The Duke of Hamilton: Premier Peer of Scotland who raced cars and flew reconnaissance missions over Malaya

Angus Hamilton was two people: a man surrounded by, suffused in and part of the history of Scotland; and an ordinary bloke, in his language, who was an engineer, flyer and racing driver. He bore the weight of his father, the first man to fly over Everest, the man who Rudolf Hess flew from Germany to see in an attempt to end the war, the force behind the creation of Prestwick Airport and Scottish Aviation. But he cut away from that to be an aerial photographer in Malaya, a racing driver and one of the team which developed the Supercat, an amphibious vehicle still in military and civilian service today.

Angus Alan Douglas Douglas-Hamilton was born in September 1938 in London into a family at the centre of a lively London and Edinburgh social scene. His mother, Elizabeth Percy, was the daughter of the Duke of Northumberland, and married the heir to the Dukedoms of Hamilton and Brandon. Angus came into the world as the Earl of Angus and succeeded his father as Marquess of Douglas and Clydesdale in 1940 on the death of his grandfather, the 13th Duke. Angus Clydesdale often recalled the consternation in 1941 surrounding the arrival of the "nasty Nazi", Hess, who tried to land near the family's home at Dungavel, in a bizarre mission to persuade the 14th Duke, presumed to be a confidante of the King, to use his influence to call off the war.

Hamilton spent his earliest years at Dungavel with his grandmother, the vegetarian animal rights campaigner Nina, Duchess of Hamilton, which left a life-time aversion to violence and cruelty to animals, later to form a key part of his life with his third wife, Kay Carmichael. His father bought Lennoxlove, near Haddington, in 1947; and it remains today the centre of the family concerns. Archerfield Estate was added soon after.

He started school life at Carlekemp in North Berwick, where his father bought a house by the sea to help Angus recover from bronchitis. He progressed to Summer Fields School in preparation for entry to R.J.N. "Purple" Parr's house at Eton in 1951. He always claimed to be no scholar but clearly his lessons in Greek had struck home and later he was self-taught in Italian, driven by listening to opera. In 1953 he was page to his father at the Coronation. In 1955, his father sent him to Perth for the month of August, at the end of which he had his solo pilot's flying licence, which he kept up for 50 years. He joined the Air Cadets while at Eton, and the Oxford University Air Training Corps when he went up in 1956 to read engineering, which became the core of his business interests.

After university he went straight into the RAF, seen as a natural progression given that his father and three uncles had been senior officers during the war. But for Flt Lieut Clydesdale it was the chance for independence and a life away from the demands of high society – and most of the preparation for future ducal responsibilities. For example, in 1963, he was ADC to The Duke of Gloucester, Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

He flew reconnaissance for the British forces trying to bring Malayan rebels under control and acquired a delight in precision work, flying Canberras over magnificent Malay palaces as well as suspected sites of rebel activity. In Singapore he started to drive racing cars, soon to pick up the "Racing Marquess" nickname, and he raced in many parts of Europe in cars like the Maserati 250F and Lola-Climaxes. In 1967 he was invalided out of the RAF and went back to Scotland to work as a test pilot, principally on the Bulldog, a three-seater all-purpose aircraft.

In 1972 he married Sarah Scott and started to refurbish the farm at Archerfield in 1975, having succeeded his father to the Dukedoms in 1973, months before his daughter, Lady Eleanor Douglas-Hamilton, was born. Aspects of his personality emerge in all of his children, with Eleanor taking forward the interest in nature, Anne catching his taste for art, Johnnie pursuing a career in motocross track design and Alexander, the heir to the titles, continuing the deep perception of history and the family's place in the fabric of Scottish life. In 1973 Hamilton made his maiden speech as a cross-bencher in the House of Lords on nuclear fusion, describing himself as a "humble engineer".

His quiet work for charity showed when he was appointed to the Order of the St John, and he often wore the insignia of a Knight of the Order. Even so, his politics were always to the left and his style self-effacing. As Professor Gordon Donaldson wrote in Hamilton's 1991 study of Mary, Queen of Scots, Maria R, "he makes no plea to be judged other than by professional standards."

The pressures of history, perhaps the shadow of a father who had achieved so much, seem to have been heavy; alcohol became a refuge and life became difficult. A divorce from Sally followed in 1987 and she died in 1994. A brief marriage to Jillian Robertson followed but already the most important person in his life had joined him.

Kay Carmichael, then divorced, met him through an interest in an abused dog and over the next few years she rescued Hamilton from the despair of alcohol, forming a bond which gave him the stability and happiness to pursue with vigour his life as an entrepreneur, aviator and custodian of more titles than anyone else in Britain. They married quietly in 1998 and put much energy into Staffordshire Terrier rescue, campaigns to abolish animal cruelty – especially against the production of foie gras – and the rituals involved with his role as Hereditary Keeper of the Palace of Holyrood house. In 1999, as the descendant of the ancient Lords of Abernethy, he bore the Crown from the Honours of Scotland to the opening of the re-convened Scottish Parliament in which his ancestors had played major roles from the creation of the Dukedom in 1643. He renewed his marriage vows to Kay in summer 2009, by which time the cloud of dementia had descended on their lives.

Music, especially opera, was a lifelong interest. In 1966, Hamilton sported a massive handlebar moustache and hearing that his favourite tenor, Giovanni Martinelli, was signing record sleeves in a record shop in Oxford Street in London, marched in, bought a copy of everything on offer and asked the maestro to sign them. That moment was scored in his memory, with the "keepa da mustachio" story recalled right to the end, together with the autographed discs. Hamilton was a wicked mimic, not least of members of his own and other great families with whom he came into contact in his formal roles. He was proud of his ancestors – not the great Dukes of the 17th-19th centuries but the sailors of modest rank from whom his branch descended, the titles but not all the property having moved between distant cousins when the 12th Duke died in 1895 with no male issue.

The house was always full of visitors from a huge circle of friends – from astronauts to country and western singers like George Hamilton IV (a friend, not a relative). He and Kay were patrons of the arts and in latter years they were keen to maintain the history of the family represented in the Kneller portraits at Lennoxlove. But while flying, driving, opera, art and Lennoxlove were his preoccupations his passion was for Kay, who remained with him through his most difficult periods.

Angus Alan Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 15th Duke of Hamilton and 12th Duke of Brandon, Premier Peer of Scotland, Hereditary Keeper of Palace of Holyroodhouse: born London 13 September 1938; married 1972 Sarah Scott (divorced 1987, died 1994; two sons, two daughters), 1988 Jillian Robertson (marriage dissolved), 1998 and 2009 Kay Carmichael; died Haddington, East Lothian 5 June 2010.

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