Frances the fabulous

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AS the king cast his eye across the guests gathered for dinner at Balmoral Castle, one figure stood out. She (or was it a he?) was dressed in a shimmering silk tartan Turkish harem outfit topped with a turban.

Fancy dress was not, in the early 1950s, standard wear at Balmoral dinner parties. And it was only to emerge later that King George VI, the present Queen’s father, was convinced the unconventionally attired figure was one of his own equerries in drag pulling his leg.

She was, as he soon discovered, his new next door neighbour, Frances Farquharson, recently married to the chief of Clan Farquharson - Captain Alwyne Farquharson MC, the 16th laird of Invercauld, the neighbouring estate to Balmoral.

Here was a woman of flamboyant style and warmth who was to leave an indelible impression on all she met, and on the castle which was to become her home for almost half a century.

This week the estate trustees announced that Invercauld is to be let on a long lease. Included in the lease is 26,000 acres of grouse moor, stalking, lowground pheasant shooting and fishing set amid some of the most stunning scenery in Scotland. The rent will be low - indeed, maybe even just a few hundred pounds. But in return the tenant will have to spend at least 450,000 on modernisation and redecoration.

To follow in the footsteps of a woman who was arguably one of the most stylish and intuitive of her age will be a hard act to follow. Today, Invercauld’s main reception rooms, ballroom, 15 bedrooms and 11 bathrooms may be genteely scuffed at the edges, but they bear the mark of the high-born American fashion editor who became a highland laird’s wife, a dazzling hostess and shrewd businesswoman whose eye and business sense were to breathe new light into the grey life of post-war rural Scotland. Whoever tackles re-decorating Invercauld will do so in the shadow of a woman of both style and substance; a woman who might, it has been said, have stepped from the pages of a Henry James novel.

She was born Frances Lovell Oldham in Seattle, Washington in 1903, daughter of an Ohio lawyer descended from Betty Washington, George Washington’s only full sister. Life was luxurious, and before she reached her teens she was showing signs of the talent which was to propel her into the front ranks of British fashion journalism.

At 17, with the money she saved up from her writing, the young Frances was able to pay her own passage to Europe. There, chaperoned by an aunt, she was pursued by suitors - she once found an Italian count’s limousine drawn up outside the house where she was staying. Every vase in the house had been filled with flowers. In London she was determined to make her own way, eschewing the life of her fashionable British contemporaries who often considered a job beneath them.

With her natural charm, knack for conversation and excellent memory (she never took notes), she threw herself into popular fashion journalism with the same gusto with which she mixed pinks, vibrant blues and yellows in her outfits, the colours later reflected in her Scottish homes. She wrote a fashion column for the Daily Express, became fashion editor for Vogue and editor of Harpers Bazaar.

"When she walked into a room it would literally light up," recalls the actress Moira Lister, longtime friend and one of a non-stop stream of summer guests at Invercauld with her husband, the late wine expert Jacques Gaschassin-Lafite, Vicomte d’Orthez. "If you ever wondered who wears the sort of clothes some designers model on the catwalk, well, that was Frances. She was the only person I knew who would wear those wild extravaganzas people like Schiaparelli designed, although I have to say I was rather embarrassed to be seen out with her."

In her days as a London fashion editor passers-by literally ran into one another in amazement as Frances issued forth from the offices of Vogue or Harpers Bazaar in any of her famous outfits, which at one point included a polar bear skin coat. She was in pain for much of her life - she broke her spine jumping from a window to escape the house fire in which her first husband died; spending two years in hospital - but never showed it in public. Her second marriage was brief but, typically, she ignored the advice of doctors and gave birth to a daughter.

Devoting herself to Britain’s war effort, she went on an early trade mission to the US to promote British merchandise for badly needed dollars. With her connections on both sides of the Atlantic and her persuasive personality, Frances successfully filled the windows of New York Fifth Avenue department stores with the best of British.

In 1944 she met Alwyne Compton, a captain in the Royal Scots Greys - who had won an MC for bravery - while he was recovering from wounds at his father’s home in Yorkshire. She later said: "His father asked me to help Alwyne sort out Invercauld. It hadn’t been lived in for years and the kitchen - two storeys high - and the attic were full of furniture and beautiful china collected and stored away by Alwyne’s ancestors. After a week of sorting out he realised it was a lifetime’s work and he had better marry me!"

Her husband was to assume the Farquharson name from his mother’s family, and with it Invercauld and Braemar castles, plus Torloisk on Mull and 300,000 acres of hill and heather, and fishing on the River Dee. The couple married in 1949.

Invercauld, built on the site of a late medieval stronghold, had been the meeting point for the 1715 Jacobite uprising. The family could trace their ancestry at least as far back as the 14th century. By comparison, the neighbours at Balmoral were Anglo-German parvenus, but old family friends of the Farquharsons. The castle’s first hot water boiler was a present from the Queen [the later Queen Mother] in exchange for using Invercauld while she was having Birkhall [the late Queen Mother’s home, now used by the Prince of Wales] renovated.

