Jane Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry

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Jane, Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry died in hospital after a short illness on April 18. She was 81.

One of the great beauties of her generation, her marriage in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, in January 1953 to Johnnie, then Earl of Dalkeith and later to be ninth Duke of Buccleuch and 11th Duke of Queensberry captured the imagination of many for the romance it brought to a gloomy post-war winter and attracted international press coverage.

Yet behind the glamour was a remarkable woman who combined a powerful protestant work ethic with keen intelligence and a lifelong sense of curiosity.

The daughter of John McNeill QC of Colonsay, she always thought of herself first and foremost as a West Highlander even though she had been born in 1929 in Shanghai where her father was Crown Advocate. The early years of her childhood were spent in China until the Japanese invasion in 1937 when she was taken back to Scotland with her mother, a concert pianist, to the family home at Druimavuic in Argyll and then to school in Aberdeenshire.

After her marriage, she threw herself into what was the start of a lifelong commitment to a wide range of charitable causes which were always undertaken with unforgettable elegance and a radiant smile.

For the first two decades of their married life, that was in Scotland. She and her husband lived and brought up their family at Eildon Hall on the slopes of the Eildon Hills near Melrose. She became county organiser for the Women’s Voluntary Service, now the WRVS.

In those days the voluntary activities ranged widely from the practical – providing meals on wheels, arranging holidays for city children, collecting blankets and clothes to send abroad – to ambitious civil defence preparations at a time when there was a pervading fear of nuclear war. The duchess, in her olive green uniform and cap became a familiar figure. At the same time, in 1954, she took on the chairmanship of the newly formed Edinburgh branch of the Save the Children Fund, with all that involved in terms of committee work, public speaking and fund raising.

With an expanding family and her husband starting his career as member of parliament for Edinburgh North in 1960, she was inevitably drawn away from such commitments. Then in 1971 her husband had a riding accident which left him confined to a wheelchair. It marked the start of more than 35 years of dedicated caring which enabled him to continue his hugely active life, particularly after the death of his father in 1973 when he inherited the ducal titles and all the responsibilities of looking after the extensive family estates and heritage.

The onus of caring for three great historic houses, Bowhill in the Scottish Borders, Drumlanrig in Dumfriesshire and Boughton in Northamptonshire, with their exceptional art collections, fell particularly on the duchess’s shoulders.

She transformed herself into a hugely knowledgeable and painstaking curator with an instinctive flair and taste for bringing together works of art and their surroundings. Her strong sense of colour, vividly seen in the saloon and staircase hall at Bowhill, brought to life the hitherto rather gloomy atmosphere of the 19th-century house for which she had a huge affection.

She supported her husband’s initiative in opening the houses to the public for the first time, preparing several exhibitions including the meticulous reassembling of the Victorian kitchen, and publications such as Strawberry Leaves and Syllabub, a successful book of historic recipes by family cooks.

In particular, she focused on much-needed conservation work, inspiring and training her staff in the techniques employed by the National Trust, for instance for washing Meissen china, or vacuuming Aubusson chair covers through fine net.

Textiles were her particular interest – reflected in the fact that she was a council member of the Royal School of Needlework – and at Bowhill she set up a repair studio with a dedicated team of volunteers, “the sewing ladies”, who over many years set about restoring a huge number of fragile curtains and coverings.

She worked regularly with local volunteer members of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies on learning and conservation projects, in particular on the library books. She also set up a rewarding programme for paper conservation students at the University of Northumbria for restoring the large collection of prints and drawings.

The duchess was just as interested in what went on outside the houses, being an enthusiastic and knowledgeable hands-on gardener, familiar with the Latin names of all her plants. Added to this was a strong visual sense of colour and spacing which is reflected particularly in the herbaceous borders she created on the south front at Bowhill.

She and her husband believed strongly that their great houses were not just museums but family homes to be enjoyed and used for the benefit of the community. They loved having people to stay, many of whom brought expertise and insight to the collections. Bowhill often echoed to the sounds of debate and laughter. The calendar was filled, too, with a regular stream of activities, theatrical events, lectures and concerts in the drawing room for numerous good causes.

As a close friend of Sir Malcolm Sargent, the conductor – she named one of her Siamese cats Malcolm after him – she took a particular interest in the Malcolm Sargent Cancer Fund but this did not preclude support for a broad range of organisations including the Border Spastic Association, the Border Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, ENABLE Scotland, Age Concern Scotland and the National Art Collections Fund, to name but a few.

One of the small charitable projects she found most rewarding was the creation of the Clergy Cottage at her previous home at Eildon which was available for clergy from all over Britain to have holidays in. It was enormously popular and benefited all, from curates to bishops.

For all her sense of duty, Jane Buccleuch was a free thinking and independent spirit who never lost a pervading sense of curiosity. She read broadly and deeply, exploring not only the classics of European fiction but also philosophers and thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin. She enjoyed the company of intelligent men and women and held her own in lively debate.

People were sometimes surprised at the strength of her views. She did not, for instance, like bloodsports and she developed an increasing concern for animal welfare issues, supporting charities such as the Brooke Animal Hospital and organisations such as FRAME, which worked to reduce animal testing in medicine. Her ethical feelings were apparent in the way all her homes used Bodyshop products and Ecover environmentally friendly cleaning agents long before such concerns became fashionable. Nor did she run with predictable political leanings, voting on more than one occasion for the Scottish National Party.

She returned to China with her husband in the 1980s, just in time to visit some of the familiar old corners of Shanghai before they were torn down. She was a keen traveller, although this was restricted for a time by the focus on a house on the island of Elba which she and her husband built in 1961. She taught herself respectable Italian in the process.

She went several times to the Soviet Union and had a particular love of Russia and Russian culture. Driven again by her curiosity and a strong sense of history, she took herself off to Berlin shortly after the wall came down as she wanted to feel for herself the profound sense of change taking place.

Never would she herself have questioned the path that her life had taken as a result of her marriage.

Many rewarding avenues of opportunity might have been open to her had things been different but Johnnie Buccleuch’s and hers was a lifelong love, and for all her hatred of fuss and self-deprecating modesty, it was a life of great achievement.

Family, though, was at the centre of their world. They celebrated their golden wedding in 2003 and had four children with ten grandchildren between them. Widowed in 2007, she was confronted in her later years by unusual, complex and frustrating neurological ailments, which she bore with great fortitude, never losing her mischievous humour.

But she was never happier than when surrounded by family and her four children were with her when she died peacefully in hospital last week.