Veronica, Lady Maclean

Author of cookery books and widow of Fitzroy Maclean

Veronica Nell Fraser, writer: born London 2 December 1920; married 1940 Lt Alan Phipps RN (died 1943; one son, one daughter), 1946 Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean (Bt 1957, died 1996; two sons); died Strachur, Argyll 7 January 2005.

My abiding memory of Veronica Maclean is of a moment when she almost plunged headlong down the steep staircase at Strachur, her home in Argyllshire. She had just started down from the first floor when she lost her footing and pitched forwards into space. A dozen deep, stone-clad steps lay below her. For a moment I feared the worst - but no: with strength astonishing in an octogenarian, she seized the cast-iron baluster on her left, clung on, swung round and finished up draped over the rail, grinning in triumph.

That strength, mental as well as physical, backed by energy, high spirits and an ebullient sense of fun, propelled her through a marvellously full life. Born Veronica Fraser, fourth (and penultimate) child of the 16th Lord Lovat, she remained for ever fiercely loyal to her great Highland clan and to the values it stood for. As a child she revered her elder brother Hugh, but it was always she who led climbing expeditions over the roofs of Beaufort Castle, the vast, pink sandstone edifice poised above the River Beauly, north of Inverness, where she was brought up.

Between the world wars her parents entertained streams of distinguished visitors, among them the Prince of Wales; yet it was people of intellectual attainments who interested Veronica most. The author Compton Mackenzie rented Eilean Aigas, an enchanting house on an island in the river; her own godfather was the author and poet Maurice Baring, and Hilaire Belloc was godfather to her sister Rose.

By the age of 20 the former tomboy had become extremely attractive, with a deceptive air of vulnerability - well captured in photographs by Cecil Beaton - and she was not short of suitors. At the end of July 1940 she met, and scarcely three weeks later married, Lieutenant Alan Phipps, a handsome naval officer. She and Alan seemed ideally suited, but their time together was pitifully short: after barely three years, for much of which he was on active service, he disappeared, heroically defending the Greek island of Leros.

Month after agonising month went by before she could be sure what had happened to him. Then at last his death was confirmed. Widowed at 23, with a baby daughter and son, she was at a low ebb when the Second World War ended. But her fortunes revived spectacularly in the autumn of 1945, when her cousin David Stirling (founder of the SAS) introduced her to a former fellow officer, Fitzroy Maclean.

"Fitz" was one of the most glamorous figures then around, already (at 34) a distinguished Tory politician and soldier, most celebrated for the unique rapport which he had established, as Churchill's representative, with Marshal Tito and the Partisans in Yugoslavia. (In 1949 he published Eastern Approaches - a classic account of his travels in Central Asia during the 1930s and his wartime adventures.)

Once again her courtship lasted weeks rather than months. Fitz proposed to her one day as they were driving across Hyde Park, and they were married in December. By her own account she was still "ignorant, opinionated, naïve, disorganised, unpunctual and noisy"; but after some explosive initial disagreements, not least about her Roman Catholic religion, their marriage evolved into one of inspiring mutual devotion and gave them two fine sons.

Making herself a model political wife, she settled down to live and work in Lancaster, until 1957, when Fitz was created a baronet and took over the constituency of Bute and North Ayr. To be within reach of his scattered flock, they bought Strachur, a lovely late-18th-century house - high, white, far too large but irresistibly romantic - on the shore of Loch Fyne. There Veronica was in her element, back in her beloved Highlands, happy to be among properly Scottish neighbours like Jimmy McNab, a genial giant who acted as factotum about the place.

The Macleans certainly put some style into that corner of the Highlands. Without them, locals would never have enjoyed such delicious food at the Creggans, the inn which they owned and ran; nor would villagers have seen any sight as exotic as that of the King of Nepal strolling on the shinty field.

In their 50 years together they travelled prodigiously - first on two government missions to sort out prisoner-of-war camps in Austria and Italy, then to visit Tito, later to America, to Georgia, to Outer Mongolia, on an undercover mission to Turkey, up the Karakoram Highway, into Tibet. Veronica's description of her first meeting with Tito was wildly romantic: her account of how she rode knee-to-knee with the Marshal for hours across the plains, the only woman in a posse of 30 hurtling cavalry officers, cheered by every peasant they passed, might have come straight from Rider Haggard.

In the late 1960s the Macleans "suddenly decided" to buy an old palazzo on the island of Korcula, off the Dalmatian coast, and this became a second home, to which they repaired almost every summer, entertaining large numbers of family and friends.

Fitz's death in 1996 left Veronica shattered. She lived on at Strachur, now with her elder son Charlie, his wife Debbie and their four daughters, on whom she doted; but she emerged from a long period of mourning only when, in 2000, she began to write her life story, Past Forgetting.

She was already a published author. Her first book, Lady Maclean's Cook Book (1966), collected recipes from family and friends representing "Family or Country-house cooking at its best as opposed to Classical, Restaurant, or Grand London Food" - the Duchess of Devonshire's fish soup, Lady Diana Cooper's blackcurrant leaf ice, Lady Lovat's oxtail, Fitz's "plov from Samarkand" - and went through several printings. Other cookery books followed (Lady Maclean's Diplomatic Dishes, 1975, Lady Maclean's Book of Sauces and Surprises, 1978, Lady Maclean's Second Helpings and More Diplomatic Dishes, 1984) and, in 1993, Crowned Heads: kings, sultans and emperors, a royal quest, a book on the reigning royal families of the world.

Yet, even with a good contract from Headline under her belt, she found it hard to organise her huge array of memories and compress them into a reasonable space. In the summer of 2000 the publishers sent a junior editor out to Korcula to help her get the typescript into shape, but within a month the young woman was back, lacerated in mind, if not in body, by bouts of verbal fisticuffs.

The task of taming the typescript then fell to me. The trouble was, the author had written not the 130,000 words asked for, but 250,000. Moreover, she had re-drafted many of them several times: the pages of dense type looked as though they had been corrected by two spiders, one of which had dipped its legs in red ink, one in blue.

We collaborated first in a London flat, borrowed from a friend, where Veronica sat surrounded by piles of paper, handfuls of which she constantly shifted from one heap to another. More congenial by far was working in Fitz's palatial study at Strachur - but even there, cutting out any episode was agony for her, and whenever I did manage to remove a section, either surreptitiously or by persuasion, she would appear in the morning with a sheaf of new pages, saying mischievously, "I do hope you don't mind. I've just added a little bit about so-and-so."

Somehow, with the help of a few drams, we managed to pare away 100,000 words, and straighten out the rest. The book came out in 2002, to critical acclaim, and its success gave her a new lease of life. She spent last summer on Korcula, as usual, and characteristically, at the age of 84, spoke of yet another great trip, this time a return to Mexico.

Throughout her life she had brushed aside health problems, treating them as of no relevance; but now at the end she fell victim to cancer, and after a mercifully short illness she died at home, surrounded by her family, with very little pain. Telling the Catholic priest who attended her that she had no fear of death, she remained steadfast in her faith, herself to the last.

Duff Hart-Davis

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