Published: 12/10/2015 16:30 - Updated: 16/10/2015 16:37

Controversial Highland Hero Is Brought Home

Stephen Duffy as Hector.
Stephen Duffy as Hector.

BRINGING a Highland hero home is a potentially daunting task for actor Steven Duffy.

Playing the title role in Hector, David Gooderson’s play about Victorian national hero Major-General Sir Hector MacDonald, brings Duffy to the Highland homeland of the Black Isle born soldier whose life, and death, are still the subject of controversy over a century after his suicide in a Paris hotel.

The crofter’s soon enlisted in the Gordon Highlanders in Dingwall at the age of 17. Famously declining the army’s highest decoration, the Victoria Cross, in favour of a commission, he eventually rose to the rank of major-general and became a national celebrity following service in Sudan and South Africa.

Appointed commander-in-chief of the British forces in Ceylon, he was accused of sexual misconduct with both European and Ceylonese youths and took his own life when faced with the prospect of a court martial.

Yet in Scotland, he remained a hero. Some 30,000 people attended his funeral in Edinburgh, fiddler James Scott Skinner composed the lament Hector The Hero and a 100-foot high monument, financed by public subscription, was built overlooking Dingwall.

"Whether it be the real man or a romanticised image of the man, people have a very set view, love him or loathe him," Duffy said.

"This is something that has a legacy and is still a very sensitive subject, especially up in Dingwall and the Black Isle. We just want to do it justice."

Self-described "history anorak" Duffy has no recordings or film footage of MacDonald to help him with his portrayal, but says reading about MacDonald has given him a very good picture of the soldier.

"He was very open and honest. He commended people by respect rather than by barking orders at them," Duffy said.

"Being a professional soldier, he can appear as very strict, but he had a bit of a devilish sense of humour. That helps give you a more well rounded character to play."

It may be a historical piece, but the play, which is directed by Kate Nelson and co-stars Gowan Calder, Raj Ghatak, Stevie Hannan, Valentine Hanson and Kevin Lennon, does carry some contemporary resonances.

Some of the places where MacDonald made his name, like Afghanistan and Sudan, are contemporary flashpoints, while the aspects of MacDonald’s treatment by the media and claims of a public figure sexually abusing young boys can also be seen reflected in more contemporary news stories.

Duffy, whose career breakthrough came in the film Small Faces in 1995, prefers not to give a definitive answer as to whether MacDonald was guilty of the alleged offences that led to his downfall.

"The fact that he never got his day in court and a chance to answer these allegations, that for me almost becomes irrelevant," he said.

"It was how the accusation was handled and how he responded to it. There is an implication that because he killed himself, he was guilty. But was he? What’s important was that he was condemned before he got a chance to defend himself."

Hector, written by David Gooderson, is at the Empire Theatre, Eden Court, at 7.30pm on Wednesday, before embarking on a UK tour that will include dates at The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen on Tuesday 27th October; Astley Hall, Arisaig, on Tuesday 17th November; Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Skye, on Wednesday 18th November; before concluding at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, on Wednesday 9th December.

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