Obituary: Sir Ewen Fergusson, rugby international and diplomat

Sir Ewen Fergusson
Sir Ewen Fergusson
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Sir Ewen Fergusson, GCMG, GCVO, Grand Officier, Legion d’Honneur, Scotland rugby international and diplomat. Born, 28 October, 1932, in Singapore. Died: 20 April, 2017, in Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse, France, aged 84

Ewen Fergusson was capped five times as a rugby union international for Scotland, and was a crucial player in the drama of Margaret Thatcher’s downfall.

As British Ambassador to France from 1987 until 1992, he would be one of the half-dozen people surrounding Thatcher, then Prime Minister, in the room on the third floor of his magnificent residence in the Rue du Faubourg St Honore in Paris when she heard, whisky in hand, that she had failed to win enough Tory Party votes to avoid a second ballot for the leadership. Two days later, back in Britain, she would resign.

The news came on the evening of November 20, 1990, as she and Sir Ewen were preparing to attend a state banquet at the Palace of Versailles.

She shored up her doomed determination to “fight on” – announced, defiantly, in Sir Ewen’s embassy courtyard - not only by telephoning her husband Denis and colleagues Norman Tebbit and George Younger, but by confiding her innermost feelings to Sir Ewen, as, in black chiffon and lace and crimson jacket, she lingered in his sitting room before setting off for the engagement in an official car.

“I regarded the gossips that I had with her in the car … as an absolutely fascinating bonus to my professional experience,” Sir Ewen recalled. “ It was obvious when she arrived in Paris that she was nervous. She was a very lonely figure during the Conference (on Security and Co-operation in Europe)…. Then the news came through and it was obviously an appalling shock to her..(she) knew she was going back to face the music.”

Sudden catastrophe was an experience familiar to Sir Ewen from childhood. His talents as a British envoy around the world were sharpened by his own family’s darkest hour, the fall of the British Empire in the Far East in 1942.

Aged only nine when British colonial Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, Ewen Alastair John Fergusson had already made a hazardous three-month sea voyage there from Britain in autumn 1940 to rejoin his parents – his father was an accountant and engineer with the Straits Trading Company – and escape the threat of bombs over his school in blitzed Southampton.

The family would escape imprisonment or death under Japanese occupation by the slimmest of chances: they were within hours of returning to Singapore from a brief posting of his father’s in Australia, when the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941 heralded war with Japan and all civilian travel was banned. Nine weeks later, when Singapore surrendered, their home and possessions would be in enemy hands..

Fourteen years would pass before the Fergussons would again have enough money to buy even the smallest property - a flat in London, purchased in 1956. Until then, Ewen and his younger siblings Donald and Elizabeth, completing their schooling in Britain, had to accept the kindness of strangers in finding a place to stay. In Singapore, their father restored the company and became chairman. .

Ewen, the eldest of the three, treasured early memories of the “company house” in Singapore, where his parents entertained Britons,Malays, Chinese, Indians and Tamils, and, aged five, he was able to converse in simple Malay. There were exciting visits up-country to see tin smelted, and on leave, long journeys to a beloved Scotland, the land from where, in the 1920s, his father, eldest of 10 children from a family of modest means in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire, had emigrated to find work in the Far East.

Ewen had especially loved early childhood holidays at Ardgour, by Loch Linnhe, where he fished, walked, rowed boats, and first heard the pipes- which he would later himself learn to play.

But with war, Scotland was out of reach until late in 1945, when the family sailed for Liverpool from Australia. Bright, with talents for sport and music that had emerged at Bostock House, his school in Australia, Fergusson went on to Rugby School, and Oriel College, Oxford.

Having joined the Foreign office in 1956, Fergusson had himself not long finished National Service as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 60th Rifles (KRRC) when he was made Assistant Private Secretary to Duncan Sandys, the Minister of Defence who in 1957 made swingeing cuts in the armed forces. Fergusson would later be Private Secretary between 1975 and 1978,to successive Foreign Secretaries James Callaghan, Anthony Crosland, and David Owen.

He served in Addis Ababa, Brussels, and New York, and was Ambassador to South Africa from 1982-1984. In the land of the Springboks, as in France, his prowess at rugby for Scotland was, it is remembered, “a great help” for diplomatic relations.

He was appointed KCMG in 1987, GCVO in 1992 and GCMG in 1993. France made him Grand Officier, Legion d’Honneur in 1992.

He married, in 1959, Sara Carolyn Montgomery Cuninghame (nee Gordon Lennox). They would have a son, Ewen, and two daughters, Iona and Anna.

Fergusson played rugby for Oxford University in 1952 and 1953, and for Scotland in 1954. In five matches, three at Murrayfield, one at Belfast, and one at Swansea, the adversaries were France, the New Zealand All Blacks, Ireland, England and Wales.Sadly the Scots lost all five. Fergusson nevertheless proudly kept his Scottish caps.