Obituary: Katherine Grant of Rothiemurchus - Passionate conservationist and friend to estate workers, farmers and tourists alike
Born: 1 June, 1918, in North Wales. Died: 8 November, 2011, in Inverness-shire, aged 93.
ALTHOUGH she held the titles 12th Countess of Dysart and Lady Huntingtower, Katherine Grant was known to her family simply as “Highland Katie”. She was born in her soldier father’s home in North Wales but spent much of her childhood in the family’s Highland homes in Glen Etive and Glen Cannich, as well as rented winter quarters in Aldourie Castle, on the shores of Loch Ness. During the Second World War, she married another outstanding soldier, Lt Col John Peter Grant, who happened to be the 15th Laird of Rothiemurchus, near Aviemore, and she settled there for the rest of her life.
Along with her passionately conservationist husband, Katherine helped conserve, protect and, if that were possible, further beautify the Rothiemurchus estate, now in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park. After her husband’s death in 1987 she continued to dedicate herself to the estate and to sharing its beauty. It now welcomes visitors from around the world to enjoy a range of adventurous outdoor activities, spectacular camping and its historic 13th-century island castle in Loch-an-Eilean, which was voted one of Britain’s best picnic spots.
Lady Katherine Greaves was born in North Wales in 1918, one of three daughters of Major Owain Greaves, of the Royal Horse Guards, and Wenefryde Agatha Scott, the 10th Countess of Dysart in Fife. Perhaps Lady Katherine’s most famous ancestor was the 17th-century Countess of Dysart, Elizabeth Murray, who was a major player in the English Civil War, helped restore the monarchy and left her legacy in the palatial Ham House, outside Richmond upon Thames in London, now a major tourist attraction.
On 12 April, 1941, Lady Katherine married Lt Col Grant, the Laird of Rothiemurchus, himself the son of a Great War hero, Colonel John Grant, 14th Laird of Rothiemurchus, who won the Military Cross fighting with the Lovat Scouts. The Second World War precluded much of a honeymoon for Katherine. Her husband had been posted to train a new breed of British and allied “irregular” soldiers – they called them “commandos” – at Lochailort, which had been requisitioned by the War Office for top-secret training. To be near him, Katherine set up home in a farmhouse at Back of Keppoch, north of Arisaig, a move that inflamed another lifelong passion, apart from her laird. It was a passion for the west coast of Scotland, particularly the Mallaig area, the Isle of Skye and the Small Isles between Skye and Mull.
She was able to move to the laird’s family seat in Rothiemurchus in 1942, but the shadow of war remained. Her new home was in a restricted area controlled by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which had established a base there for Norwegian special forces – the famous Kompani Linge – preparing for an allied return to Nazi-occupied western Europe. “Rothiemurchus was a very different place from now,” her children recalled. “It was the traditional centre of the community, with two churches, the primary school, the library and the golf course, later to become a tennis club. The road from the railway station, hotels and shops in Aviemore petered out at Coylumbridge, where the main route to Glenmore Lodge went over the Sluggan and the more direct rough forestry track was often laid over boggy sections.”
As a result of the military activity, Katherine had to live – and did so gladly for the war effort – in the Boat House of the estate. The fact that it had no electricity was no big deal. None of the estate’s farmers or workers had electricity either, and to Katherine they were not her staff but her fellow human beings.
She milked goats she had wangled through her husband’s military connections, and grew her own vegetables especially to feed her new daughter Jane, who was born in 1943.
Her husband was involved in the D-Day landings of June 1944 but, typically, kept his role quiet. When he was demobbed at the end of the war, and all the allied commandos he had trained had either liberated western Europe or were dead, Katherine and Lt Col Grant set up home in Inverdruie House, on their Rothiemurchus estate, where their son Johnnie was born in 1946. Lt Col Grant would later become Sheriff of Inverness.
After the war, Katherine persuaded her husband’s comrade, the war hero Lord Lovat – who famously waded ashore at Sword Beach, Normandy, on D-Day with his piper Bill Millin playing Highland Laddie – to sell his fishing lodge at Glasnacardoch, outside Mallaig.
For much of the rest of her life she filled that lodge with children, godchildren and children of friends or staff, giving them magical adventure holidays, picnicking on the beach, catching mackerel, camping on Canna or Iona.
In the great tradition of the true Scots nobility Katherine Grant preferred being Highland Katie to Lady Katherine. She was an extremely private person, in stark contrast to the “ladies” of today, whose husbands are knighted for riding bikes, kicking balls or singing rock songs.
On the west coast, she helped fishermen and their families. Inland, she helped foresters and farmers – anyone whose work was preserving rather than destroying. Hundreds, probably thousands of working class people in the area will never forget her face, and yet most of them possibly never knew her full name or background.
In the early 1960s, Katherine and John moved to Drumintoul, the estate’s old shooting lodge. It had the convenience of electricity, which allowed her to make her famed pancakes, latterly for après-ski friends coming back from Aviemore. She maintained that pancake tradition until shortly before her death. Although she was as conservation-minded as her husband, she won him over in developing Aviemore and the Cairngorms as a ski-tourist-friendly area – a difficult balance.
Katherine Grant took on the title 12th Countess of Dysart when her elder sister Rosamund died in 2003. Under the Scottish peerage tradition, it is a title that goes to an eldest daughter if there is no male child. It has moved from earl to countess for centuries. Hence, after Lady Katherine’s death, her son Johnnie (John Peter Grant) took on the title 13th Earl of Dysart while his son James became Lord Huntingtower.
The Huntingtower title, which also shifts between male and female offspring, is more of a nominal one chosen by one of Lady Grant’s ancestors, none of whom, it seems, ever lived at Huntingtower, on the western edge of Perth. The English media always referred to Lady Grant as Countess of Dysart and Baroness, rather than Lady Huntingtower.
Katherine Grant is survived by her daughter Jane, son Johnnie, five grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.