Obituary: Sir John Hay of Park, Bart

John and his mother Hertha, on 25 March 1936

With the death of Sir John Hay of Park on 9 July 2020, the curtain fell on the long and proud history of one of South West Scotland’s most prominent families.  Sir John was the 11th and last baronet, holder of a title dating from 1663, and now extinct.

John Erroll Audley Hay was born on 3 December 1935, the only child of Sir Arthur Hay of Park, 10th baronet, and his Austrian first wife, Hertha Stoelze.  Via his mother, Sir John was the great, great, grand-nephew of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Educated at Gordonstoun School in Morayshire, he went on to study at the University of St Andrews.  National Service in the Seaforth Highlanders took him to Gibraltar, where he reached the rank of lieutenant.  He then settled in north London and spent the rest of his career with the Medical Research Council, serving 33 years as Assistant Secretary.

The Hays of Park in the old lordship of Galloway originated with Thomas Hay, Abbot of Glenluce, who conformed at the Reformation and acquired substantial church property as a result.  It was his great grandson who would become the first baronet.  With the death of the fourth baronet in 1794, the property went to his sister and her family, whereas the title descended to a second cousin, resident in Jamaica.  This was the first of several times the title went to distant cousins with nothing to support it, so by the time Sir John’s grandfather, Sir Lewis, ninth baronet, succeeded in 1889, the family were, in Sir John’s own words, “as poor as church mice.”

Sir John and Clan Hay Archivist Alan Hay at Woodbury Hall

Their relative poverty did nothing to dent their family pride.  Successive Hays of Park were long believed to be heirs male of the Earls of Erroll, their chiefs, which title passed out of the male line in 1758.  John’s father, Sir Arthur, 10th baronet, was firmly convinced of his superior claim both to the earldom of Erroll and to the English barony of Audley, the latter via his great grandmother, the seventh baronet’s wife.  Sadly, John’s own work on the family history would disprove both claims.

John’s grandfather Sir Lewis had had the good fortune to win the heart of Lizabel Macdonald, daughter of Lachlan Macdonald of Skeabost, on the Isle of Skye.  They had nine children, including an only son, Sir Arthur the 10th baronet, who succeeded aged 14.  The formidable Lizabel loomed large in John’s early life, and in the lives of all her children and grandchildren.  She was widowed early, but careful management of the modest private income she received from her father’s estates in India, together with what little remained to her husband’s family, enabled them to live comfortably, if unobtrusively.  Lizabel’s acumen provided for a house in Edinburgh’s Ravelston Park, and allowed the young baronet to be schooled at Fettes College (an experience he thoroughly loathed.)

Sir Arthur proceeded from Fettes to qualify as an architect.  He found employment in London, where he met Hertha, who had been previously married and was seven years his senior, a union about which his mother, the redoubtable Lizabel, made her misgivings entirely plain.  John was their only child and they divorced in 1942.

In the 1940s, Sir Arthur made strenuous efforts to re-purchase the Castle of Park from his distant cousin, whose ancestors had inherited the property in 1794.  However he eventually concluded he simply couldn’t afford it, although he was appointed ‘Keeper of Delgatie’ by the late Countess of Erroll, until it was acquired by Captain Hay of Hayfield.  Thereafter Sir Arthur continued to provide architectural expertise at Delgatie and John, together with Michael Waymouth, the step-brother he acquired with his father’s second marriage, spent much time on Delgatie’s restoration.

Sir Arthur’s death in 1993 and his succession to the baronetcy coincided, more or less, with John’s retirement and he was able to devote time to his passion for family history.  He did so dispassionately and objectively, in the full knowledge that both his great grandfather and his distant cousin, Sir John Dalrymple-Hay, had written extensively on the subject, but that their work was only poorly based on evidence.

It was generally accepted that Thomas Hay, Abbot of Glenluce and progenitor of this family, was the youngest son of Alexander Hay, fourth of Delgatie.  This begged two intriguing questions: why was the abbot excluded from the Erroll entail of 1540, when his brothers were not; and why, on the death of William, sixth of Delgatie, did the property pass to a very distant cousin when he had a younger brother?  The question became more significant in the 18th century when the status of heir male of the whole Hay kindred descended to this family.

John’s research revealed the startling conclusion that the Hays of Park had never been heirs male of the Hays.  His ancestor, Abbot Thomas, was not the son of the fourth laird of Delgatie.  He was in fact an illegitimate son of that laird's  uncle, James Hay, Bishop of Ross, adopted by the laird of Delgatie presumably to spare the bishop's blushes.   John published widely on family history in later life, activity that culminated in his magnum opus, Hay of Park, which contains ground-breaking work on his family’s history - work that would likely never have seen the light of day, but for his diligence.

John was a lifelong bachelor and an intensely private man who avoided social contact, except with those he knew very well.  Relations with Walther Biheller, his half-brother via his mother’s first marriage, were cordial but never close, and his nearest family were his step-brother Michael and his daughters, and his cousin Jean Burns, a daughter of his father’s older sister.  He lived alone in his flat in London’s Maida Vale, where he never entertained and never cooked (he ate only cold food from his local delicatessen).  He did not own a television set, let alone a computer, and the age of the mobile telephone completely passed him by.  He communicated via post in letters churned out on an ancient and dilapidated typewriter, always using scrap paper and envelopes, which he assiduously recycled.  He did not drive, and only used public transport as a matter of necessity, walking everywhere to his appointments, often for many miles.  He could be described as mildly eccentric in all these respects, but he was nonetheless charming and engaging company, especially when engaged on a subject (such as genealogy) which he knew well.

The title was remaindered to heirs male of the body of the first baronet, of whom none survive.  It is not clear who is the next representer of the family, although it appears he or she should be sought in America, among the descendants of Francis Hay of Airyolland, a grandson of Abbot Thomas.  The Hays of Airyolland were strong Covenanters, of whom several were exiled to the New World during the later 17th century, where many of their descendants are found to this day.

© Alan Hay 2020