became a stableboy to a hotelkeeper in his native town.  At the age of 17 he went to Inverness, where he was apprenticed in one of the warehouses.  Finding the occupation distasteful, and becoming enamoured of the colours, he took the Queen’s shilling in 1870, joining the Gordon Highlanders (then the 92nd). Private Macdonald son became corporal, and it was not long before he was sergeant-instructor and pay-sergeant.’  (Edinburgh Evening News)

Such was the life and military career of one of the most famous and successful Scottish (and British ) soldiers. However you might not have heard of him.

Archie Macdonald, known to the world as Fighting Mac, once revered throughout the United Kingdom for his bravery and success as a battleground strategist, shot himself in a hotel room in Paris on the 25 March 1903.

Newspaper readers at the time were scarcely protected from the gory details of incidents. The Edinburgh Evening News described how Macdonald’s corpse was found dressed in ‘civilian clothes’ including a ‘full white wide-fronted shirt’, lying beside his bed in his hotel room. He was found severely wounded in the head, the bullet still lodged in his skull, ‘almost projecting from the back of his head.’ Two documents were found in a pocket of his coat. A folded copy of the New York Tribune lay nearby.

That morning Sir Hector Macdonald rose, went out for a walk after breakfast then returned to his hotel where he picked up five letters which arrived from Britain; two stamped On His Majesty’s Service. He read them in the public area of the hotel then used one of the writing desks to write several letters, bought stamps from the porter and posted them in the hotel’s letter box.  Then he went into the reading room where he was observed reading several newspapers before going upstairs to his room, a small one, which he was told on arrival the previous evening was the only one available to him.

No trace of the letters he received that morning were later found.

Perhaps one or more of those letters had been written to his brothers. The brother at home in Rootfield received one in which Macdonald referred to the ‘lying slanders which embittered his last hours.’  canon at the Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall (7)

As we have seen Hector Macdonald was from a humble background: born at the croft of Rootfield  near Muir of Ord, son of a crofter/stone mason.  His rapid rise through the ranks of the military soon brought him to the attention of millions.

Macdonald  was sent to many battlegrounds including Afghanistan, South Africa, India and Egypt-Sudan. His successes as a leader of men and his acts of bravery led to swift promotion. You might imagine he would fit in well into that world of derring-do, been welcomed into the military establishment but you would be wrong.

It was not that he was Scottish that marked him out, though some argue that was a factor. It was what he was – a boy out of a croft – a man who was not born into the social circles in which he was forced to move and one who had little time for the haughty snobberies which he encountered.  He was an outsider.

I think at this stage I should get to the point before we veer off in completely the wrong direction. Hector Macdonald (2)


Sir Hector Macdonald did not commit suicide because he was being ostracised by the aristocrats with whom he lived and now mixed, although he was, but because of what was being said and written about him. Remember the New York Tribune in his room?

In 1902 he was sent to Ceylon as Commander in Chief of British troops and soon after the rumour mill began turning. Whispers over indecent acts he allegedly carried out with ‘young English boys’ quickly spread. The accusations grew and talk of prosecution and possible court martial.  

His suicide was taken by his detractors as proof of his guilt.

canon at the Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall

The 17 year old travelled from Dingwall to Aberdeen to drill with the 92nd – the Gordon Highlanders. He was sent to India to join the 92nd. Educated and ambitious, Macdonald read and read – on military strategy and to learn languages so that he might communicate where he was stationed. In all he spoke Hindustani, perhaps Urdu and Pushtu, Arabic, French, English and his native Gaelic. By 20 years old he was a sergeant.  The young ranker was on his way.

‘In battle he was ever to the fore; that is where his gallantry shone out like a star,’ said his fellow officer Sir Ian Hamilton.

At 24 yrs he had made the grade of colour sergeant and was attracting attention for his bravery within military circles and among the public. In Macdonald was mentioned in several dispatches throughout his illustrious military career. Soon he had been promoted from non-commissioned ranks to sub-lieutenant, subaltern. He was among the men who made the 310 mile march from Kabul to Kandahar which ended the Afghan campaign.

