The fascinating life of Lady Jane takes another twist

Sir John and lady Jane pictured in 1991 at the ancestoral home of the Forbes clan - Craigievar Castle in Aberdeenshire
Sir John and lady Jane pictured in 1991 at the ancestoral home of the Forbes clan - Craigievar Castle in Aberdeenshire

Last week, The Galloway Gazette told part one of the story of Lady Jane Forbes and her fascinating life.

Having covered the story of how Lady Jane and her husband, John Forbes-Sempill, brought two lion cubs to their home in Newton Stewart, bought the Cinema, and how their innovative plans to open an ice rink in the town were thwarted, this week we move onto part two - the creation of the Ace Equestrian Centre, her time in local government and how she became a Lady.

After their family home at Auchendoon burned down in the mid-60s and the ice rink plan didn’t get off the ground, the couple decided to build an equestrian centre on the extensive grounds there.

Jane remembers: “John always liked the ‘horsey set’ and I knew a bit about it and there seemed to be a lot of support for the idea. But the planners didn’t like the thought of an equestrian facility and all the associated smells so near the town and they had the site earmarked for housing, so we ended up buying two walled gardens behind Kirrougtree Hotel.

“That was in 1972 and by 1976 we had started show jumping classes every other Sunday. Ponies in the morning and horses in the afternoon. John learned about running the centre and I learned about designing show jumping courses and it just grew and grew from there.

“The heyday of Ace was from 1984 to 1990 and there was tremendous camaraderie among the riders who came from Moffat, Dumfries, Girvan and even Carlisle to compete. We also had regular Riding for the Disabled sessions.

“We built a house next door during that time so we were nearby and John used to do a report that was broadcast on Radio Solway on a Monday morning and that became very popular. People used to stop me in the street to say they had been listening in! John then went on to become the Scottish correspondent for Horse & Hound magazine and began reporting from shows all over Scotland.

“At the same time I was learning more and more about course design and started building courses all over Scotland and south of the border including down at Hickstead.

“We had the likes of Geoff Billington, Harvey Smith and David Broome coming to Ace and local riders like Robin McCrae were tremendous supporters. I think in all the years of Ace Robin only missed one competition and that was because he was snowed in at Corsock. Jack McGeoch from Stranraer had a tremendous horse called Liznamara that was picked for the Olympics. Three-day event Olympic medalist Lorna Clark from Moniaive used to turn up and announce “I’m only here for a school” before winning all the classes.

“But Ace wasn’t just used for equestrian events. We had a false floor in the summertime for tennis and badminton and there was a .22 pistol and rifle range. The centre was also regularly used by the dog club on a Monday night and the Round Table ran very popular motor shows there with star guests like Andy Cameron and darts champions Jocky Wilson and Bobby George. Bobby always used to refer to me as “the posh bird”!

“By the end of 1994 we felt that was couldn’t go any further with Ace so we put it on the market. John was making a name for himself with Horse and Hound and I was doing course design throughout the south of England so we didn’t have so much time.”

Going further back in time to 1969, the 26-year old Jane put herself forward for election to Newton Stewart Town Council and walked into the seat, as no election was required in the town due to a technicality. Her husband was already a councillor and, at the time, there was a push to get women onto local councils. But far from being a token woman, Jane got her teeth into the issues of the day along with her fellow councillor Jean Hyslop.

So began her time in local government, as an Independent candidate, that saw her undertake such duties as weekly inspections of the slaughter house and her attempt to ban yellow lines being drawn onto the then pristine streets of Newton Stewart. She was on the Port Office Users Council for Scotland for 16 years, travelling widely throughout Scotland to meetings around the time the service was splitting itself into the Royal Mail and British Telecom. Jane also had “a jolly” to London to the House of Commons to lobby the Government about encouraging industry to the area to help reduce the unemployment rate.

Jane said: “I sat on the town council until the regional reorganisation in 1974 and I was sorry that local government was more centralised after that as there were issues you were working on and wanted to carry through to a conclusion and you couldn’t. Local Government was more localised then.”

There was one more twist in the tale for Jane when her husband inherited the Baronetcy of Craigievar on the death of his cousin. But even that seemingly straightforward event is worthy of a best selling novel or a film.

John Forbes Sempill’s cousin was born a female called Elizabeth but lived for most of his life as a man, re-registered his birth as male in 1952, adopting the name of ‘Ewan Forbes-Sempill’.

As the title could only pass through the male line, John Forbes Sempill challenged the validity of his cousin’s claim to the title in the 1960s and the case dragged on through the law courts for years before cousin Elizabeth/Ewan’s claim was upheld in the Court of Session.

Ironically, after his death in 1991, Ewan’s title passed on to John Forbes Sempill as the next male in the line of succession. The title meant John had to drop Sempill from the family surname and he and Jane became Sir John and Lady Forbes. They then travelled to Aberdeenshire to visit the stunning family seat, Craigievar Castle. Unfortunately, they couldn’t move in as the pink-turreted fairytale baronial pile was handed over to the National Trust for Scotland in early 1950s by the family.

So, model, actress, dancer, keeper of lions, film-maker, town councillor, Pony Club Commissioner and show jumping course design doyen ... in these two articles we have just scratched the surface of the life of Lady Jane Forbes as she has many more stories to tell. Look out for another instalment in the future!