Scot who fought for black freedom in Rhodesia.

Born: July 31, 1926; Died: April 17, 2013.

Peter Mackay, who has died aged 87 in Zimbabwe, was a Scottish soldier who quit the British Army in the early 1950s to help Africans win their freedom after 90 years of all-white rule in southern Rhodesia. His death marks the end of an era in central Africa – he was one of the last Europeans to play not only a prominent but also an extremely dangerous role in the black fight against white rule in Rhodesia, Malawi and South Africa.

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The youngest captain ever in the Brigade of Guards, Mr Mackay was seen in his youth as a general-in-waiting by his military peers. But that was neither his desire nor his destiny. He spent the most important years of his long life shepherding hundreds – maybe thousands – of young blacks out of white-ruled Rhodesia and into Botswana and then into the Caprivi Strip via a ferry at Kasangula – a route known as Freedom Road.

Detested by Rhodesian whites, he was adored by a generation of freedom fighters. Yet when he died on April 17 – the eve of Zimbabwe's 33rd anniversary of independence – hardly a soul under the age of 60 knew his name.

"He has gone unnoticed in the whole vast literature of African nationalism in Central Africa and the liberation of Zimbabwe," says Professor Terence Ranger of Oxford University in his foreword to Mr Mackay's book We Have Tomorrow.

Peter John Sutherland was born in London, one of the three children of Major George Mackay and his wife Christine (nee Bourne). His grandfather was the Rev George Sutherland Mackay who for 30 years was minister of the United Free Church at Doune, near Stirling. Peter had three uncles – one a career officer in the British Army, another who won the DFC during the First World War and a third who was a tea planter in south India.

Peter was a schoolboy at Temple House, Stowe School, Buckinghamshire, from 1940-1944. During his final term he was head boy. After Stowe, it seemed certain he would embark on a dazzling military career when he joined the Scots Guards and became the youngest ever captain in the Brigade of Guards at the age of 21.

However, he quit the Army in 1950, left Britain and sailed to Rhodesia where he worked as a trainee tobacco grower, later joining the staff of a small magazine called the Rhodesian Farmer in Salisbury (Harare).

Those who worked alongside him recall his strong will and loathing of almost all white Rhodesians whom he branded as snobs, money-grubbers and upstarts.

In 1953, he fell under the influence of a fellow Scot, David Stirling, founder of the SAS and the multi-racial Capricorn Society. Its aim was to weld six central and east African countries – the two Rhodesias, Nyasaland, Tanganyika, Kenya and Uganda – into a federation – independent, loyal to the Queen and a buffer between rampant black nationalism descending from the north and South African apartheid creeping its way up from the south.

In 1956, Mr Mackay organised the Selima Conference in Nyasaland (Malawi) which saw members of several different ethnic groups –whites, blacks, Asians and people of mixed race – sign a document calling for the removal of all white rule in Africa.

However, Capricorn lacked bite and Mr Mackay moved away from its liberal concept of partnership towards black nationalists who demanded red-blooded immediate majority rule.

He helped organise the March of 7000 through Salisbury in 1960, linking arms with nationalist firebrand George Silundika of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu) and demanding the end of white rule in Rhodesia.

He was sent call-up papers by the Rhodesian military, but tore them up. He went to prison for four months and when he came out fled across the border to Lusaka.

For almost 20 years he worked under the leadership of James Chikerema and George Nyandoro, twin founders of nationalism in Rhodesia. After Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, he felt both unwanted and angry as he saw former colleagues climb greasy poles that led to personal wealth and political corruption. Mr Chikerema went to work for Tiny Rowland's Lonrho while Mr Nyandoro became chairman of a Rhodesian company called Nedlaw.

Mr Mackay turned his back on the beckoning good life and went to one of the most run-down parts of the new country, malaria-ridden Omay along the banks of the River Zambezi. There, he set up schools, clinics and agricultural settlements that improved the quality of life for around 15,000 members of the long-neglected Batonka ethnic group.

"In many ways," says Lawrence Vambe, 96, historian and author of An Ill-fated People (foreword by Doris Lessing) "Peter was a saint. A non-religious saint but a saint nevertheless."

His death followed a battle against ill health which left him bed-bound for the last two years of his life. That was partly a result of a beating he received at his tiny home at Marondera (70 miles east of Harare) at the hands of armed burglars in February 2007. He never married and is survived by his sister Jean, his brother Angus and nephew Rupert Connell.