Just call me Johnny

THERE is little romance, alas, in modern sport. You will find few Prince Charmings in football, for instance, and the gentleman-amateurs of athletics have given way to steel-willed, and possibly steroid-fuelled, track stars. Even the knights of the road in motor racing have largely gone since Johnny Dumfries left the pits and took up his title of Marquis of Bute.

At 45, the Marquis has already earned the reputation of a cool-headed, unsentimental type. Asked of his feelings this week on selling the country home that had supplied him with his civilian racing name - Dumfries House in Cumnock, Ayrshire - he allowed that it had caused "a certain amount of sadness but no regret", adding: "I firmly believe that my decision is the correct one."

Before he was given the responsibility of his father's estate, his first love was motor racing, and by the end of his season debut in 1986 Johnny Dumfries was regarded as spear-carrier to Ayrton Senna, one of the track’s biggest stars.

In 1988 he won the Le Mans 24-hour classic driving a Jaguar. The fact that he was Earl of Dumfries was a mixed blessing to his racing career; the title might have been attractive to a potential sponsor but he preferred to keep his background separate from his racing image as the next Jackie Stewart.

Johnny Dumfries was born John Colum Crichton-Stuart, "but Johnny will do, and only the Daily Mail calls me the Marquess of Bute". Like his father, he was educated at the leading Roman Catholic private school Ampleforth.

Unlike his father, who was best known as chairman of the National Museums of Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland, Johnny Dumfries dropped out of aristocratic circles, opting instead for a life in Fulham, supporting himself as a painter and decorator while trying to launch his career in motor racing.

Dumfries has always been fanatical about cars. Living on large estates such as Mount Stuart, or the up-for-sale Dumfries House, there were early opportunities to learn to drive on private land, and he owned a car at the age of 15.

Yet by the time he got to the track, old money had been scared away by new money and the sport was a far cry from the old days when the people who raced cars were toffs, and so were those who went to watch.

Dumfries adapted, however, with an earring, a thistle tattoo and an accent that would not be out of place in Peckham.

For a while he drove incognito, until unmasked by a newspaper. On the track he told his fellow petrolheads: "I don't like people calling me the Earl of Dumfries and all that rubbish. I don’t want anyone to think I am some sort of aristocrat just dabbling in motor racing for fun."

The fun stopped at 35 when his father died of mouth and throat cancer and Johnny became the 7th Marquis of Bute.

At his father's memorial service in Edinburgh, he read the lesson in a black polo-neck sweater and with an East End of London accent.

Along with the title, he inherited a 12m overdraft, a widowed stepmother, a 112m fortune largely comprised of works of art - and 69 tenant farmers who had not had a rent increase since 1968.

A month later the new marquis was without a marchioness; his wife Carolyn filed for divorce. The couple met in 1984 on a blind date in a south London pub. Young nanny Carolyn Waddell, nicknamed Freddie, was 17; he was 23. In their early days he would spend all day painting and decorating before coming home and working on his cars.

They married when Carolyn was seven months’ pregnant, having agreed that it would not be fair, if the baby was a boy, to deprive him of his legal right as heir.

In fact, their first child was a girl, Caroline, now 19, who was named after Johnny’s sister who had died in 1984 in a car crash.

Their second child was Lady Cathleen, now 17. She was followed by the son and heir - Jack, now 14. Carolyn later said that her husband had never properly grown up, while she had always felt insecure when he was around the "glamorous women of the racing circuit".

The marriage ended when Johnny admitted having an affair and the couple divorced in 1993, with Carolyn later threatening to reveal Bute secrets by publishing her autobiography.

In the end, they settled for a more dignified estrangement and, in February 1999, Johnny married Serena Solitaire Wendell, arriving in the back of a J-reg white Transit van owned by a local hotel. The guests wore jeans and trainers.

The couple have a daughter, Lola, and live in a Victorian glass factory in south-west London converted by Scottish architect Stuart Robertson.

They also have several other homes including converted farm buildings on the other side of the official family home on Bute.

Despite his much vaunted lack of emotional attachment to the trappings of title, the marquis has been cited as conducting his business with a distinctly aristocratic hauteur.

And despite "embarrassment" about his nobility, he managed to overcome these feeling sufficiently to visit the House of Lords, although only once.

He also had a rather lordly way with the press. At first he royally refused to do interviews, although he bends that rule now when he has a new project to publicise.

On one such plug-related event, he admitted that giving up racing to carry on the family business made him angry at the time, but the years have mellowed him.

Those directly affected by the changing Bute fortune have felt less relaxed. His father’s second wife, Jennifer Percy, had supervised the renovation of the family seat of Mount Stuart on the Island of Bute but was asked to quit by the new marquis, who then opened it to the public.

He also dismissed four tenants and re-let their farms on the open market, and he raised the rents on the other 65 estate farms - some by as much as 500%.

With a fortune largely based on Welsh coal mining in the 19th century, the family remains one of Scotland’s wealthiest, but with the head of the Fraser clan now living in the grounds of his former seat, being wealthy and titled is not what it used to be.

Since the renamed Johnny Bute took over, he has steadily sold off a few of the family’s most valuable heirlooms to clear the debts.

His first sale of items from the Mount Stuart attic included a German commode worth 5,000.

Then in 1994 he sold 13,000 worth of porcelain at Christie’s and made over 10m in 1996 after selling furniture and paintings including an 18th-century Milanese library desk and a painting by Paul Sandby.

His determination to run the estates on a commercial basis, rather than a paternalistic one, has created bad feeling on Bute and criticism further afield.

He and his sister, Sophie Crichton Stuart, faced flak in 2000 when they announced they could not afford to keep open the world-famous Dovecot tapestry studio, though it was saved by newer money in the form of arts patron Alastair Salvesen.

But the marquis’s later decision to sell the island of Great Cumbrae to its tenants for the bargain price of 1m brought him praise from all quarters, and he has said he wants to keep his main home at Mount Stuart, where Stella McCartney, the daughter of his friend Sir Paul McCartney, was married to Alasdhair Willis last year.

By selling off substantial peripherals, he hopes to be able to leave the Bute estate to his children, rather than inheritance tax and death duty.

That way his son and heir will also inherit the opportunity to proclaim that no man is an island.

Unless he is the Marquis of Bute.