Can we all be positive?

 

 

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[Executive Summary: Neil McLennan will share the rationale and learning gained from a wide-ranging exploration of character and values in Scottish education. A national conference was held on Character, Culture and Values in 2015 and from there a subsequent ‘Pathway Project’ Group was designed to work out a coherent plan of action. This led to a shift in thinking from ‘traditional’ forms of character education to a broader construction of ‘character development.’ The approach to making change has similarly taken a new approach.]

Today I travel to Dallas, a city wrenched by the atrocities there of over a week ago. Whoever would have thought that within ten days another such atrocity would occur. Horrific events are occurring the world over. Many of you will recall a recent blog post which was the paper I delivered at the UK Thinker of the Year awards on “Can we bring an end of global terrorism?” Amongst the solutions offered was education, as one would expect.

The conference I am attending next week is about bringing balance back to education between on one side, academics (attainment),and on the other side, character & well-being. In 1998 UNESCO offered a helpful definition of the purpose of schooling:-
Learning to know
Learning to do
Learning to live together
Learning to be

These could almost translate into:-
Knowledge and attainment
Skill development
Cooperative approaches
Health & Wellbeing, Values & Character Development

In Scotland we have done much to work towards parity of esteem in education between knowledge and skills. Cooperative learning is emerging but is no means embedded or consistent. However, are we doing enough for “being human”? Are we explicitly planning for character development or opportunities to consider, develop and learn about values? This is the perhaps next paradigm that needs attention and perhaps some balancing of approaches in Scotland.

Those attending my presentation at the conference might find the following useful pre-reading as it charts the journey of the Pathway Project & Lighting the Sparks report in Scotland. The group are looking at how we form education going forward in Scotland. We have inadvertently capture some of the things which seem to be universally wanted but for some reason are not filtering through in consistent every day practice. Hopefully sharing this with others will help spark conversations in other countries. Moreover, my own learning next week I hope will fan the flames we have already sparked. The time is right for change in education. The evidence is clear, the aspiration is there, the narrative is clear- all it needs now is combined action.The time to be doing something about character and values education could not be more appropriate as we start to consider not just ‘what kind of people does the world need’ but ‘what kind of world do people need.’

Character Scotland 2014 Conference Report:-
https://www.character-scotland.org.uk/conference#.V4kRbk32aM8

Gary Walsh, Lead Author “Lighting the Sparks” Report blog piece on Character Development:-
https://peopleandpowerblog.wordpress.com/2016/07/13/examining-the-field-of-character-education/

Gary Walsh International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement Paper:-

http://www.icsei.net/2016/fileadmin/ICSEI/icsei_2016/publications/160109_ICSEI.pdf

Key Sparks of the Report:-

Sparks 1Sparks 2

What has been so powerful about the Pathway Project/Lighting the Sparks group has been the collaborative and collective way in which diverse views have come together for common good. The groups work is only just at the beginning. This in itself is refreshing. Real and sustained change takes time, effort, buy in and willpower. At a recent CPD course the presenter suggested to make significant and sustained change in a primary school takes up to 5 years; a secondary 5-7 years and a city or local education authority 7-10 years.

Over the next week I am looking forward to hearing where everyone else on their change journey, learning lessons from around the world and hopefully sharing some of them via Scotland’s group of Character Development champions.

Keep an eye on twitter over the next day or two- I will be using the hashtag #SpeakingofValues

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Bloodshed and horror…all for a few yards.

Bloodshed and horror…all for a few yards.

A week ago I blogged about the Battle of the Somme and wrote an article for the Herald newspaper. It was a great privilege to offer comment in a national newspaper on this important commemoration. My message was one of thanks, respect and remembrance to those who gave their lives that day; thanks to those who keep their memory alive and a reminder of how our daily actions can slide into catastrophic consequences if we fail to learn the lessons of the past. Fast forward two weeks and how much has changed- how much ground have we gained?

At this point in time 100 years ago, the Allied gains on the Western Front were minimal to the say the last. The only real breakthrough of the battle saw the 36th Ulster Regiment break through enemy lines however have to return back again that evening as communication lines could not be established to alert commanders of the breakthrough and thus exploit the attack. And so, the war returned to the attrition warfare that now epitomised “The Great War.” Last weekend saw the 100th anniversary of the South African attack on Delville Wood (known to many of them as Devil’s Wood) and the Welsh attack on Mametz Wood. Barring commemorations in those nations, talk of the Somme and the lessons from it has come to as sudden a halt as the Allied advances.

