Our current Chief, Sir Fergus Matheson of Matheson, is the 7th Baronet of Lochalsh. What is a baronet, and what is the connection between the Matheson Baronetcy of Lochalsh and the Chief of the Clan Matheson? This article looks at this important part of our Matheson heritage. One of the seven baronets has a particularly interesting connection with New Zealand.
What is a baronet?
A baronet (abbreviated as Bart or Bt) is the holder of a hereditary baronetcy awarded by the British monarch. Baronetcies in their present form date from 22 May 1611, being created by King James I of England and VI of Scotland. A baronet is styled ‘Sir’ like a knight, but a baronetcy is not a knighthood. A baronet takes precedence above all knights except for the Knights of the Garter, Knights of the Thistle and Knights Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, and members of the Order of Merit.
The first Matheson baronetcy
Two baronetcies have been created in the United Kingdom for people named Matheson, but only one of them continues (‘is extant’). The Matheson Baronetcy of Archany and The Lews was created in 1850 for the Scottish businessman and politician James Matheson, co-founder of the trading house of Jardine Matheson.
The title became extinct when the first baronet (Sir James Matheson, Bt of Achany and The Lews) died in 1878. A baronetcy can pass only to male descendants, and Sir James did not have any children. He did have a nephew, the son of his elder brother, who inherited his material goods. But as he was not a descendant the nephew could not succeed to the baronetcy.
The Matheson Baronetcy of Lochalsh
The Matheson Baronetcy of Lochalsh in the County of Ross in Scotland was created in 1882 for the businessman and Liberal member of parliament Alexander Matheson, who was the nephew on his mother’s side of Sir James Matheson and also a partner in Jardine Matheson.
The 1st Baronet of Lochalsh
Sir Alexander made his fortune in Hong Kong working for his uncle’s company, and after retiring when aged only 36 he used his wealth to purchase highland estates and improve them. He was praised for finding new forms of agriculture for his tenants, rather than evicting them as was common practice at the time, and also for starting a wide variety of other commercial businesses.
Sir Alexander had a distinguished record of public service. He was a member of parliament for 37 years: 21 for the Inverness district of Burghs and 16 for the County of Ross after his uncle Sir James Matheson retired from parliament. He was instrumental in ensuring the West Highland railway was extended though to Kyle of Lochalsh, and was the driving force for other Highland railways too. The aim was to connect Skye to Inverness. Although Inverness was Skye’s county town at the time, it was easier to get there by sea to Glasgow and then travel by rail or road. The railway opened to Stromeferry in 1870, and boats provided onward connection to Skye and the Outer Hebrides. This connection enabled crofters and fishermen to reach the big markets in the south.
The Kyle of Lochalsh section did not open until 1897, so Sir Alexander didn’t live to see this. Kyle was then no more than a shooting lodge and a few houses. The Kyle extension is through difficult country, with almost all of the extension in rock cuttings or on embankments. At the time it was the most expensive railway per mile ever built in the UK.
On his return from East Asia, Sir Alexander made large purchases of land, and it is thought that at one point he owned more than 85% of Ross-shire. He bought the Balmacara Estate in Lochalsh and built Duncraig Castle in Plockton as his home, and also built Ardross Castle in Easter Ross and Duncraig Castle in Wester Ross.
Sir Alexander Matheson, 1st Baronet of Lochalsh, died in 1886 only four years after assuming the title.
The 2nd Baronet of Lochalsh
The title passed to his eldest son Kenneth (by his second wife, The Honourable Lavinia Stapleton), who became Sir Kenneth Matheson, 2nd Baronet of Lochalsh. Sir Kenneth was Justice of the Peace for Rossshire and Deputy Lieutenant for that county. Though Sir Kenneth married he had no children, so when he died in 1920 at the age of 65 the title passed to Sir Alexander’s next son (by his third wife Eleanor Perceval): Alexander Perceval Matheson. This is where the story gets closer to home for the New Zealand branch of the Clan.
