The Marquess of Lothian

Public servant and model landowner
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The Independent Online

Peter Francis Walter Ker, politician and landowner: born Melbourne, Derbyshire 8 September 1922; succeeded 1940 as 12th Marquess of Lothian; PPS to the Foreign Secretary 1960-63; Lord in Waiting 1962-63, 1972-73; Joint Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Health 1964; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1970-72; MEP 1973; Chairman, Scottish Council, British Red Cross Society 1976-86; Lord Warden of the Stannaries and Keeper of the Privy Seal of the Duke of Cornwall 1977-83; KCVO 1983; married 1943 Antonella Newland (two sons, four daughters); died Ferneyhirst, Roxburghshire 11 October 2004.

Sometime in the 1970s Monsignor Alfred Gilbey remarked that the marquesses were all rich, flamboyant and mad. Peter Lothian, although not the poorest of them, was probably the sanest, and certainly the least flamboyant. He was the most modest of men despite a life of achievement and distinguished service.

Peter Kerr was born in 1922 into the Roman Catholic branch of the great Borders family. His childhood was spent at Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire, inherited through his great-great-grandmother, sister of the prime minister Viscount Melbourne - and mistress, then wife of another prime minister, Viscount Palmerston. Peter's father and grandfather were naval officers and staunch Catholics. He was sent to Ampleforth, followed by Christ Church, Oxford, and served in the Scots Guards during the Second World War.

It was while at Oxford that Peter inherited from his first cousin once removed Philip Kerr, who died aged 58 in 1940, en poste as British ambassador in Washington. He inherited a string of romantic-sounding titles, Earl and Marquess of Lothian, Earl of Ancram (twice), Viscount of Briene, Lord Jedburgh and Lord Kerr (four separate baronies), as well as great estates and several houses in varying states of dilapidation.

The Kerr family, of which he became Chief, has been active in the Borders since the 12th century, but rose to prominence at the end of the 16th century as landowners and Stuart courtiers. Robert Kerr, first Earl of Ancram, who was a friend of James I and Charles I, has the distinction of exporting the first Rembrandt out of Holland. He was also a friend of John Donne, who gave him his portrait, which was spectacularly rediscovered during Peter's marquessate by John Sparrow.

Great offices and public service followed the Kerr family through the 18th and 19th centuries and in the 1860s the family partially became Catholic under the influence of John Henry Newman. The most striking figure in the line however was Peter's predecessor Philip Kerr, 11th Marquess, a liberal idealist who became the inspiration for Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 novel The Remains of the Day, and famously turned up at the coronation of George VI in an Austin 7. He made Blickling Hall in Norfolk his home, which he left separately to the National Trust. James Lees-Milne relates the story of taking Peter round Blickling in 1948. Peter was entitled to remove things from the house but, with typical restraint, asked only if he could have his cousin's golf clubs.

In 1943 Peter married Antonella Newland (always known as Tony) and they decided to re-establish the family in the Borders. Thus began the long and fruitful restoration of houses and estates that gained Lothian the reputation of being a model landowner. Typical was the story of Newtongrange, in Midlothian. The family fortune had been greatly stimulated by coal mining on the Newbattle Abbey estate. The Coal Board built a miner's village of 1,000 houses that became something of a white elephant until Lothian took back the freehold and through patience and judicious rebuilding turned Newtongrange into a most desirable village.

The restoration of Monteviot, in Roxburghshire, in 1962-63 was to create a family home in the Borders for their two sons and four daughters, and to find space for the large family portraits from Newbattle (handed over by the 11th Marquess to Edinburgh and Glasgow universities in the 1930s as an adult education college). Lothian asked his cousin Schomberg Scott to make liveable a house confused by two centuries of irregular building. The result was a complete success with happy use of Scottish craftsmen in the hall and fine new Catholic chapel.

Peter Lothian's public career began as a member of the Wolfenden inquiry in 1954 into the laws of homosexuality and prostitution. In 1956 he was posted to the United Nations, where his tactful and diplomatic approach went down so well that in 1960 he was appointed PPS to the Earl of Home, the Foreign Secretary. He was for a few months of 1964, in Home's short prime ministership, a Joint Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Health, and returned to office as Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State at the Foreign Office in 1970-72, under Edward Heath. Twice a Lord in Waiting (a government whip in the House of Lords), he was a delegate to the Council of Europe in 1959 and a nominated member of the European Parliament in 1973. His political hero was his "uncle" Lord Melbourne, whose brand of Whiggish conservatism he followed. Melbourne's slogan "Why can't they leave it alone?" was very characteristic of Lothian, who always spoke up for Christian values in the Lords.

Away from politics, Lothian was Lord Warden of the Stannaries, the longest-serving British Knight of Malta, Chairman of the Scottish Council of the British Red Cross and a member of the Royal Company of Archers (the Queen's Body Guard for Scotland).

In the 1980s, having handed over Monteviot to his elder son, Michael Ancram, and Melbourne to his younger son, Ralph Kerr, Peter Lothian undertook the heroic restoration of Ferniehirst Castle in Roxburghshire, the ancient border stronghold of the Kerrs. Once again happy use of local craftsmen resulted in a home that is comfortable while retaining the true rust of the barons' wars. The least-known part of Lothian's inheritance was the Franciscan monastery of San Damiano near Assisi which, with his strong attachment to St Francis, he was proud to return to the order in 1979.

Socially Peter Lothian was shy but had immense charm. To those who didn't know him the most surprising discovery was his passion and professional skill as a jazz pianist. He would play Fats Waller, Art Tatum and Duke Ellington with tremendous panache and a much-admired left hand. There is no doubt, however, that he regarded his marriage and family as his greatest achievement. The marriage to Tony was the most devoted and happy union imaginable.

Tony pursued her own career as a journalist and founded the Woman of the Year awards. When she wrote a book about Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space (Valentina: first woman in space, 1993), the Russian cosmonaut developed a strong admiration for Peter, to whom, with Communist deference, she always referred as "Sir Peter". For her and many others Peter Lothian - never mind his Scottish blood - represented the beau idéal of the English gentleman.

James Stourton

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