The Sunday Times - November 16th, 1997
Fall of the house of Usher
Tragedies and feuding have torn apart a great Scottish dynasty. Jenny Shields talks to the man who still hopes to revive the family's fortunes.
Stuart Usher drives slowly down the quiet country roads. It takes him about an hour to tour the former Wells estate, which stretches for miles across the rolling countryside between Jedburgh and Hawick.
He knows the area intimately and stops occasionally to point out the highlights: the splendid view, the church and the "Gingerbread house" where the family's governess lived and taught young aristocratic boys like himself.
Usher knows most of the people who are about on this sunny winter morning and gives a seigneurial nod or flick of his hand as he passes. As he looks out over his family's old estate he is reminded of a gilded youth that revolved around mansions, parties and the traditional country pursuits of hunting, shooting and fishing.
Usher is the grandson of the prominent Scottish landowner Sir Robert Usher, the second baronet of Norton and Wells after whom the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, the city's most prominent venue was named. But after generations of influence and wealth, most of their land and homes have been sold off, heirlooms dispersed and only the baronetcy title and a clutch of feus remain.
Stuart Usher can only reflect wistfully on what might have been. He lives in a modest home on the fringes of the estate and drives a minicab for a living.
This is the modern day story of the Fall of the House of Usher. It is a tale of personal tragedies and internecine feuding which has left a once great family in ruins.
THE USHERS were the industrial potentates of their day. Hugely wealthy fro their whisky companies, their warehouses at St Leonard's in Edinburgh could hold 25m bottles and Ushers grand-father was known as the "whisky king". They were social benefactors too, gifting the Usher Hall to Edinburgh as well as endowing the Institute of Public Health.
At one time they owned Pitheavlis Castle, near Perth, and Norton estate, near Edinburgh airport, the mansion house of which is now a hotel owned by Richard Branson.
But the jewel in the family crown was the 6,500 acre Wells estate, which included the ancestral seat, the dower house of Hallrule, Bedrule and seven farms and many cottages.
His grandfather, Sir Robert Usher, had made provision for his family through the Usher Baronetcy Trust, drawn up in 1911. In the early 1930s the future of the dynasty looked assured, as Sir Robert had sired six healthy sons. Life revolved around their farms, the sporting seasons and house parties attended by the good and the great.
The patriarch of the family had been Sir John Usher, who had been made a baronet in 1899. He married and produced three daughters and three sons, of whom the eldest, Robert, also had six children. Sir Robert, who died in 1933, aged 73, was succeeded by his eldest son John; but as he had only daughters, the title passed sideways in 1951 to his brother Stuart.
Sir Stuart had married an Argentinian called Gertrude Sampson and the couple had two sons; but tragically both Peter and Robert had Down's Syndrome, which meant they were "incapax", unable to control their own affairs by virtue of their handicap and as such unable to make a will.
"Looking back I think this misfortune made my uncle very bitter. Medically it was incredible that both his children were retarded and I don't think he ever came to terms with it. As a family we certainly never blamed the boys for their condition but we felt that the estate should have bypassed them." said Usher.
During his childhood and youth, while he was away at Uppingham school, Usher says that it was assumed that the title and estates would pass from his uncle Stuart to his father or his elder brother, Johnny. It came as a devistating blow when his uncle died suddenly while out with the Buccleuch Hounds in November 1962. To his immediate family's horror, the title and the estate passed to Peter.
Trusts have a finite life and the provisions of the Usher Baronetcy Trust had ended on Stuart's death. For the first time, Peter became the first member of the Usher family to own the estates outright.
Ushers father consulted a local lawyer, who suggested that, if Sir Peter could make a will in the presence of a psychologist or psychiatrist who was satisfied that the baronet knew what he was doing the estates could be preserved. But the plan was vetoed by one of the four trustees, Brigadier Clive Usher, the youngest son of the old Sir Robert Usher, and the father of one daughter. Stuart Usher believes that his late uncle Clive vetoed the plan because he hoped to benefit from the break-up of the estate.
"Realising that Sir Peter and his brother would die intestate was such an enormous shock for my father that he had a heart attack in 1963. He became depressed and lost interest in farming Bedrule. He knew he was ill and decided that going abroad, where he would probably die, was the best option as it would save on death duties."
In 1969, a year after the family had moved to South Africa, Stuart's father was dead. "He died in my arms and his last words to me were that I was to fight for Wells as hard as I could, as my grandfather, who had set up the trust in 1911, would want that. Before I left Bedrule I had already vowed I would never rest until I had secured the future of the estate in our family. In memory of him and my grandfather that is what I am trying to do."
In 1990 Sir Peter, the elder of the handicapped sons, died aged 59. After his death some property, including a farm and some cottages, were sold to pay death duties. He was succeeded by his brother, Robert, who became the sixth baronet and new owner of the estate. Sir Robert continued to live at Hallrule House but on his death four years later, it and the rest of the Norton and Wells estate were sold, together with the contents of the house. Nine members of the Usher family, including Stuart Usher, were beneficiaries if the estate's sale. Some sources estimate that each received about £160,000 in the division.
While properties that had been in the family since the last century were put on the market the title was unaffected and moved sideways to Stuart Ushers brother Johnny.
The glossy brochure advertising the sale of the property attracted widespread interest. By then the chief asset was the rump of Wells estate including Hallrule House, with its gardens and policies of almost 70 acres. Wells House had been demolished shortly after the war because of the government's roof tax.
In August 1995 Hallrule House was bought by an Englishman while the other 16 lots were sold seperately. It was the end of an era. The Ushers had lived on the Wells estate, overlooking Rule Water since 1896 when Sir John bought it.
Two years ago Christie's auctioned the contents of Hallrule House. It was a wretched time for Stuart Usher, who attended the sale in the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh and watched as 300 items of furniture, paintings, silver, books, porcelain and objets d'art which he remembered from his childhood went under the hammer.
His comparatively slender resources enabled him to buy only a few pieces, including an oak chest emblazoned with the Usher crest and motto "Ne Vile Vellis" (Will Nothing Base). The sale realised more that £205,000.
A tall man of patrician mien, Usher is thin with a determined, lined face, a legacy as much from the years in the African sun as the concerns besetting him. He returned to the Borders from Natal in 1995 to live with his wife and two young children in a modern detached house.
MANY born to a life of wealth and comfort who suffer such a sharp reversal of fortunes would not be as sanguine as Stuart Usher. "Some people might think it is a bit humiliating that I now have to drive a minicab for a living. I'd rather earn an honest crust that a dishonest crumpet."
For the past 2½ years he has made a study of Usher family affairs and has amassed a formidable collection of documents. He can recount Edgar Allan Poe's Fall of the House of Usher with a grim smile but says his personal crusade is to try and reverse the fortunes of his family. Stuart Usher blames professional advisers for its "avoidable downfall" and is examining ways of taking legal action against them.
He acknowledges that the Ushers have been unlucky. "Of Sir Robert's six sons, one died young, one died in the war, two had daughters, one had two handicapped sons. My brother, who lives in South Africa, is now the seventh baronet and he has a son and a grandson but I am the only male Usher to live in the Rule Water area."
© Mark Usher 07 Mar 2010