Obituary: The Earl of Dalhousie

  • @IndyVoices
IN THE history of the break-up of the British Empire, Simon Ramsay, 16th Earl of Dalhousie, will go down as a decent, intelligent man who was given an impossible job. He was asked, in effect, to ride two horses pulling in exactly opposite directions: the demand for independence from the local peoples of south-central Africa, and the determination of the white minority to retain power.

In 1957, the new prime minister, Harold Macmillan, offered him the post of Governor-General of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which had been created four years earlier by the Colonial Office deliberately to fudge the issue.

Dalhousie did his best, insisting that harmony between the races was the only way forward. But in 1960 Macmillan tipped his hand with the "Winds of Change" speech. Tenuous at the best of times, the Federation became unworkable and in 1963 was dissolved. For Dalhousie, the last straw was being obliged that year to read his final speech from the throne in Salisbury, today's Harare. Prepared by Sir Roy Welensky, the Federation's pugnacious prime minister and emblem of white dominance, it accused Britain of having "betrayed the people of the Federation and done them great harm".

A month later Dalhousie stepped down; from the ashes of the Federation emerged Malawi (the former Nyasaland) and Zambia (once Northern Rhodesia) in 1964. But only after a declaration of UDI, the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, and a long and bloody civil war, did the Federation's white supremacist redoubt of Southern Rhodesia 16 years later finally become Zimbabwe.

In Salisbury, where he lived in magnificent style ("typical of a vice- regal tradition", Macmillan noted in his diary after a visit), Dalhousie had been highly popular. None the less, departure was a merciful release, allowing him to return to Brechin Castle, the family home with its sweeping views over the South Esk river and the 13-acre walled garden that was his joy. He tended it by hand, taking particular pride in the Dalhousie Rhododendron, brought back from India by the wife of the 10th Earl, Governor- General of India between 1849 and 1856, just before the Great Mutiny.

The spell in Africa would prove a small chapter in a varied life. A member of one of Scotland's oldest families, whose earldom was created by Charles I in 1633, Simon Ramsay was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied Estate Management. In the Second World War, he saw action with the Black Watch in North Africa and during the Allied invasion of Sicily, where he won an MC for his bravery in attacking an enemy machine- gun position at Corradini. He was taken prisoner with his brother-in-law David Stirling (he later escaped). Leaving with the rank of major, he won the seat of Angus for the Conservatives in the Labour landslide year of 1945, but resigned the seat when he inherited the title five years later upon the death of his brother.

For the future 16th Earl, politics was less a passion than a matter of noblesse oblige. As an advertisement for the merits of an upper house based on inheritance, he was perhaps not the best. Dalhousie only took his oath in the Lords in 1978, and never made a maiden speech. In the early years, before the summons from Macmillan to become Governor-General, his overriding preoccupation was to restore the estate to a sound footing after massive death duties had forced the sale of a grouse moor and swathes of land on the Panmure estate in Angus. Even so some 100,000 acres remained, including the family's other seat, Dalhousie Castle in Midlothian.

Two years after his return from southern Africa, as he was settling anew into fishing, shooting and the other pleasant routines of an aristocratic Scottish landowner, his career took a new twist when the Queen Mother, an old family friend, appointed him her Lord Chamberlain, succeeding the 12th Earl of Airlie. He served in that post until 1992 with obvious enjoyment. Other honorifics followed: the Lord- Lieutenantship of Angus from 1967 to 1989, and the Chancellorship of Dundee University from 1977 to 1992.

Simon Ramsay, politician, colonial official and landowner: born 17 October 1914; MC 1944; MP (Conservative) for Angus 1945-50; succeeded 1950 as 16th Earl of Dalhousie; GBE 1957; Governor-General, Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland 1957-63; KT 1971; GCVO 1979; married 1940 Margaret Stirling (died 1997; three sons, two daughters); died 15 July 1999.