Obituary: Sir Kenneth Scott, KCVO, CMG, diplomat and deputy private secretary to the Queen

Sir Kenneth Bertram Adam Scott, KCVO, CMG, diplomat and deputy private secretary to the Queen. Born: 23 January 1931, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Died: 23 February 2018, Edinburgh, aged 87.

Sir Kenneth Scott,  KCVO, CMG
Sir Kenneth Scott, KCVO, CMG

Sir Kenneth Scott was a diplomat who enjoyed a colourful and interesting life with the Diplomatic Service in far-flung corners of the world before being appointed the Queen’s deputy private secretary and enjoying rare access and gaining an extraordinary insight into the Queen and her daily life and routine, for example, her being awoken when in London and Balmoral by a bagpiper playing outside her window.

Following his final posting as Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Scott, who had already served a Prime Minister, foreign secretaries, the Royal Family and other dignitaries, accepted an invitation to become the assistant private secretary to the Queen; he was promoted as the deputy to Sir Robert Fellowes in 1990, retiring in 1996 and becoming an Extra Equerry.

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He later described his years with the Queen as “among the happiest of my career” and found her a great deal more efficient and easy to work with than many previous employers.

Scott, a tall, dashing, immaculately presented and mildly spoken man with a cheery disposition, took to his new role with aplomb and particularly enjoyed trips to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Balmoral, recalling the Queen’s pleasure in entertaining “bemused prime ministers” with picnics in a log cabin on the estate, with Prince Philip on barbecue duty and the Queen laying the table and clearing away. He also noted that when aboard Britannia, official papers were occasionally deposited by military helicopter.

One of three private secretaries, he arranged the Queen’s programme and served as a link with government departments, dealt with official correspondence and went on reconnoitres for upcoming public engagements. He believed visits that included a “walkabout,” in which the Royals ventured down a street chatting with members of the public often “gave the Queen a deeper understanding of the country than many of her ministers”.

Scott was often on duty at significant events, including the Queen’s 60th birthday celebrations in 1986, and the elegant celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995, a particularly successful day following some difficult years, which included her “annus horribilis”, when the Prince and Princess of Wales announced their separation and a fire gutted parts of Windsor Castle.

With his linguistic ability and Foreign Office background, he accompanied the Queen on many European visits, and further afield to Australia, New Zealand and Canada more than once, as well as to Nepal (1986), the United States (1991) and, most significantly, her 1994 state visit to Moscow and St Petersburg. Charged with doing a recce, Scott stood up to the Kremlin and demonstrated his natural authority when approving what would, and would not be, acceptable in the Queen’s itinerary for the trip.

He later worked closely with Charles Anson in the making of what is described as the “best documentary” of the Queen’s working life, Edward Mirzoeff’s Elizabeth R (1992).

Scott was also captured on film, in a moment of humour exemplifying his friendship with the Queen, explaining that she was going to be presented with six rugby shirts for her grandchildren at a forthcoming function. The Queen looked sceptically at Scott, raised an eyebrow and inquired, “Even for the girls?” He replied, “It’s very in for girls to wear rugby jerseys these days, Ma’am.”

Always willing to fight her corner when necessary, he greatly admired the Queen, observing, “She doesn’t like pomposity… and she doesn’t like side. She likes people who make her laugh and she likes people who are warm in their personality and people who are interesting.” Her sense of humour, he found “impish”.

Born in Belfast in 1931, Kenneth Scott’s lineage can be traced back to Adam Scott of Tushielaw, a notorious border reiver known as “King of the Border” or “King of Thieves” who was eventually captured, tried and executed by James V of Scotland in 1530 for sheep rustling.

Kenneth was the youngest of four children of Adam Scott, OBE, a civil servant, and his wife, Lena (née Kaye). His parents had met in France during The Great War while working for the YMCA behind the Allied front lines. Adam was eventually appointed Assistant-General Secretary of the YMCA in 1942. Growing-up in a predominantly female household would put young Kenneth in good stead later in life, as he seemed to have a gift for charming, reassuring and understanding the opposite sex.

He was educated at Edinburgh’s George Watson’s College, where he was later a Governor (1997-2002), before moving on to read history at the University of Edinburgh, becoming Senior President of the Students’ Representative Council.

In this role it was his job to install the University’s new rector. In March 1952, in what he later described as “an unforgettable experience”, Scott, the Vice Chancellor, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh and the new Rector, Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, marched in full 
ceremonial attire into the McEwan Hall while everyone sang “Gaudeamus Igitur”.

Later that year, Scott passed the Foreign Service exam, and his place was held open while he completed his National Service. During this time, he learned Russian at Cambridge with the formidable Dame Liza Hill, who had also taught the dramatists Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett.

His first posting, in 1954, was part of the British Delegation headed by Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan, at the Four Power Conference in Geneva. He described Molotov, the Russian Foreign Minister, as saying “No” to everything in the most charming way. Upon becoming Prime Minister in 1957, Macmillan requested that Scott interpret for him when he met with Premier Nikolai Bulganin and First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev on a visit to Moscow the following year; he was also at the PM’s side as he chatted to First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers Anastas Mikoyan and Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko at a gala performance at the Bolshoi ballet.

While serving as Cultural Attaché at the British Embassy in Moscow in 1958, he was asked by the Ambassador’s wife, Lady Reilly, to join her and Lady Douglas of Kirtleside for lunch, but to collect en route a “Mr Grant” from the National Hotel. He duly did; it turned out to be the Hollywood film star Cary Grant, who had just finished filming Indiscreet and been sent on a holiday junket to Moscow organised by producer Sam Spiegel.