That said the activities arranged to commemorate the Somme deserve signigicant praise and those who arranged them require credit for a wonderful effort and humbling service. The Fife school students who made art representations of soldiers silhettoes in the sand, those who arranged and took part in the #wearehere moving and powerful re-enactment activity and those who arranged and took part in indivuals and group pilgramages to the Somme region over the past period and commemoration events across the Commonwealth.

Since then two other violent catastrophes have hit the world- one in Nice and one in Dallas, Texas- the city I am to visit next week. The Dallas attack, a revenge assault on innocent police officers keeping safety and order at an innocent march following the death of two young Americans. The lessons I mentioned in the newspaper article and blog post appear not to have been learned. The cycle of violence and hate continues.

The photo above shows me tour guiding on the Somme with school children. Many of the Great War veterans returned there to work on the battlefield and in particular on the Commonwealth War Graves. Their return to civilian life in ‘Blighty’ was simply too difficult. Moreover, the return to war almost 20 years later must have been difficult for those who could tell you only too well what war and conflict brought to civilisation. Their only care as they tended Commonwealth War Graves was continuing the support the alliances they had formed- not to nation states but to fellow man before they stepped “over the top.”

The last week also marked the 240th Independence Day celebrations for the United States. That day also saw the 70th Anniversary of the Special relationship. Across the world peace has been founded on the quality of relationships, the solidarity of alliances and the motivation to seek cooperation.

I ended my Somme reflection article in the Herald by asking not “Lest we forget” but, can we start to remember? I always recall one of my mentors in my early teaching career reinforcing, “If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you always had.”

And so I reflect, are we any further forward two weeks on? My guess is that we have travelled only a few yards….. even if that.

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Somme Lesson

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely”
“War is politics by other means”
“We will remember them”

I am writing this not long after attending the Battle of the Somme vigil at the Scottish National War Memorial, Edinburgh Castle. I will blog post it tomorrow minutes before 7.30 at which time I will make my way to pay my respects at the Haymarket Memorial to those from Edinburgh who fell in the ‘Great’ War.

One hundred years ago men all along the Somme front line woke to the summer sun and prepared letters and last thoughts before going into battle. Many were confident and assured although, despite artillery bombardments on German lines and huge mines exploded under them giving weight to commanders assurance, many waited in trepidation at “going over the top.” Their trepidation was well placed as the darkest day of British military history dawned in contrast to the bright glow on French farmlands. Beyond a nation’s grief it was a symbolic catastrophe of civilisation

The Royal British Legion has called on the public to attend their local Commonwealth War Graves and blow a whistle (three short blasts) in remembrance at 7.30am. What should follow from that national rallying call is a thunderous noise of whistles followed by lull and quiet peace of the morning in respectful and reverent silence.

What will follow is more likely to be isolated but deeply respectful acts of remembrance. The limited numbers attending the Beating the Retreat, the Service tonight and associated commemoration events reflects that the world has moved on.

As the quote says, “People Sleep Peacefully in Their Beds at Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready to Do Violence on Their Behalf.”

Much of the world will sleep blissfully unaware, indeed unbothered by the major commemoration taking place. And why should they bother? They owe nothing to the generation slain in 1916…. Or, do they?!

The truth is, that generation were not rough men. They were a cross societal representation of European and international society. They were not war mongers. And yet they laid down their lives in war whose sequence of events forged the world we know today (to say they saved our world would be an over representation). They are however a lost generation.

And yet the cross societal representation tonight, as it will be tomorrow, is and was limited. Twenty thousand died on the first day of the Somme, forty thousand were injured, many in the first hour of battle. We will be lucky if the nation musters that number at 7.30 in remembrance.

International casualty lists from the battle are likewise horrific. Who remembers that more Germans fell in this pivotal clash?

And so, have the lessons be learned? If “war is politics by other means” then, the calm of peace should be a reflective educator by direct means. Sadly, conflict and the peace that followed have not educated. Not only do we see apathy towards remembrance, but a lack of collegiality counteracting conflict. The events of the last few weeks have seen harsh words exchanged, attacks happen and cooperation break down. The entity we are about to leave provided stability and prevented world war. Whilst it can be argued as to whether it’s extended power corrupted, the words exchanged since democratic voting are a indictment of the society democracy aims to achieve. Lest we forget? First, let’s start to remember.

