Highland Pride, Hector MacDonald, and How to Cover Up a Colonial Crisis

Powerful nonce
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As part of LGBT history month in Scotland, Highland Pride have curated an exhibition in Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. While the exhibition on the whole features some fantastic LGBTQ+ voices, the inclusion of alleged paedophile Sir Hector MacDonald is at best disingenuous and at worst a deliberate and harmful misrepresentation.

February is LGBT History Month Scotland, and as a result Highland Pride are putting on various events and exhibitions around Inverness. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community and someone who’s lived in the Highlands most of their life I’m thrilled to see queer culture celebrated here – a lot has changed since I was a scared kid coming out to a world that didn’t understand and made sure to bully me brutally for being different. With this in mind, I was excited to visit Highland Pride’s community exhibition Highland Pride History – Past and Present at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. Promising interviews with prominent contemporary LGBTQ+ individuals juxtaposed with profiles of historical queerness, this seemed like the perfect beginning to LGBT history month.

Boy was I wrong.

The exhibition is very small – but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s decorated with a range of LGBTQ+ flags and is eye catching, crisp and rather aesthetically appealing. Unfortunately, this was where the excitement ended. I was immediately drawn to the profile of Sir Hector MacDonald; a Gordon Highlanders soldier and later British Army general who was accused at the time of having homosexual relations. What the profile does not state, however, is that these relations were with young boys.

Despite sections of the profile being lifted almost word for word from his Wikipedia page, all mentions of MacDonald’s alleged paedophilia have been removed in Highland Pride’s display. Words repeatedly omitted from the exhibit include “young boys” and “teenage”. The profile also states that MacDonald’s eventual suicide was a result of allegations of homosexual activity – again failing to mention that allegations concerned sexual activity with children. A photograph of the exhibit can be found at the end of this article along with a transcription.

The exhibition states that MacDonald had been “having a sexual relationship with two Burgher men along with regularly visiting a club of dubious repute”. This is taken almost word for word from his Wikipedia page, whilst obfuscating the fact that these ‘Burgher men’ were the teenage sons of a local man, and that the ‘club of dubious repute’ was a known sex club soliciting underage boys to adult men for money. [1] The Wikipedia page explicitly states both of these facts in the same paragraph the as the information presented by Highland Pride; providing compelling evidence that the organisers were aware of the allegations of statutory rape against Hector Macdonald, and chose to edit them out and publish a complimentary narrative about a wronged gay man instead.

Furthermore, these allegations are not merely uncited Wikipedia soundbites. Historian Denis Judd writes “MacDonald had taken advantage of the relatively relaxed Sinhalese attitude towards homosexual activity to become systematically involved with, possibly, scores of local boys” [2].

In Victorian Britain, legislation was only in place criminalising sexual abuse of girls under 13 years old [3] – therefore creating the potential argument that MacDonald’s conduct was not a crime, however I suspect that Highland Pride would agree that regardless of legality, it is morally and ethically unacceptable to sexually abuse children. This begs the question – why was Hector MacDonald included in the exhibition in the first place? The ‘author’ of the profile has deliberately removed all but one reference to sexual conduct with young boys, and the instance wherein it was not removed is ambiguous enough to be misconstrued as young men.

By celebrating MacDonald in a queer context, we suggest that his crimes are acceptable. Not only this, we heighten his profile – perpetuating harmful stereotypes surrounding homosexuality and child abuse. This is neither appropriate nor tolerable in modern society, especially in a political climate such as that of the Scottish Highlands.

Lastly, Highland Pride’s profile of MacDonald states that “homosexuality was not illegal there”, referring to Ceylon or modern-day Sri Lanka. What they fail to mention is that the criminalisation of homosexuality in the British Empire was due to British rule – a despicable truth that many former colonies are still recovering from. Why Highland Pride would choose to celebrate an Imperial British Army General whose role in the Empire directly oppressed the LGBTQ+ communities within the colonies is certainly a question which needs to be raised.

The other profiles within the exhibition are both interesting and informative – despite some spelling errors and questionable referencing. It is refreshing to see an exhibition which puts LGBTQ+ folks, especially transgender people, at the forefront when they’ve found themselves persecuted for centuries for simply existing. Unfortunately, the exhibition was severely let down by the inclusion of MacDonald and the deliberate exclusion of the darker parts of his story. While it’s fantastic to see an LGBTQ+ organisation of Highland Pride’s size and public platform in the Highlands, it is of vital importance that history is accurately reported and is not whitewashed in order to fit a narrative.

“Sir Hector MacDonald was born in 1853 and grew up near Dingwall. He led an extraordinary life, becoming a war hero and respected general and earning himself a few monuments around the country, before his death in 1903. Colloquially known as ‘Fighting Mac’, Sir Hector remains one of the few people known to rise from the ranks to Major General in the armed forces. Hector’s father crofter and stonemason William, and his mother Ann had five children; William, Donald, Ewen, John and Hector. Hector’s brother, William, went on to become a Reverend, known as ‘Preaching Mac’. Hector left school at fifteen to become an apprentice draper in Dingwall before going to work for a tweed warehouse in Inverness. At seventeen, he joined the Gordons [sic] Highlanders at Fort George.

He worked through the non-commissioned ranks quickly and for his service in the Second Afghanistan War was offered the Victoria Cross or a commission. He chose to become a commissioned officer in his regiment and continue his service. In the First Boer War and during the Battle of Majuba Hill he was captured. After his capture General Joubert, of the South African Republic, admired Hector’s bravery so much that he returned Hector’s sword. He went on to serve in Egypt, followed by an effort to evacuate British and Egyptian troops from Sudan at the beginning of the Mahdi War, and then became a captain, training allied Sudanese troops. After fighting in the Battle of Toski Hector was given the Distinguished Servicer [sic] Order.

At the Battle of Omdurman Sir Hector once again distinguished himself. When the British Commander, Lord Kitchener, exposed his flanks, Hector skilfully repositioned his troops in an arc and held ground against the Mahdist army while Lord Kitchener redeployed his troops. After the battle Sir Hector was personally thanked by parliament and appointed an Aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria. Hector went on to fight in South Africa and became a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.

Sir Hector was Commander-in-Chief of British Soldiers in Ceylon, what is now Sri Lanka, when rumours started circulating around his conduct with other men, particularly that he was having a sexual relationship with two Burgher men along with regularly visiting a club of dubious repute. When a local tea planter caught Sir Hector in a railway carriage with four young Sinhalese men and made public allegations, other people then came forward accusing him of sexual relations with many of the sons of renowned people in the colony.

Sir Hector was sent back to London to avoid a scandal, but Lord Roberts, Commander-in-Chief of the army, sent Hector back to Sri Lanka to face a court marshal [sic] – homosexuality was not illegal there at the time. On his journey back, after reading about himself in the breakfast newspaper, he shot himself in the room of his hotel.

After his death Sir Hector was absolved of all allegations against him. He was buried in Edinburgh, and the case files were destroyed.”

 

 

 

[1] Judd, D. (2012). Empire: The British Imperial Experience, from 1765 to the Present. London: I.B. Tauris, p.171.

[2] Judd, Empire, (2012) p.172.

[3] Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Offences against the Person Act 1875, sections 3&4.

 

 

 

 

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