AT THE height of his fame, Sir Hector MacDonald was fêted by Queen Victoria and regarded as the bravest soldier in the British Army.
He was so well known that he even posed for an advert for a popular coffee substitute named – without irony – Camp.
But the glittering career of the Scottish soldier once known throughout the Empire as “Fighting Mac” came to a desperate end when he shot himself in 1903 after becoming embroiled in an underage gay-sex scandal.
Now, 110 years after Victorian society was shocked by the ignominy of his death, an attempt is being made to rehabilitate Sir Hector’s reputation.
A new play written by David Gooderson, based on extensive research, makes the case that the allegations against Sir Hector were false.
Gooderson’s play So Great a Crime is now running at the Finborough Theatre in London and there are hopes it will be performed by the National Theatre of Scotland. It is a story and subject that resonate today amid the Jimmy Savile scandal and the febrile atmosphere that has seen a Tory peer falsely accused of paedophilia.
Gooderson, who has written several plays and is also well-known as an actor for playing Davros in Doctor Who, became interested in Sir Hector’s life after reading his biography. His fascination with the crofter’s son who rose through the ranks to become a major general led to him investigating his death.
Gooderson unearthed an old newspaper article, which had lain unseen for over a century and which, he believes, adds weight to the theory that Sir Hector was blameless.
He said: “The more I looked, the more I found no evidence he was gay, let alone a paedophile. But there was evidence there was a conspiracy against him.”
Before he took his own life, Fighting Mac had performed heroics in two Boer wars and the Anglo-Afghanistan war. His exploits at the Battle of Omdurman cemented British rule in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Given the choice of a Victoria Cross or promotion, he chose a commission.
His downfall had its roots in a posting to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, a job that lacked the excitement of his military campaigns. There, the Gaelic-speaking teetotaller, born in the Highlands in 1853, did not make a good impression with the establishment – failing to sparkle on the cocktail party circuit.
Soon rumours began to circulate about his sexuality. His friendship with two local boys was regarded with suspicion. Scandal erupted, however, when a tea-planter informed Governor Sir Joseph West Ridgeway that he had surprised Sir Hector in a railway carriage with four Sinhalese boys.
Sir Hector followed Sir Joseph’s advice to return to London in an attempt to avoid a scandal. But this infuriated Lord Roberts, commander-in-chief of the army, who was angered Sir Hector had not sought his permission and told him to go back to Ceylon and clear his name in a court martial. Before he could return, Sir Joseph told the Legislative Council in Ceylon that “grave, very grave” charges had been laid against Sir Hector.
A news correspondent picked up Sir Joseph’s comments. Sir Hector read a copy of the New York Herald in the Hotel Regina, Paris, where he was staying as he began his journey back to Ceylon. Sir Joseph’s remarks were plastered across the front page. Unable to cope with the shame, Sir Hector went to his room and shot himself.
His death, on 25 March 1903, meant there was no court martial. Calls for an inquiry were dismissed. The mysterious disappearance of official papers connected to the case thwarted further investigation.
To the annoyance of many, the allegations have stuck, with some history books taking it as read that they are true – despite a lack of proof. According to Gooderson, there is nothing to prove them. He believes Sir Hector was victim of a conspiracy.