(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.