In 1881 he was in South Africa during the first Boer War when he was made a full lieutenant.

canon at the Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall (5)

The Battle of Majuba Hill – The First Boer War 1881

At the Battle of Majuba Hill the British troops were led by Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley who left  them in a vulnerable position on the hill then retired to his tent where he could not see nor hear the growing panic among his men. With grim inevitability the British line collapsed resulting in many deaths. Men deserted their positions and tried to escape off the hill. Colley, hopelessly incompetent to the end was shot dead by a Boer rifleman.  Another casualty among the officers was a Captain Cornwallis Maude, the son of the 1st Earl de Montalt.

Titled men such as these epitomised the usual sort who gained commissions in the British Army. A good title could more or less guarantee you high rank irrespective of how incompetent you were.

At this battle Macdonald, a junior officer,  was given charge of 20 Highlanders. They perished along with 73 of their comrades. 113 others were wounded and nearly 60 taken prisoner. The Boers lost 1 man and 5 were injured.

Macdonald fought on; when his sword was taken he used his fists and feet. The Boers took him prisoner but did not shoot him and in fact a reward of £5 was offered for the return of Macdonald’s sword which it duly was but the Boer who had it refused the bounty for as he explained he was just happy to see it returned to the ‘brave officer’. Macdonald was later released by the Boers.

His sword was one presented to him – a sword of honour- in recognition of his service to the Britain at Sudan following his actions which prevented serious disaster to the British forces. Its hilt was made from 18ct gold, its scabbard embossed standard silver and paid for from the £500 raised in a single day from contributions by his fellow servicemen. Hector Macdonald's weapons and medals

Macdonald’s conduct during the Boer Wars added to his reputation. His service during the Nile Expedition to try to save General  Gordon at Khartoum 1884-5 earned him the General Service Medal.

In 1888 he was promoted to captain.

At Egypt Omdurman- Cecil Rhodes said of Macdonald, ‘the finest episode in the whole day’s fighting was the admirable way in which Macdonald handled his brigade throughout these attacks.’

And Churchill, ‘All depended upon Macdonald, and that officer, who by valour and conduct in war had won his way from the rank of private soldier to the common of a brigade, and will doubtless obtain still higher employment was equal to the emergency.’

 Hector Macdonald

He had gone to Egypt as a Captain, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and made a   Major. By the mid-nineties he was Lieutenant-Colonel at the time Kitchener – that is Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, KG,KP,GCB,OM,GCI,GCMG,GCIE,ADC,PC, was  about to embark on the Sudan campaign.

At the Battle of Omdurman he gained a CB and was appointed as an ADC (personal Aides-de-Camp) to Queen Victoria and promoted to Colonel. Within three years he was Brigadier-General and took over command of the Highland Brigade during the second Boer War. At this point he was a Major-General and soon to be knighted.

The Battle of Omdurman in 1898 was when Sudanese Dervishes were slaughtered by a British army using modern weaponry. The battle was in response to the killing of General Gordon in 1885 and allow Britain keep open the Suez Canal as access to India.

Kitchener was criticised for his callous treatment of the Dervishes whom he left to die where they lay wounded, forbidding them help, and for his men’s looting and murder in Khartoum. It was reported he ordered the Mahdi’s (Muslim forces leader) remains be dug up and thrown into the Nile and his skull made into a drinking cup.

11000 Dervishes were slaughtered to secure Britain and her and ally Egypt control of the Nile.

Macdonald was made a Colonel and received thanks in the Houses of Commons and Lords in 1898. Despite being recognised for his role in the campaign, it was noted that his rewards were ‘scant’ compared with some who got far more for far less.

In Scotland it was felt his nationality and his humble background were the reasons for the difference.

He did not, for example, receive the £50 000 awarded to Kitchener for his part.  Fighting Mac and Highland Brigade in action at Koodosesberg in Boer War


The Battle of Paardeberg – Second Boer War 1900

The arrival of Macdonald at the Modder to take over command was met with cheers from his men. They knew he understood them, he had after all come through the ranks and it was said in many respects he remained an ordinary Highland soldier.

He was very different from the majority of officers who seldom, if ever, mixed with other ranks preferring their own company in the officers’ mess. Macdonald went out of his way to get to know the men who served under him. He took personal interest in how they were treated, possibly remembering his own experiences as an ordinary soldier. He checked their food was up to scratch, that they were well equipped and had recreational facilities.

