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Scotland in music

Review by Edward Scott Pearlman

On March 25, 1903, one of the heroes of Victorian Scotland, Hector Macdonald, known as "Fighting Mac,"returned to his room from breakfast at a Paris hotel and shot himself. Two days later, the great fiddler and composer James Scott Skinner wrote one of his most famous and moving tunes, "Hector the Hero."

Raised in a small town near Dingwall, north of Inverness, Major-General Sir Hector Macdonald had risen quickly through the ranks of the British army, distinguishing himself with feats of daring, discipline and leadership in Afghanistan, Egypt, Sudan, India and South Africa. There were those who dubbed him the greatest Scottish soldier since William Wallace.

Macdonald had been appointed aide-de-camp to both Queen Victoria and King Edward VII and was feted throughout the UK, though his humble origins did not prepare him for the gushing plaudits of society. His high position in the army was made possible by the Cardwell Reforms of 1871, which allowed for promotion based on merit and abolished the purchase of commissions in the army by well-off seekers of glory who were not always the most qualified of military leaders.

That morning at the Paris hotel, Macdonald was startled to see his photo in the international edition of the New York Herald, accompanied by a story about "grave accusations" of "immorality" against him. Macdonald, who was commander of British forces in Ceylon at the time, had been given an ultimatum in London by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Lord Roberts (whose life Macdonald had saved in combat in Afghanistan), to either leave the army or clear his name via court-martial. He was on his way to the court-martial when he made his fateful stop in Paris.

Three months after his death, Macdonald was exonerated by a commission report stating that no evidence of a crime could be found, and blaming the scandal on "vulgar feelings of spite and jealousy in his rising to such a high rank of distinction in the British Army."

After three overnight journeys by ferry and two trains, Hector Macdonald's body arrived in Edinburgh for a private funeral at Dean Cemetery at 6 a.m. on Monday, March 30, 1903. By Lady Macdonald's strict orders, no military personnel from Edinburgh Castle were permitted to attend. The following Sunday, however, some 30,000 mourners stood in line at the cemetery gates so they could pay their last respects to "Fighting Mac."

Channeling the feelings of the nation at the time, James Scott Skinner's manuscript of "Hector the Hero" describes the tune as "The Coronach -- all crying together."

The full text of this column is available in the Spring 2019 issue of Scottish Life.

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