OBITUARY: The Duke of Atholl

Tam Dalyell
Wednesday 28 February 1996 01:02

A third cousin three times removed of the ninth Duke of Atholl, Iain Murray succeeded in 1957 as 10th Duke to 140,000 acres of central Scotland, and the fairy-tale castle of Blair. He was then a junior manager in the family printing business. As a classmate and friend from Eton days, he confided to me at the time that he was utterly daunted by the prospect of awesome and unfamiliar responsibilities. "And you realise they [by which he meant the Lord Lyon King of Arms, the picturesque Sir Thomas Innes of Learney] have to go back a couple of hundred years to trace any connection with me! I'd better give it a go!"

The connection was certainly tenuous. George Iain Murray's father, Lt- Col George Anthony Murray, was the son of Sir George Evelyn Pemberton Murray, a distinguished civil servant, great-grandson of the Rev George Edward Murray and great-great-great-grandson of the Right Rev Lord George Murray, Doctor of Divinity, an eminent and severe divine, the second son of the third Duke.

As a young man Iain Atholl told me that he did not think that such lineage really entitled him to have a great say in the parliament of the nation's affairs. And indeed his laconic interventions in the House of Lords were confined to topics such as red deer (he was a most useful member of the Red Deer Commission, 1969-83) and to reservoirs.

His most important intervention came on 5 July 1984 "to ask Her Majesty's Government when they propose to bring the provisions of the Reservoirs Act 1975 into force, and whether it will apply to all reservoirs of over 25,000 cubic metres in capacity". The then Environment minister, Lord Skelmersdale, gave an ambiguous answer. Atholl responded:

May I ask him whether before bringing into effect the second section of that part of the Act he was going to bring into force on 1 October 1985, if all goes well, he would consult with some or all of the many conservation bodies that exist in this country; and also whether it will be possible to exclude large raised reservoirs in remote areas where, even if the dams burst, they would do little harm and where they are useful both for fire-fighting and as a wetland habitat for many species of birds, butterflies and dragonflies which are becoming very rare in this country.

Another concern was to make sure that non-British trees such as sycamore and beech would qualify for the grant at the broad-leaved rate.

Atholl's inhibitions of modesty about speaking did not stretch, in later years, to voting; indeed, he became a somewhat assiduous voter in the Lords in support of the Conservative cause. When this was pointed out tactfully in the form of a suggestion that the Red Duchess might return to haunt him at Blair on account of some of the causes which he espoused, notably in relation to southern Africa, it was met with that distinctly watery smile which he gave when annoyed.

For not the least of his problems in 1957 when he suc- eeded to the title was the still-looming presence of the "Red Duchess", then with faculties scarcely diminished in her 83rd year. Katherine Marjorie Stewart Murray, daughter of Sir James Ramsay of Banff, the 19th-century politician, was the widow of John, eighth Duke of Atholl KT. With honorary degrees from Oxford, McGill, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Durham and Columbia Universities, she was the first woman ever to have held office - as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education from 1924 until 1929 - in a Conservative administration. From 1923 she was the local MP for Blair (Perth and Kinross constituency) for 15 years until she resigned in April 1938 on matters of principle and policy towards the Spanish Civil War, to fight a by-election as an independent which she lost. Until her death in 1960 she was involved as Chairman of her British League for European Freedom. She did not keep to herself her very definite ideas on how a 27-year-old ought to behave as a young duke.

Iain Murray did not have an easy childhood. As a 10-year-old, he was shattered by the death of his father in Italy, the commanding officer of the Scottish Horse. At that time Iain was physically tiny, and we never understood the biology by which a diminutive child could spring up into a 6ft 31/2in duke. It was his good fortune at Eton to be in the house of a particularly kind and caring housemaster, W.R. (Reggie) Colquhoun, a cousin of the Colquhouns of Luss who felt in view of Iain's father's death in action and the boy's inevitably difficult future that he had particular responsibilities. It was also Iain's good fortune and mine to have as our "modern tutor" Rene Peyrefitte, a 27-year-old Sorbonne intellectual on secondment to the school from the University of Montpellier, who spoke to us in nothing but French and vouchsafed often that he found the British class system "tout-a-fait extraordinaire". Whether the somewhat fragile Iain appreciated being referred to by Peyrefitte as "mon bon Duc de Bourgoyne" is open to supposition.

