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Hector MacDonald, A Hero Still
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Hector MacDonald, A Hero Still

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Many pipers love playing and hearing the tune, "Hector the Hero." It's a stirring piece of music. But who exactly was "Hector?"

Hector MacDonald, or "Fighting Mac" as he was known, was born March 04, 1853 on a farm near Dingwall, Ross-shire, Scotland. His parents provided him with a good but modest childhood. At age eighteen he joined the Gordon Highlanders and began his military career. MacDonald showed remarkable leadership and military skills during the Afghan Campaign of 1879 and moved up the ranks from private to officer. This was an unusual feat during this time as most officers came from the upper classes of British society. The public took note as this common soldier progressed up the ranks, ultimately becoming Brigadier General as "one of only a few British Army generals who rose from the ranks on his own merit and professionalism", and being Knighted for his service in the Second Boer War by Queen Victoria.

His career took a toll on him however, and he suffered many serious injuries, as well as heat stroke and what today, we now know of as PTSD. His mental state deteriorated, even as he enjoyed a relatively quiet command of the army in the British colony of Ceylon. He grew increasingly harsh to his men, who once looked up to him as being one of them rather than the upper class. He made enemies of leaders of the colony.

Rumors and innuendo grew regarding Sir MacDonald’s homosexual activities with young men, both natives and the sons of colonial leaders. Such behavior was considered quite serious and scandalous at the turn of the last century. Things got so heated that the Governor sent him back to London. Shortly thereafter, the Army told him to return to Ceylon to stand court martial. While they said it was to clear his name, MacDonald feared it would tarnish his good name and reputation. On March 25, 1903, in a Paris hotel, Hector MacDonald took his own life rather than face humiliation and exile.

While the government wanted to minimize the impact of his suicide, the public would have none of it. More than 30,000 attended the funeral of this respected, common man who had worked his way up the ranks to the top of the military world. In an odd twist, it was discovered that at 31, MacDonald had secretly married a woman half his age, who had borne him a son.

James Scott Skinner, the well-known Scottish composer and fiddler of the day, was a close friend of Sir Hector. Two days after his death, Skinner penned a lament of almost unsurpassed beauty in his honor called “Hector the Hero”. It remains popular today for various instruments including fiddle, piano, guitar and bagpipes. Thomas McWilliam, wrote the following lyrics. Written in 1903, the words and music to "Hector the Hero" have passed into the public domain.

Lament him, ye mountains of Ross-shire;
Your tears be the dew and the rain;
Ye forests and straths, let the sobbing winds
Unburden your grief and pain.

Lament him, ye warm-hearted clansmen,
And mourn for a kinsman so true
The pride of the Highlands, the valiant MacDonald
Will never come back to you.

O, wail for the mighty in battle,
Loud lift ye the Coronach strain;
For Hector, the Hero, of deathless fame,
Will never come back again.

Lament him, ye sons of old Scotia,
Ye kinsmen on many a shore;
A patriot-warrior, fearless of foe,
Has fallen to rise no more.

O cherish his triumph and glory
On Omdurman's death-stricken plain,
His glance like the eagle's, his heart like the lion's
His laurels a nation's gain.

O, wail for the mighty in battle,
Loud lift ye the Coronach strain;
For Hector, the Hero, of deathless fame,
Will never come back again.

O rest thee, brave heart, in thy slumber,
Forgotten shall ne'er be thy name;
The love and the mercy of Heaven be thine;
Our love thou must ever claim.

To us thou art Hector the Hero,
The chivalrous, dauntless, and true;
The hills and the glens, and the hearts of a nation,
Re-echo the wail for you.

O, wail for the mighty in battle,
Loud lift ye the Coronach strain;
For Hector, the Hero, of deathless fame,
Will never come back again.

Take Action

Hear "Hector the Hero" performed by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards
Hear "Hector the Hero" sung by North Sea Gas
Piping with Style and Emotion With Robert Mathieson

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Tom Crawford Tom Crawford is Pipe Major for North Atlanta Pipes & Drums and a piping instructor in Marietta GA. He’s been piping since 2000, when he began his studies with Winter Taylor. Tom has played rock, blues, country and Celtic music for nearly 50 years. He’s been a member of Keltic Kudzu since 2006, where he plays mandolin, bouzouki, whistle, and of course pipes. Tom has played and competed up and down the Atlantic coast, as well as in Canada and Ireland.

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