The 3rd Baronet of Lochalsh
Alexander Perceval Matheson was born in London and educated at Harrow. He spent two years travelling, and during this time doing his ‘OE’ he married Eleanor Money, an Englishwoman, in the Australian colony of Victoria. According to family lore the two met on board a ship en route to Australia. The couple returned to England where Alexander went into business for a London trading house, but in 1894 he migrated to Western Australia. In that colony he established a store and commercial agency that expanded to have branches in several towns. His business also provided finance and sold mining machinery.
As one biography says: “Matheson had brown hair with a gingery tinge and violet-blue eyes; he wore a full moustache and clipped beard. Well-groomed, he was popular on the goldfields despite his upper-class accent and, in 1897, was elected to the Legislative Council for North-East Province. Probably about this time, he brought his family to Western Australia and settled, in style, in Perth; he became a sought-after member of society with regular social entry to Government House. He had been active in the political reform movement on the goldfields and became president of the Eastern Goldfields Reform League which helped to force a reluctant Western Australian government into Federation. In 1897–1900 he was a member of the Federal Council of Australasia”.
The nation of Australia was formed in 1901, and Alexander Matheson won a seat in the new senate “with a policy which included absolute free trade, industrial arbitration, old-age pensions, uniform franchise and White Australia” (he held very strong views against (non-British) immigration, and giving Aborigines the vote). He developed property in Perth, and named one subdivision he created ‘Applecross’ after that parish in Ross-shire.
Alexander’s wife spent very little time in Western Australia, according to a family source leaving for good once typhoid was found in the water near the household well. At the end of his first term in the federal senate Alexander resigned and returned to England to rejoin his family. But tragedy followed. His three sons were all killed in action in the space of just over 12 months in 1916–1917; two in army regiments and one in the Royal Flying Corps (as well as a son-in-law in the army). The youngest son, Ian, died aged only 16½, his mother having signed the papers to allow him to join up. Alexander later suffered a financial disaster, and his marriage broke up.
When his half-brother Sir Kenneth Matheson died in 1920 Alexander inherited the title and became Sir Alexander Matheson, 3rd Baronet of Lochalsh. A little over a year later he emigrated again, this time to Wellington in New Zealand to work as a newspaper correspondent. As Wellington’s Evening Post reported in January 1922: “Regarding New Zealand as a suitable vantage point from which to observe developments in the Pacific, Sir Alexander Matheson, Bart, has arrived in Wellington from England to act as New Zealand representative of the Morning Post, London.”
New Zealand newspapers record Alexander’s travels around New Zealand and views on local affairs. Within a year he was writing to the Evening Post airing his opinion on the slow delivery of overseas newspapers to New Zealand. He engaged in an extraordinary correspondence about the city council’s poor performance, including its lack of attention to providing better access to the hilly inner city suburb of Roseneath where he lived, which he regarded as accessible “only to semi-alpine climbers”.
He was not a happy ratepayer: “These examples of ineptitude, drawn from Roseneath alone, can easily be multiplied from each division of the city, and it is clearly time that some steps should be taken to remedy the want of businesslike control of city affairs”. Some things haven’t changed in the past 90 years! The newspapers also record that Alexander frequently attended functions at Government House.
In 1925 Alexander became engaged to marry again, and the Evening Post records his fiancée, Mrs Beatrice Davison née Elmer, arriving by sea in December of that year. Naturally she didn’t move in with Alexander, and she stayed in the household of the prominent local businessman Sir Harold Beauchamp, father of the famous New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield.
No wedding took place, however. The engagement was called off and Alexander sold his possessions and left New Zealand in late 1926. He settled in a flat in Monaco, but in 1929 died in London at the age of 68.
The 4th Baronet of Lochalsh
As Alexander had no surviving sons the title passed to his brother Roderick Mackenzie Chisholm Matheson, who became 4th Baronet at the age of 67. Though thrice-married Roderick had only one daughter, so when he died in 1944 the title again passed horizontally, to his brother Torquhil George Matheson, who was then aged 73.
