Baroness Linklater of Butterstone

THERE are those who were surprised that Veronica Linklater only became a baroness in August of last year: they had been giving her a title for years. ''The Lady Veronica'' has not been the only name she has been known by, either. In the sixties she was immortalised as ''Veronique'', and at the Perth by-

election in 1995, Scottish Liberal Democrat campaign manager Archy Kirkwood referred to her and her

political rivals as ''Cinderella and the three dwarfs.''

To many, she is nothing short of a saint, changing their children's lives at the school she founded for them in Perthshire. To others, she is a jolly- hockeysticks of a woman whose class, with a rather extended vowel sound, is her over-riding feature. Referring to herself as ''a Perthshire gel'' during her by-election period certainly perpetuated the image of privilege, and our own columnist John Macleod expressed an opinion then that she did not have much to offer the proletariat.

In fact, this highly-strung lady with a propensity for bad-hair days is multi-faceted, and a good deal closer to the proles than her demeanour and her public image would suggest. She has a number of T-shirts which would surprise generations younger than hers. Ask if she has been there and done that, she can say ''yes'' to the heady duffelcoat days of the early 1960s when she sang in London folk clubs which were the regular habitat of the Bob Dylans of this world. The Bert Jansch number Veronique is said to have been written for her. She has been a social worker, and she knows the inside of a prison, though from the prison welfare side of things, rather than that she became too caught up in the illegal substances of the sixties.

We must go back a little further in history to get a fix on the baroness, however. Her grandfather was Sir Archibald Sinclair, MP for Caithness and Sutherland and leader of the Liberal Party, who served in Churchill's War Cabinet. Her father was Michael Lyle, who served on Perth County and Tayside Regional councils.

Veronica was born in 1943, raised on her father's farm, and attended Butterstone prep school, founded by her mother. She went to the Sorbonne in Paris, to North London Poly, and trained as a social worker at Sussex University. The young Veronica Lyle turned her back on the wilder excesses of folkdom to marry the rather steady Magnus Linklater in 1967, and while he scaled the journalistic ladder in Fleet Street, Mrs Linklater set out on her social work career.

She developed an expertise in education and prisons, pioneering visitors schemes for inmates and the Butler Trust awards for officers. When the couple came back to Scotland, he to edit the Scotsman, she resumed her Perthshire-gel persona and carved herself the niche which undoubtedly led to last year's elevation to the peerage.

There was, for instance, her presidency of the Friends of Dunkeld

Cathedral, her service to the Children's Panel, and her work with the Pushkin Award, a cultural-exchange scheme between Scots and Russian young people.

In 1992, she founded the project which gives her the Saint Veronica tag. She turned the mansion house owned by her parents at Butterstone, previously run as a girls' prep school, into what is known as the New School, an establishment for children she calls ''educationally fragile''. She has two son and a daughter. Freya is ''educationally fragile,'' and at 14, she had become isolated after a series of bad school experiences. She had been a ''floppy baby'' at birth, had a hole in the heart, and she suffers from mild cerebral palsy and sensitivity to noise. At 10 she described her own academic performance as ''always bottom, always last.''

Not finding a school suitable to help Freya, Mrs Linklater decided to create the right ambience herself for children like Freya who struggled in mainstream education but were not Special School material. Within two years, this formidable and formidably connected woman had her school up and running. Among the many waspish things to be said about her when she stood in Perth as the Lib Dem candidate was that her idea of solving the unemployment problem would be to get everyone to employ more servants. This was a job she tackled herself, raising the cash, interviewing staff and pupils, scrounging lengths of tartan curtain material and persuading a friend in the prison service to let prisoners from Perth jail paint the place from top to bottom.

Perhaps that particularly waspish commentator would have preferred her to get the paintbrush out herself, but what the heck, a gel has to have the odd minute to bring up the family, carry out wifely duties, and go to the odd meeting. As a small child, one son plaintively used to ask as mother got ready to go out: ''You're not going to another little meeting?''

Anyway, this toff who gives the impression that her first question would be: ''Why don't they eat cake?'' put her school together with gusto, and it has gone from strength to strength. One of the pupils was the adopted daughter of outward-bound man John Ridgeway, who was found traumatised in Peru after her parents were murdered. Elizabeth was transformed from a shy and shuffling creature into a confident young woman in the first year of New School. Now she is just one of many. The young people are taught independent living skills to help give them the confidence to live in the real world. The baroness has said: ''Throwing someone in at the deep end when they can't swim doesn't help most children. We are giving these children the strength they will need to face the outside world.''

There was something of being thrown in at the deep end about Mrs Linklater becoming Lib Dem candidate for Perth and Kinross, however. She did it because she was asked, taking a quantum leap into the dark world of politics. The whole by-election had something of a surreal quality to it, and Mrs Linklater's performance as a cross between Penelope Keith in To The Manor Born and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous added a certain frisson to the daily round of press conferences. Sir Alec Douglas-Hume had held the seat in the 1970s, but Sir Nicholas Fairbairn had just scraped through by 2094 votes in the 1992 election. Now he was dead, and the SNP, which had snapped at his heels in life, were about to make him groan elegantly in his grave. Roseanna Cunningham for the Nationalists, Douglas Alexander for Labour, and John Godfrey for the Tories were all outsiders in Mrs Linklater's eyes, in that she was

the only one of the four major candidates to have her roots in Perthshire.

She saw Alexander as a young whippersnapper, wet behind the ears; said she would like to ''pat poor John Godfrey on the head'' during his less than dynamic performances on the hustings. Accused of being, shall we say, a little less than worldly herself, she hit back that as a working mother she was ''more in touch than Roseanna Cunningham ever could be or than John Godfrey would ever be in a million years''. Ms Cunningham, it will be recalled, won the election, and the faith of the people of Perth brought Mrs Linklater 4952 votes which was 11.8% of the total poll.

She described the 1995 by-election as ''a very steep learning curve'', wondering out loud at times if she was doing her party and the people of Perthshire justice. She saw her campaign, however, as ''pukka and chipper'', and as an heiress to old-school Liberalism she very evidently had a genuine commitment to public service. She tried to hold her own at the hustings, admitting she was ''very capable of being very cross''.

Expressing an ability to look after herself which was never ever in doubt, given her physical and social stature (the three dwarfs were so described because Mrs Linklater towered over them, rather than any claim to her political sophistication), she said with a touch of bravado: ''I just have to be careful of my language.'' Toffs always did have a great command of the saltier turn of phrase.

Titled since August, 1997, the baroness has, down the years, been described as the enthusiastic ''folk-singing daughter of Colonel Lyle'', the wife of Magnus Linklater, and more latterly in connection with Butterstone, Freya's mother. At the by-election, she was her own woman, and however cutting were the remarks from the political media circus (they had a real go at her ''severe'' hair, which surely was sexist in the extreme, and a damned shame as she got up early every morning to put her rollers in) she behaved with style. She was the candidate, after all, who served Harvey's Bristol Cream at her morning press conferences, rather than the bacon butties doled out by the Tories, the railway hotel biscuits which Labour laid on, and the rather too obviously jingoistic shortbread at Ms Cunningham's headquarters.

Silver spoon or no, life has been no bed of roses for the baroness: raising a child who is ''educationally fragile'' is no picnic and taking on the education of others in the same boat is a brave act to follow. The Sorbonne was balanced by hands-on social work, the St Andrew's Night Banquets at the National Gallery surrounded by the great and the good have been offset by a dedication to putting the world to rights. Baroness Linklater has at least used her silver spoon to stir things up a bit.