Kitchener was not like that. He took over command of the British forces from Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts VC, KG, GCB, OM, GCSI, KStJ, VD, PC Lord Roberts.

Kitchener ordered Macdonald to take his brigade and remove the Boers from an area which offered no cover for them. Macdonald knew this was a mad scheme but he followed orders.

The inevitable happened. The Scots soldiers were easy targets for the Boer riflemen and were quickly cut down. Those not killed or badly injured returned fire while exposed to enemy fire. Macdonald was wounded and his horse killed but he stayed with his men until nightfall when Roberts arrived and ordered the Highlanders withdrawal.

Kitchener’s incompetence cost the lives of over a thousand men in this one instance. He didn’t learn from his mistakes. Next day he was keen to send yet more men in to die uselessly.

Fighting in South Africa continued with the injured Macdonald leaving hospital to lead his men and his gallantry and bravery during the war was recognised by Roberts. It should be noted that Kitchener had asked for Macdonald’s removal at this time.

It was widely believed Kitchener was jealous of Macdonald and his record. canon at the Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall (6)

At the time Hector Macdonald’s name and image could be found throughout the British Empire.  He was a great hero and companies used his face to sell products.

Camp Coffee

Camp Coffee

For those who remember the old bottles of Scotland’s own Camp Coffee will remember the moustachioed dark headed officer sitting as a Sikh holds out a tray of coffee.

Kitchener’s reputation had been tainted by his failures on the battlefield and his running of the infamous concentration camps established by the British in South Africa in which over 27 000 mainly Boer women and children died.

Here was a man familiar with grouse moors. He counted dead South Africans by the number of bag killed or captured or wounded. And he carried out a scorched earth policy in South Africa, burning crops, slaughtering livestock, poisoning wells and salting fields so that nothing would grow in them.

Arthur Conan Doyle called him stupid and arrogant.

This stupid and arrogant monster became the face of recruitment for the Great War, that war of lions led by donkeys. He was sent to Gallipoli where 1/4 million allied troops perished.

Kitchener’s ignorance of modern warfare led to the deaths of tens of thousands.

Kitchener never attracted the public acclamation that Macdonald had during his lifetime. He became an embarrassment. In a famous incident in June 1916 he was sailing through the Pentland Firth by the Orkney Islands on his way to Russia when the ship was apparently sunk by a German mine.

Years ago in Orkney I was told about how islanders would naturally do what they could to save shipwrecked sailors but on this occasion they were ordered not to launch boats to rescue anyone from the ship and indeed it was said that survivors of the wreck swimming into shore were pushed back into the sea while islanders were instructed to stay away from the area. It should be remembered that Orkney was full of military at this time being an important naval base.  Of the 662 on the ship only 12 survived. Kitchener did not.

After his drowning the Manchester Guardian remarked, ‘he could not have done better than to have gone down, as he was a great impediment lately.’

With Kitchener gone let’s get back to Macdonald.

It is said he was despised by much of the establishment. They despised his common roots, his Highland accent and his down-to-earth manner and his habit of eschewing the company of commanders with double-barrelled names and the kind of pedigree that matters in the world of leg-ups and back-scratching.

At his death it was discovered Macdonald was married with a child. He had married Leith schoolteacher, Christina MacLouchan Duncan and carried a photograph of his son wherever he went. Why the secret? It was difficult in his time to get permission from commanding officers to marry without having a private income and so Macdonald never informed the army of the marriage.

The shock of his sudden death was such that people imagined all kinds of things; that he was not dead and that his coffin was filled with stones or that the body belonged to someone else. Sightings of him were reported from around the world.

At the same time the newspapers were filled with angry defenders of Macdonald condemning the treatment he received from the British establishment.

canon at the Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall (2)

Colonel Stuart-Wortley wrote on the subject to the New York Tribune criticism that newspaper’s salacious treatment of Macdonald’s death, certified in Paris as suicide and mental troubles. He described the great loss to the British Army of one of its ‘most distinguished officers’.

If the British establishment hoped to bury Macdonald quietly in Paris they were to be disappointed.

Drawn into the maelstrom that followed Macdonald’s suicide was Scottish author Neil Munro, a native of Macdonald’s part of Scotland.

He eulogised the dead man and told the War Office that Scotland would not rest until Macdonald was brought home and buried.