Unable to do National Service (a source of insecurity to him all his life) for valid and compelling medical reasons, Murray went to Christ Church, Oxford, and then into one of the myriad of printing businesses owned by his maternal grandfather, the second Viscount Cowdray. On many a tube journey from the Edinburgh plane into central London in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties I would gossip to him. He knew a great deal about the printing industry and it was not simply on dynastic grounds that he was made chairman of Westminster Press in 1973.

From people who had given their lives to that organisation and might well resent some whippersnapper of an owner's grandson being put above them, I learnt that on the contrary they came quickly to respect him. As one senior executive put it: "I'd rather have a duke who didn't meddle unnecessarily, who didn't talk too much in chairing a meeting, who let people get on with it and was decisive only when necessary than many another kind of hands-on businessman."

Atholl told me bluntly that there was a virtue in being aloof in the Westminster Press. "I do tend to be aloof at my work in London, I am certainly not aloof with the people on the estate at Blair. There are two different mes." A frequent subject of conversation, usually initiated by him, was our mutual friend Bob Maxwell. He regarded Maxwell with a curious mixture of aristocratic disdain and fervent admiration for being able to do in the printing industry that which needed to be done "and which I myself don't have either the position or the nerve to do". He was simply fascinated by Maxwell, his doings and his enormities.

His skill as a chairman was transferred to his charitable and public- duty work in Scotland. The Scottish Landowners Federation describe him as an expert chairman who leaned over backwards not to pursue what might be construed as his personal interest. Likewise he made a most valuable con-tribution to the central decision-making of the Scottish National Trust, both as a member of the Executive and subsequently Vice-President. His style tended to be self-deprecating.

The explanation of his own position was also self- deprecating. "You see, it was like this. Blair Castle was started in 1269. The Earl of Atholl owned the land then. He was on a crusade when a local gentleman called Mr Comyn took it into his head that this was a nice place to build a house and started doing so. Atholl returned from his crusade and was somewhat vexed to find a house in the middle of his grounds. So he turfed Mr Comyn out and took over."

The Duke of Atholl is the only man in Britain permitted to have a private army. This goes back to an honour awarded by Queen Victoria 150 years ago very much against the wishes of her government. No small part of Whitehall's displeasure may have been due to the fact that the very day the colours - and the resultant right to bear arms - were presented to the family was the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the men of Atholl to join with Bonnie Prince Charlie's army before Culloden in the final and disastrous attempt to put the Stuarts back on to the throne. From their place of honour on the right of Prince Charles Edward's line that day the Atholl Brigade charged with such effect that the 1745 rising hung in the balance. Even after a century Queen Victoria's mandarins felt that to give such men back their guns seemed more than a touch imprudent.

Nevertheless, that royal licence permitted the Atholl Highlanders to provide four companies of 90 men, plus pipes and drums. From the 1840s the regiment regularly paraded at Scottish festivals and provided guards of honour for visiting nobility from all over the world until 1913.

However, the names of 47 Blair villagers inscribed on granite near the gates of Blair Castle explain why the Highlanders virtually disappeared: so tragically high a proportion of the area's young men died with the Scottish Horse or the many battalions of the Black Watch on the Somme, there survived little taste for carrying even ceremonial rifles.

The 10th Duke told me that when he succeeded to the title he felt that some things might change. He had the problem of raising the visitor attendances at Blair from some 25,000 to the numbers which would contribute to the horrendous costs of the upkeep of the house. His own private army, a tourist attraction, paying nothing to local privates who include one retired British army major- general, was a virtually cost-free way of creating publicity and helping the Scottish tourist industry in what is now the most visited of all houses north of the border - last year receiving some 160,000 visitors.

"When I kick the bucket," sighed Atholl, "I suppose the only thing that people will remember is my private army! Well, too bad, but it does make me a bit sad."

Iain Murray, as I shall remember him, deserves recognition in his own right for having played the hand which birth dealt him with the skill of the international-class bridge player - which indeed, among much else, he was. What he really cared about was the continuance of Blair in 500 years. It was characteristic that he should face up to death and rationally make the decision, last year, to bring forward the careful plans that he had devised to protect the future of the estate that he had come to love. In his final days he made a settlement of the house and the bulk of its land on a charitable trust to "preserve it for the people".

George Iain Murray, businessman and landowner: born Edinburgh 19 June 1931; succeeded 1957 as 10th Duke of Atholl; Representative Peer for Scotland in the House of Lords 1958-63; chairman, Westminster Press 1974-93; Chairman, RNLI 1979-89; President, Scottish Landowners Federation 1986-91; died Perth 28 February 1996.

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