Vice Admiral Sir Roderick Macdonald (1921-2001), naval commander, nominated
Robert Burns (1759-96)
Andrew Browne Cunningham: Viscount Cunningham (1883-1963)
The criteria that I used to arrive at the greatest Scot in history was: first, an undisputed international reputation; second, a stature and quality demonstrably acknowledged as being particularly Scottish even by Scots – a people not renowned for universal agreement about anybody or anything. This proved to be a one-horse race.
Quoted every day of the year, often unwittingly, Robert Burns is without any doubt the best-known Scot; and this to such an extent that Scots take it all for granted. Worldwide, whether in Patagonia or Moscow – even slightly south of Watford – Burns societies thrive and annually celebrate his immortal memory with enthusiasm, style and lack of inhibition – enjoying his songs, poetry, humour and philosophy contained therein. Readers of the Scottish Review need no appreciation from me of the genius or the man.
Translated into every known language; on one occasion in a Skye village hall the late Sorley MacLean raised the roof with a roisterous – specially rendered by him into Gaelic – 'Tam O’Shanter.' In more remote islands in the Pacific, gastronomically incredible menus are imported, no expense spared, from the far away land of bashed neaps – digestive pleasures guaranteed by prophylactic application of malt and barley. Citizens of diverse ethnic origin brag interminably about Scottish descent, tartan, football and golf – weep and hooch to the sound of pipes skirled, perhaps electronically, or by wind-up gramophone. This global celebration of the greatest Scot in history is universally recognised as requiring a period of one year for recovery.
Lenin, when questioned, said it was too soon to assess the effect of the French revolution. Considering the many fashionable contenders for Scot of the century, it seems reasonable to suppose that, had we lost two World Wars, the rich and civilised stage where such Great and Good performed would not exist. So, first things first: which Scot made the greatest contribution to victory in either war and therefore such a competition possible?
Outbreak of WW2 found Cunningham Commander in Chief Mediterranean Fleet. Here against all the odds he made an irreplaceable contribution at the lowest point of the war. Mostly at sea exercising personal command, he never played to the gallery or media. Though ruthless with failure, once a subordinate proved himself, he trusted him entirely and delegation became total. Tough as old boots and a disciplinarian, but never pompous, he was fair and considerate of his sailors and concerned for their families.
He successfully resisted Winston's hair-brained demands for ludicrous, doomed-to-fail diversions. Genuinely modest, he did not appreciate the significance of his resounding success at Taranto – later to be copied by the Japanese at Pearl Harbour – or Matapan; but nobody could be more aware that the loss of Malta, or defeat of our army in North Africa, leading to disaster in the East, would have been laid at his door. He refused, when urged at highest military level, to allow the army to surrender in Crete in view of heavy losses already inflicted on his fleet. His reaction: 'We land them; it is our duty to take them off. You have said that it will take three years to build a new fleet. I say it would take three hundred to build a new tradition.'
In 1942 Cunningham – his reputation uniquely recognised by the Americans – was made Naval CinC Allied Expeditionary Force, North Africa and Mediterranean. The following year Sicily was invaded and in September the Italian Fleet surrendered. He then became First Sea Lord and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff involved in invasion of Europe, and eventual surrender of Germany and Japan – attending Summit meetings in Quebec, Yalta and Potsdam.
Lives of our famous warriors have been notably precarious, often brutal and usually short. Undefeated in war and happily married, this warrior was never more content than with his rod on the river. Aged 80, after lunch with an old friend in London, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cunningham of Hyndhope (in the County of Selkirk), Knight of the Thistle, GCB, OM, DSO**, died in a taxi on his way to Waterloo. Over his desk he kept a quotation from James Graham, Marquis of Montrose:
He either fears his fate too much
Or his deserts are small,
That does not put it to the touch
To fain or lose it all.