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Obituary: Phyllida Gordon-Duff-Pennington, châtelaine

Matricach, artistocrat and passionate activist for Scottish conservation

Phyllida Gordon-Duff-Pennington, chtelaine.

Born: 11 February, 1929, in London.

Died: 10 May, 2011 in Muncaster Castle, Ravenglass, Cumbria, aged 82.

PHYLLIDA Gordon-Duff-Pennington was the matriarch of the aristocratic family which owns the Ardverikie estate and castle in Inverness-shire, known to TV viewers around the world as Glenbogle in the series Monarch of the Glen.

To movie buffs, it is also remembered as the setting for the 1997 film Mrs Brown starring Dame Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Billy Connolly as John Brown. Mrs Gordon-Duff-Pennington was chairman of the family company which owns and runs the estate, organising deerstalking, fishing, rambling, weddings and visits from "Boglies", fans of the series - from at least 100 nations.

Gordon-Duff-Pennington was shy and modest. She had acquired the numerous hyphens partly through marriage but was much more comfortable when people simply called her Phyllida. Publicly, she was perhaps best-known as the chtelaine of another castle, Muncaster, in the Lake District 55 miles south of Carlisle near Scafell Pike.

It was once part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde but its main job over the centuries was to keep the Scots out. It did quite well in that respect -- until it opened its doors to tourists in the late 20th century. Her family, the Penningtons, have owned the castle, overlooking the river Esk, since at least 1208 when one of her forefathers, Alan de Penitone, took over the estate and castle, built on a Roman encampment which had the same old purpose - keeping the Scots out.

Over the past 30 years, Phyllida turned Muncaster from something of a crumbling relic into a popular tourist attraction and functions venue visited by 90,000 people a year. The fact that it has been described as "the most haunted castle in the UK" didn't do any harm; in fact it attracted more tourists than it put off. One of the ghosts said to wander around Muncaster is a certain Tom Fool - real name Tom Skelton - who was a jester at the castle and a good friend of William Shakespeare. His antics gave rise to the term Tomfoolery and Muncaster has an annual Festival of Fools in his honour, with staff and visitors dressing up in period costume.

Phyllida died just before the festival last weekend. "To be honest, although she was, as always, the gracious hostess, she was frightfully shy," her husband Patrick told The Scotsman. "She loved the place, she loved the people, but she didn't really like the razzamatazz."

According to Phyllida, Tom Fool's favourite joke was, when travellers asked him the way to the village of Ravenglass, to point them towards a nearby bog marsh by the river Esk, usually fatal in those days. Fatal it was for Tom himself who, after too many flagons of wine in the village, took a wrong turning on his way back to the castle.Phyllida Gordon-Duff-Pennington was born in London on 11 February, 1929, to Sir Geoffrey William Pennington-Ramsden, a baronet, and Veronica Prudence Betty Morley. On one side, she was descended from the Penningtons, on the other from the nouveau-riche Ramsdens, wealthy farmers from Yorkshire who owned most of the land around Huddersfield in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1955, she married Patrick Thomas Gordon-Duff, the love of her life.

Despite her aristocratic background, she was delighted to be a farmer's wife at Tynron, Dumfriesshire, active from dawn till dusk and beyond to support her husband. Patrick would go on to be a major figure among Scottish landowners and to head the Red Deer Commission which, in turn begat the Deer Commission of Scotland, merged last year with Scottish Natural Heritage. He and his wife were passionate about the conservation, control and management of wild deer in Scotland.

Those who knew the couple said they had a natural affinity for Scotland's wildlife but not least its people - notably their own staff whom they treated as family. It was in the early 1980s, when Phyllida's extended family were shareholders of Ardverikie - and she chaired the shareholders' committee - that her father handed her sole control of that castle just south of the border, Muncaster. It wasn't the Glen and she wasn't the Monarch but she dedicated the rest of her life to the place, turning it from a relic into one of the Lake District's and Cumbria's most popular tourist attractions and latterly leaving the running to her daughter Iona and Iona's husband Peter Frost-Pennington.

Phyllida, Patrick and the "kids" contented themselves with living in the old servants' quarters to give their visitors more access to the castle.

"It was in a bit of a state and like many big houses it needed help," according to Peter Frost-Pennington, formerly a veterinarian in his native Edinburgh.

After she renovated it, tourists flocked in, including Americans, Japanese and others who wanted to see the "home of Tom Fool". When visitors began experiencing "paranormal phenomena" - ghosts, to you and me - the castle became a magnet. Guests can now spend the night - "ghost-sits" in the apparently-haunted bedroom known as the Tapestry Room.

"Right until her death, Phyllida would stand by the door of the castle welcoming guests. She would never let on who she was. Most of them assumed she was a servant," her husband Patrick told The Scotsman. "There's a motto on the fireplace - 'the ornaments of a house are the friends that frequent it' - a motto she lived by," added her son-in-law Peter.

"She genuinely loved people. She would often be found selling tickets for the castle and its museum or chatting to visitors, often without them realising who she was. Just before she died, she waited until the castle closed at 5pm and drifted away." On memorial websites, visitors recalled seeing her wrapped in a blanket by an electric fire, not realising she was the chtelaine.

In recent years, Phyllida was a staunch and vocal opponent of plans to erect electric pylons across the Cairngorms National Park, including the area around the Ardverikie estate.

 
 
 

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