Antonella, Marchioness of Lothian


Born: 8 September, 1922, in Yorkshire. Died: 6 January, 2007, at Ferniehirst, Jedburgh, aged 84.

ANTONELLA, Marchioness of Lothian was a lady of courage and resourcefulness whose energy and enthusiasm ensured that any project with which she was involved got her total support. None more so than the annual Woman of the Year Lunch which she had organised meticulously for almost half a century. She was also a noted journalist and devoted much of her time to medical and nursing causes throughout the UK. Despite the loss of an eye in 1970 she remained spry and ebullient; friends often remarked that she seemed to rather enjoy the black eye-patch she had to wear after the operation. "It gave her an unfamiliar raffish appearance" one commented.

Antonella Lothian - always referred to as Tony - had direct connections with many of the oldest families in Scotland. She herself was married to the 12th Marquess of Lothian while one of their sons is the MP Michael Ancrum and the second son, Lord Ralph Kerr, lives at the family's Derbyshire estate, Melbourne Hall. Their four daughters are equally distinguished: Lady Cecil married into the Cameron of Lochiel family and the two younger daughters married the heirs of the Dukes of Grafton and Buccleuch. Lady Mary Kerr is a folk singer and was a skiing silver medallist at the 1969 Commonwealth Games. But Antonella's devotion to Scotland - especially the Borders - was central to her life and she worked tirelessly for local events and charities.

Antonella Reuss Newland was the daughter of a British major-general and an Italian mother. She attended several army schools and continued her studies in Germany in the mid-Thirties. She served as an auxiliary nurse on the outbreak of war but re-met a Scots Guards officer (they had been childhood friends), Lieutenant Peter Kerr. They were married at Brompton Oratory in 1943 and began married life in army quarters. They moved to Monteviot the 18,000-acre Kerr estate, in Jedburgh, where they raised their family.

Lord Lothian had succeeded to the title in 1940 when his cousin, the 11th Marquess, had died while serving at the Washington Embassy. Lord Lothian's official title was Chief of Name of Kerr, and Lady Antonella became a keen and popular supporter of events connected with the clan.

But these responsibilities did not deter Antonella pursuing her own career. From 1960, she was a political correspondent for the Scottish Daily Express and a broadcaster and television presenter.

In 1955, she established the Woman of the Year Award with two other friends and as it gained in importance, it brought Antonella into the national spotlight. She had been much irritated when she was barred from attending a men-only lunch and initially established a lunch for "career women of distinction". In fact, it was a brave thing to do in the mid-Fifties; the profile of women was not high and it was unusual for a woman to gain prominence in the professions.

For many years, the lunches were held at London's Savoy Hotel and raised funds for the Greater London Fund for the Blind. Antonella chaired the lunches with humour and gusto. Over the years many women of distinction have attended and accepted awards. These have ranged from Baroness Margaret Thatcher through Diana, Princess of Wales to Maureen Lipmann, Dame Kelly Holmes, Naomi Campbell, Shirley Conran and Kate Adie.

Antonella's sheer dedication to make the lunch a success was clear from the outset. Indeed, many thought she was being optimistic in aiming for 500 prominent women. She cogently replied: "Every woman who is invited is a woman of the year." She scoured reference books - invariably seated on her drawing room floor with papers everywhere - for new and interesting people and annually delivered an event to remember.

It was always Antonella's intention that not only the famous should be honoured but those "unselfish and useful women" who dedicated their lives to others: or as Antonella described them, "special women who have not been noticed".

Antonella always encouraged speakers to speak out about injustices or on political topics. In 1980, Professor Margaret Gowing spoke against the atomic arms race and, three years later, Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, delivered an emotional plea for all women to end the Cold War. Antonella published a biography of Tereshkova in 1986.

Antonella remained very much in charge and even the surgery on her eye, following a cancer diagnosis, hardly dimmed her commitment. Latterly however, she gave a videoed address to the lunch. "She was always resplendent in black eye patch," remembered one award winner, "and invariably dramatically dressed in red and black."

Apart from many local organisations, she was vice-president of the Royal College of Nursing (1960-80), patron of the Scottish Order of Christian Unity and court patron of the Royal College of Obstetricians. She was made a Dame of St Gregory in 2002 and awarded an OBE in 1997.

Tony Lothian had a vision and a desire to improve the lifestyle and social conditions of women long before it became a politically fashionable. As president of the lunch, she was an inspiration to many women and supported many who worked tirelessly for others.

Similarly, throughout Roxburghshire, Antonella was a popular and enthusiastic figure who was always friendly. At her 80th birthday, 40 immediate relations along with countless friends, neighbours and well wishers gathered at Ferniehirst, her beloved turreted home outside Jedburgh.

In a dedication to the history of the lunch, Antonella wrote: "To all the women whose work all over the world upholds communities now and in the future." She herself made a substantial contribution to that cause.

Antonella was a devout Catholic all her life and an enthusiastic walker of the Border countryside.

Her husband died in 2004 and she is survived by her two sons and four daughters.