Obituary: Lady Jean Fforde, aristocrat said to have auctioned off an earldom to pay for central heating

Lady Jean Fforde in her home in Arran in 2014 (Picture: Robert Perry)
Lady Jean Fforde in her home in Arran in 2014 (Picture: Robert Perry)
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Lady Jean Graham Sibyl Violet Graham Fforde. Born in Edinburgh on 7 November 1920. Died on 13 October 2017 on Isle of Arran, aged 96.

Lady Jean Fforde, who controversially auctioned off an earldom in order to raise the money to have central heating installed in her cottage, has died on her beloved Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde.

The Earldom of Arran was sold by Lady Jean 30 years ago. Her family had held the title since the 15th century. The sale included 1,000 acres of farmland at the foot of Goatfell, where a mysterious white stag is said to roam.

Celtic legend has it that a sighting of the beast signals impending death. One was said to have been spotted on the island a few days before Lady Jean died.

Lady Jean, whose family own most of Arran, led a colourful and sometimes controversial life. She is said to have used the money from the title sale to repair and heat her home in the former estate office of Brodick Castle.

The castle was taken over by the National Trust for Scotland in 1960 in lieu of death duties. She said that while she was sad to lose the title, it was nothing to losing the castle – “The castle and all its contents were taken from me and it was like losing my whole life.”

The castle was the seat of the Dukes of Hamilton, her mother’s family. Lady Jean, only daughter of the 6th Duke of Montrose, was a spirited woman who was an energetic force for good. She played major roles in many organisations on Arran, including the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute, the RNLI and Riding for the Disabled.

There were expressions of discontent on and off the island, however, over evictions from tenanted farms that she owned. These surfaced in the Scottish parliament when Lady Jean’s son, Charles, accused the Scottish Land Commission of “bizarre behaviour in line with Leninist principles”.

His mother’s family, the Douglas-Hamiltons, built schools and churches in all the villages at their own expense. They also built homes for people finding alternative employment to subsistence agriculture. They even employed a doctor to look after sick people on their estate. In 1999 Lady Jean was listed alongside Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Prince of Dubai, who owns a 63,000-acre estate in Wester Ross, as one of the ten lairds with most to fear from land reform. The list was compiled by Andy Wightman, author of a comprehensive analysis of land ownership in Scotland, published in The Sunday Times. “These are landowners who are throwbacks to the Victorian period when lairds were masters of their dominion,” Mr Wightman wrote.

Lady Jean provoked anger when her family evicted a tenant farmer. Later, there was more disquiet over the eviction of two brothers from a 6,000-acre hill farm.

Her early life, however – when Monaco royalty spent their summer holidays with her, as did prominent politicians and prime ministers including Harold Macmillan – was full of happiness and free of conflict. Prince Rainier of Monaco, who married film star Grace Kelly, spent his summers in Scotland, as did his sister, Princess Antoinette.

Much of her childhood was spent at Buchanan Castle on Loch Lomondside, seat of the Dukes of Montrose. She said: “We had great fun, and we would play tennis and ride. Prince Rainier and Princess Antoinette, who was known as Tiny, loved it, although she almost fell off the roof one day and could have been killed. They came every year as children – it was so different to what they were accustomed to. We had a boat and went out netting fish and lobster potting. We had to bathe in the sea, then we would be given hot milk and digestives, and a rub down, which hurt. Tiny was a month younger than me and she was my closest friend.” By the early 1900s, wealthy families would rent houses on Arran for the summer. The young Monaco royals travelled to Scotland in the 1920s and 1930s by train and made the journey to Arran by ferry. Lady Jean said: “Rainier and Antoinette were prince and princess, but to me they were friends. We had very happy times here. Antoinette, who was my closest friend until she died, would always say it was ‘so lovely’.”

She added: “I was very fond of Princess Grace – she really was a dear. I visited them several times. She was the most adorable person. Film star nothing, princess nothing, as a person to me she was very nice. Really nice. But she never came to Arran. The nearest she got was picking up a cruise ship at Gourock.”

As a debutante, Lady Jean “came out” in 1939 when she was presented to King George VI, but much as she enjoyed balls and parties, she was desperate to join the war effort. Bouts of TB in childhood shattered her dreams of joining the Wrens and her mother insisted she help with volunteering work on Arran. Her father spoke to Lord Mountbatten and she was offered a job as a “temporary assistant” with the Foreign Office.

The job was dull, the food was “indescribable” and the few men there were “awful types”, plus “you weren’t allowed out once you got there,” said Lady Jean, who made a point of escaping to London at weekends. She stayed at the Dorchester and danced on the roof as the bombs rained down on London.

It was at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park that Lady Jean joined the army of women who cracked the German code to save countless lives and shorten the war by at least two years.

The 2014 film The Imitation Game centred on maths genius Alan Turing in cracking the Nazi’s Enigma Code at Bletchley Park. It starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, who was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts and posthumously pardoned in 2013. Keira Knightley played the feisty Joan Clarke, to whom Turing was briefly engaged. Lady Jean said it was unfair to Knightley as Clarke “looked like the back of a bus”.

The job of the 8,000 women at Bletchley Park was to crack the intercepted coded signal messages, and most of them thought it exciting, but one who didn’t was Lady Jean. Her fascinating memoir, Feet on the Ground – From Castles to Catastrophe, reveals that this was “rather a dull chapter in an otherwise colourful life”. She explains: “It was excessively boring. It was not as glamourous as subsequent books and films have made it appear.” In contrast to the curmudgeonly character portrayed by Cumberbatch, Lady Jean found Turing to be a “very nice man, who should have had public recognition. He was a lovely man, an accessible man. Sweet, handsome, shabby, nail-bitten, sometimes halting in speech and awkward in manner.”

Lady Jean was born in Edinburgh to James Graham, 6th Duke of Montrose, and Mary Louise Douglas-Hamilton Forster. She married Colonel John Fforde in 1947 and became mother of Charles Fforde, by whom she is survived. She and Fforde divorced in 1957. Her siblings were James Angus Graham, 7th Duke of Montrose, Mary Helen Alma Boscawen and Lord Ronald Graham. Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.

BILL HEANEY