Obituary: Donald Erskine, National Trust for Scotland Factor with breathtaking knowledge of the nation

Donald Erskine
Donald Erskine
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Donald Seymour Erskine, DL, factor. Born: 28 May 1925 in London. Died: 4 December 2017, aged 92

Scotland was indeed fortunate that at the second time of asking, in 1961, Donald Erskine accepted the offer to join the National Trust for Scotland as Factor. His knowledge of Scotland was possibly unequalled, as those who travelled North or West with him soon realised. This was particularly valuable at a time when the Trust was asked to accept many and varied properties. These included Scottish icons such as Hill House, Fyvie Castle, Haddo, the Pineapple and Iona and Canna, to mention but a few. His quiet but determined approach was appreciated by donors and Trust colleagues. Donald recognised the need for change in the organisation even if he did not always agree. In the early 1970s the Trust was working hand-to-mouth. He was always prepared to turn his hand to all tasks, setting a great example to colleagues.

Donald’s passion for woodlands and the thrill of seeing land kept in good heart was an inspiration to staff, crofters and landowners alike. He loved visits to Trust properties, especially the islands, where he stayed with crofters, often singing in accompaniment to local fiddlers well into the evening, or sea fishing – usually with success.

Born in the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace, Donald was the second son of Arthur, then Crown Equerry to King George V, and Rosemary Erskine. He was educated at Wellington College before he joined the Army in 1944, serving with the Airborne Forces. Following demobilisation in 1947 his love of all things outdoors really developed as he trained to be a land agent on the Buccleuch Estates at Drumlanrig. His early working years were spent with the Country Gentlemen’s Association before he factored Candacraig and Edenglassie Estates in Aberdeenshire from 1955-1961, when he moved on to the National Trust for Scotland.

Perhaps Donald’s greatest contribution to the Trust, before retiring in 1989, was the introduction of the cruising now so prolifically operated by international companies. Trips on the SS Uganda and Fred Olsen ships are remembered by the many thousands who sailed along the Scottish or Norwegian coasts into the Baltic. For many this opened up some of the wealth of secrets found on islands such as St Kilda or the Shiants.

Donald, with his wife Catharine, represented the Trust and promoted its work at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games & Gathering of Scottish Clans in North Carolina for many years. His effusive personality and humour ensured he was the ideal ambassador for the National Trust for Scotland, and the country as a whole, creating and cementing a bond of friendship between the organisations that remains to Scotland’s benefit today. His colleagues remember Donald’s cheerful, affable disposition. He kept a tight rein on budgets and happily encouraged initiatives, never taking personal credit for his staff’s achievements. He is remembered as someone who listened and encouraged.

With great sincerity, he treated all he met as an equals. He was straightforward and trustworthy. He knew the Trust, its people and properties so well that his eulogy in St Giles for the longtime President, the late David, Earl of Weymss, was a fulsome record of another great leader of the Trust.

One long-time resident of Fair Isle writes “During the Sixties and Seventies the Trust had a much more hands-on approach than of late. In those days the hierarchy of the Trust were, as Donald was, from well-to-do Scottish families. If their heart was in the right place, as his was, they had a lot of clout. Donald was a proper gentleman and a good friend to the Isle over a long period of time.”

Donald enjoyed a life beyond the National Trust for Scotland. In so many senses he was a community man. He enjoyed a strong faith. An elder of the Church of Scotland for over 50 years, he was a stalwart and was a proud member of the choir of Cleish Church, which was adjacent to his family home. Reflecting their love of the wider world of culture as well as the outdoors, Donald and Catharine were active supporters of the Tayside Fine Arts and Decorative Society.

In addition to being a Deputy Lieutenant of Perth and Kinross, he was an active member of the Royal Company of Archers from 1958 to 2004 when he moved to the retired list. On appointment to both of these roles he felt hugely honoured and proud, reflecting his unswerving loyalty to the Royal Family. During his latter years he devoted time to compiling and publishing an autobiography reflecting on a happy and full life, one rewarded and supported by his family. He always wrote in long hand, regularly to his children.

Somehow it is unlikely that Donald would have ever wanted to master social media skills believing, as he did, in the fundamental values of life… to be unfailingly courteous, professional and helpful to one and all.

Donald was predeceased by his wife Catharine, who also died in 2017. He is survived by his five children Carol, Fiona, Jamie, Julia and Joanna, and his 12 grandchildren.

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