The uproar in Scotland when it looked like Macdonald would be quietly shoved into the ground in France forced the authorities to reassess their actions.

Macdonald’s coffin, such as it was, was sealed and sent to London on the boat-train.

Rumours had circulated that Hector Macdonald’s remains had been mistreated while in Paris but this was denied.

In a letter to the family the French clergyman who supervised Macdonald’s remain transfer to Britain wrote, ‘ I venture to say, with all due respect to the nobility, that had he been the son of a duke, an easier way of escape would have been made for him.’

Major General Sir Hector Macdonald was sent home in a rough board coffin. No family member met the coffin off the boat and the undertaker carted away the body, not in the usual hearse, but a ‘common delivery wagon covered with pictorial advertisements’ to the railway station for the onward journey to Edinburgh.

Despite pleadings from his brothers, Macdonald was to be buried with little ceremony in Dean Cemetery. It appears the War Office had pressurised the family on the need for discretion. There were no military honours.

Hector Macdonald memorial Dingwall

The train arrived at Waverly Station at 6am. Crowds waited in the Station. Thousands of others lined the streets of Edinburgh.

 A lone bagpiper played The Floors o’ the Forest.

A small brass plate on the coffin was inscribed – Major General Sir Hector Macdonald, KCB. Born March 4, 1853, Died March 25, 1903.

For months ordinary people from around Scotland and farther afield travelled to Edinburgh, to Dean Cemetery, to pay their respects. On the first Sunday after his burial 30 000 visited his grave. People queued for 3 hours to walk past. The cemetery superintendent turned away people with flowers eventually when the area couldn’t take any more. Years later his grave still attracted considerable numbers of visitors.

One wreath from a foreign person read, ‘From strangers, to one so ill-treated by his own.’

There was public resentment over the low-key disposal of him. Macdonald’s widow, Lady Macdonald sued a man called Thom from Glasgow who wrote a vituperative verse about her. The case was heard by one Lord Stormont Darling. She won. 


 The War Office had been determined to prevent Macdonald finding ‘another way out’ of his ‘crimes’ on the ‘grave charges.’ He was told he would have to return to Ceylon to face a general court martial.

The Governor of Ceylon, Sir Joseph Ridgeway, commented he hoped that when Macdonald left the country he would be replaced by someone with more acceptable ‘antecedents’.

One Ceylonese newspaper reported, ‘Scotsmen are prone, like all humanity, at times, to accept the unwelcome as untrue, and in this case they were slow to discover that the feet of their idol were of clay.’

There was of course a substantial Scottish community in Ceylon which defended the reputation of Macdonald. They were referred to by Ridgeway in a letter of 1903 to the Colonial Office in which he mentioned that the editors of ‘English newspapers, were ‘ex-convicts employed by Scottish Association and others’ who wanted Macdonald’s case reopened. He was going to prosecute these men for what they said about him, Ridgeway – and hoped for their lengthy imprisonment. He was advised not to proceed and so reopen the scandal. 

Macdonald had enraged and humiliated Governor Ridgeway on an occasion he had ordered him off the parade ground. As we know Macdonald had little time for the fraternising with the moneyed class which ran Ceylon preferring the company of local Ceylonese. It didn’t take long for rumours to spread that he was involved in sexual activities with boys.  There was gossip that he had been surprised in a railway carriage with some youths. Soon stories multiplied and witnesses were found to substantiate the allegations against Macdonald – 70 in number which seems an awful lot of witnesses but there you go.

Macdonald’s position in Ceylon was untenable and Ridgeway told him he should go back to Britain.  In Britain homosexual activity of any kind was illegal but his alleged offences were not illegal in Ceylon. He could of course be court martialled and Roberts advised him this was what he would face.

It is difficult to know the truth of what was going on especially when Macdonald’s case file disappeared, presumably destroyed following his suicide. Macdonald strenuously denied that allegations but then he would, wouldn’t he.

Observers who sympathised with Macdonald but accepted his guilt suggested his mental state of mind at the time as extenuating circumstances. A common enough reaction then to acts of homosexuality.