In 1916, 141 days of battle on the Somme region continued. It’s death toll averaged over 890 a day. Two and a half years of war endured beyond this pockmark in the landscape of bloody war. All to be repeated again almost twenty years later. Have we broken the chain? Will history repeat itself? If you haven’t blown a whistle, do a bit by your every day actions. Cooperation over conflict is the key. Cooperation after all is civilisation by other means.

Neil McLennan is a former history teacher, Past President of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History and chairs the Wilfred Owen 1917-2017 Committee.

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It’s Good to Talk

It’s Good To Talk

The greatest thing about theatre is the different reactions, feelings and emotions of seeing, hearing and feeling a production. And yet, theatre itself does not capture that reaction. The most powerful theatre is a tragedy. Furthermore tragedy is not tragedy unless it stirs up a reaction. Again, traditional theatre does not capture that.

Traditional definitions of Art return to “Art for Art’s sake” constructs. However, as Theatre of War, in conjunction with GlenArt, demonstrated powerfully tonight is that it can and should serve a far greater moral purpose.

Tonight saw a wonderful event expertly and creatively coordinated by the splendid Fiona Macdonald. Guests could not fail to be amazed as they approached the blue lit-up Edinburgh Castle towering coldly, but resplendently, over the hubbub up flashing lights and Christmas funfairs below. The Great Hall’s fire provided warmth to those who entered for tonight’s event (and it truly was an event… Much more than merely a performance). The night began with Piper Daniel Laidlaw VC ‘ s pipes being played expertly by a Pipe Major from the Royal Regiment of Scotland. The same pipes that led Scottish KOSB troops out of gas filled trenches at the Battle of Loos in 1915, wonderfully kick started tonight’s affairs. Attendees would be inspired to “go over the top” and take action in support of those who suffer the mental trauma of war.

Jason Issacs, Lesley Sharp and Bryan Doerries then read on the Greek Tragedy of Ajax. Their powerful production was followed by a panel discussion on the impact of war. This was no high faulting panel but was drawn from a local community who know the topic so well. Veterans, charity worked and wife’s of veterans, shared their interpretation of the play whose resonance was as striking now as it was when first heard by Athenian citizenry.

Bryan Doerries then engaged the panel and audience in discussion. It is a well oiled machine having been done over 300 times before from New York to medical units and army barracks in modern day war zones.

Professor Douglas Cairns from Edinburgh University commented in the fact that the Ancient Greeks institutionalised issues. One did not just read The Iliad , but in Athenian Society all went to the Theatre on mass.

It makes for an interesting reflection. Do we need to establish more “community” around key issues? Would this allow for more cathartic renewal, understanding and momentum to be created? With many issues, there is no one easy reconfigurable truth (those who believe so are deluded) and it is an ongoing process of learning, development and progress within concepts and discourse.

With significant issues, like PTSD and mental health issues, the primary mode of therapy is talk. So with that in mind, can I add my appreciation and advocacy of projects like “Outside the Wire”/Theatre of War and GlenArt?

The Greeks knew you just could not bottle certain things up and there needed to be the cathartic cleansing and refreshing of theatre.

The first of Doerries questions tonight was why did Sophocles write at all? My own thoughts as an educator and historian were around a) the process of recording and b) part of his own learning process (making sense and reflecting). Other answers ranged from guilt, cleansing to triumphant aims. The last of the three main questions that facilitated flowing conversation tonight was “how often do we intentionally or unintentionally leave people alone?” The military piper who had earlier played Laidlaw ‘s pipes so proudly reflected from the audience they in the last month a fellow soldier had confided in him that he was contemplating suicide. Before seeking professional help, the piper slept on hid friends floor that night to be with him and protect. The news was a bolt from the blue.

And so, and event like tonight…. Punchy, pride ensuing, pity evoking and Powerful…. Did it galvanise me to do more? Well, as Professor a Cairns and Doerries stated, Greek tragedy was to comport the afflicted and afflict the comforted.

