The Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry

Formidably well-informed Conservative MP for Edinburgh North who inherited vast private estates
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The Independent Online

Walter Francis John Montagu Douglas Scott, politician and landowner: born Edinburgh 28 September 1923; styled 1935 The Earl of Dalkeith; MP (Conservative) for Edinburgh North 1960-73; PPS to the Secretary of State for Scotland 1962-64; succeeded 1973 as 9th Duke of Buccleuch and 11th Duke of Queensberry; Lord-Lieutenant of Roxburgh 1974-98; Lord-Lieutenant of Ettrick and Lauderdale 1975-98; KT 1978; married 1953 Jane McNeill (three sons, one daughter); died Bowhill, Selkirk 4 September 2007.

As Conservative Member of Parliament for North Edinburgh from 1960 until 1973, when he succeeded his father as 9th Duke of Buccleuch and 11th Duke of Queensberry, and one of Britain's largest private landowners, Johnny, Earl of Dalkeith was my friend, political opponent and parliamentary pair. Well-liked by Harold Wilson for his cheeky, droll, but pertinent, polite and somewhat deferential questions to the Prime Minister, Dalkeith was popular right across the political spectrum.

Dalkeith was to cross swords – perhaps épées is a better word – with Wilson on many occasions during his premiership. A taste of his style came on 30 March 1965, when there was a great Commons hullabaloo initiated by questions from the MPs Russell Johnston and Ted Rowlands (now Lord Rowlands) to the Prime Minister about a book, Crisis: the inside story of the Suez conspiracy, by the Canadian Terence Robertson. They demanded that the Prime Minister should authorise the preparation of an official history of the Suez affair by independent historians.

The octogenarian Emanuel Shinwell weighed in with a pompous question which Wilson answered. Then, the Speaker's eye was caught by the smiling face of the Earl of Dalkeith. "Has the Prime Minister ever in his life come across so virtuous a being as an independent historian, as referred to in Rowland's question on the order paper?" he asked. Wilson responded:

As to having an official historian to do this, I think we must draw a distinction – the distinction has been drawn in past cases – between the case where the efficiency of a government operation is in question – and there could be little doubt about the efficiency or inefficiency of this one – and one where the good faith of the Government is concerned. It has always been held, and stated by a former prime minister, that where good faith is involved, it is a matter for the House rather than for official historians.

In 1971 Dalkeith had a terrible hunting accident and was paralysed from the chest down. When, the following year, he returned to the Commons with his neck in plaster, the former prime minister, by then opposition leader, walked across the floor of the House to shake his hand, when he came in before Prime Minister's Questions. None of us had ever seen such a gesture before or until Margaret Thatcher, to her credit, crossed the floor to welcome back the obviously ailing Eric Heffer.

In the Commons, there was a general belief that Buckingham Palace had earmarked Dalkeith for the hand of Princess Margaret as a most suitable consort and that he, as a supremely eligible bachelor, had tactfully but firmly resisted any entry into the royal family. This perception gained him considerable credit. When, many years later, I felt in a position to ask Johnny outright whether this idea was true he responded that this was one subject he would never, ever discuss.

Above all, his multitude of friends admired in some awe Buccleuch's resilience and cheerfulness during the many years he spent confined to a wheelchair as a result of the neck injury sustained while hunting with the Buccleuch hounds. He never let such a grievous injury, that would have felled most men, interfere with his numerous activities and the running of his vast estates. Courage, and lack of self-pity, was his particular quality.

Walter Francis John Montagu Douglas Scott was born into the aristocratic purple in 1923, son of the 8th Duke of Buccleuch, a considerable figure in Scottish life, and Vreda Lascelles, granddaughter of the 10th Duke of St Albans. Johnny, styled the Earl of Dalkeith from 1935, was sent to the Eton house of W.N. Roe, MC, who Johnny told me was difficult and severe.

But Roe did require his boys to gain a knowledge of science subjects, unusual in Eton in the 1930s. This proved of great benefit when, as a 17-year-old at the beginning of the Second World War, Dalkeith went straight from school to serve in a non-commissioned capacity in destroyers. His experience of the lower deck, the comradeship and danger, was never to leave him. In 1942, on his merits, he was given a naval commission and for the rest of his life was actively involved in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, to whose cadets in Scotland he was enormously generous in an unsung manner.

Having survived U-boats, he went to Christ Church, Oxford and read Modern History. Although he was persuaded to become a member of the supremely toff Bullingdon Club, his experience in the Navy made sure that his life would be far fuller than that of a ne'er-do-well aristocrat.

He became chairman of the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles Conservative Association, and could have had the candidacy for the asking, since the sitting Conservative incumbent, Commander C.E.M. Donaldson, could have been easily persuaded by the association to yield his seat to the Earl of Dalkeith. But, as Dalkeith succinctly put it:

A wise bird does not foul its own nest. The last thing I wanted to do was to be Member of Parliament for the area where my family owned many of the houses and much of the land. Any complaint would have become a nightmare had I been the MP. What should I have done. Come to myself and complained to myself that I had no case!

