Hay Chiefs’ Seat Featured in The Times

by the Earl of Erroll

Slains Castle at the time of Winston and Violet's visit

I was fascinated to read in the Times last week that our family home, Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire, was the setting for a doomed romance that might have ended Sir Winston Churchill's engagement to the lady who became his wife.

In July 1908, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith rented the castle from my great great grandfather, the 20th Earl of Erroll.  It was not unusual by this time for ancient families, with broad acres but little money, to lease their large country houses to rich men whose fortunes had been made in business or the professions.  Asquith, a successful barrister and politician whose family money came from the textile industry, had succeeded his mentor Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman as Prime Minister only three months earlier.

Asquith's daughter Violet was a firebrand intellectual who went on to have a successful political and literary career in her own right and ended her life as Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury.  What was not widely known, though, is that she was in love with the young Winston Churchill who, at the tender age of 33, was already tipped for a great future. 

Baroness Bonham-Carter, formerly Violet Asquith

Her father's tenancy of the castle coincided with Churchill's engagement to Clementine Hozier, something which the otherwise courageous young man had so far concealed from the fiery Violet.  Churchill's proposals of marriage had already been rejected by three women and his latest biographer believes he courted Violet as a 'default option' in case Clementine refused him.

In the event, Clementine accepted his proposal and he was faced with the uncomfortable task of travelling to Aberdeenshire to break the news to the unfortunate Violet.  He arrived at Cruden Bay on 24 August, less than three weeks before his wedding, to spend a few days with his spurned girlfriend and her family.  His soon-to-be wife was unaware of the trip: even at 33, it seems Winston was already quite used to living dangerously.

What the pair actually said to each other remains unrecorded, but it is certain there were spirited exchanges between these two passionate romantics.  They apparently spent their time on long walks along the coastline and rock climbing on the towering sea cliffs near the castle. 

After Churchill's return to London, Violet attempted suicide.  The details are far from clear but it seems she disappeared from the castle during dinner one foggy evening.  The thick sea mist was not conducive to the search that followed this alarming news and many fishermen from Cruden Bay turned out to lend a hand.   The role of the fishermen was crucial because of their detailed local knowledge and it was one of them who found her, unconscious on a cliff ledge, several hours later.  Her notoriously cynical stepmother, Margot Asquith, recorded that, in her view, Violet was never serious about taking her own life and that it was no more than an attention-seeking stunt.

Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister 1908-1915

There are some who believe that the ferociously ambitious Churchill courted her because of the influence she was known to have over her father, the Prime Minister.  Asquith's correspondence with his daughter contains many examples of Violet interceding on Winston's behalf.  It is even possible that she was responsible for his first cabinet post, as President of the Board of Trade, which he held in Asquith's first government.

Violet and Winston remained close throughout their long lives, although in later years both attempted to downplay the significance of the relationship and it was a source of sadness to Churchill that Violet and Clementine never became friends. 

I had no idea the castle had been let until reading the Times article last week and we have no record of it being leased again, either to Asquith or to any other tenant.  It is interesting to reflect, though, that our family seat played a part, however small, in the making of the great war leader.