NOT A soul who was present in the magnificent exhibition hall of the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh on the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone of the new extension in Chambers Street, in April, will erase from their memory the piquant nature of the ceremony. The Secretary of State for Scotland, Ian Lang, mounted the podium, and made a felicitous speech. Then the Marquess of Bute, Chairman of the Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland, took his place. His face and neck swathed in plaster, his voice, so authoritative in a panoply of official meetings, now distorted, he embarked on an excellent oration. That everyone invited knew he was in the last stages of cancer appeared to worry him not a bit. Conversing with everybody afterwards, there was not a trace of self-pity. It was a courageous and supremely dignified curtain call.
But then John Bute was courageous and dignified. And, without his drive last year, in the face of incipient illness, the Museum Extension Project would have withered.
As the Earl of Dumfries, he went to Ampleforth, acquiring from his Catholic mentors a lifelong interest in religious art. Since he became the owner, when he succeeded his father, the fifth Marquess of Bute, in 1956, of one of the great European collections of paintings, this was a very appropriate taste. At Trinity College, Cambridge, he was shy and reserved, using his time well, attending the enchanting lectures of Nikolaus Pevsner, then Slade Professor of Fine Art. He told me that National Service in the Scots Guards had given him the grounding needed to cope with his inheritance.
In the second half of the century, when the notion of public service is somehow going out of fashion, Bute was one of the aristocrats who stuck to the age-old tradition whereby those who inherited wealth believed that privilege brought with it responsibilities to the nation or their local community. Gaining publicity for good works, still less himself, was not at all Bute's style. Ridiculous gestures or posturing by organisations with which he was connected were out. He preferred to operate with a low profile. If criticism were to be levelled, it would have to be that he played his cards very close to his chest, and did not always inform his committee members of the options before they were presented with a fait accompli.
For 16 critical years in the history of the National Trust for Scotland, Bute was Chairman of the Council and Chairman of the Executive Committee. By the nature of our job, MPs become connoisseurs of chairmanship, and as a five-year member of the large and unwieldy council, I rated Bute extremely skilful at exploiting his diffident charm to get his own way. Sir Jamie Stormonth Darling, the former Director of the Trust, than whom no one saw Bute at closer quarters, says, 'I cannot find enough superlatives to do him justice.'
Other experienced members of the executive have used words such as 'adroit', 'business-like', and above all 'decisive', to describe his work in committee. During his time at the helm, the membership of the National Trust for Scotland increased nearly fivefold. The number of visitors to trust properties also doubled over the same period to just under 2 million a year. It is a widely held view among the trust's staff that Lord Bute deserves his share of the credit for these achievements, and for the fact that the Scottish trust, albeit smaller, did not seem to become embroiled in the kind of embarrassing high-profile disputes which have plagued the English National Trust.
Between 1983 and 1988, Bute was Chairman of the Historic Buildings Council of Scotland. Justifiably, he was considered very effective, and my wife, along with other members of the council in a position to know, admired the depth of his homework before meetings. We encouraged him to participate in the House of Lords - but this he eschewed on the grounds that he did not enjoy part-time responsibilities, and that the Lords was 'not my scene'.
Secretaries of State for Scotland in the House of Commons have every reason to be grateful to him. At considerable personal sacrifice, he conveyed the centre of the north side of Charlotte Square to the National Trust. The headquarters are at No 5. No 6 is now Bute House, the official residence of the Scottish Secretary. And No 7 has become the Georgian House, a big attraction to foreign visitors to Edinburgh New Town, with a flat above for the use of the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Bute's good works were not confined to the Heritage. For a quarter of a century from 1966 he chaired the Scottish Committee of the National Fund for Research into Crippling Diseases. About his personal life, he was adamantly reticent, but there were a number of sadnesses, including the untimely death of a beloved daughter. I suspect his melancholy in middle age owed much to his private life. But marriage to Jennifer Percy, an enterprising wine merchant in her own right, brought him much happiness, and a valued relationship with South Africa on which his views were for tolerance and understanding.
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