In 1960, death created a vacancy in the North Edinburgh constituency and the association selected two candidates in the run-off, W. Forbes Hendry, a very active Scottish Conservative politician of the day and later to be an Aberdeenshire MP, and the Earl of Dalkeith, untried in Parliament. To no one's surprise, the Edinburgh Conservatives opted for the Earl, with his scintillatingly beautiful young bride, the model Jane McNeill.

I remember the election on 19 May of that year very clearly, as I was a canvasser for the Labour candidate Ronald King Murray, who gained 6,775 votes to Dalkeith's 12,109. Lady Dalkeith was, indeed, a factor.

In 1964 Dalkeith held the seat by 17,094 votes to the Labour postman Alec Reid's 12,264 and in 1970, with 13,005, he saw off the young chairman of the Edinburgh housing committee, Robin Cook, with 9,127. Actually, his contests were good-natured and, later, Dalkeith and Cook were brought together by their mutual interest in horse-riding. Cook told me how in a hustings meeting with the Earl he had won every single argument, on every single subject, but was aware that Dalkeith's benign smiles and chuckles would win the vote.

As an MP one of Dalkeith's strengths was that he never opened his mouth unless he quite clearly knew about the subject that he was discussing. I remember the second reading of the debate on the Harbours Bill in 1963, when he declared his interest as a director of one of the harbour undertakings on the Firth of Forth and then proceeded to give to the Commons many hard facts in support of the recommendations of the report of the Rochdale Committee on ports. He contributed significantly to harbour-development plans and evoked considerable interest from the then transport minister Ernest Marples, who stayed on the front bench to listen to him on the problems of the small fishery ports.

In January 1962, Dalkeith was made Parliamentary Private Secretary to Jack Maclay as Secretary of State for Scotland and then to Maclay's successor, Michael Noble, after "the night of the long knives" of July 1962.

The following year, Alec Douglas-Home, as Prime Minister, told Dalkeith that he really had to make up his mind as to whether he wanted a ministerial career or to become the 9th Duke of Buccleuch, and that he couldn't do both. Dalkeith would have been a good, sound, undogmatic Conservative minister. In those far-off days 40 years ago, the House of Commons was replete with people who had expertise in the outside world and weren't unduly worried as to whether or not they became ministers. An example of this expertise came in Dalkeith's formidably well-informed contribution to the debate on the Forestry Commission in 1965. "Sometimes landowners have been unfairly blamed for not producing more land for the state to plant," he began. "This criticism is merited in some cases, but generally speaking landowners have been unjustly blamed."

Dalkeith asserted that it was quite often the occupier of the land – the farmer – who was most averse to allowing the planting of trees, and was able to come up with a personal example:

Only this morning I received a letter from a tenant farmer on whose farm I was hoping to plant a shelter belt of 30 acres. This land was solidly covered with whins. It was of no use to man or beast.

But the farmer immediately replied that this was the very best part of his farm and that he could not allow me to plant 30 acres. This was even though I had made it clear that I would undertake, by chemical sprays – possibly by helicopter – to reclaim another area of his land which was also covered with whins, as a quid quo pro. He was still reluctant to allow me to plant a wood of a size which would be an economic proposition. The harmonising of forestry and agricultural interests is of immense importance, but it is a matter which presents some difficulty.

Willie Ross, the acerbic Labour Secretary of State, always maintained that if there had to be lairds, then the Buccleuch estates were the best-managed of any laird's in Scotland and that Dalkeith's contributions were always worth listening to. The House of Commons was the richer for having information straight from the horse's mouth. It also helped that Dalkeith took trouble over his personal relations with Labour MPs and, for instance, invited the MP for the Gorbals, Alice Cullen, to stay with him at his great houses of Bowhill and Drumlanrig, partly so that she could have the opportunity to learn about countryside problems.

Dalkeith, in July 1965, and for years until his accident, made valuable contributions on agriculture, farm sales and Capital Gains Tax problems. It never occurred to any of us that in tackling such issues he was trying to feather his own, soon to be, ducal nest.

He became President of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society in 1969 and of the East of England Agricultural Society in 1976, the latter as a consequence of being the owner of the wonderful Northamptonshire house of Boughton.

My last conversation with him was when he invited me to lunch at Bowhill and showed me not only his wonderful collection of miniatures, but the Canalettos, which had proved enormously important in a practical sense, in allowing engineers who were renovating the streets of London near the Houses of Parliament to ascertain exactly where the drains of a century and a half had been laid.

The twinkle in his eye was undimmed until great old age. In the last years, and particularly in the last few weeks of his life, he was enormously courageous.

Tam Dalyell