Just call me Johnny, lord of the isles

He's been a labourer and a racing-driver. Now the Marquess of Bute, a reluctant aristocrat, is selling one of his islands. By Jack O'Sullivan

On Wednesday, the seventh Marquess of Bute is selling his island. I should say, his other island. Because although Great Cumbrae has a stunning location, lying off the west coast of Scotland just 30 miles from Glasgow, it is a spare. Nearby, the Marquess owns an even more wonderful island, Bute, where his family has lived for more than 700 years.

On Wednesday, the seventh Marquess of Bute is selling his island. I should say, his other island. Because although Great Cumbrae has a stunning location, lying off the west coast of Scotland just 30 miles from Glasgow, it is a spare. Nearby, the Marquess owns an even more wonderful island, Bute, where his family has lived for more than 700 years.

Indeed, thanks to an additional 20,000 acres in Ayrshire the landholding of this aristocrat almost equals the Queen's in Scotland. Add an extraordinary collection of Old Masters, assembled by a wily ancestor, and you have one of Britain's wealthiest men, worth about £140m.

So I am surprised to find that this slightly scruffy person in sweat shirt, combat trousers and trainers, trying unsuccessfully to get into Bute's magnificent Gothic pile, is in fact the man himself. The person pulling the bell and calling through the window, looking as though he should be attached by a length of string to a dog, is indeed the seventh Marquess. He has, it emerges, no key for his own house.

Indeed, although the building is perfect, looking as London's Westminster Cathedral would if it had ever been finished, he doesn't live there. The seventh Marquess resides in some converted outbuildings, built for animal stock, on the other side of the island of Bute.

And, by the way, never, ever, call him "Marquess", "Lord Bute" or variants on that forelock-tugging theme. "Johnny" will do just fine. "Only the Daily Mail calls me the Marquess of Bute," he says.

I'm here to discuss Great Cumbrae, because it is not every day that you sell an island, one to which Glasgow trippers once flocked for a day out "doon the water". There is a great view of it from Johnny's whitewashed farmhouse, where he is on holiday with his wife and four children. I ask the eldest, Caroline, 14, if she feels sad that Dad is selling up.

"Not really," she says. "None of us have ever been there."

It turns out that the Bute family has owned the place for only about 100 years, and the emotional attachment is slight. "I expect the sale proceeds will be invested in light industrial warehousing," says Johnny, unsentimentally.

And then I look around his home, as we all munch on sausage baps for lunch. It has a Mediterranean style: a tiled courtyard; windows picked out in blue against the whitewash; fine cherry-wood floors inside a light, minimalist living-room with modern sofas and a large, open fireplace.

The most startling feature of this house, however, is what is not here. In the home of one of Britain's richest and oldest families, there is absolutely nothing old: no heirlooms, no memories (let alone Old Masters). The past is stored across the island in the big house for the tourists to enjoy. Here, only the present is permitted.

And then in a corner I spot the single image that is not modern. It is a framed picture of a small boy, standing beside the wall of a large, overbearing building. This photograph holds, it seems, the key to understanding the modern ways of this ancient family. It is of Mount Stuart, the Gothic pile on Bute. The boy is Johnny.

Johnny, the man, a wiry, intense 41-year-old, makes tea. In the background, reggae plays and his latest child, Lola, who is three months old, is fed. We talk through his chequered family history.

You may remember him as Johnny Dumfries, a Formula One racing-driver back in the Eighties. Go back to the last century and you find the third Marquess, who in 1868, at the age of 21, had an income of £300,000 a year, converted to Catholicism and built a personal chapel out of white marble, modelled on Zaragoza cathedral. Bute may be an island in the West of Scotland, but Mount Stuart was the first house in Britain to be lit by electricity.

Then there was the third Earl, briefly prime minister, who had a scandalously intimate connection with George III's mother. Go back a little more and you learn that in 1315, after Bannockburn, the family provided a husband for Robert the Bruce's daughter, who bore the first Stuart king. All of these ancestors were called John.

How do you cope with that overbearing legacy? Drugs and personal dissolution make one typically aristocratic answer. But Johnny Dumfries, sorry, Bute - I mean the Marquess of Bute - has pioneered an interesting alternative: constant reinvention of a persona that is set firmly in the present.

It started at Ampleforth, which he left early, to work on a London building-site. Hear his accent today and you would think, when he says "aw ri'", that he was still painting and decorating in Islington. This most unusual and unpretentious aristocrat is proud of his old job, which paid his way into motor-racing. And he is unashamed about his lowly tones.

"I suppose I may have put it on when I was 15 or 16 but it's the accent I've ended up with, and I'm comfortable with it now," he says.

"I was always uncomfortable with inherited wealth. I have always had a strong work ethic and felt I had not earned it. I desired above all else to excel at something through my own efforts. I suppose by going into motor-racing, I put myself in a similar situation to that into which I was born - a small minority of single-seat drivers - but at least it was all my own energy that got me there."

The hardest bit of this constant reinvention seems have been accepting that since he was his father's son, he would inevitably become the new Lord Bute.

"I retired from racing in 1991," he says. "My dad had cancer and I knew he was going to die. It was important for me to say to him, 'I'm quitting. I'm here to help you.' He died in 1993 and there was a big space. But, in fact, I was totally unprepared for his death. I had created such a strong identity around myself as Johnny Dumfries the racing driver, that I was unwilling to become Johnny Bute the landowner, or whatever you want to call me."

Part of the problem with changing identity once again was the mess in which his father had left the inheritance - lots of assets but a £12m overdraft. "It was not a very friendly act," he reflects cryptically.

The strain can be seen in his taut features. As we walk around the grandeur of his stately palace, the worry comes out again as he discusses the future for his his eldest son, nine-year-old Jack.

"When I'm up here with the kids," he says, "I notice how people pay more attention to Jack.

"There is this deep-rooted dynastic attitude. Our family has been here for hundreds of years, and it makes me upset when I feel all that intensity being focused on Jack. I remember how it felt."

He says that having reached his forties, he feels more in control now of what has been passed down to him, both materially and psychologically. The overdraft has almost been paid off, thanks to judicious sales of art and land. The sale of Great Cumbrae seems part of the boy clearing away the unwanted parts of the father's legacy to make it easier to fit into the parent's shoes. For a man who was once so uncomfortable with inherited wealth, there is also a ruthlessness in selling land in time to circumvent new Scottish land laws, which will increase the power of sitting tenants. "No," he says, "I never considered giving the land to them."

Yet, still Johnny seems not quite ready to bear his father's mantle. "My dad lived in that house," he says. "But I could not contemplate it. It needs preserving, but I will run it as a business."

And he knows that he cannot totally avoid the past, even by having no key for his home and living in modernity shorn of the past.

"One of the scary things that happens to me sometimes," he says, "is that I'm walking down the street and I catch a glimpse of myself in a plate-glass window. I look and see something of my dad. It makes me feel good, but also it frightens me."

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