Custodian of Dunrobin Castle

Born: March 30, 1921;

Died: December 10, 2019

ELIZABETH Sutherland, the 24th Countess of Sutherland, who has died aged 98, modernised her family estate and did so much to improve the working conditions at glorious Dunrobin Castle, near Golspie, and its estate. 

The castle is one of the most impressive grand houses in Scotland and is a former 14th-century keep that was remodelled by Sir Charles Barry in the 19th century to resemble a château on the Loire. Its magnificent location has ensured it is now a major tourist attraction and both the house and the gardens are popular with visitors. Lady Sutherland was a driving force behind other important business ventures across the county notably the improvement of sporting facilities.

Following the death of the fifth Duke in 1963, the Earldom and Dukedom were separated and the Dukedom passed through the male line whilst the Countess inherited the Earldom and became the premier earl of Scotland and the owner of a 120,000-acre estate.

In the late 18th century the Sutherland family were involved in the infamous scheme known as the Highland Clearances. Crofters were removed from their land to become herring fishermen or to emigrate: the land was needed for sheep. Over the years the controversial scheme has left an unhappy legacy in Scottish history and scholars still dispute the economic and social background to the affair.

Lady Sutherland did much to dispel the gloomy history and campaigned vehemently for better housing and living conditions for all her estate workers. She put in hand comprehensive plans to upgrade the properties and to ensure living standards were improved. Her dedication to follow through these extensive plans won her much praise. “She put in the bathrooms and the loos. I did the central heating,” her son and heir, Alistair Strathnaver, has said.

Lord Stathnaver remembers his mother with a warm affection. “She was a loving mother and granny,” he told The Herald. “She did much to improve the interior of Dunrobin and the surrounding houses on the estate. All had been sadly neglected during the war and the gardens also needed much attention. My mother set in hand far-reaching plans to replant trees on the estate, which continue to this day.

“She was an enthusiastic gardener and carefully nurtured the gardens at Dunrobin and the House of Tongue where she and my father moved. She really remade both gardens.”

Elizabeth Millicent Sutherland was the only child of Major Lord Alastair St Clair Sutherland, the younger son of the fourth Duke of Sutherland, and his wife, Millicent. Both her parents died in her youth: her father, whom she never met, died of septicaemia in Rhodesia in 1921, and her mother, Hélène Demarest, of New York, died in 1931 when Lady Sutherland was ten.

Lady Sutherland was raised by four guardians in London but often visited Dunrobin. She attended Queen’s College in London and then studied languages abroad becoming an excellent linguist, especially in Italian. During the Second World War she worked as a land-girl at Dunrobin and then as a laboratory technician at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness and St Thomas’ Hospital.

It was in the years after the war that she met her future husband, Charles Janson, who had served in the Welsh Guards. It was an instant love-match. They were married at St Margaret’s, Westminster in 1946 and spent the first three years of their marriage in Paris where Janson was a correspondent with The Economist and The Sunday Times

In February 1963 Elizabeth succeeded her uncle Geordie, the fifth Duke of Sutherland, as the 24th Countess. The title is one of the most ancient in Scotland, dating from the 12th century. Over the years the family has been generous in its gifts to Scotland. Many of the pictures hanging in the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh – including priceless works by Titian, Raphael and Rembrandt – are all on loan to the nation. Hanging in Dunrobin there are wonderful portraits by Lawrence, Reynolds and Gainsborough.

Dunrobin had been run as a public school in the Sixties but Lady Sutherland decided to open the castle to the public in 1972. It was a bold decision but the venture has proved very successful. Visitor numbers have increased over the years and Dunrobin is now an important part of the tourist economy of East Sutherland, attracting visitors from all over the world.

It gave Lady Sutherland a very special pleasure to be the clan’s chief. In 1977 she reconvened the Clan Sutherland Society, which had been dormant for many years. Her drive and commitment led to its expansion with Highland Gatherings and Games being attended by her or senior members of her family in Australia and North America.

Lady Sutherland also gave encouraging support to the activities of the Clan in Scotland. She hosted gatherings at Dunrobin which Mark Sutherland-Fisher, President of the Society in Scotland, remembers were very happy events: “Lady Sutherland had a great ability to remember faces and snippets of information about people. She greeted three and four generations of the same families as old friends, amazing the younger generations with stories about their grandparents.

“Every summer she entertained both locals and visitors to tea and opened her gardens to raise money for charities. Lady Sutherland was held in great affection by the clan.”

Lady Sutherland was the local convenor of the Red Cross, and she owned The Northern Times and the brickworks at Brora. Her love of the hills and moors of Sutherland remained a major part of her life and friends recall Lady Sutherland enjoyed walking Ben Armine north of Lairg.

Her husband predeceased her. She is survived by her two sons and one daughter. Another son also predeceased her.


Alasdair Steven