The 5th Baronet of Lochalsh
Sir Torquhil George Matheson, 5th Baronet of Lochalsh, had a distinguished military career. Educated at Eton, he was commissioned into the Coldstream Guards. He fought in the Boer War, where he was mentioned in despatches, and in the First World War in which he was mentioned in despatches no fewer than 10 times. Honours followed: Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1918, Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George the following year, and Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1921.
Sir Torquhil’s military career took him to India. In what is now Pakistan he commanded the Waziristan Field Force 1920–1924 (mentioned in despatches four times) and was also the Chief Political Officer from 1920 to 1921. He was made Commander-in-Chief of the Western Command in India from 1931 to 1935. Waziristan is much in the news today. This part of Pakistan borders Afghanistan and features in conflicts with the Taleban.
On his return to the UK Sir Torquhil raised and commanded the Home Guard in Rossshire from 1940 to 1942. He succeeded to the title of 5th Baronet Matheson of Lochalsh in 1944 on the death of his brother Roderick, which he held until his death in 1963. The title then passed to his son (by his second wife The Lady Elizabeth Keppel) Torquhil Alexander Matheson.
The 6th Baronet of Lochalsh
This Sir Torquhil Matheson, 6th Baronet of Lochalsh, also had a distinguished military career, and also in the Coldstream Guards from which he retired with the rank of Major. His service saw him in Europe soon after D-Day, in Palestine and North Africa in the decade or so after World War Two, and in Kenya in the early 1960s. Sir Torquhil was later a member of The Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms, which is one of The Queen’s three Body Guards. Historically these were the bodyguards of the monarch, but now their duties are purely ceremonial and the Gentlemen attend the Sovereign at ceremonies.
After leaving the army Sir Torquhil entered a second career as a farmer — he and his wife Serena were real mud-on-the-boots farmers, not hobbyists, and ran a herd of rare British White cattle at their property in Somerset. I and some other Clan members from New Zealand have had the privilege of visiting them at Standerwick Court and experiencing their warm hospitality.
It is here that the Matheson baronetcy and the chiefship of the clan intersect. The story of the chieftship is outlined in detail in the Clan Matheson international website, but in brief we can say that the chiefship lay from the early 18th century with the Mathesons of Bennetsfield. In 1975 the chief, Colonel Bertram Matheson of Matheson, died without having any children. The next chief was determined through a process called tanistry, the process by which a chief during his lifetime nominates his heir. Through this process Sir Torquhil Alexander Matheson, 6th Baronet of Lochalsh, became Chief of the Clan Matheson.
Sir Torquhil had two daughters, so on his death in 1993 was succeeded by his younger brother Fergus
The 7th Baronet of Lochalsh
The 7th Baronet of Lochalsh and 27th Chief of the Clan was Sir Fergus John Matheson of Matheson, 7th Baronet of Lochalsh. Sir Fergus enlisted in the Coldstream Guards following his education at Eton College, and served in Europe, Palestine and North Africa before retiring as a Major in 1964 and developing a business career. He too served in The Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms. Sir Fergus and his wife The Honourable Jean Willoughby (who died in 2008) had three children: Elizabeth, Alexander and Fiona.
Sir Fergus and Jean visited New Zealand in 1994, and travelled around the country meeting many Clan members. Their son Alexander (Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Matheson of Matheson, younger, who is Clan Convenor) and his wife Katharine visited in 2008 to attend Clan gatherings, maintaining the links with members in New Zealand.
Sir Fergus died on 27 January 2017, just three weeks short of his 90th birthday.
This article was written by committee member Andrew Matheson. Alexander Matheson, Convenor of the Clan and son of Sir Fergus, and John Aakesson, great-grandson of the 3rd Baronet, made valuable additions to an earlier draft. An abridged version was serialised in the Clan Matheson Society New Zealand branch newsletter.