Eric Liddell – Missionary and Athlete

On the 21st February 1945, Eric Liddell,  one of Scotland’s greatest athletes died. If you are trying to remember why the name Eric Liddell sounds familiar, it may be because of the successful film Chariots of Fire. It is quite possible that if the film had not been made then Eric Liddell, although well known here in Scotland, would have just been a footnote in history. 

Early Life

He was born not in Scotland but in China on 16 January 1902. He was born to Scottish missionaries the Reverend and Mrs James Liddell who served in China. Eric and his brother Robert were educated in China until the age of six and eight respectively. His parents then sent them back to England where they were educated at Eltham College. This was a boarding school for sons of missionaries. 

Throughout his formative years Eric Liddell participated in various sports playing Rugby and Cricket. But because of his speed on the track, he also competed in athletics. Whenever his parents came back from China for a break from their missionary work, they would normally stay in Edinburgh. It was here that Eric eventually based himself when he decided to study at Edinburgh University. 

While studying at Edinburgh University, he continued to compete in Rugby and Athletics. So fast was he on the track that he became known as ‘The Flying Scotsman’ in press articles. It was even suggested that he was a future potential Olympic winner. Although he would go on to compete at the 1924 Olympics, he also represented Scotland at Rugby. 

In 1923 he won the AAA Championships in athletics in the 100-yard race where he set a British record of 9.7 seconds that would not be equalled for 23 years. He also won the 220-yard race in 21.6 seconds. Remember that this was at a time when there were no modern tracks. These were cinder tracks and the athletes ran in pretty rudimentary running shoes compared to nowadays. 

Eric Liddell winning his race

As a devout Christian he also followed in his parents’ footsteps by preaching the word. He was invited to preach at various student events and because of his sporting prowess, he often attracted huge numbers to his events. 

Olympic Gold

Eric Liddell was selected to represent Great Britain at the 100-metre event.  However, contrary to the depiction in Chariots of Fire that he refused to compete at the eleventh hour because his event took place on a Sunday, the Christian Sabbath. In fact, the decision had been made several months before, and instead he trained for the 400 metres. His performance to date at this distance was modest by comparison to some of the other international runners. 

However, he made it to the 400-metre final. On the morning of the event, Liddell was handed a note by one of the team coaches. It was a reference from the Book of Samuel and read,

He that honours me, I will honour

He recognised the quote immediately.

Unfortunately, Liddell was placed in the outside lane and was unable to see his competition behind him so he had no choice but to race not just the first 200 metres as a sprint but the whole race. He won the race and also broke the Olympic and World Record in a time of 47.6 seconds. Together with his bronze medal a few days earlier in the 200 metres, they were his greatest athletics achievement. 

Because he was born AND also died in China, some of China’s Olympic list of achievements cite Liddell as their first Olympic champion. 

His Missionary Work

Statue of Liddell at the Internment Camp

Thereafter, Liddell returned to China to carry on his work as a Christian missionary as his parents had done before him. Occasionally, he would compete at 200 and 400 metres whilst in China. He competed in the South Manchurian Championships and was victorious at the 1930 North China Championships. 

On one of his breaks back in Scotland in 1932 he was ordained a Minister of the Congregational Union of Scotland. On his return to China, he became married. Eventually, by 1941 due to Japanese aggression it was decided that Liddell’s wife and his daughters would return to Britain while he would carry on working at the Mission. 

Sadly, he along with other missionaries and ex-pats were interned at the Weihsien Internment Camp when the Japanese troops invaded. He saw out the remainder of his life in internment, eventually dying from an inoperable brain tumour. He died only five months before liberation. 

Places of Interest – Edinburgh

There are numerous locations in Edinburgh that visitors can visit that are related to his time here in Edinburgh. Probably the most notable is in Morningside at Holy Corner. Holy Corner got its name from the fact that there is a Church on each of the four corners of the junction. It was here at the Morningside United Church, whilst studying at Edinburgh University, that he practiced and preached as a devout Christian. Eventually, the Church outgrew its premises and sold the building and moved across the road to a larger building which is now the Eric Liddell Community Centre.

Inside the original church is a beautiful stained glass window depicting Eric Liddell, winning a race in his trademark style with his head thrown back, mouth wide open, with arms flailing madly. His American rivals at the 1924 Olympics had laughed and mocked his style. But Liddell was to have the last laugh when he beat them in the final.

Stained Glass Window of Eric Liddell

Appropriately, the stained glass window incorporates the reference from the Book of Samuel, “He who honours me, I will honour”. No better epitaph could be attributed to the man. He lived his life by his Christian beliefs.

If you have an interest in Eric Liddell and the places linked with the man, ask us to include them in your city tour of Edinburgh. Go to our TOURS page for further details.


For a country that is fanatical about sport, I was hard pushed to find enough choices to include an article about Sport in the Movies. However, here are my five that are either about sport in Scotland or were filmed partly or entirely in Scotland. Out of the five profiled, I have watched all of them apart from A Shot at Glory. I have included this one because being a nation of fanatical football supporters, it would have been remiss of me not to include it in Sport in the Movies. 

