The Dowager Lady Hesketh

Historian with indomitable spirit
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Christian Mary McEwen, historian and public servant: born Greenlaw, Berwickshire 17 July 1929; county organiser, WRVS 1952-83; member of the Arts Council 1960-63; High Sheriff of Northamptonshire 1981; member, Northamptonshire County Council 1989-93; OBE 1984; married 1949 Freddy, second Baron Hesketh (died 1955; two sons, and two sons deceased); died London 7 April 2006.

Christian Hesketh's courage, resilience and optimism enabled her to bear a series of great misfortunes that would have crushed a lesser spirit. These qualities sprang from a rock-like Roman Catholic faith and a privileged Scottish upbringing that taught her to be positive in every situation and to abhor self-pity, whatever the fates might throw at her.

Widowed only six years after her marriage to the second Baron Hesketh, in 1955 Kisty Hesketh was left alone in charge of one of England's most beautiful country houses, Easton Neston in Northamptonshire, where she entertained assiduously, favouring the company of those who shared her lively intellectual interests - writers, historians, politicians, and journalists of every political persuasion. She threw herself, too, into public service in the county, wrote several works of history and undertook occasional journalism (at one time as rugby correspondent of The Spectator).

Life began well. Her childhood in the Scottish Borders was by her own account "idyllic". Her home was at Marchmont, a fine 18th-century country house set amid glorious Berwickshire countryside, where she lived with six talented, boisterous and loving brothers. Their father, Sir John McEwen Bt, was a Conservative MP and junior minister, but also a poet and romantic whose passion for Scottish history and genealogy he passed on to his only daughter, together with an abiding admiration for France and for the "Auld Alliance" against England between France and Scotland.

After leaving St Mary's, Ascot, at the age of 18, Kisty McEwen held her only regular job, as an "assistant herald painter" in the Edinburgh office of Lyon King of Arms, Scotland's heraldic authority. Her book Tartans, first published in 1961, is still the definitive work on the subject. Evelyn Waugh, who visited Marchmont in 1956, noted afterwards in his diary that Kisty was "very quick and clever" and although she never went to university, she was later awarded a PhD from King's College London (her thesis was published in 1999 as The Political Opposition to the Government of Charles I in Scotland).

She was as Scottish as can be, very keen on deer-stalking and highland dancing, but most of her life was to be spent in the English Midlands. For aged 19, at a hunt ball in the Borders, she met Freddy, second Baron Hesketh and the owner of Easton Neston. A year later, they were married and she moved into Hawksmoor's baroque masterpiece.

It was a difficult time. Her vacant-minded mother-in-law, one of two American heiresses that Hesketh heirs had recently married to boost their family fortunes, had retired permanently to her bedroom, seeing nobody but her three nurses and demanding silence throughout the house.

Freddy, a former Scots Guards officer, had a brave war and used his wealth to accumulate a great book collection (Caxton Bible, First Folio of Shakespeare, Audubon's Birds of America, etc), but he also had a drink problem and died in 1955. It was immediately after his death that Kisty met her mother-in-law for the first time, venturing into her bedroom to introduce herself and her three sons, Alexander (who succeeded, aged four, as the third Baron), Robert and John.

Kisty Hesketh had inherited from her parents a belief that duty came with privilege. She served at different times as Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff of Northamptonshire, a governor of various schools, a district councillor, a county councillor, head of the WRVS, and so on. She was famous for never missing a committee meeting, often leaving her guests to their own devices at weekends.

She was chairman of the Daventry Conservative Association, in which capacity she got Reginald Prentice, a former Labour cabinet minister, chosen to be the local Conservative candidate in the 1979 general election. Formerly Labour MP for Newham North East, but thrown out by the Trotskyists who dominated the local party, he was the highest-ranking Labour politician ever to defect to the Tories, and Margaret Thatcher rewarded him with a junior post in her first cabinet.

Freddy's early death was the first of many disasters to befall Kisty. A fourth son by their marriage was still-born soon afterwards, and her second son, Robert, was to die in a car crash in his forties. Four of her six brothers also died young, and she herself narrowly escaped death when involved in the 1970s in a serious car crash on the M1 that put her in a coma for six weeks and caused her to have an eye removed. She later suffered recurrent health problems that left her very frail, but never dampened her indomitable spirit.

Of all categories of people she liked and admired soldiers the best (in 1989, with Magnus Linklater, she wrote For King and Conscience, a life of "Bonnie Dundee", one of Scotland's bravest), and she herself displayed the military virtues of courage, calm, integrity and selfless duty. Even after having to leave Easton Neston when it was sold last year she continued to describe herself as "very lucky".

She could be highly censorious of people whose behaviour fell below her own high standards, but she seldom complained about anything on her own account. An exception was the anger she felt in 1999 towards Boris Johnson, editor of The Spectator, for sacking her as the magazine's rugby correspondent, for she loved rugby and considered it one of her Scottish patriotic duties to write about it.

She was especially cross when told by a newspaper reporter that Boris had been evasive on the matter. "I think it's a bit much when the editor isn't sure whether he's sacked you or not," she commented.

Alexander Chancellor