Theatre of War presents again tomorrow at Mackintosh Queens Cross, Glasgow.

http://www.glenart.co.uk/g/

http://www.outsidethewirellc.com

PostScript
As I return on the train I ponder the tragedy of Ajax… His fearsome, terrifying figure set against the strong honour values and leadership he displayed. Tonight, and ongoing, we witnessed the collaborative leadership of modern day heroes like Fiona Macdonald whose values create strong forces against some of the fearsome and terrifying forces facing communities today.

A final word goes to my favourite quote if the evening and one much used by my fellow do author Kevin Murphy. We proudly used it in our first book together, Determined to Succeed. It aptly sums up thoughts on a magnificent evening brought together by some wonderful people who are creating momentum with their powerful actions.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” (Roosevelt)

NB apologies for any typos. A hastily written review on a busy and bumpy train journey home!

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Neil’s November Challenge – #GivingTuesday extension

Dear tweeters

You will see below that I have embarked on four arduous challenges this month in return for supporting four charities. Each week we have smashed the target set. However, now that Black Friday (awful thing!) has passed, I am (as you would expect) going to raise the bar even further! Between now and the end of #GivingTuesday I am going to try and raise over double the £400 made so far for the four charities below. If we can break the £1000 mark I will keep the beard until the RSE Young Academy of Scotland plenary meeting on Dec 14th.. I will probably look like Forrest Gump by then…. But hey ho, all for a good cause. If the figure stays where it is ….my wife will be pleased to have a cleanly shaven husband. If the figures hits £1000 overall….four happy charities before Christmas.

See the email below and thanks for your support…. Sincere thanks to those who have supported already!

Best wishes

Neil

Dear Twitterati

This month Neil McLennan has embarked on a No-Vember a Charity Challenge.

“THE CHALLENGES:-
No-shaving. I will continue to keep this facial growth until December in return for donations to charity.
No-beer. Having missed October’s dryathalon, I am going to do it now in November. Again, to keep me off the booze can you guys please keep to fundraising targets?
No-Facebook. This is going to be hardest. (I will keep to a weekly check in re facial growth, some quick updates and to keep promoting these fab charities).
No moaning- we have enough negativity in the world so a month of being happy with our lot is my target.

And THE REWARD
To help keep me off Facebook and filling your walls with endless education chat; to keep me from drinking, shaving and moaning can you help raise a whopping amount each week for some great charities?”

Each week Neil’s donors has hit the £100 target within days and even hours. In this, the final week of his challenge he is hoping to double the donations for each charity making it £200 in total for each one and even try to break the £1000 mark overall.

Neil is looking for your help to support Friends of Anchor (cancer care and research charity), The Compassionate Friends (support for families who suffer a child bereavement), PoppyScotland and the Samaritans. The links for each charity are below, please consider donating to help some of great causes.

http://www.justgiving.com/Neil-McLennan4
https://www.justgiving.com/Neil-McLennan3
https://www.justgiving.com/Neil-McLennan1
https://www.justgiving.com/Neil-McLennan2

Each week Neil has received support and backing from some other bearded figures who have “checked in” and confirmed Neil’s beard growth. A few updates are attached to the links.

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Actor Jason Isaacs does the beard check-in at a Theatre of War / Glenart event (more of which in next blog post) at The Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle tonight.

Sent from my iPad

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#BeingHuman with Terry Waite OBE

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Some people dream of visiting the Seven Wonders of the World. For me wonders come in all shapes and sizes…. And more importantly as well as places or things, they come in the form of some inspirational people. If the Seven Wonders of the World were people I think I had the pleasure of meeting one of them this week.

Aberdeen University’s brilliantly supported and created #BeingHuman Festival as part of the first Festival of Social Humanities (www.abdn.ac.uk/beinghuman) brought 77 year old Terry Waite OBE north to the Granite City. It was an event skilfully facilitated by Professor Anne Glover in which the audience were given a deep and meaningful insight. The title of the session “Survival in Solitude” being in my diary must have perplexed my colleagues as to how I viewed my team working (thankfully I work with a brilliant team of people and would not need to go on such a course….. if indeed one existed!).
Waite spoke for around an hour and I had the pleasure of spending a short amount of time with him afterwards. Although, in this short amount of time I felt as though I knew the man well and certainly came away feeling as though he knew something of me and really cared. The true sign of a good leader is how they make you feel when they walk away.
Waite’s story is well known as a church envoy and negotiator trying to free four hostages in the Lebanon in the late 1980s. It was a situation that turn for the worst with his capture. It was to last for a number of years with over four of them in solitary confinement.

