03 Jan 2004
Ben Coutts , who died on Monday aged 87, was a hard-living and convivial Highland farmer widely respected as a judge of livestock.
He also became a noted broadcaster on rural affairs. But "Big Ben", as Coutts was known, only narrowly survived a series of hair-raising experiences in the Second World War, culminating in his escape from the liner Laconia after its sinking in the eastern Atlantic on September 12 1942.
Coutts's war had begun when he sailed to North Africa as a 23-year-old sergeant-major with the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry, a gunner unit. He served with them in Sudan and Abyssinia before being commissioned and sent, in September 1941, to join the besieged Tobruk garrison. Within a few days German shrapnel had terribly injured his face, removing almost his entire nose.
He was still comatose when the hospital ship taking him to Alexandria was bombed by the Luftwaffe. He spent the next year in hospital, undergoing 10 plastic surgery operations. Eventually it was decided to send him home.
At Durban, Coutts was shipped aboard the grossly overcrowded Cunard liner Laconia, carrying 463 crew, 286 military personnel, 80 women and children, 1,783 Italian prisoners and 103 Polish guards - a total of 2,715. Two hundred miles off Ascension Island, just south of the Equator, the Laconia was attacked at night by the German submarine U-156.
When the torpedoes struck the liner, discipline collapsed as crew members struggled in blind panic alongside passengers. The Italian prisoners overwhelmed their guards and fought for a passage to the boats. "I have never seen such chaos in my life," Coutts later wrote. "I looked over the side and couldn't believe what I saw: upturned lifeboats, rafts, mats, huge patches of oil, boxes, endless bodies - some swimming, but the red lights on their life jackets showing all too many floating face up, covered in oil - and, worst of all, sharks."
Some 2,000 crew and passengers perished during and after the sinking of the Laconia. Coutts survived by sliding down into the sea, and clambering on to a raft. He spent his first night with a handful of others, some badly injured, all hopelessly ill-clad for the icy Atlantic.
A Merchant Navy engineer whom Coutts pulled on to the raft said that he had no wish to be an encumbrance to the others, and would therefore slip quietly over the side before dawn. Before he went, Coutts handed him a whisky bottle.
When the bedraggled survivors eventually encountered a swamped and badly damaged lifeboat, the officer in charge declared that the only hope for the lifeboat's survival was to transfer the six Italian PoWs it was carrying to the raft. "The awful thing about war," Coutts subsequently observed, "is that one has to look after oneself first." Without a word of Italian, he ushered the prisoners on to the raft. "I felt more than a pang of conscience in the morning when only one out of the six was still there."
On the fifth day after the sinking, having been picked up by another lifeboat in rather better shape than their first rescuer, they were taken on board by a Vichy French cruiser called La Gloire. She had been summoned by the commander of U-156, who had been appalled to discover the huge numbers that the Laconia had been carrying.
The French sailors, Coutts remembered, treated them with wonderful kindess; their officers, with memories of the destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in mind, did not. As Coutts, unable to walk, crawled from his berth to the heads, a French officer kicked him violently on the backside. Thereafter, Coutts decided to urinate where he lay.
After some weeks in an internment camp at Casablanca, Coutts and some other military survivors were put aboard a French ship bound for a medical board in Vichy France. On the third night of their passage across the Mediterranean, November 7 1942, there was a sudden jarring crash.
"Torpedoed again," Coutts thought, "and here we are caught like rats in a trap". But by a happy coincidence their ship had sailed into the midst of the huge Allied "Torch" armada, on its way to the landing in North Africa.
Coutts found himself transferred to a British assault ship, and thence home to England, for a further 15 operations on his face by the pioneering plastic surgeon Archie McIndoe, at East Grinstead, West Sussex. Coutts's nose was rebuilt with bone taken from his hips. For the rest of his life, he looked like a man whose face had suffered a dramatic collision; his proboscis, however, proved operational.
Ben Coutts was born in Glasgow on April 26 1916, one of six sons of a Church of Scotland minister. All the boys made their mark on the world, Ben's brother Sir Walter Coutts as the last British Governor of Uganda.
Ben himself was educated at Glasgow Academy and began studying to be a vet. But his heart was never in book work, and he failed his exams. Fearful of his father's wrath, he was pleasantly surprised to be encouraged to do what he wanted with his life. He determined to work outdoors.
After a spell as head pony boy on a Perthshire estate, he spent some time as a shepherd in the Borders before accepting a job at Lavington in Sussex, first as a groom, later as a farm manager. Having been a member of the OTC at school, he enlisted as a Territorial with the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry, and was promoted to sergeant-major on the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939.
Coutts was discharged from the Army in 1944 with just £70 to his name, and found employment as estate manager to Sir James Roberts at Strathallan in Perthshire. At first he knew little about his duties, but learnt quickly from the staff, and grew to love the work. He then moved on to manage the affairs of Duncan Stewart at Millhills, near Crieff.
They formed a fruitful partnership, with Coutts taking charge of Stewart's celebrated herds of Beef Shorthorn and Highland cattle. Later, still under Stewart's direction, he would successfully manage the vast Ben Challum Estate in West Perthshire.
Coutts, however, had a hankering to be his own boss, and in 1951, with an overdraft guaranteed by Stewart, he acquired the tenancy of Gaskbeg, near Lagganbridge in Inverness-shire. Here he bred an Aberdeen Angus cross Shorthorn heifer named Highland Princess, which in 1956, under different ownership, won the supreme championship at the Royal Smithfield Show. For many years Coutts would be a judge at this show.