Within weeks of her arrival at Invercauld Mrs Farquharson had painted the exterior of the pagoda-style larder outside the castle kitchen a sugar pink. "It looked marvellous," her husband remarked. "Against the snow." Pink, a favourite colour almost invented by her friend, the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, was at various stages to play a key, if discreet, part in the interiors of both Invercauld and Braemar castles in the days when pink was seldom seen save in the plumage of exotic birds. In her clothing she seized upon the native tartans and the exaggerated flamboyance of the tam o’shanter bonnet. She had already pioneered tweed as a fashion cloth.

Today her natural use of colour, and an uncanny ability to blend the old with the new, can be seen at Braemar Castle. Alwyne Farquharson was clearly influenced by her style and daring use of colour. At social gatherings and the Braemar Games the laird, now remarried and living in Norfolk, still puts other men in the shade with his bright yellow tweed kilt jacket and strawberry-red stockings.

The impact made by the new laird’s wife on the grey granite highland village of Braemar in those dreich post-war days, long before Princess Diana brought glamour and tourists to "Royal" Deeside, can only be imagined. "You have to realise that in those days there was not even a pavement in Braemar," says her daughter, Marybell Drummond.

By the mid-1950s the Farquharsons were taking in paying guests at Invercauld, starting with friends in the area for shooting and the word spread : Invercauld and "Francie" Farquharson were "to die for".

In a 1970 interview she gave an insight into their lifestyle, never ostentatious, but one of understated monied elegance fuelled by a natural wit and talent to amuse - pipers marched around the table at dinner, if only briefly. But her favourite meal was breakfast in the old Invercauld kitchens, where she had preserved all the old bread ovens and coppers. "We have between 20 and 30 people to stay at a time during the summer months and around 44 to dinner for the Braemar Games. We never go out to dinner except to Balmoral and Birkhall. We have a flat in London which we go to in the winter and spring. Fresh food from Invercauld is sent down once a week by train and I like to have the friends I don’t see in Scotland to dinner."

But she wasn’t blinded to the rest of the world by her life of privilege, saying: "One is inclined to become too involved with one’s own small world in Scotland." As for the Invercauld house parties, she had the confidence and flair to throw disparate guests into the social melting pot. "I have never found anyone who won’t mix."

Marybell Drummond says: "She was really more Scottish than the Scots. Like most Americans, she didn’t do things by halves. She didn’t paint, but she was an artist, expressing herself through clothes and colour." Aberdeenshire, Invercauld and Braemar Castle were to be her blank canvass. She organised what today would be called a craft centre, to promote local products, converted a deconsecrated church into a theatre for Scottish works, fashion shows and performance (The Queen was a patron) and opened the Invercauld Speciality Shop promoting tweeds and tartan. She scoured the countryside for tartan mohair weavers and stocking-knitting crofters’ widows.

Then, as now, the Scots were not entirely in tune with the demands of international markets and the tourist industry. Customers were meant to order goods they saw in the shop direct from the maker. "It didn’t quite work out like that," she observed. "Orders didn’t turn up on time or were wrong." Unphased, she took over ordering and managing herself.

When she died in 1991 she was buried in Crathie Old Kirk yard, with one of her favourite flamboyant bonnets placed on the coffin. It was only then, perhaps, that the breadth of her style and understanding of colour became apparent to a wider public. Despairing of what to do with acres of clothing and shoes, her daughter contacted Christine Rew, keeper of costumes at Aberdeen Art Gallery. Rew, expecting one or two amusing bits and pieces, was staggered. "I came away with my car stacked to the roof - and that was just the beginning."

What Aberdeen acquired was the wardrobe of a lifetime - a black wool tailored suit from Schiapparelli, an Irene Dan dark green taffeta evening dress, suede Cuban-heeled ankle boots from Fortnum and Mason, evening mules with appliqud hearts for a New York Valentine’s Day ball, a stalking outfit, a kilted skirt and plaid made by local tailors in Aberdeen, and what the 1999 exhibition catalogue referred to as "1960s orange window-pane check mohair skirt and overblouse with roll-down neckline by Strathtay Originals". She had also been an early admirer of Marks & Spencer.

"She was remarkable from every point of view," says Moira Lister. "She would make you feel you were the only person in the world. I was always a bit surprised one of her husbands didn’t say, ‘I think your clothes are a bit far gone tonight’. But I think perhaps they were all proud of her."

Whoever takes on the task of refurbishing Invercauld for the new tenants will have much to live up to, but much to guide them. Frances Farquharson’s exuberance and style can never be imitated, no one in their right mind would try. But she set a standard of hospitality and excitement it would be folly to ignore.