Waite talked much about surviving that experience and many quotes sparked imagination when he spoke. However one which he mentioned early on struck a chord and a chain of thought throughout his presentation and after. “Good language has the capacity to breathe harmony into the soul.” For me his speech and his message was s one of cooperation and, more importantly communication, in the face of conflict, and now increasingly, complexity in our fast changing world. Whilst the purpose of the lecture was not around books- his reflection on books was very apt around Scottish Book Week.

Waite reflected on his re-reading of poetry and the Book of Common Prayer in his head as a means of survival. He was, and is not, a clergyman but a layman. His faith endured and both the word of God and words in general came through as constant supports when in solitude. He told of him writing his autobiography in his head during his time in captivity. He only had pencil and paper but two times and made do with forming up the ideas, the structure and the content in his head- all the time storing it for his eventual release from captivity.

His enduring faith in humanity and solid adherence to communication and cooperation were consistently clear throughout discussions. One episode helped to highlight this beautifully. His guards released him from the shackle of his chains during a time when he was very much so unwell. He was allowed to go to the toilet. On arriving in the cubical he found an automatic weapon on top of the toilet. Naturally thoughts started to rush through his head. Interestingly, when I mentioned this to others they immediately spoke about the thought of taking ones of life. This was at no point even mentioned by Waite on the night. The only thought was the initial rush as to whether he could use this as an opportunity for escape. However, just as quick as that thought came into his mind, it was replaced by the thought as to why he was there in the first place. He had arrived in the country to negotiate the release of prisoners though peaceful means. As such, he could not and would not, use this as an opportunity to shoot his way out of captivity. On leaving the toilet he informed the guard of their careless leaving of the weapon in the cubical and was returned to chains against the radiator in the room where he was held. A marvellous example of real life application of the morals and values by which one leads their life in the face of potential diversion. A wonderful comment was that of the unintended consequences that can come from what seem logical and clear actions. “Release a dictator by force and you release forces you cannot control.” Sometimes we need to let natural law take its course.

Whilst Waite kept communication top of his mind with thoughts of poetry and song he also pleaded for books from his captors. There was a perverse irony when one of the first books he got given was “Great Escapes”. Another, “A Manual of Breastfeeding” was perhaps of less potential value. The guard himself clearly was unable to read. As he read through the small number of books he had the guard insisted “read slower, read slower.”

On the second occasion of being given paper and pencil (the first was during a sick mock execution early in his capture) Waite used it to draw a picture of a penguin. This drawing was perhaps as misplaced as the Breastfeeding Guide, however it was his symbol and communication to the guard. Despite his illiteracy the guard now knew what symbol to look for when sourcing books and was able to bring Waite the sort of literature he yearned for. Mills and Boon were endured and Westerns were acceptable, albeit he did not really get into them!

Just as the written word and spoken word served to help his survival, so too did song. When guards asked him to sing Waite regaled them with “God Save our Gracious Queen” and the hymn “Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past.” During the last week of his captivity a $10 radio was placed in his room. He managed to connect with the BBC World Service and listened to the Last Night of the Proms. His thanks for the World Service and enormous debt of gratitude is one we should reflect on where good, free, open and helpful communication are valuable in a world where communication is often misused and as a result its freedom placed in jeopardy.

Whilst music and words played its part, so too did more discrete and evasive communication. Tapping his name constantly on the wall in a basic code (1=A, 2=B, 3=C, 4=D and so on) he was taken aback, although not altogether surprised, when messages starting coming back through the wall. He had always suspected another prisoner was kept in the area and John McCarthy, held in the room next door and they updated on news such as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Waite received little other communication from the outside world. However did receive one card from a lady back home. On his release he asked the lady how she managed to get the card to him. An envelope addressed TERRY WAITE, C/O HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON seemed to do the trick! Ironic given Hezbollah still deny capturing Waite! Waite was to later return to meet his captors twenty years later. That in itself was a story worth listening too.

However his release and return to normal life took time to sink in. “It was like coming up from the seabed” Waite explained, “like a deep sea diver, you need to take it easy”. A Cambridge fellowship ensured and this allowed him time to think and not rush back into anything. His later work with Hostage UK has helped many families who have went through the agony of losing loved ones and not knowing if they are going to come home or even if they are alive.

