ONE of Scotland's leading aristocratic families has been split by a bitter feud over the non-payment of a six-figure legacy to the Dowager Countess and former wife of the late 6th Earl of Minto.
The row threatens to explode as the Dowager Countess, Lady Caroline Minto, is currently writing "tell-all" memoirs in a bid to raise cash to fund a court case against the late earl's executors – his son, the present 7th Earl, better known as businessman Timothy Melgund, and Edinburgh solicitor Douglas Connell.
Melgund and Connell say they cannot honour the legacy as there is no money left from her former husband's estate to pay her. Under Scots law, executors do not have to make payments to beneficiaries if the deceased's estate cannot afford it.
Lady Minto says she will ask the courts to rule that more 200,000 worth of assets transferred by her husband to the family's Minto Trust should be returned to his estate in order to pay the legacy.
The row over the will has revealed deep divisions within the House of Minto. Melgund, the chief executive of Paperchase, has accused his stepmother of deserting his father when he became ill some years before his death in September, 2005, an accusation she denies.
Lady Minto, the former nurse and model Caroline Larlham, married the 6th Earl, Gilbert Edward George Lariston Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, in 1991 when he was 63 and she was 39. The Old Etonian and former Scots Guards officer Gibbie Elliot, as he was known to his friends, was convener of Borders Regional Council from 1990 until 1996.
Lady Minto's memoirs are expected to tell an extraordinary story of how she rose from being adopted at birth to becoming a Countess. It was love at first sight when she met the widowed earl at an art exhibition – he dropped his spectacles, and she picked them up. They were married within months.
But Lord and Lady Minto divorced in 2004 after 14 years together, during which time Earl's condition deteriorated to the point where he needed permanent oxygen treatment.
Lady Minto, who now lives in a small flat in Italy, says her husband's health and wealth were ruined by the long battle over the family seat near Hawick.
Her book will also detail her acrimonious estrangement from some of the Minto family.
"None of them even phoned me to tell me he was dead," she said. "A butcher in Hawick phoned to offer his condolences, and I didn't even know he was dead."
The Dowager Countess was left 100,000 in the will but she has been paid only 10,000 after her solicitors tackled the executors. Lady Minto has now been told that the late Earl's estate was valued at 151,000 but that after deducting expenses, taxes and 40,000 legal fees, there is nothing left to pay the 90,000 balance of the legacy.
Lady Minto, 55, says that in 2001, her late husband signed over personal holdings worth 300,000 to the Minto Trust, in which the Elliot family's assets were invested. The trustees include Melgund and Connell.
She claims that after deductions for his care and 1,000 per month living expenses payments, the trust still has more than 200,000-worth of the late Earl's wealth which she says should go back into his personal estate.
"I believe the executors have at least a moral duty to recover and sell some of my late husband's assets and pay my legacy," said Lady Minto.
She claims those assets included two paintings attributed to French Old Master Jean-Antoine Watteau – another of his works is up for auction at Christie's in London next month for a minimum of 3m.
No paintings by Watteau are listed in the inventory of the estate, which does include numerous valuable artworks and Georgian silverware.
A spokeswoman for Douglas Connell and Turcan Connell said: "Client confidentiality is at the heart of the Turcan Connell ethos and as a total rule we never make comment on any aspect of client business.
"If Lady Minto wishes to take the matter further then she should instruct her lawyers to contact us."
Timothy Melgund, who lives in Wiltshire, said: "My ex-stepmother deserted my father when he became bedridden and ill. He was then supported by the local authority until I managed to have him moved into a home where he became very happy again and unfortunately died in 2005.
"I hadn't seen my ex-stepmother for many years before that and this sort of interference that she is now coming up with is not particularly pleasant.
"The perception that my family is a rich family is just a nonsense, I'm afraid. My father left a legacy in his will but he just did not have that amount of money."
Asked about his feelings about the Dowager Countess, Melgund said: "This is a rather sad tale of a man who was married to a lady for a pretty short period of his life and when he became frail to the point where he couldn't support himself, she deserted him."
He firmly denied there were paintings such as the two alleged Watteaus held by the trust.
"The idea that these Watteaus were worth 3m or indeed that they were Watteaus is just fantasy," said Melgund.
"They had Watteau written on the frame. But they weren't. If they had been genuine Watteaus they would have been sold many, many years ago."
Friends of Lady Minto say they are shocked at the accusation of desertion. "She was definitely with Gibbie when I visited them several times in 2002-2003," said Frances Anderson, "even though Gibbie was in very poor health. Caroline was devoted to Gibbie."
Jane Martin, Lord Minto's carer in his final months before entering a nursing home, added: "Lord and Lady Minto were devoted to each other."