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.