I asked Terry “how do we ensure communication and cooperation is at the heart of our workings in a world of conflict and chaos.” His focus was on trust. “Political settlement cannot happen unless there is some degree of trust on the ground” he affirmed. And his response was by no means idealistic. When focussing on the current state of affairs we discussed the brutality of the forces currently at humanities’ pearl. Regrettably, for the protection of people in the region, there will need to be some force used. We are living with a situation that is no longer a local problem but a global one. Force after all sends out its own communication. Whilst it needs better global cooperation that might be around this common theme to start with. Early signs of that emerged with historic images in the past week of President Obama and President Putin sat huddled together over a coffee table. The time spent together and the open communication was as progressive and it was overwhelming to witness.

It is perhaps sad to reflect that their unity and common identity is against “the other”. I would also reflect that outpouring of support for the French flag over the past week- facebook pages changed, world heritage sites and major buildings lit up and flags waved- can only really unite people in adversity. It is a well known phenomenon that it is easier to identify with what you are against than positively affirm what you are for. How sad it is that it is only when there is a common enemy that we can declare what was stand for and unite. When will the world unite for humanitarian purposes- education, clear water, food and shelter? Maybe even peaceful coexistence. This message is exactly the same for those undertaking the attacks. It is a message for all those who find it easier to continue to cycle of violence than grapple with the more challenging issue of peace. How do we end the alienation that leads to extremism and radicalisation?

To conclude, my time with Mr Waite was a once in a lifetime experience and an educational experience in humanity. His real interest in the charity work of my Neil’s No-member Charity Challenge was delightful although his feeling that I should keep my beard was less warmly welcomed by my wife nor my mother! Alas, he cannot get it all right. After all, he is only #BeingHuman

Neil’s November Charity Challenge is ongoing with four charities benefiting from a month with No Shaving, No Facebooking (except weekly updates on beard growth), no drinking and a conscientious effort not to moan)
Donations are gratefully received for the following charities. Please “breathe harmony into the soul” by communicating through your own good donations:-
Poppy Scotland (supporting Veterans and their families):- https://www.justgiving.com/Neil-McLennan2/

The Compassionate Friends (supporting families who suffer child bereavement) https://www.justgiving.com/Neil-McLennan1/

Friends of ANCHOR (Supporting Cancer Care and Research) https://www.justgiving.com/Neil-McLennan3/

Samaritans (supporting whoever needs it at any time!) https://www.justgiving.com/Neil-McLennan4/

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Hector the Hero

hector

(Pic from Eden Court Website)

