Obituary: The Countess of Erroll, English noblewoman who became a chief’s wife and took Scotland to her heart

The Countess of Erroll. Born: 22 August, 1955 in Brussels. Died: 13 January, 2020, in Bedford, aged 64.

The Countess of Erroll with the Count (Picture: Gregory Cazillo)

The Countess of Erroll was the Belgian-born Englishwomen who proved a dedicated, loving and supportive wife to a Scottish peer and chief, and in so doing, took Scotland to her heart.

Rarely apart from her husband the Earl of Erroll, Isabelle Hay provided loyal and dutiful support over some four decades to Lord Erroll, High Constable of Scotland, chief of clan Hay and Hereditary Lord Assessor to the Lord Lyon King of Arms.

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In doing so, she was at the scene of much Scottish ceremonial including Holyrood garden parties, the annual Royal Week in Edinburgh and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

When Isabelle Hohler married Merlin Hay 38 years ago, she entered a Scots earldom that was one of 20 in existence 500 years ago. The Hays, originally in northern France, appeared in Scotland by the 12th century, and today they remain one of the major clans of Scotland.

Following the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Sir Gilbert Hay of Erroll was rewarded with the hereditary appointment of Lord High Constable by King Robert Bruce. The Constable signs his name “Erroll” with the post-nominals “HC”, a style maintained when Isabelle’s mother-in-law Diana, Countess of Erroll, became High Constable in her own right in 1941.

The High Constable takes precedence before dukes and every other hereditary honour after the Blood Royal and maintains a private herald, Slains Pursuivant, the first recorded holder of the office appearing in 1404.

Blue blood ran in the veins of Isabelle Jacqueline Laline Hohler. The daughter of the former Countess Jacqueline de Jouffroy d’Abbans, her father was Major Thomas Hohler, banker and latterly chairman of investment house King and Shaxson, and who gained a Military Cross after action in North Africa during the Second World War. Isabelle’s mother, a daughter of the Marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans, came of the French ancien regime.

An ancestor of Isabelle’s, the engineer Marquis Claude Dorothee de Jouffroy d’Abbans, is recognised as the inventor of the first working steamboat, some three decades before William Symington’s successful experiments on the Forth & Clyde Canal.

Isabelle grew up at Wolverton Park in Hampshire, and Eaton Square, London. Her father, descended from a courtier who accompanied George I from Hanover in 1714, was also heir to his mother’s family, the Astells of Woodbury Hall in Bedfordshire. Thus Isabelle, an only child, ultimately inherited both her father’s Hampshire estate, and paternal grandmother’s ancestral property in Bedfordshire. When, in 1982, Isabelle married Merlin Sereld Victor Gilbert Hay, 24th Earl of Erroll and 28th Lord High Constable, they set up home at Wolverton, the home farm near Basingstoke of her father’s estate.

After Isabelle’s great-uncle Richard Astell died in 1969, his widow remained in Woodbury until her death in 1993, after which the Errolls moved in. Woodbury had not been updated for decades and Isabelle embarked on major restoration and redecoration, with outstandingly beautiful results. Thus encouraged, when the dilapidated Astell property of Moggerhanger Hall became available, Lady Erroll tackled the rescue with similar zeal, chairing the Moggerhanger House Preservation Trust. The high standards executed in both Woodbury and Moggerhanger, each rescued from potential ruin, yielded Lady Erroll a deserved architectural legacy.

On her mother’s death in 1996, she inherited her childhood home of Wolverton Park. She farmed Wolverton and Woodbury herself – and indeed, it is as a farmer that she is remembered, and that is how she described herself. Closely involved in the local business community in Bedfordshire, she proved an active member of Bedfordshire Businesswomen as well as the National Farmers’ Union and the Country Landowners Association.

Her architectural expertise had been greatly sought, and she was a trustee of Belmont, a Georgian house in Kent. Her extensive charitable activities saw Moggerhanger become a permanent home for the exhibition of the Human Trafficking Foundation. Her substantial contribution to public life gain recognition when she was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 2015.

Lady Erroll’s interest in Clan Hay verged on the passionate, especially the story of her husband’s family. She maintained a keen eye on gallery and saleroom catalogues, ready to bid for artefacts relating to Hay history. This knowledgeable interest paid off in her reclaiming many family portraits that had been sold off a century previously when “old money” became scarce.

At Woodbury, Isabelle Hay provided warm and generous hospitality for visiting clansmen the world over. In turn, she and Merlin visited Scottish events down the years in North America, Australasia and continental Europe. Lady Erroll’s natural warmth and charm – for she was such a people person – endeared her to so many she met, with her greatest welcomes reserved for Hay clansfolk.

Lady Erroll died in Bedford following a heart attack. A lifetime smoker, she was said to enjoy 80 a day.

She is survived by her husband the Earl of Erroll, and their four children: son and heir Harry, Lord Hay; daughters Amelia and Laline; and son Richard. Four years ago, by Royal licence, Richard took the name and arms of Astell in lieu of Hay, in recognition of his eventual succession to the Woodbury estate as representor of Astell of Woodbury.