By 1961, Scott was serving as Second Secretary in Bonn, West Germany, at the height of the Cold War, and befriended new arrival David Cornwell. Here, Cornwell frequently jotted notes down in a pad he carried with him; the notes eventually became the basis for his novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, publishged under Cornwell’s nom de plume, John Le Carré.

The two remained good friends and in 1976 Scott, now working in Washington DC, held a party for Cornwell, which was attended by various British and American spies and ex-spies. When Scott’s wife asked Cornwell over dinner what his plans were in Washington, he looked around the table and said, rather loudly, “I’m gathering material for my next book”, which left everyone rather self-conscious.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1961, Scott, now a Resident Clerk in London, was on duty at the Foreign Office when President Kennedy was sending, via the British Ambassador in Washington, top-secret messages to PM Macmillan. Due to their sensitivity, Scott hand-delivered them to No.10 to avoid anyone else seeing them. When the possibility of nuclear war was finally averted, Scott procured champagne and with fellow Resident Clerks toasted JFK’s health!

Two years later, he joined a delegation headed by Lord Home, the Foreign Secretary, to New York, in which they stayed at the Carlyle Hotel in great splendour. On the flight out Scott, an avid reader, had read a James Bond novel in which he goes to New York as a guest of the CIA and stays in a glamorous hotel. Subsequently, on Scott’s first morning at the Carlyle, he rang Room Service and ordered the same breakfast that James Bond had ordered in the book. It duly arrived, at a cost of $35 – more than $300 dollars today! Afterwards, he found out that the rest of the delegation, including Lady Home, had taken breakfast in a drug store around the corner for 50 cents; Scott soon ditched his illusions of Bond-like grandeur.

Aged 37, he was sent to Vientiane in Laos, in 1968, as the Head of Chancery and Consul at a time when the country’s constitutional monarchy was under threat from communist insurgents; it fell in 1975.

In 1971 Scott was appointed the Head of Chancery in Moscow during a worrying time when many of his colleagues were expelled as suspected spies, and the KGB took a heavy-handed approach to British diplomats. While in situ in St Petersburg, he learned to recognise his KGB followers, and once co-ordinated a pincer movement with colleagues so that a group of their “spooks” would meet in a rhododendron bush.

He took the senior officers’ war course at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, in 1973, and became deputy head of the personnel operations department at the Foreign Office from 1973-75. He was then counsellor and Head of Chancery in Washington from 1975-76 until he was forced to return following the death of his wife.

While in DC, the Queen visited for the US bicentenary celebrations of the American Declaration of Independence, and Scott helped with the seating plan for an 84-guest banquet at the British Embassy hosted by her Majesty. He placed the actress Elizabeth Taylor next to Senator John Warner, who had arranged the celebrations; later that year he became husband number seven. That evening Taylor wore a gigantic emerald necklace, given to her by Richard Burton and the following day the press pictured The Queen shaking hands with her, with the royal eyes transfixed by the necklace.

At the same event, Scott had to quell the world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali’s exuberance, as he demanded to meet The Queen; he calmly and simply said, “You will have to wait your turn, sir.”

He then headed the Foreign Office’s East European and Soviet department (1977-79) and was minister and Deputy UK Permanent Representative to Nato in Brussels from 1979-82.

Scott’s Foreign Office career culminated in his appointment as Ambassador to Yugoslavia (1982-85), during which time he accompanied Princess Anne to the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, watching 
Torville and Dean clinch their figure-skating gold medal.

While in Belgrade, Scott recalled, he was invited, with all the other foreign Ambassadors, to one of General Tito’s hunting lodges. As not all could shoot, some went on long forest walks while the others took their chances against the partridges. Scott was informed that on a previous shooting party, the Austrian Ambassador had shot the French Ambassador dead; “We never got any compensation,” grumbled the current French Ambassador to Scott, looking darkly at his Austrian colleague.

Upon retiring from the Royal household in 1996, Scott went to Sarajevo as Chairman of the Provincial Election Commission in Bosnia, advising on the setting-up of fair and free elections in the region following a brutal three-year civil war. He was a trustee of the Hopetoun House Preservation Trust from 1998 to 2007; and vice-chairman of the Royal Over-Seas League (2000-02) and vice-president thereafter.

In 2010, Scott published a history of St James’s Palace, and Lords of Dalkeith, a history of the palace and its inhabitants, in 2014.

Scott married first Gabrielle in Washington in 1966, the New Zealand ambassador’s social secretary, with whom he had two children, Andrew and Anna. Gabrielle died from cancer in 1977.

In 1990 he got married again, to Esme Wallace-Walker CBE, a lawyer and a former chair of the Scottish Consumer Council, whom he had known since university. She lobbied authorities on such subjects as citizens’ and tenants’ rights, preservation of rural life and rural reform. She also accompanied Scott on some of his overseas trips.

The couple were enthusiastic patrons of good causes and the arts in Scotland, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Opera and the Edinburgh Festival, and regularly visited the ballet. She died of cancer in 2010.

Scott continued to embrace life and enjoyed spending time with his family.

He died peacefully at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and is survived by Andrew and Anna from his first marriage and Angus, a stepson, from his second.

His funeral took place at Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh, yesterday, with about 400 attendees and a representative from the Royal Family.