Hector, or Hector the Hero as I will always refer to him, lived up to all expectations and more. I found out about the play having recently taken the train to Inverness with a history teaching colleague to watch Not for the Heroes at Eden Court. Not only was I impressed with this production but was very impressed upon my first visit to Eden Court. A fabulous venue which on the day we visited, was busy with a mix of students adding to their English Literature Studies and History pursuits alongside more seasoned theatre campaigners.
Signing up to Eden Court’s mailing lists I was taken by the advert for Hector showing a die cast of a White Pith Helmet wearing Gordon Highlander apparently knocked down and face down. A more striking image to capture the demise of this heroic Scotsman could not be found.
This time, my wife and I chose to watch the production at Woodend Barn in Banchory. Like Eden Court, this was a new experience but one to be repeated. A fantastic venue combining a lovely eatery with warming, rustic artisan fair on a dark, cold night; a relaxed lounge area with a broad selection of books; a gallery (on our visit displaying an exhibition exploring the toils, tears and tribulations of families in the oil and gas industry who move around the world) and the flexible space in which the theatre production was staged.
Hector, or “Fighting Mac”, as he was often also referred to, was a figure of interest to me during my university days. The story of the son of a crofter turned soldier turned Major General startled the imagination. Hailing from the Black Isle Hector MacDonald went on to serve his country with distinction in the Second Afghan War. Here he was offered a Victoria Cross or a commission. Hector perhaps felt this his kairos. Little was he to know that it was to turn to peripeteia. His move up the ranks had been phenomenal and perhaps he should have taken the medal and all that went with it.
A dark brown cross pattee, made from cannons captured from the Russians during the Crimean War hanging from this Scotsman’s broad cheats by a crimson ribbon would have looked very grand indeed. Unlike other military decorations where his name would be inscribed around the edge of the medal on this piece COLOUR SERGEANT HECTOR ARCHIBALD MACDONALD, GORDON HIGHLANDERS would have been inscribed on the back. Furthermore he would have gained an annual annuity which at the time of offer would have been £10; although in 1898 Victoria raised the pension to £50 for those who could near earn a livelihood (today holders of the VC and GC are entitled to £10,000 per year for their valor).
Nevertheless Hector declined the piece of metal and being bought and sold for English gold. The medal was never inscribed and the tax man never opened his pooch. Hector opted to continue his Boys Own Adventure. He fought in the Boer War and at the Battle of Majuba Hill again came to the attention of his superiors for his heroism. This time a sword was the reward for this distinguished service. Later he saved Kitchener’s reputation in the Mahdist War, during the battle of Omdurman, using not only gallus but also tactical awareness and superior thinking under pressure. After the South Africa War he was knighted after further “daring do” at Bloemfontein and Pretoria.
His next deployment was to command in India and from there he was moved nearly a year later to Command British forces in Ceylon (since 1972 Sri Lanka). Famous for its export of cinnamon, rubber and tea , this was to be a very different posting for Hector. And so the play picks up the story…
Unable to find his footing within high colonial society, Hector applies the same brutish force to command of volunteer troops much to the displeasure of local socialites.
A secret wife and child back in London are unveiled in the play. Whilst benefiting from monies sent back by Hector, the hidden MacDonald’s are deprived of the sort leadership of the family which he reserved for marshalling men of arms. Whilst his family is not known about amongst Ceylon society, what is becoming fast known about is his meeting with his bank clerk’s two boys. With perceptions wrong, but firmly fixed, the “influencers” of British Ceylon society make it their business to engineer the downfall of the Scots military commander. When it looks like their plot is going to result in unpredicted “friendly fire” in their own camp they make it their mission to ensure there is no way back for Hector and not only do they rid their high society of his rougher ways but that he as a man falls completely. A whispering campaign followed up by unscrupulous reporting and investigative journalism ensures that everyone reading about Hector puts two and two together. The heroic figure that had appeared upon cigarette cards is now taboo and out of favour. Seeing no way back Hector avoids a planned court martial by ending his own life with a pistol. A sad end given the way in which he had not only avoided bullet and sword before but also protected so many front line soldiers and superiors (Roberts and Kitchener amongst them) by his service and superior command.
This Ed Littlewood production wonderfully captures the injustice. The system puts you there and the system takes you away. The inference could not be clearer.
On reflection, the play could be perceived to reflect on Scottish-English tensions. However it wisely makes no explicit reference to this now overdone construct. Some audiences will however see or make the inference. Looking at the present and the future though there are others more than happy to take up the baton of power and assume “the elite” positon. What is more, they are happy to wreck others lives in the process of their own enthroning and maintenance of the grandeurs that accompany such authority. Detractors beware, the force is strong with this one.
The juxtaposition of the Woodend Barn art gallery “oil and gas families” exhibition and Hectors life and downfall also bore a striking and starling resemblance. Chasing adventure, pursuing “the ultimate win”, travelling the world and service comes at a cost. At least it does when there are home comforts and responsibilities to consider alongside these noble pursuits. On this evening, the venue was very comfortable and both the venue and the truly excellent cast met their responsibility – of providing an entertaining evening of theatre and meeting the heroic expectations of all who attended.
On leaving one could hear Banchory loon James Scott Skinner’s 1903 fiddle lament Hector the Hero. As ever, the only high ground is the moral high ground. Hector’s name lives on and his service story is respected and remembered. Through music and the name we conjure up images of the man and what he stood for. What is more in 1900 Hector was 25th most popular baby name. By 1950, 1975 and 2000 it had dropped from the top 100. It is now reemerging. But then, maybe this is in reference to the Monarch of the Glen’s Laird, or indeed the Trojan Prince or possibly even the Arthurian legend- Arthur’s foster father or indeed the half-brother of Lancelot, Knight Hector de Maris. Thankfully some things are universal and international! Maybe we should travel more of the world after all and immerse ourselves more in cultural curiosity. Maybe it smooths the rough edges!

Hector plays at various venues across the country from now until December. Full details at http://www.edlittlewood.com/?portfolio=hector

A huge congratulations to the cast and all involved. One wonderfully put together production.

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