Mary Montagu Scott on her role as The High Sheriff of Hampshire

Mary Montagu Scott, High Sheriff of Hampshire

Mary Montagu Scott, High Sheriff of Hampshire - Credit: Archant

England and Wales has 55 High Sheriffs, but only one has had lunch with Michael Jackson. Despite her starry Beaulieu upbringing, Simon O’Neill discovers that Mary Montagu Scott prefers hard work, family and sailing to the limelight

Once upon a time, The High Sheriff of Hampshire was armed and dangerous, with the power of life and death over those who fell foul of the law. The office dates from Saxon times and from 1066 they were charged with maintaining law and order on behalf of the Monarch, protecting the judiciary, collecting taxes and presiding over executions. They could also raise the equivalent of a posse, or a ‘hue and cry’ to catch fugitives and to this day they act as returning officers at elections.

The modern day role is a ceremonial one and Hampshire’s new High Sheriff, Mary Montagu Scott, was unarmed and perfectly charming when we met in the private wing of the 13th century Palace House at Beaulieu. She started her 12-month term in April and the priority is to ‘support and encourage’ those involved with law and order. This brings her into contact with police officers, judges, prison governors and volunteers. It is time consuming and the new incumbent has hardly been twiddling her thumbs waiting for something to fill her days.

Daughter of the third Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, and sister of Ralph, the current Lord Montagu, she is director and vice chairman of Beaulieu Enterprises, which runs the commercial side of the estate, including the National Motor Museum founded by her late father. She also chairs a range of committees and groups in the area and has been married to husband Rupert for 20 years. The couple have two children, Ben, 17, and Emilia, 15.

What was it like to grow up at Beaulieu?

It was all I ever knew when I was younger, but my parents divorced (in 1974) and I moved out of Palace House and lived in a ‘normal’ house. A normal house is where you don’t have half a million people going through your garden. One of the things about living here as a child was the sheer pressure of people everywhere and of being in a goldfish bowl. You were in the public eye all the time. It was a bit scary being in a big house.

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I was much happier when I moved to my mum’s house, which was smaller. I felt safer and cosier. It makes it easier with friends too. It’s difficult to bring them back from school when it’s Palace House. It was an unusual upbringing and a very formal one. I was brought up by a nanny and didn’t see my parents much. It wasn’t unhappy. It was just different, but it was all I knew.

That’s not how I brought up my kids. They are totally ‘normal’ in a normal house. But at the time that’s how it was. My father was busy and was hardly ever here, but I did as a child meet a huge number of famous people, so that was exciting. I don’t know where to start with names, but I had lunch with Michael Jackson. We had TV shows being made, as well as Radio 1 and Radio 2 road shows. I was interviewed by Tony Blackburn and Terry Wogan. Beaulieu is always keen on TV coverage. We’re always available for filming!

Running a large country estate must be expensive

It’s hard work. You spend money one year on restoring the roof and the following year there is something else. We’re fortunate to have lots of important buildings, but it is a big ask to repair and maintain buildings of that age. You cannot just slap a new roof on. Everything has to be done perfectly and with permissions.

The business side is important and my father was a great entrepreneur who was ahead of his time. We became the market leader at opening houses to the public. He was a visionary man. We have a huge range of events virtually every weekend. There is a fixed programme, but we mix new ones in and test them out. We get about 330,000 visitors a year and we’re open every day except Christmas Day, when we get the house back.

How did you come to accept the role of High Sheriff?

You get approached and there is a four or five year lead time. It is voluntary and non political. You’re selected by a panel and it’s not easy to find people who can give their time and have independent means to step back from work. It’s a big county to support. There are as many women as men across the High Sheriffs of England and Wales. Anyone can do it, there’s no bar to entry. I didn’t know anything about law and order. I haven’t ever had dealings with it, but I thought it was a chance to get to know something I know nothing about, meet people from a wider county network and hopefully do some good supporting law and order, particularly the voluntary sector.

Just the opportunity to knock on a door and say ‘Hi, I’m your High Sheriff. What can I do to support you?’ Hopefully I can bring a smile to their day. It’s good to raise the profile of those people as well as supporting the incredible work of the courts. I’d never been in a court before but when I went and watched the trials I was amazed. I have found that fascinating.

The process of law, the fairness of law, is remarkable. It’s impressive to see it in action and have access to key trials in Winchester. It is a very famous crown court. For years you were there to protect judges, but nowadays your role is to entertain and look after them because those coming on circuit do not live in the county. I also have prison visits booked. I’ve never been inside one. It is amazing to do this for a year.

You have a huge workload. How do you fit everything in?

As it’s voluntary there are things in the evenings and weekends. You can make the diary up as you go along. I’m juggling lots of things! I work here at Beaulieu and as chairman of the New Forest Centre in Lyndhurst, the boat building college in Portsmouth, the National Motor Museum and other things. I am particularly involved with Buckler’s Hard and the river. My two principal things are the New Forest and sailing. I love sailing and everything to do with the water. I have a boat and race regularly. I’ve stepped back from some things to give this more focus. Although I’m involved in lots of committees in the Beaulieu area, what’s fun about being High Sheriff is that it takes you into the wider world. I’m enjoying that.

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