As the Second World War recedes into history, there is a whole

generation who may never have heard the story of the Scottish family

MacRobert. It is a story of high business achievement and deep personal

tragedy; of one remarkable woman's courageous reply to Adolf Hitler when

faced with the loss of her sons. No tale from 1939-45 is more touching

than that of Lady MacRobert, whose financial trust spreads widely for

the benefit of mankind.

That story is told here by JACK WEBSTER.

ON the eve of his departure for Italy, Scotland's football manager,

Andy Roxburgh, will step up to receive the prestigious MacRobert Thistle

Award, a timely boost for a man who might just be poised to take his

country farther along the road towards World Cup glory than any of his

distinguished predecessors.

The award, which comes from the National Playing Fields Association,

not only recognises sporting achievement but looks for standards of

personal conduct and integrity which will serve as good examples to the

youth of the day.

Down the years, the recipients have ranged from Jackie Stewart and

John Greig to Sandy Carmichael, Belle Robertson, and, most recently,

Sandy Lyle, carefully chosen by a body which renders a remarkable

service in the provision and preservation of outdoor playing spaces.

As the Scottish director, former Chief Superintendent of Lothian and

Borders Police Bill Runciman, says: ''We are facing a nationwide crisis

in the loss of recreational land. Commercial pressures are responsible

for too many playing fields disappearing and part of my work is to

attend planning inquiries to speak up against development.''

As a charity, the NPFA depends on public generosity and that has never

been a scarce commodity when it came to the MacRobert Trust.

Indeed, as Andy Roxburgh accepts this splendid honour which bears its

name, he may care to ponder the truly inspiring story of the MacRobert

family, which has much to do with character, determination -- and,

appropriately, courage on a foreign field.

In all the wartime recollections which will filter from this decade of

anniversaries, no story will be more remarkable than that of Lady

MacRobert of Douneside estate at Tarland, in Aberdeenshire.

She was the widow who, having brought up her three young sons, had

already lost the eldest, Alasdair, in a flying accident just before the

outbreak of war.

Now the second boy, Roderic, was off the Royal Air Force and piloting

a highly effective Hurricane raid on German positions in the Middle East

when he wheeled away for home and was presumably shot down.

So, just a fortnight after his twenty-sixth birthday, another

MacRobert life was ended. On hearing the story of his bravery, his

mother bit her lip and said: ''I am proud to think that Roderic did his

duty and carried out so well the spirit of our family motto: Glory is

the reward of valour.''

She turned to her youngest and only remaining son, Iain, who had been

at Cambridge when war broke out but was already serving as a pilot with

Coastal Command when news of his brother's death came through in May,


He was given leave and returned to be with his mother at Douneside.

But duty called and Iain was back in the cockpit when, at the end of the

following month, the unthinkable happened.

The last of the MacRoberts was lost while searching for a bomber crew,

said to be in their dinghy somewhere in the North Sea.

How do you explain the indomitable spirit of a mother who, on hearing

the news, could then sit down and address these words to Sir Archibald

Sinclair, the Secretary of State for Air?

''It is my wish to make a mother's immediate reply, in the way that I

know would also be my boys' reply -- attacking, striking sharply,

straight to the mark.

''It is with a mother's pride that I enclose my cheque for #25,000, to

buy a bomber to carry on their work in the most effective way. This

expresses my reaction on receiving the news about my sons.

''They would be glad that their mother replied for them and helped to

strike a blow at the enemy. So I feel that a suitable name for the

bomber would be 'MacRobert's Reply.'

''Might it carry the MacRobert crest, or simply our badge -- a frond

of bracken and an Indian rose crossed? Let it be used where it is most

needed. May good fortune go with those who fly it!

''I have no more sons to wear the badge or carry it in the fight. If I

had ten sons, I know they would all have followed that line of duty.

''With my cheque goes my sympathy to those mothers who have also lost

sons, and gratitude to all other mothers whose sons so gallantly carry

on the fight.''

