Grief for ‘down to earth’ Duke of Atholl who commanded a private army

The Duke of Atholl. Picture: James Fraser
The Duke of Atholl. Picture: James Fraser
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JOHN MURRAY, the 11th Duke of Atholl and commander of Britain’s only private army, has died in a hospital in South Africa.

The 83-year-old former land surveyor, who inherited the title in 1996, visited Blair Atholl, Perthshire, from his home in South Africa every year for the Atholl Highlanders’ parade and gathering held at the end of May.

He last visited in 2010 but was unable to return last year due to ill health. Officials said this year’s event, planned for the weekend of 26-27 May will go ahead as planned.

Blair Castle, the family seat since 1269, yesterday flew the duke’s standard at half mast as a mark of respect after his death on Tuesday.

An official from Atholl Estates, said: “The duke was Colonel-in-Chief of the Atholl Highlanders and over the years had become a well-known figure on Atholl Estates.

“He visited Scotland every year for the Atholl Highlander’s parade and gathering held at the end of May.

“As he would have wished, the parade will be held this year as usual, at Blair Castle on Saturday the 26th of May and the Gathering on Sunday the 27th.

“A service of remembrance will be held at Blair Castle when the Atholl Highlanders and local friends will have a chance to remember the duke.”

The duke, who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, inherited the title as third cousin of the 10th duke. At the time he was a retired land surveyor, and his relationship to the 10th duke had only recently been discovered.

Although the duke and duchess, Peggy, had been unable to visit for two years due to his health, locals said he would be “greatly missed” in the community.

Friends told how, in the duke’s early visits, he stayed at Blair Castle. But he and the duchess made so many friends that they later stayed in local people’s homes.

Edna Mackay, a former employee at Blair Castle, said she and her husband Alistair had shown the duke and duchess around Scotland. In return, the duke had invited them for holidays at his home in South Africa.

She said: “We are very sad. He was a very dear friend. He would visit us when he was in Scotland and we would spend a lot of time together. We took him to various places and showed him some of Scotland, and he did the same for us in South Africa.

“He was proud to be the Duke of Atholl and he carried out his duties very well.

“We are a small community and he will be greatly missed by the many friends he made here.”

Former Atholl Highlander John Cameron, now curator of the Atholl Museum, said: “The duke last visited in 2010, and we knew he may not make the long trip again from South Africa. But he will be missed by many people in Blair Atholl

“He was very popular – a very friendly and down to earth man who would visit villagers in their homes. When he came over it was always a special occasion for people.

“There will be special tributes at this year’s Gathering. And he has children and grandchildren, so the title will pass down.”

The 10th duke, George Iain Murray, died aged 64 in 1996 after suffering a stroke at Blair Castle. His death came a day after it was announced that he had placed the 120-room castle and much of the surrounding estate’s 140,000 acres into a charitable trust.

Although the move followed reports that the duke, a bachelor, had misgivings about his dynastic heir in South Africa, the estate issued a statement denying any family friction.

It was the 10th duke who reactivated the long-dormant Atholl Highlanders, an 80-man private army the Dukes of Atholl have been authorised to maintain since 1845.

The duke will be succeeded by his eldest son Bruce Murray, the 51-year-old Marquess of Tullibardine.