Scottish aristocrat known for charity work in Thailand and Bosnia

Born: October 27, 1937;

Died: March 30, 2019

CECILIA McEwen, who has died aged 81, worked tirelessly for numerous charities both in Scotland and abroad. She committed much of her time and energy to helping leprosy patients in Thailand and in the Sixties she spearheaded a campaign to transport medicines to aid those suffering from the disease while serving as a leprosy missionary in a hospital in Chiang Mai.

She ventured further into the jungle and worked under much pressure and considerable discomfort in Khon-Kaen Province. She returned to assist at the hospital for several years. Indeed, she only stopped returning when the Vietnam war endangered civilian life and the American bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos was uncomfortably close to the mission. McEwen was strongly advised by the British ambassador to leave the region immediately.

McEwen was a pillar of one the oldest families in Scotland. Her marriage in 1960 to Alexander McEwen, fourth son of a well-known Borders family brought her into a society long connected with Scotland. Her father-in-law, Sir John McEwen of Marchmont was a Conservative Westminster MP who served as a Treasury minister in the Churchill wartime government. Her husband’s family consisting of five brothers and a sister were considered a glamorous Scottish version of the Kennedy family in the US.

Countess Cecilia Leontine Mary Gräfin Weikersheim was the only child of an historic branch of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was brought up in Kent where she often had to take shelter from the German V1 rockets flying in the direction of London. She was privately educated and was a talented linguist; fluent in French, German and Italian, and passable in Spanish and Thai.

In 1960 she met and married Alexander McEwen (often known by his nickname of Eck) while skiing in the Alps. The two made their principal home firstly in the Borders, then at Bardrochat House in Ayrshire overlooking the Stinchar valley.

They proved wonderful hosts and held week-end parties for many of the glamorous icons of the 1960s such as Princess Margaret, Bob Dylan and Terence Stamp.

Her husband and his brother Rory had become celebrities in the burgeoning music scene in London and were among the first folk singers to appear on television performing nightly on the BBC early evening magazine programme Tonight, presented by Cliff Michelmore. They sang a mixture of Scottish ballads and topical songs often written by Bernard Levin and often delightfully irreverent.

They also sang Gaelic songs in some of the programmes which they recorded, notably Scottish Songs and Ballads, which was released on the Folkways label. The brothers toured America extensively and appeared twice – a rare honour only equalled by The Beatles and Elvis Presley – on the Ed Sullivan Show.

McEwen supported her husband in his musical career but also had a fine eye for interior design. She made Bancroft House a homely and comfortable place for the entire family often rummaging through local antique shops and junk yards. In 1965 her husband left the folk business and joined John Menzies the Edinburgh newsagent and bookshop. The couple were to live in a variety of houses before settling latterly at Colmonell, Ayrshire.

McEwen was a popular figure in the Borders and Ayrshire. She was a keen follower of sporting activities in the area especially shooting and hunting. She was, for several years a member of the Eglinton Hunt and served as its joint master. Margaret (‘Mugs’) Montgomerie remembers her as a stalwart member of the Eglinton. “Cecilia was always immaculately turned out and was a superb horsewoman. She was a great asset to the hunt and much respected throughout the farming community. She was a delightful friend, loved the outdoors and the Scottish countryside.”

McEwen was brought up a devout Catholic – her parents were related to senior lay officials in the Vatican – and she went on several pilgrimages to Lourdes, caring for the disabled. On her death, Pope Francis offered prayers for the repose of her soul.

In the 1980s she joined the charitable Sovereign Military Order of Malta and while the severe conflict in the Balkans erupted in the 1990s she joined a Knights of Malta aid convoy to Bosnia. Despite official advice that it was too dangerous, she made the journey. It was a most hazardous and challenging mission and they were fired upon by snipers and had to take refuge in a cellar. To mark the bravery of her and her colleagues, she was made a Dame of the Grand Cross of the Sovereign Order of Malta.

McEwen was a worshipper for many years at Sacred Hearts Jesus and Mary, Girvan.

Her husband died in 2008. Cecilia McEwen is survived by their two sons and a daughter.