Earl of Airlie

Born: May 17, 1926;

Died: June 26, 2023.

David Ogilvy, the 13th earl of Airlie, who has died aged 97, was a reforming Lord Chamberlain who, as head of the royal household from 1984 until 1997, introduced an invigorating and exacting style of management to royal affairs.

His years were packed with media scrutiny: the Windsor Castle fire, financial problems and frenzied domestic family turmoil. To all these Airlie brought a commitment and dedication along with absolute tact that did much to take the sting out of awkward situations. Traditionalists in the royal household were not always so happy. He was, even, known to cut corners and phone people direct.

One of Airlie’s most challenging duties was to supervise the arrangements for the funeral of Princess Diana. He had the unenviable task of taking into account the public at large, respecting the views of the Spencers and observing royal protocol. In a rare interview in 2002, Airlie admitted that “with the benefit of hindsight things could have been handled differently. None of us is perfect. We can’t get it right all the time.”

He was thought to be the last surviving person to have attended the last three coronations – as a page at George V1’s in 1937; at Queen Elizabeth’s as an official and recently at Charles III’s. At the last he sat in the front row of the nave proudly wearing the robes of a Knight of the Thistle.

David George Coke Patrick Ogilvy was the fourth child to the 12th Earl of Airlie and his wife, née Lady Alexandra Coke. The earldom dated back to 1639; his father had been lord-in-waiting to George V and lord chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth (both as consort to George VI and the Queen Mother).

Airlie attended Eton but left at 17 to fight in the Second World War with the Scots Guards in Germany, Malaya and Austria. In 1953 he joined the City merchant bankers of Schroders and became chairman 20 years later. He had a shrewd and innovative financial mind and ensured the bank was well-placed to cope, in the 1980s, with the major changes the City was experiencing with the Big Bang.

He left the City in 1984 to become Lord Chamberlain. Airlie immediately initiated a policy of modernising the entire administration at Buckingham Palace and had the strong support of both the Queen and Prince Philip.

Airlie was in the fortunate position of knowing the Queen all his life. They were born in the same year and he was brought up at the family home of Croatchy in Kirriemuir, close to Glamis which the young Princess Elizabeth regularly visited. This lack of formality built a sense of trust between monarch and senior servant which greatly eased day-to-day management.

But it was his agile brain, shrewd financial acumen, charm and diplomacy that saw him through many crises at Buckingham Palace. He confronted problems head-on rather than letting them fester between offices. As one courtier put it: “he was part Wall Street wizard, part Highland chieftain.”

All that tact was required in 1992, the year the late Queen described as her annus horribilis. Apart from the Windsor fire Airlie had to cope with the turmoil of Prince Charles’s separation from Princess Diana. It was, indeed a dreadful time for Airlie to navigate. Following the breakdown of the Wales’s marriage, the family’s standing with the public had somewhat withered. Airlie remarked at the time, “it was just awful for her. Awful. Awful. Awful.”

Other reforms included closer control of expenditure, the wider lending of the royal collection, the Queen agreeing to pay taxes and the opening of Buckingham Palace in the summer. It was all done in a carefully thought-through process under the ever- watchful and diligent eye of Airlie.

He was a man of many interests and passions. He served on the boards of several large Scottish public companies and supported many local charities – notably the Scout Association; the Kirkcaldy troop regularly camped at Cortachy. He was Chancellor of Abertay University and president of the National Trust for Scotland.

He was a keen jazz singer and cyclist. He and his wife would regularly cycle to work from their home in Chelsea to Buckingham Palace.

Airlie remained a man of much charm and good-will – reflected in a story much told in the Palace. He returned from Scotland by train which arrived very early. So, he rang the Palace to warn them of his premature arrival. “It’s Airlie,” the earl said. A Cockney cleaner replied, “It’s effing early here too.”

In 1952 he married Virginia (“Ginny”) Ryan, a 19-year-old heiress from Newport, Rhode Island. Ryan was the first and only American lady of the bedchamber to the Queen; she also managed a flower farm at Cortachy Castle. She survives him along with their six children; David Ogilvy becomes the 14th Earl of Airlie.

Alasdair Steven