The fascinating story of a Laird's lost fortune

A new book has revealed how an Aberdeenshire laird lost a vast fortune in just sixty years.

Thursday, 15th April 2021, 6:00 am
Fortune’s Many Houses, A Victorian Visionary, A Noble Scottish Family, and a Lost Inheritance is out this week

‘Fortune’s Many Houses’ by Simon Welfare tells how in 1870, John Campbell Gordon, later 1st Marquess of Aberdeen, inherited 75,000 acres of land, half of it around his family’s seat, Haddo House near Methlick, and half on Deeside in the Howe of Cromar. It was said to be the largest parcel of prime farmland in Europe, worth around £300,000,000 today. Yet when he died in 1934, he had only £240 (£10,000) in the bank.

‘”Exactly how he got through his fortune was a mystery, even to his family,” said Simon, who lives at Tarland on Aberdeen’s former Cromar estate.

When Johnny Aberdeen married Ishbel Marjoribanks, daughter of a multimillionaire brewer in 1877, the couple could have led a life of luxury, but Welfare, who is married to their great granddaughter, tells how they embarked instead on a life of good works, even rescuing four children from the clutches of Egyptian slave traders during their honeymoon.

A woman of vision and enormous energy, Ishbel founded charities wherever she went: in Scotland, the Onward & Upward movement to help young people working on estates and in great houses to improve their prospects; in Canada, the Victorian Order of Nurses which brought medical care to the people of the north; and in Ireland, a revolutionary campaign to rid the country of the deadly scourge of tuberculosis.

"The cost of funding all this was enormous,” said Simon, “and good works were not the only things that drained Johnny’s bank balance.”

Fans of ‘Grand Designs’ will read how they spent lavishly on properties, many for use in connection with their charities: including the House of Cromar (now Alastrean House) in Tarland, a hospital in the Klondike goldfield and even a full-sized replica of Blarney Castle in Chicago.

The Agricultural Depression of the late 19th century hit Aberdeenshire’s landowners hard, as did changes in taxation. Johnny also had to subsidise his stints as Governor General in Ireland and Canada and as Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland.

The final blow came when, thanks to the incompetence of two of Ishbel’s brothers, exiled to become cowboys in North America for bad behaviour at home, Johnny’s investments in ranches in Texas, North Dakota and British Columbia failed dramatically, running up enormous losses. Most of the land around Haddo had to be sold after World War 1, and in 1936 Ishbel surrendered the Cromar estate to Lady MacRobert, who had bankrolled their final years.

"But despite their financial problems,” said Simon, “the Aberdeens’ lives were full of adventure as they travelled through the Wild West, the prairies of Canada and the hills of Scotland. They were true ‘Eminent Victorians’ who knew everyone from Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone to the Greatest Showman, P.T. Barnum - and they even had a memorable encounter with “Granny, the world’s oldest sea anemone”.’ Theirs were lives well lived, I think: inspiring ones of enormous kindness and generosity, but ruinously expensive none the less.”

Fortune’s Many Houses, A Victorian Visionary, A Noble Scottish Family, and a Lost Inheritance is published this week in hardback, audiobook and eBook by Simon & Schuster.