So, out of the five chosen, two have a connection to athletics, one to golf, one to cycling and one to football. Something there for most people.


Even now 39 years later when the opening sequence of this movie explodes on to the screen I always get goose bumps. With the British Olympic athletes running along the sands at St Andrews to the stirring music of Vangelis, you know this is going to be something special.

It won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Music Score. The scenery is stunning and includes the beach scene at the beginning and locations in Edinburgh. It follows the story of two athletes in particular, the Englishman Harold Abrahams and the Scotsman Eric Liddell. They were scheduled to compete against each other in the 100 metres at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. However, as a staunch Church of Scotland missionary, when he finds out that his heat is on the Sunday, Liddell refuses to run. 

This enrages the British Olympic Committee. But Liddell is thrown a lifeline by one of his teammates who has already won a silver medal in the 400 metres hurdles and offers him his place in the 400 metres. It is not his distance, but he takes it and then……..well, you’re just going to have to watch it now to find out what happens. 


Tommy’s Honour, released in 2016, is one of those movies that is beautifully filmed. It allows the viewer a chance to experience what it must have been like to be a golfer in the 19th century. However, you don’t have to be a golfer to enjoy this. It also throws a spotlight on the complex relationship between a father and son. Added to that it shows the class divide that was so prevalent in Victorian Britain.

The father and son in this case only happen to be two of the great golfers of the 19th century, Tom Morris Snr and Tommy Jnr. Tom Snr had established himself as one of the greats of golf. He was also the greenkeeper for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. He won the British Open four times, holding the record as the oldest player to win at age 46. Incredibly, the following year Tommy Jnr won at the age of 17 making him the youngest ever. He also went on to win the British Open four times but unfortunately met an untimely death at the age of 24. One can only surmise just how many more times he might have won the British Open had he not died. 

All of the filming took place on location in Scotland. There were over 50 locations including St Andrews, Edinburgh, Musselburgh, Peebles and Falkland. The shoot lasted six weeks and remained on schedule as there was only one day of rain. That in itself is remarkable for Scotland. 

If you want a taste of Edinburgh AND St Andrews, why not book our Edinburgh & St Andrews Tour?


Yet another movie based on a true story, this time following the cycling career of Graeme Obree. Jonny Lee Miller played the part of Obree to perfection. In true underdog fashion the movie sets the scene with a flashback to Obree’s childhood. He was continually bullied while at school which left lifelong mental scars. However, as an outlet for the youngster, his parents bought him a bike and he began to cycle everywhere.

In adulthood he started to compete in cycle races at which he excelled. Part superhuman training rides, part masochistic personality propelled him to the top as a cyclist. He decided that he wanted to break the one-hour cycle record, but he didn’t have the right bike. Instead he constructed his own bike from scrap metal and components from a washing machine. His design was revolutionary and eventually secured him the record. The governing body, the UCI, took the decision that the bike did not conform to international rules and he was banned from using his bike in competition.

Most of the movie was filmed in Galston in Ayrshire and has a real gritty down to earth feel to it. Be warned that Obree was later diagnosed with a crippling bipolar disorder and the movie does explore his battles with his mental health issues. A “feel-good” and “feel-bad” movie in equal measure. 


I first remember watching this when I was about ten years old. It was first released on the big screen back in 1955 but is shown from time to time on terrestrial TV. It is an entirely fictional story about a wee (small) lad called Geordie MacTaggart. Because of bullying due to his diminutive size, he enrols for a bodybuilding correspondence course.

By the time he turns 21, he has grown into a tall well-built young man. At the suggestion of the course trainer, he takes up hammer throwing. Unfortunately, he almost takes out not just the local laird but also the local minister. Fortunately for him, the minister knows a bit about the intricacies of throwing the hammer and starts to train him and he wins at his first Highland Games. Geordie turns out to be really good and is invited to compete for Great Britain at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.  

This is an all-round feel good movie. Bill Travers plays the part of the adult Geordie and the Laird is played by that stalwart of 50s movies, Alastair Sim. 


I felt almost duty-bound to include this one. It is the only one that is solely about our top national sport, football. Or for my American readers, soccer. Here is the crazy thing, I have asked around some of my football buddies if they had ever heard of this movie and all of them said no. Or perhaps they just didn’t want to admit that they had watched it. The movie is a bit of a stinker. 

The story follows a fictional Scottish football club who are attempting to reach their first ever Scottish Cup Final. The club is owned by an American businessman (Michael Keaton) who has threatened to move the club to Dublin in Ireland……go figure.

Even more weird than this is that we have Robert Duvall playing the club manager with a Scottish accent that is all over the place. And to cap it all we have a real star of Scottish football, Ally McCoist,  playing the part of the team’s striker who is on the verge of retiring. He is a former player in his heyday with Scotland’s top team Celtic. In reality McCoist played for Rangers and had always vowed he would never wear a Celtic strip, but he did for this film. He claimed afterwards that he had a Rangers strip on underneath so that his skin didn’t come out in a rash!