On January 17th 1883 the author Compton Mackenzie was born.
Some of you might be surprised that Compton was actually born in Hartlepool, England as Edward Montague Compton. He came from a family of thespians and his grandfather, Henry, had dropped their traditional surname, Mackenzie and taken the name Compton as a stage name. Henry was a well known Victorian actor, his father, Edward Compton and mother Virginia Bateman, were actors and theatre company managers; his sister, Fay Compton, starred in many of J. M. Barrie’s plays, including Peter Pan.
He was educated at St Paul’s School, London, and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated with a degree in modern history. I would have to go back further than his grandfather to see when his family left Scotland, but they did have strong Scottish connections.
He studied law, but gave up his studies to work on his first play, The Gentleman in Grey. This was followed by three successful novels, the latter getting critics interested in him, one saying the most promising novelist of his generation.
On the outbreak of the First World War Mackenzie attempted unsuccessfully to obtain a commission in the Seaforth Highlanders. However, his friend, General Ian Hamilton, arranged for Mackenzie to became a lieutenant in the Royal Marines and he served with the Royal Naval division in the Dardanelles campaign in 1915. After being recruited by MI6 he became director of the Aegean Intelligence Service in Syria.
During this period Mackenzie was mixed up in a good deal of cloak-and-dagger activities which aroused strong criticism of the British Secret Service among both enemies and neutral parties, he was also heavily involved with events in Balkan states as head of Anglo-French police in Athens.
After the war Mackenzie returned to writing and spent a lot of time living on the island of Capri. He joined a group of expatriate artists and intellectuals that included D. H. Lawrence and Somerset Maugham. After this he returned to his family’s ancestral homeland where he went to great lengths to trace the steps of his ancestors back to his spiritual home in the Highlands, and displayed a deep and tenacious attachment to Gaelic culture throughout his long and very colourful life, developing a close relationship with Hugh MacDiarmid.
His biographer, Andro Linklater, commented,
"Mackenzie wasn’t born a Scot, and he didn’t sound like a Scot. But nevertheless his imagination was truly Scottish.“
In 1932 Compton wrote a book Greek memoirs about his time in the secret service describing it as an organization with "scores of under-employed generals surrounded by a dense cloud of intelligence officers sleuthing each other. The book was immediately withdrawn and all remaining copies were destroyed. Mackenzie was fined £100 for breaching the Official Secrets Act. It was the first time an acknowledgement of a secret service in the country. From then on he was monitored by the same people he used to work for.
By this time MacKenzie was now fully settled in Scotland, living on Barra, where between 1937-45 he wrote a major works across six volumes, The Four Winds of Love, it has been described as ” one of the most ambitious Scottish novels of the twentieth century" and contained almost 1 million words.
In 1947 Compton became one of Scotland’s favourite authors with the publication of Whisky Galore, the fictionalized a real incident, the sinking of the SS Politician off Eriskay with “thousands of cases of whisky, and the islanders’ desperate attempts to salvage their providential gift of liquid gold from the sea.” The following year came the film, which starred Basil Radford, Bruce Seton, Joan Greenwood and Gordon Jackson. It also seen a resurgence in his previous work, which included the popular Monarch of the Glen.
Another biographer, Gavin Wallace, has pointed out:
“Although Mackenzie’s output of novels (including delightful books for children), essays, criticism, history, biography, autobiography, and travel writing was prolific - a total of 113 published titles - it can truly be said that if he had never written a word he would still have been a celebrity. He had a personality as exhibitory and colourful as his writing, and remained throughout his life a gregarious man with a brilliant sense of comedy. Flamboyant, a raconteur and mimic, he was no less memorable as the formidable scourge of politicians, bureaucrats, and governments, and the passionate defender of the ostracized, the shunned, and the wronged.”
Compton Mackenzie died on 30 November 1972, aged 89, in Edinburgh and was interred at Eoligarry on the Isle of Barra in an ancient graveyard not far from the house he had built.