Obituary: John MacKay, Scottish hotelier whose lifelong romance was forged in the crucible of war

John MacKay and Edith Steiner on their wedding day
John MacKay and Edith Steiner on their wedding day
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John MacKay MBE, Commando and hotelier. Born 10 January 1921 in Glasgow. Died 30 April, 2019 in Broughty Ferry, 
aged 98

John MacKay’s romance with a beautiful young Hungarian began in the shadow of the Second World War’s darkest chapter – the Nazis’ Final Solution.

The courageous Scots commando and former prisoner of war met the teenage Edith Steiner shortly after she had been liberated from the torture of a forced march from Auschwitz death camp towards the equally notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

They first encountered each other in a displaced persons’ facility where MacKay had gone from his Army base to invite some of the women refugees to a Saturday night dance. He was immediately smitten by the dark-haired girl in the red sweater, black skirt and high heels.

Over the next few months they fell in love and, despite inevitable obstacles – she was stateless and had no passport – went on to marry in Germany, settle in Scotland and enjoy an affair of the heart that lasted more than 70 years.

It was a love story made all the more remarkable by the fact that MacKay had been captured at Tobruk and had not long returned from Italy, where he had escaped a PoW camp and spent nine months in hiding in the hills, six of them dug into a cave.

Known to family and friends as Jock, he was the son of champion racehorse owner and breeder Captain Norman “Norrie” MacKay and his wife Marguerite or “Lolly”. He, his sister Noreen and brothers Peter and Gordon were raised by a succession of nannies.

Educated privately at a Sussex prep school and senior school on the outskirts of London, he initially embarked on a career as a City banker. He soon changed course to become a management trainee at the luxury Langham hotel in London, while serving as a territorial recruit with the London Scottish Regiment.

He later enlisted in the Army ranks and remained, by choice, an NCO through the war. After spending his first year guarding London docks he volunteered for training with 9 Commando in September 1940 and travelled to South Africa with David Stirling and Paddy Mayne, who would go on to found the SAS, and with Geoffrey Keyes, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for a fearless raid on Rommel’s HQ.

As part of the Commando layforce he served in the Middle East, where he met commando Dallas Allardice, later to become his fellow POW and a Scottish international rugby player.

A member of the Long Range Desert Group and 11 Commando, he then served at Tobruk. MacKay and Allardice, who were both Mentioned in Dispatches, were captured there and ended up in Camp 70, in Fermo in Le Marche on Italy’s Adriatic coast, in November 1942.

In a parallel with the PoWs of the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III, they dug a tunnel from under their accommodation beside the barrier wall and concealed the earth in their trouser legs, sneakily releasing it as they strolled around the camp.

As it happened, they did not use the tunnel but employed an equally dangerous, though less arduous, escape technique involving a stash of old pieces of Italian Fascist uniforms. The clothing had been provided to keep inmates warm during the winter. And in September 1942, around ten months after arriving at the camp, which was co-run by Nazis, they casually walked up to the perimeter, disguised in the old uniforms.

Fortunately for them it was a Sunday and they came across an empty office, wandered in, opened a window onto the street and climbed out, making off into the hills.

There then followed a nine-month odyssey in which they tramped the Appenines, dodging the enemy numerous times.

Aided by brave local families who risked their lives to give them food and shelter, by November they were in the tiny Apennine hamlet of Scarafano, where farmer Domenico Ciccone took them in. The soldiers initially helped on the farm but, conscious of the great danger their presence posed to the young family, they moved to a forest above the farmhouse and dug out a cave, only surfacing for food under cover of darkness.

By the spring of 1944 they had dug another cave but could now hear RAF Spitfires roaring overhead. After six months living in the wild they left Scarafano in June 1944, met some other British soldiers and arrived in Naples, where MacKay’s brother was a major. Three days later they were on a ship bound for Glasgow. Back in Britain, MacKay served with the Black Watch before being posted to active service abroad again, this time in Germany.

The spring of 1945 saw him stationed at the British army base in Bad Lippspringe, where Saturday evening dances were popular among the troops but fraternising with the local girls was forbidden. Hearing that there was a displaced persons camp in the nearby village of Kaunitz, he headed off there, rapidly returning with a truck full of girls.

Edith, or Eci, a stylish 19-year-old, caught his eye but MacKay initially asked a friend to approach her. She sent him back insisting he ask her himself, which he did.

Months of dancing and courting followed until he learned that his sweetheart, who had lost her brother and father in Auschwitz, was due to leave the area. She and her mother were scheduled to take illegal transport through the Russian zone to Palestine.

The news devastated him but also confirmed his feelings and on April 17, 1946, Mackay proposed – on the back of a three-ton truck. Edith had neither passport nor nationality but he persuaded his commanding officer to let him apply for permission from Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. They married in the Protestant church in Bad Lippespring exactly three months after their engagement, held their wedding breakfast in the camp at Kaunitz and honeymooned at the British army hotel in nearby Arnsberg 
Forest.

With MacKay’s demobilisation arranged, in August 1946 the couple made their way to Britain, where he returned to his previous career, working as an assistant hotel manager at hotels including The Caledonian in Edinburgh, Liverpool’s Adelphi and Gleneagles in Perthshire.

Their son Peter, an award-winning cinematographer in Los Angeles, was born in 1949. Daughter Sharon, who helped organise this year’s Scottish Parliament Holocaust Memorial event, arrived in 1954.

A couple of years earlier McKay’s father had bought the Atholl Arms Hotel at Blair Atholl, which MacKay managed for 30 years. In retirement he became a Conservative councillor, chaired his local Conservative Association and Perth & Kinross Council’s economic development committee and was the longest-serving chairman of Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s board. In 2000 he was made an MBE for services to the town.

He and Edith, who were utterly devoted to each other, latterly moved together to a care home in Broughty Ferry. She died there in 2017, a few months after they celebrated their 71st Valentine’s Day as a married couple.

ALISON SHAW