Accepting the gift, which bought a Stirling bomber, Sir Archibald said

those whose duty it would be to fly MacRobert's Reply would have as

their guide the shining example of the sons whose glory would, indeed,

be the reward of valour.

The Stirling was handed over on October 10, 1941, to Flying Officer P.

J. S. Boggis (now a retired squadron-leader in Dumfries-shire), who

captained it on most of its 12 operational missions, including a raid on

German ships at Brest, for which he received the DFC.

The bomber's last mission took place from Lossiemouth, on an attack on

the Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord, but the name survived to modern times

when MacRobert's Reply became a Tornado, stationed in West Germany.

Lady MacRobert followed up her gesture with another gift of #25,000,

to buy four Hurricanes, three of which were named after her sons while

the fourth was called ''MacRobert's Salute to Russia.''

Courage apart, the material generosity clearly came from a vast

fortune. Yet the story takes on an even deeper dimension when you

consider that the aristocratic background was no more than one

generation deep.

It all began with the father of those three pilots, Alexander

MacRobert, a working-class boy from Aberdeen who left school at 14 and

joined the local paper works at Stoneywood, where his father was a


At the Mechanics' Institute in Aberdeen, the boy continued his

education with evening classes to such purpose that he became its Neil

Arnott lecturer in experimental physics, as well as part-time lecturer

in chemistry at Robert Gordon's College.

In 1883, at the age of 29, when he married a local lassie, Georgina

Porter, his thoughts were turning towards a better future. India was a

long distance off but that was his destination in 1884, when he took up

an appointment at the Cawnpore Woollen Mills, then struggling to keep

afloat amid ruthless business competition.

The young Scot became manager and not only saved the sinking ship but

skilfully turned it into the leading textile concern in Cawnpore. From

then on, his progress in the Indian world of commerce was quite

phenomenal; he was the strict disciplinarian who could draw swear words

from the same employees who would defend him to the hilt.

As his fame spread, he was consulted from all sides of industry and

beyond. Viceroys asked for his counsel and the Amir of Afghanistan

sought his guidance on the industrial development of his country.

Becoming a significant leader in the sub-continent, he was feted by

prestigious bodies in many parts and came home to be honoured by

Aberdeen University, which was proud to bestow a doctorate on a former

apprentice at the local paper mill.

Meanwhile, his parents, John and Helen MacRobert, had emigrated with

the rest of the family to Canada, to pioneer farming in New Brunswick,

but they eventually returned to live in Scotland -- at the estate of

Douneside, which their prosperous son had bought, mainly as a home for

his parents in their old age.

Old John, however, developed an obsession that he had been persuaded

to return largely as custodian of his son's interests and some bad blood

arose between the two.

Alexander MacRobert was on the point of selling the place when, in an

explosion of frustration, he wrote to his father from India: ''Until you

can frankly get rid of the idea that seems to possess you that I am a

swindler whose every action has to be carefully watched and

counteracted, then there is little chance of our having anything

pleasant to say to each other. You appear to have some grudge against

me, the cause of which you will not explain.''

Old John must have taken heed because Douneside was retained and it

was there that he died in 1904.

Alexander's charming wife, Georgina, had done much to smooth the

troubles but she, alas, was now suffering from cancer and returned to

Douneside, where she died in 1905.

MacRobert was inconsolable over his beloved wife, as was revealed in

letters to his mother, but life had to go on and, in 1910, he received a

knighthood, followed by a baronetcy, for which he took the title of

Cawnpore and Cromar.

Between times, he had met Rachel Workman, daughter of a redoubtable

American lady, Fanny Bullock Workman (daughter of a former State

Governor) who, with her husband, became renowned for mountaineering

exploits in the Himalayas, about which they were also well-known


Alexander MacRobert was 57 when he married Rachel, 30 years his

junior, and belatedly became the father of the three boys who would

write their names into flying history.

