Chair of Christian Aid and a member of the Order of the Thistle

Born: October 17, 1932;

Died: December 25, 2016

LADY Marion Fraser, who has died aged 84, was a significant figure across the Scottish voluntary and cultural sector. She was chair of Christian Aid and was the only woman from outside the Royal Family to become a member of the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s highest chivalric order.

Marion Anne Forbes was the only daughter of Bobby, a shopfloor engineer with Weir’s Pumps in Cathcart and Bessie, nee Watt, a teacher. They met as members of the world-renowned Glasgow Orpheus Choir. Music was at the heart of family life, in Giffnock. Their daughter attended Hutchesons' Grammar School in Glasgow, and studied piano at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. She read music at Glasgow University and became president of its Queen Margaret Union.

On graduating, she visited the USA, as an early participant in the Experiment in International Living. In 1954, this was a rare opportunity for foreign travel, learning by living and exchanging with American families. She was billeted in Woodstock, Vermont, where the Bourne family opened her eyes to a new world of possibilities. Learning through travel would remain a passion throughout her life.

In 1956, she married Kerr Fraser, whom she had known since childhood. Romance had blossomed through Glasgow University student politics. His plans for a legal career were diverted to the civil service, in which he spent 32 years at the Scottish Office. They moved to Edinburgh, and between 1957 and 1964, they had four children. Their home was full of musical practice for grade exams and orchestras. Marion Fraser taught piano and was sought after as an accomplished piano accompanist. Summer holidays were spent indulging her love of Scotland’s north-west, at first in Arisaig, then to a cottage she owned in Barra, later replaced by one on Iona.

Kerr Fraser’s civil service career was on the fast track. Aged 49, he was appointed to the top post in the Scottish Office, Permanent Under Secretary of State. This brought the titles of Sir William and Lady Fraser. It began to open new doors. Ten years later, in 1988, he became principal of the University of Glasgow. This took the couple back to an institution they knew and loved. The Principal’s Lodging was a place for lively academic, cultural and political debate around its dinner table. The hostess was a fine cook, and an inquisitive dinner companion. She relished getting to know foreign students, taking most care over those far from young families, and winning admirers for the warmth of the welcome for staff, students and their parents. However, living ‘over the shop’ in the Lodging was not a role she relished.

In the early 1980s, with the family having left home, Lady Fraser had found herself on the wrong side of immense social change. Whereas middle class women setting out in adult life in the 1950s were expected to be housewives, supporting their husbands’ careers, 25 years later, the feminist revolution had redefined that role as defunct and discredited. Marion Fraser resolved both to ensure she was not solely defined as either a wife or a mother, and to make her own mark in the new gender landscape.

Among her distinctive skills was the ability to work a committee, which she put down to her capacity for laughter and drawing out others to laugh with her. She chaired the group that set up the Friends of the Royal Scottish Academy, and joined the boards of Scottish Opera, Laurel Bank School in Glasgow and St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh. A board member of the Church of Scotland Women’s Guild, she became a member of the Kirk’s Church and Nation Committee. She served as a member of a church inquiry into housing need. She would later chair Scottish Action on Mental Health and the Scottish Churches Architectural Heritage Trust, the Scottish International Piano Competition, and Hadeel, a charity importing crafts from Palestine.

When Christian Aid needed a new chair from outside the dominant male Anglican circles, the development group sought her out. She held the post from 1990 to 1997, rekindling her passion for learning through travel. She toured as an ambassador to the partner church organisations that deliver Christian Aid’s programmes in communities overseas. She shared her experiences at church and educational meetings across Scotland. Her travels changed her outlook, particularly during a visit to Israel and Palestine. Her anger about the plight of the people of Gaza remained undimmed to her death.

This senior post in church affairs was the link to her appointment to the post of Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland - official representative of the monarch. Only one woman had been handed the role before. Like most others, this appointment was carried over to a second year. Subsequently, the Queen installed her in the Order of the Thistle. Apart from royalty, it has only 16 members. This gave her a new title of Lady Marion Fraser - “a lady in my own right”, she would say - and at her death, she was the only non-royal woman to have been appointed a Lady of the Thistle.

For more than two decades, Marion Fraser battled through pain and infirmity from rheumatoid arthritis and the muscular affliction of myasthenia gravis. With her husband as carer, she continued to travel as long as her body would let her. A lifelong adventurer, she pushed herself hard to keep active visiting friends and attending concerts. She was determined to remain cheerful to the end, joking with hospice staff, and enjoying the company of her family.

Lady Marion Fraser, of Gifford, East Lothian, is survived by her husband Kerr, their family, Graham, Andrew, Lindsey and Douglas, and six grandchildren, Alasdair, Colum, Robert, Roseanne, Patrick and Moray.