South African clan chief who commanded Europe's only private army;
Born: January 19, 1929; Died: May 15, 2012.
The 11th Duke of Atholl, who has died aged 83, held a unique place in military annals as colonel-in-chief of the only private army in Europe. From Blair Castle, Perthshire, he held an annual inspection of the officers and men of the Atholl Highlanders before leading them next day to open the nearby Blair Atholl Highland Games.
John Murray, born and raised in South Africa, had retired from his practice as a land surveyor not only unaware that he possessed one of Scotland's older lineages, but that he was heir to the dukedom of Atholl and heritor to his second cousin once removed, Iain Murray, the tall and characterful 10th Duke – nicknamed "Wee Iain". In effect, John Murray inherited the title to the dukedom only, for Wee Iain put Blair Castle in trust, with the lands otherwise looked after.
The shy John Murray gamefully took upon the responsibilities suddenly thrust upon him. One of his first reviews of his Atholl Highlanders after the death of the 10th Duke was in the company of Sir Hamish Forbes of Newe, the latter present both as a guest and as patron of his Lonach Highlanders.
An old hand at ceremonial, Sir Hamish sympathetically ushered the new duke through the vagaries of parade protocol – with the occasion being marked as a reunion of ancient Jacobite sympathies. Sir Hamish as heir-male to the Jacobite hero Lord Forbes of Pitsligo was in the company of the nobleman bearing the title of Duke of Rannoch in the Jacobite peerage.
John Murray's move to a dukedom began through a shadowy mormaer of Atholl thought to exist towards the end of the first millenium AD. His first known ancestor was Madach, reputedly a nephew of King Malcolm Canmore (1057-93). An early upset in the lineage occurred during the temporary ascendancy of English Edward I after 1296, when the earldom of Atholl was briefly assigned to the Earl of Gloucester, Edward's father-in-law.
More than a dozen cadet titles are attached to the dukedom of Atholl, and unusually, all lie solely within the peerage of Scotland.
John Murray's claim to the title lay through the complicated descent of both himself and the 10th Duke. They were second cousins split by a generation; the 10th and 9th dukes were unmarried; the 8th died without issue; while the 5th died unmarried and insane. John and Iain's roots came together through John Murray, 3rd Duke, born in 1729.
The ducal motto Furth Fortune And Fill The Fetters refers to the Royal command given to a mythological Murray ancestor: "(Go) forth, (good) fortune (attend you) and fill the fetters (leg-irons, with your captive)".
John Murray undertook his unexpected duties as 11th Duke and chief of clan Murray conscientiously, travelling every year from 1996 from South Africa to Blair Atholl. Modest and self-effacing, he quickly became known and liked. Illness had prevented him from attending since 2010.
Local history was made in 2007 when for the first time in the annals of the dukedom of Atholl, there were three generations of the ducal line at the annual parade of Atholl Highlanders. The Duke, attended by his son the Marquis of Tullibardine, recruited his grandson, the Master of Tullibardine and Earl of Strathtay and Strathardle, into the Atholl Highlanders.
John Murray was born in Johannesburg, only child of Major George Murray, who was killed in action during the Second World War, and his wife Joan Eastwood. A science graduate from the University of Witwatersrand, he spent his working life in South Africa.
While his predecessor the 10th Duke breathed new life into the Atholl Highlanders on his accession to the ducal title in 1966, his death 30 years later highlighted new fears that the regiment faced being disbanded. However, the new 11th Duke proved determined to maintain tradition, and one of his first duties upon elevation to the dukedom was to contact the estate trustees insisting that he would continue his traditional role.
This was a role jealously guarded. The original Atholl Highlanders date back to 1777, and by 1844, their descendants provided a guard of honour during Queen Victoria's visit to Blair Castle in 1844. In recognition, Her Majesty granted colours to the regiment, and the right to bear arms, thus constituting the Atholl Highlanders. At the opening of the Glasgow water supply from Loch Katrine, the Atholl Highlanders provided the guard of honour.
His Grace is succeeded as 12th Duke in the dukedom by his elder son Bruce, Marquess of Tullibardine, holder of a volunteer commission in the Transvaal Scottish Regiment, and a regular kilt-wearer in military duties. The 11th Duke is survived by his duchess, Margaret Yvonne ("Peggy") née Leach; children Bruce, Craig and Jennifer; and seven grandchildren.
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