When cousin Moyra was a young girl visiting Edinburgh, her uncle Tom took her to St Giles' Cathedral. To demonstrate her family's military connections, he wanted to show her the large brass plaque under the cathedral's stained glass windows overlooking the historic Lawnmarket at the heart of the city. This plaque commemorated the men of the 42nd Royal Highlanders – the Black Watch – who had died in action, of wounds, or from disease while responding in 1882 to a threat to the security of the Suez Canal.
Among those who had died of disease in the Egyptian campaign was 1451 Sergeant Donald McKenzie, whose grave lay in a cemetery near Cairo. His father, 1150 Private (later Corporal) Donald McKenzie (hence my use of regimental numbers to distinguish them), had also served with the 42nd Royal Highlanders on an earlier campaign during the Crimean war. Despite having been wounded, he had acted with exceptional bravery as a sharp-shooter at the siege of Sebastopol in 1854, when he had volunteered to crawl under fire towards an old Russian trench to bring in a colleague believed to have been wounded. For this he was later to receive both British and French gallantry medals.
It is well known that Queen Victoria had a special respect for the brave soldiers of her Highland Regiments (remember her faithful personal servant John Brown), and when the Black Watch returned after the Crimean war and took up garrison duties at Dover Castle, she commanded that several of these soldiers should be photographed. This was done, and a number of photographs were published in the local press, including one showing both 1150 Donald McKenzie and 1451 Donald McKenzie with a third serviceman (who later won a Victoria Cross at the Indian Mutiny), all resplendent in their kilts, sporrans, tunics, belts, bandoliers and magnificent ostrich-feather bonnets with the chequered headband and red hackle, so specific to their regiment. Even today, this photo can be found online (see below).
1150 Donald McKenzie went on to serve out his army career until 1860, when he applied for discharge. The army records of that time show that he had applied for enlistment stating that he was born in the Parish of Greyfriars, Edinburgh, was aged 18 and a tailor to trade, and that having now completed over 21 years' service at home and abroad, he sought an honourable discharge and pension. Despite a comment by the president of the Regimental Board that he had been subjected to no less than five courts-martial, his discharge was approved and he was released as a brave soldier of good character.
At the 1861 Scottish census, 1150 Donald McKenzie was shown as a Chelsea Pensioner living at 441 Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, with his mother, a lodging housekeeper. Four years later, his death certificate records that, on 18 June 1865, he died in the street close to his home from a serious head injury, as certified after a post mortem by Dr Henry Littlejohn – the first Edinburgh pathologist. A news item in the Scotsman newspaper two days later states that during an affray in Edinburgh's High Street, Donald McKenzie had been set upon by two ruffians, McKirracher and McFarlane, and was fatally injured. James McKirracher had been arrested and charged with murder, but his companion had made off in the direction of Leith and was still at large.
Seeking to follow up this part of the family story, I have made a careful search of the Scottish justiciary records and have been unable to trace any murder trial, or indeed any further proceedings of any kind against McKirracher. Whether the case was allowed to lapse, or abandoned for lack of corroboration or for some other particular reason, is simply unknown. A lesser frustration is that I have also been unable to trace any record confirming the birth of 1150 Donald McKenzie. However, since births in Scotland were only systematically recorded from 1855 onwards, this is not surprising.
Unexplained gaps or blank stone walls in family records are familiar to all who practise genealogy, but in a case where so much verifiable detail has been achieved, they are particularly galling. The reward for young Moyra was that the stirring story revealed to her of her Black Watch ancestors must go a long way towards explaining why the name 'Donald McKenzie' recurs time and again in different branches of the family.