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Issue 51 - A dual life

Scotland Magazine Issue 51
June 2010


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A dual life

Ian Evans meets John Murray, also known as the Duke of Atholl.

To his friends in the village of Haenertsburg, he is John Murray, married to Peggy, and father of three grown up children. A keen hill walker, he can often be seen ambling along the main street or driving in his white car with a small but curious reference to a duke on the boot.

For those who don’t know him well, the joke would be missed because it points to John’s other life in Scotland where the landscapes are similar, but the climate, history and accents are very different.

Once a year, South Africans John and Peggy fly ‘home’ to Perthshire in the ‘auld country’ where the couple are better known as the 11th Duke and Duchess of Atholl, ceremonial heads of one Scotland’s most historic Clans and stunning country estates.

The couple inherited the titles but not the family riches when the 10th Duke died 14 years ago without any direct descendants. A quick glimpse on the family tree pointed to John whose father George Murray had emigrated to South Africa after the First World War.

As well as the titles, the couple’s three children also inherited honorary names, although John and Peggy – real name Margaret – say they are lost on ordinary South Africans.

“They don’t really understand what a duke or duchess is or any other title for that matter,” she said. “They’re not impressed either, certainly not in the same way a British person might be.

“We don’t use them anyway – they’re fairly meaningless here,” she added.

But once a year they are very much the Duke and Duchess of Atholl when they return to Blair Castle to take the salute from his very own private army and attend ceremonial dinners. As duke, John is automatically the Colonel of the Atholl Highlanders and each May he travels to the 145,000-acre estate to take the salute from his men.

Composing all ages, shapes and sizes, the 150-strong regiment swears its allegiance to the Duke and not the Monarch, on the assumption that he remains loyal to the British Throne. All of the soldiers belonging to the Atholl Highlanders have to be invited to join with members coming from the estate and neighbouring villages and towns.

First raised in 1778 to fight in the American War of Independence, the Regiment was instead sent to Ireland and later disbanded. It was resurrected in 1839, and five years later was given its colours by Queen Victoria whom they guarded on her visit to the castle.

Today’s Atholl Highlanders were reformed in 1966 by the 10th Duke, and John has carried on the tradition. “I take the position seriously as it should be,” he explained. “It’s the only private army in Europe and I think it’s important to take the salute in person and keep the tradition going.

“There are former soldiers and military men at the top of the regiment and they keep me informed about what’s going on back in Scotland.” The day-to-day running of the Blair Atholl estate and castle, which dates back 800 years, is managed by the 10th Duke’s half sister Sarah Troughton on behalf of a board of trustees. She was the person who called John and Peggy that February morning in 1996 to tell them that ‘Wee Iain’, the 10th Duke (so called because he was well over six foot tall) had died, and they were the new incumbents. He had failed to recover from a stroke three months earlier, and had died in hospital.

A few months before his death, however, the Duke had placed the castle and estate into a charitable trust removing a possible inheritance liability which was estimated at £60 million.

Despite the huge sum, the 11th Duke was not upset, contrary to newspaper reports at the time. “There was no argument or rift which was reported in the media,” he insisted. “I didn’t want anything to do with the money or running of the estate. I’ve lived all my life in South Africa – what did I know about running a place that big?

“When Sarah called, I immediately wrote to the Lord Lyon King of Arms in Edinburgh and asked ‘How do I get out of this?’ “I was living here in South Africa where I’ve lived all my life. I had no experience of the British aristocracy, especially someone as high up as a duke. I didn’t know what to do or expect. It was too awesome to consider.

“Then I got a response from the Lord Lyon’s office and it said ‘you have to die or commit a felony’! I’m not sure what felony I’d have to do, but it basically meant it was for life,” he laughed.

John, 81 and Peggy, 74, married in 1956, two years after meeting via a mutual friend in the town of Louis Trichardt, where he was working as a land surveyor. The town, 50 miles south of the Zimbabwe border in Limpopo province, has since been renamed Makhado – a common occurrence in post apartheid South Africa.