He left Gaskbeg in 1959 to return to estate management, first with the Fleming family at Blackmount in Perthshire, and then with John and Michael Noble at Ardlinkas in Argyll.
A huge man seldom seen out of a kilt, Coutts possessed inexhaustible energy. His insatiable appetite for the social round, given voice in his unmistakable booming tones, made him one of rural Scotland's most familiar figures.
As a broadcaster he succeeded because he always said precisely what he thought. His voice was first heard on the wireless in 1947, on the BBC's Farm Forum. Subsequently he was involved with many radio and television programmes, notably BBC Scotland's Landward. He also acted as technical adviser on the television drama Strathblair, set on a farm in Perthshire.
An old-fashioned Scottish Liberal passionately committed to the Union, in 1983 Coutts stood for Parliament in Perth and Kinross, against the Tory incumbent Sir Nicholas Fairbairn. The two contestants thoroughly enjoyed each other's company, and frequently took time out from the campaign for a dram together. Although Coutts raised the Liberal vote by 7,000, he failed to unseat Fairbairn, and had to be content with being a member of Perth and Kinross Council from 1985 to 1989.
Between 1971 and 1980 Coutts was secretary of the Aberdeen Angus Cattle Society, and travelled the world to advertise the merits of the breed. The society's patron was the Queen Mother, whose friendship he deeply valued; he liked to say that they both enjoyed "the weakness" for a little Glenlivet.
Coutts was appointed MBE in 1980, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Agricultural Society. His autobiography, From Bothy to Big Ben, and four other books, enjoyed wide acclaim in Scotland.
In 1944 Coutts married Creina Keane, with whom he had three sons and a daughter. He married secondly, in 1966, Sally Hutchison; they had two daughters.
Sir Max Hastings writes: Ben Coutts often chafed about having failed to make any money in his life, but never failed to add that he had enjoyed every minute of it anyway. He was a great influence on many lives, including mine, inspiring a love of the Highlands, its people and their farming lives. Unlike some modern Scots, he saw no contradiction between being Scots and British. A man of passionately held opinions and loyalties, he always feared God, but I don't think he feared much else.
Friendships can be forged in the most unusual of circumstances, but Captain Ben Coutts never imagined that a herd of cows would trigger the start of a 30-year acquaintance with the Queen Mother.never imagined that a herd of cows would trigger the start of a 30-year acquaintance with the Queen Mother.
The retired farmer and author, has become one of her favourite dinner companions.
And all because of their connection with Aberdeen Angus cattle Angus cattle (ăng`gəs), breed of black polled (hornless) beef cattle, originated in Scotland and introduced in 1873 to the United States, where they have become well established. .
"I first met HM (as he calls her) about 30 years ago through Sir Martin Gilliatt, who was her personal secretary for many years," explains the World War Two veteran.
"He worked with my brother Sir Walter Coutts Sir Walter Fleming Coutts, KCMG, MBE (1912–1988) was a British colonial administrator and was Uganda's last Governor before independence 1961–1962. He was Governor-General of Uganda 1962–1963. , the last Governor General of Uganda. I had just been appointed secretary of the Aberdeen Angus Cattle Society and knew that the Queen Mother, who was Patron of the Society, kept a herd, so I wrote to Sir Martin asking if I could see them."
The result was an unexpected invitation to lunch at her London residence Clarence House Clarence House is a royal home in London, situated in Pall Mall. It is attached to St. James's Palace and shares the palace's garden. For nearly 50 years from 1953 to 2002 it was home to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, but is now the official residence of The Prince of Wales, .
"I was extremely nervous," he says. And rightly so. He found himself sitting between the Queen Mother and her lady-in-waiting Lady Ruth Fermoy, Princess Diana's grandmother; being bitten by one of her corgis - "although she says he was only being playful"; and inspecting HM's potato crop with her in the pouring rain.
It was the first of many meals they would share - together with their passion for the countryside and all things connected with it. He lives among the rolling hills Rolling hills are like a mountain chain, only a "hill chain" of hills that roll on and on continually. You will often find them in between plains and mountains, near major rivers, or randomly anywhere. The only places without rolling hills are deserts and flood plains. of Perthshire. She loves her native Scotland and regularly shows her cattle and sheep at the local agricultural shows "with great success". "She is a very good judge of stock," he says.
But even after years of swapping jokes and stories, he has never felt fully able to relax at those meals. "There have been a number of times when I thought it would be nice to go for a snooze after lunch only to be told by HM to be ready for a long walk along the cliffs tops at Castle Mey or around the gardens at Birkhall," says the 84-year-old.
"HM has always been keen on walking, which is what has kept her remarkably fit and healthy. "She is very energetic and up until a few years ago was quite happy to work in the garden."
He says that although she is a "remarkably kind woman" she has little or no time for yes-men. "She much prefers straight- talking friends who speak their mind." On one of their walks during a force eight gale, he remembers how the Queen Mother had laughed when he used the term "the weakness" to describe people who drank too much whisky.
"What a lovely word for it, I must remember that," she said. And she did - using it to refer to a friend who died from doing just that.
The Queen Mother is known to love a good singsong sing·song
1. Verse characterized by mechanical regularity of rhythm and rhyme.
2. A monotonously rising and falling inflection of the voice.
Monotonous in vocal inflection or rhythm. and Capt Coutts has fond memories of one they had after a dinner at her favourite retreat, Castle Mey, in Scotland. The local minister had brought along his guitar and after a meal in the splendid dining room under a magnificent painting of the castle - a 90th birthday present from friends - they all sang "with great relish" I Belong To Glasgow and You Canny Push Your Granny Off The Bus.