Obituary: The Countess of Erroll

Picture Above - Earl and Countess of Erroll

The Countess of Erroll, wife of the Earl of Erroll, Lord High Constable of Scotland and Chief of Clan Hay, died on 13 January 2020, aged 64.

Isabelle Jacqueline Laline Hay was born on 22 August 1955 in Brussels, the daughter of Major Thomas Hohler and the former Countess Jacqueline de Jouffroy d’Abbans. Her father was a banker, latterly chairman of investment house King & Shaxson, who had been decorated with the Military Cross in North Africa during the Second World War. Her mother came of the aristocracy of the Ancien Regime in France, a daughter of the Marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans. Isabelle’s ancestor, the engineer Marquis Claude-Dorothee de Jouffroy d’Abbans (1751-1832), is widely credited as the inventor of the first working steamboat.

Isabelle grew up at Wolverton Park, the Hampshire seat her father had purchased in 1959, and at the family’s town house in London’s very grand Eaton Square. The Hohler family was part of England’s old landed gentry, descended from a courtier who came to these shores from Hanover with George I when he ascended the British throne in 1714. Major Hohler was also the heir of his mother’s family, the Astells of Woodbury Hall in Bedfordshire, adopting the Astell name by Royal Licence in 1978. In the fullness of time, Isabelle, an only child, would inherit both her father’s Hampshire estate, and the ancestral property of her paternal grandmother in Bedfordshire.

In 1982, she married the 24th Earl of Erroll, the beginning of a strong and enduring partnership that lasted the remainder of her life. They initially set up house at Wolverton Farm, the home farm of her father’s estate near Basingstoke, where they began to raise their family. Harry, who bears the courtesy title Lord Hay, was born in 1984, followed by Amelia in 1986, Laline in 1987 and finally Richard in 1990. In 2015, Richard adopted the name Astell by Royal Licence in lieu of Hay, recognising that he would one day succeed to the Woodbury estate and the representation of the Astell of Woodbury family.

At Bannockburn Live, 2014

Isabelle’s great uncle Richard, the last of the Astells of Woodbury, had died in 1969, but his widow remained in the house until her death in 1993, when the Errolls moved to Bedfordshire to make Woodbury Hall their home. The house had not been re-touched for decades and Isabelle embarked on a major restoration and redecoration task to bring it up to date. The result is stunning and her influence is evident in every corner of the house. The Woodbury estate also historically contained Moggerhanger Hall, a previous seat of Isabelle's family, which she took over in a very dilapidated state. Her next restoration project was the far more demanding task of rescuing Moggerhanger, which she undertook with her customary dedication and determination. She established the Moggerhanger House Preservation Trust, which she chaired, to finance and manage the mammoth task of restoring the house. Once again, the project has been a shining success and Isabelle has left a remarkable architectural legacy in these two properties, rescued from potential ruin, which stand today as her monument.

At a Scots gathering in Belgium

On her mother’s death in 1996, she inherited her childhood home of Wolverton Park. She farmed both estates herself and it is as a farmer she will be best remembered, and how she described herself. She was closely involved in the local business community in Bedfordshire, an active member of Bedfordshire BusinessWomen as well as the National Farmers’ Union and the Country Landowners’ Association. Her architectural expertise was sought far and wide, and she was a trustee of Belmont, a Georgian house in Kent. Her charitable activity was extensive and at Moggerhanger, she arranged a permanent home for the exhibition of the Human Trafficking Foundation. Her contribution to local public life was recognised when she was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire for 2015-16.

But above all, Isabelle was the devoted, loving and supportive wife of a Scottish peer and chief. An English girl who took Scotland to her heart, she has been constantly at his side and at the heart of the Scottish ceremonial scene for nearly four decades, including Holyrood garden parties, the annual Royal Week in Edinburgh, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and much else besides.

She took a passionate interest in the Clan Hay, especially in the history of her husband’s family. Her eye was constantly on the gallery and saleroom catalogues, looking out for artefacts relating to the history of the Hays, and she had considerable success in reclaiming many of the family portraits that had been sold off in the early 20th century as money became scarce. Woodbury provided a warm welcome and generous hospitality for clansmen visiting from every corner of the world, and in turn, she and Merlin made many visits over the years to Scottish events in North America, Australasia and continental Europe, tasks to which Isabelle’s natural charm and genuine interest in people made her ideally suited. Nobody who knew her could fail to be touched by the warmth of her friendship, the kindness of her heart, and the generosity of her spirit. She will be sadly missed.

© Alan Hay 2020