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Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh, which features as a backdrop to a scene in "Chariots of Fire"
Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh, which features as a backdrop
to a scene in "Chariots of Fire"

Eric Liddell lived from 16 January 1902 to 21 February 1945. He was a missionary and athlete often called the "Flying Scotsman", whose life became the subject of the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Eric Liddell was born in northern China, the second son of the Rev James Dunlop Liddell and his wife, who were serving as Scottish missionaries with the London Missionary Society. At the age of six he returned to be schooled in England with his brother, seeing little of the rest of his family except on their occasional visits to Edinburgh. At school, Liddell was an outstanding sportsman, as a runner and in cricket and rugby. Outside school, he took part in many race meetings.

In 1920 Eric Liddell joined his brother Rob as a student at the University of Edinburgh, studying Pure Science. He rapidly became a leading light in the university running and rugby teams, and from 1922 was picked for the Scottish national rugby union team on seven occasions.

In early 1924 Liddell won the 100yds in the AAA Championships in a British record time of 9.7 seconds, a record that would stand for 35 years. During the summer of that year he took part in the Paris Olympics. He had made it publicly known for some months that he would be unable to compete in his best event, the 100 metres, because he did not run on a Sunday: and that was the day the final was scheduled for. He therefore trained instead for the 400m race, in which he was not expected to do as well. He won the 400m Gold Medal in a world record time of 47.6 seconds.

In 1925 Eric Liddell returned to northern China, following in his parents' footsteps as a missionary. Here he taught and occasionally ran competitively. In 1932 he was ordained as a church minister during a visit to Scotland. In 1934 he married Florence Mackenzie, the daughter of Canadian missionary parents. They subsequently had three daughters. In 1941 Liddell ignored Foreign Office advice to leave China, though his wife and family did go to Canada. After the Japanese army took over the mission station where he worked in 1943, Liddell was interned at the Weifang Internment Camp. He died there on 21 February 1945, five months before the camp was liberated.

The story of Eric Liddell's life was made famous by the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. Ten years later, the University of Edinburgh erected a memorial to Eric Liddell carved from Mull granite at the site of Weifang Internment Camp. In August 2008 a poll in the The Scotsman newspaper found Liddell was the most popular athlete Scotland has ever produced. Meanwhile, because he was born in China and died there, some Chinese sources claim Eric Liddell to be that country's first ever Olympian, something that would no doubt please him greatly.

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