‘In reference to the grave charges made against the late Sir Hector MacDonald, we, the appointed and undersigned Commissioners, individually and collectively declare on oath that, after the most careful, minute, and exhaustive inquiry and investigation of the whole circumstances and facts connected with the sudden and unexpected death of the late Sir Hector MacDonald, unanimously and unmistakably find absolutely no reason or crime whatsoever which would create feelings such as would determine suicide, in preference to conviction of any crime affecting the moral and irreproachable character of so brave, so fearless, so glorious and unparalleled a hero: and we firmly believe the cause which gave rise to the inhuman and cruel suggestions of crime were prompted through vulgar feelings of spite and jealousy in his rising to such a high rank of distinction in the British Army: and, while we have taken the most reliable and trustworthy evidence from every accessible and conceivable source, have without hesitation come to the conclusion that there is not visible the slightest particle of truth in foundation of any crime, and we find the late Sir Hector MacDonald has been cruelly assassinated by vile and slandering tongues. While honourably acquitting the late Sir Hector MacDonald of any charge whatsoever, we cannot but deplore the sad circumstances of the case that have fallen so disastrously on one whom we have found innocent of any crime attributed to him.’

It was widely accepted after his death that Macdonald had never been comfortable in that world, elitist and conceited, that he found himself.  He was perpetually short of money and in debt but remember he had a family in Scotland and did not receive married allowances as he had never disclosed his marriage. And throughout the years of his meteoric rise through the ranks he had made enemies among the most powerful, not least of them Kitchener, upstaged by Macdonald so publicly at Omdurman – Kitchener who demanded Macdonald’s removal from the South African campaign which resulted in Macdonald being sent to India.

Driven to suicide, the honourable way out, personally by the king it has been alleged, Macdonald had then demonstrably broken the law – English law. I don’t know where that would place him. Is the British military covered by English law? Expect it is. Suicide has never been a criminal act in Scotland.

Macdonald’s alleged offences came eight years after Oscar Wilde had been sentenced to 2 years hard labour for practising homosexuality. If what Macdonald was accused of was interfering with young teenagers, by exposing himself, then he had committed a heinous act.

So, why would his records have been destroyed? To spare his family?  To preserve his reputation? Surely not for his suicide was interpreted as confirmation of his guilt. Could it have been the file on his case was fiction from start to finish and implicated Ceylon’s high ranking families, many British, in a plot to blacken the man’s character and destroy the stellar career of an individual who spurned their narrow-minded pompous grandiosity of the trappings of Empire?

The New York Tribune had mentioned in its report of the Macdonald affair on its front page on 25 March 1903 that Lord Roberts, Commander in Chief of the British Army, had at a regimental dinner on the 21st paid tribute to Highland officers but did not mention Macdonald.  At the same dinner, a speaker who had not heard of the brewing scandal did single Macdonald out as a great hero and his words were received in ‘cold silence.’

The morning after Macdonald’s suicide the New York Tribune’s headline read:

‘Scotsmen Unite in Movement to Prove False the Charges Against Late British General Who Shot Himself.’

(c) The Gordon Highlanders Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Was Macdonald the victim of a class-ridden conspiracy?

Were the charges against him true or trumped up?

What exactly was the role played by Britain’s Governor of Ceylon, Ridgeway?

What was being said about Macdonald within military circles by the likes of Kitchener?

We do not know if Macdonald was guilty of the alleged offences or if they were a pack of lies designed to destroy him and his reputation.

He may have indeed been guilty and so not entirely deserving of our sympathy.

If he was homosexual then that was a crime then though not in Ceylon where the alleged offences took place.

In the aftermath of the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde what would the British peoples’ reaction be to another high profile case involving homosexuality?

If Kitchener’s alleged homosexuality was conveniently covered up why not do the same for Macdonald?

How significant was Macdonald’s background instrumental in his being ostracised by the circle he was expected to socialise with?

There is spite, jealousy, vindictiveness and secrecy at every turn of this case. I began looking into it following a visit to Dingwall museum which features Macdonald’s story. I started with a bland acceptance of his ‘guilt’ but now I am certain what happened to him had nothing at all to do with any alleged sexual activity.

The hero and survivor of so many battles to preserve the British Empire finally came up against an enemy he could not defeat – the British Establishment which closed ranks against this upstart Scot from the croft and dispatched him for good.

The huge memorial to Macdonald which towers over Dingwall stands 100 feet high. Not too far away stands a cottage called Ceylon.