They have three children – Jennifer, 52, Bruce, 50 and Craig, 48 – eight grandchildren, and one great grandchild.

While Jennifer and Craig are both entitled to be called lady and lord respectively, the eldest male Bruce has inherited the title of the Marquis of Tullibardine which will be passed down to his eldest son Michael, 25, who currently lives and works in London, when his grandfather dies.

John and Peggy have lived most of their life in northern Limpopo which was previously known as Northern Transvaal.

He said he knew he was in line for the dukedom, but did not take it for granted and does not use the title in any official documentation. The only indication is the sticker on the back of his car stating ‘the Duke’s Land Rover’.

“My son-in-law put it on for a bit of fun. He knew I always wanted a Land Rover so when I got this he decided to play a joke,” said a tutting John.

So instead of the elegant Blair Castle dating back to the 13th century, the Duke’s family home for most of the year is a modest two-bedroom bungalow in a village called Haenertsburg, 30 miles east of the provincial capital Polokwane. Full of family photos and Scottish memorabilia, the house could not be more different from the 120-room Blair Castle where house records date back to 1269 ,when the earl of the day returned from the Crusades to find a neighbour John Cumming squatting at the property.

A complaint to the King was ineffectual, and, 700 years later, the distinctive Cumming’s Tower still stands from where the 11th Duke’s black and yellow standard flies when he is in residence.

As well as Queen Victoria, Edward III and Mary Queen of Scots have been among the royal guests who have stayed at the castle.

Just months after John and Peggy inherited the title, Prince Charles was a visitor, which required a crash course in etiquette.

“I remember before one dinner, the Keepers of the Quaich Banquet in October 1996, Prince Charles accepted an invitation.

We had to ask for advice on etiquette and what we should do, what we should say, and how to walk on the red carpet.

“Well we were walking in and I was a bit behind, when John turned round and said ‘come on’, waving his arm at me. I don’t think Prince Charles minded. He was very pleasant and very excited when I told him our son Bruce, who’s a printer, was making paper out of elephant dung.” In an irritating consequence of British Government policy, South Africans now have to apply for visas to visit the UK which requires patience and much form-filling – even for duchesses. Concerned about growing corruption at the country’s home affairs department, Britain now insists on visas costing R1000 a time.

That means a near eight-hour round trip for Peggy for the stamp in her passport, on top of the lengthy trip to Perthshire encompassing a four-hour drive to Johannesburg airport, 12-hour-flight to London, 1-hour shuttle to Edinburgh, and two-hour drive to Blair Castle.

John has a British passport courtesy of his father George. A major in the Royal Artillery, he was invalided out of the British Army after suffering serious shrapnel injuries on the Western Front and headed south to South Africa for a better climate, where he met John’s mother Joan and the two were married.

Sadly John’s father died of pneumonia aged 56 in a Pretoria hospital after reenlisting as a private during the Second World War with South Africa’s equivalent of ‘Dad’s Army’. But while John and Peggy enjoy their trips to Scotland, the couple have never considered living there.“It’s too cold, I’d miss the weather and space,” said John.

“I’m a South African and could never leave my country.” Peggy added: “I’m a fourth generation South African and could never leave. It’s too cold there and the drizzle can be annoying.

“Before we went for the first time, I’d never been overseas. It was mind boggling. We never thought about living over there because it needed a businessman to run the estate. John was a good land surveyor, but he isn’t a businessman and besides, Sarah does an excellent job.” In Perthshire, Sarah Troughton oversees the day-to-day running of the estate which employs around 80 full-time staff and a further 60 seasonal workers. “It’s extremely nice to have him come over the Scotland each year to take the salute from the Atholl Highlanders and perform his other roles,” She says.“He’s an immensely likeable man and very good with people.” The only indication is the sticker on the back of his car stating ‘the Duke’s Land Rover’

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