Veronica, Lady Maclean of Dunconnel
Born: 2 December, 1920, in Inverness-shire.
Died: 7 January, 2005, in Argyllshire, aged 84.
SHE was one of the most stylish and elegant ladies of the pre-war years. Veronica Fraser was not only beautiful and well connected but also resourceful and excellent company: she came from an aristocratic Scottish family and married into another. Her love of the Highlands was life-long and her devotion to Strachur and its people never wavered. Her marriage to Sir Fitzroy Maclean - said to be Ian Fleming’s model for James Bond - was long and happy. Both maintained a healthy independence of spirit and mind that allowed them to pursue their own interests with an earnest vigour.
Lady Maclean’s Cookbooks became standard in every gourmet’s kitchen in the Sixties and many young marrieds started their life with a copy above the stove. She wrote in a clear and easy-to-follow manner that seemed to make all the recipes simple. They were certainly mouth-watering to read.
Veronica Nell Fraser was the fourth child of the 16th Lord Lovat - the 22nd Chief of the Clan Fraser - and was born and brought up in the magnificent Beaufort Castle. She had a rarefied and charmed childhood mixing with Royalty and attending balls in London and locally. She was educated privately at home and attended a finishing school in Cambridge. The Prince of Wales (later the Duke of Windsor) once flew into Beaufort on a visit and Veronica was enchanted by his romantic arrival over the loch. He promised to take her up for a spin in his plane: and then forgot. Veronica was not impressed and wrote in her autobiography years later: "I was not at all surprised by his subsequent behaviour."
Veronica moved to London in 1938 and did voluntary work. She lived a very social life (although the Frasers were far from wealthy) and apart from doing the season, she befriended many of the rich and famous of the era - and turned down several proposals. She became friends with the leading American families who were in London at the time. These included the Kennedys (she is said to have danced with both JFK and his father, the ambassador Joseph, at a party), the Bushes and the Astors.
Before Dunkirk, Veronica served in a mobile ambulance unit but in 1941 she met Alan Phipps, a naval lieutenant, and he proposed to her while sitting on a bench in Regent’s Park two weeks later. He was killed in action in November 1943 and she had the responsibility of bringing up their son and daughter.
In 1946, her cousin David Stirling introduced her to Fitzroy Maclean (co-founders of the SAS). Both were equally dashing figures and had a war full of derring-do stunts. Maclean had been parachuted into Yugoslavia on many occasions with the SAS to offer support to Marshal Tito.
Veronica was much smitten with this gallant officer and after a similarly short courtship, he proposed (this time in Hyde Park). They lived initially in his constituency in Lancaster until 1957 when he became MP for North Ayrshire. They then bought Strachur House in Argyllshire on the shores of Loch Fyne. It is an impressive house with a white exterior and long slender windows: it has a magical and relaxed air about it. Veronica Maclean seemed immediately at home on the estate and became an integral part of village life.
Lady Maclean proved an excellent MP’s wife. She was natural and showed genuine compassion for any local problem. She described herself as "ignorant, opinionated and nave". Opinionated she certainly was but she was never ignorant nor nave. She had an inborn cunning and native shrewdness that marked her out as a most farsighted lady, a gracious hostess and a devoted mother.
Before Lady Maclean became recognised as a cook, she set to work creating a garden at Strachur House. The flower garden at the back now has two hundred old Irish yew trees around six splendid herbaceous borders. Amid the superb floribunda roses she planted Alpine strawberries, while to the side she placed Russian sage with hydrangeas petriolaris and cistus on the wall. In many ways this adventure and eye for colour and visual drama in the garden reflected Lady Maclean’s own vibrant personality. She was instrumental in creating the "Burn Walk" and planted rhododendrons, azaleas and Japanese maples to provide a peaceful and tranquil area by the running burn.
One of the principal interests in Lady Maclean’s life has been the Creggans Inn that they bought in 1957. In fact there had been an inn on the site for 400 years. She was the driving force behind the resurgence of Creggans into an acclaimed culinary hideaway. She prided herself in serving local seafood - oysters straight from the loch and hill-nurtured lamb, all prepared in a simple, no-nonsense fashion.
In conjunction with Creggans, Lady Maclean wrote four recipe books that set a trend in cookbooks that has now become an avalanche. She wrote with knowledge and a desire to revitalise some traditional cooking methods. She mixed in with those more grand recipes some very new dishes she had sampled on her many travels. Mrs Duncan’s Girdle Scones (the secret is to add a teaspoon of tartar sauce) lay happily beside grapefruit and melon in a champagne sauce (the Duchess of Argyll’s favourite) and salmon (from Loch Fyne) in an exotic sauce of cream and white wine. The books were best- sellers and popularised Scottish cuisine worldwide.
In 1993, she wrote Crowned Heads, an account of the reigning dynasties in Europe. Many she had known and it has many asides about the personalities of a monarch (or a forebear), which brings an extra, informed dimension to the book. In 2002, Lady Maclean published her autobiography (Past Forgetting) that recaptures her youth and tells of her friendships with John Singer Sargent, Churchill and the Queen Mother. It also charts in vivid detail many of the hair-raising overland journeys in China, Yugoslavia and Persia.
The Macleans were avid travellers. They visited Russia throughout the Cold War, starting in 1957, and then every year for 40 years. She shared her husband’s love of the Balkans and they bought the Palazzo Boschi on a Croatian island in 1968. The Macleans seemed to land themselves in many scrapes and were even sent on a spying mission to Turkey after the Cuban Missile Crisis to search for suitable landing strips for guerrillas if things got rough. Lady Maclean joined her husband in such escapades with undisguised relish and brought a sense of cool organisation and an unflappable nature to the adventures.
The Macleans shared a love of Yugoslavia and as late as 1991 Veronica took a course in lorry driving so that she could drive a seven-ton truck to Croatia to deliver much needed medical supplies to the inhabitants of Dubrovnik during the war in Croatia.
Such a humane gesture was typical of this most devout Roman Catholic. She was an extremely good-natured and kind person but under that charm was a strong and purposeful lady who was her own person. She never held back her opinions (she had, for example, a few choice views on the Scottish Parliament - "Totally urban, a second- rate parliament" - and remained to the end of her venturesome life intrepid and valiant.
In her later years, she spent much of her energies raising funds to endow a scholarship in Sir Fitzroy’s name at Glasgow University. The scholarship is for a postgraduate and there is also an annual lecture on a subject relating to adventure and international understanding. The first lecturer was Martin Bell.
Lady Maclean’s funeral will take place at St Mun’s Church, Dunoon, tomorrow. Sir Fitzroy died in 1993. Two children survive Veronica, Lady Maclean from her first marriage and two sons from her second. Sir Charles succeeds to the baronetcy.