His crowning business achievement was the amalgamation of all textile

and associated industries into one huge, commercial empire, the British

India Corporation. Then suddenly he died of a heart attack at Douneside

in 1922, when his title passed to 10-year-old Alasdair. He was buried

beside his first wife at Allenvale Cemetery, Aberdeen, where a

magnificent tombstone bears witness to their devotion.

His widow became a director of the corporation and in due course

Alasdair took over as its chairman. He flew extensively on business in

India and became head of a company to develop aviation there. But in

1938, just before his twenty-seventh birthday, he was killed in a flying

accident near Luton, thus sparking off the tragic story of the


Apart from her husband's fortune, Lady MacRobert inherited a

substantial sum from her own America background and, in 1943,

established the family trust which, to this day, gives out around

#750,000 every year to a large variety of worthy causes.

Typical of the recipients has been Stirling University which, more

than 20 years ago, was given the #250,000 which enabled it to create the

MacRobert Centre, a focal point of artistic interest at the heart of the

campus, with its theatre, art gallery, and provision of everything from

top-class drama to symphony concerts. None of it would have been

possible without the trust's generosity.

The former House of Cromar was given over as a rest centre for RAF

personnel and re-named Alastrean, which suggests the names of her three

sons. It still serves as a home for ex-RAF people today, while Douneside

is a leave centre for the broader spectrum of Service personnel.

That Lady MacRobert touched upon many lives is confirmed by the

individual stories. In the Perthshire town of Crieff, for example, one

of the great flying heroes of the Second World War, 68-year-old Bill

Reid, can testify to her efforts.

Reid was a working-class boy from Baillieston, Glasgow, who took his

Highers at Coatbridge before joining the RAF. On a November night of

1943, he set out on a bombing raid of Dusseldorf when he was attacked by

a Messerschmitt, which shattered his windscreen and wounded him in the


In a second attack, with his navigator killed, his wireless operator

dying and his machine devastated, he carried on for 200 miles to

Dusseldorf, memorising his course, reaching his target precisely, and

bombing it before turning for home.

Steering by the pole star and the moon, he found his way back to

Britain, by now growing weak from loss of blood and lapsing into

semi-consciousness. Miraculously, he managed to land his plane.

As well as being awarded the Victoria Cross, Bill Reid received the

MacRobert's Reply award and subsequently went to pay his respects to her

ladyship at Douneside. She took an immediate interest in the young hero

and suggested that he should follow an agricultural career after the war

and perhaps come to work at Douneside.

But the war was still raging and William Reid VC returned to duty --

only to be shot down over France and taken prisoner by the Germans. When

the war finally ended, he did indeed take a B.Sc in agriculture at

Glasgow University and followed up the offer to work at the

Aberdeenshire estate.

There he became involved in the big farming operation, as manager,

along with people like Victor Fradley, another distinguished airman of

the Second World War, ending up as a director of MacRobert Farms

(Douneside) Ltd.

As a preparation for his task, Lady MacRobert had sent Bill Reid on a

six-month, round-the-world trip, including a visit to India, where he

could acquaint himself with the spirit of the family business empire.

''She liked to have young airmen around her,'' he remembers now. ''I

think there is something in the idea that we were the substitute sons.

She was a strong and very clever woman, with a B.Sc. in geology.''

Constantly by her side, as both personal assistant and senior trustee,

was the formidable and kilted figure of William Heughan, a well-known

singer.Local rumour was in no doubt about a romantic connection, a

suggestion not diminished by the fact that Mr Heughan's ashes were

interred near the grave of her ladyship, whose massive block of red

granite stands in a tree-sheltered spot by the beautiful lawns.

She died at Douneside on September 1, 1954, the last link in a

remarkable tale of one family's skill, determination, pubic service and,

above all, courage.

Not a bad combination, one might think, to inspire Andy Roxburgh as he

collects his award at the Royal Scottish Automobile Club next week and

prepares to set out for Italy, with the pride of Scotland in his hands.