MARK TENNANT of Balfluig (1932-2020)  President of the Royal Orchestral Society

ADDRESS FOR MARK by his nephew Christopher Tennant

Thursday 12 March 2020

Mark was born in December 1932. His father, John, was partner in a family firm of stockbrokers, as was his godfather Bob Boothby, perhaps not the most suitable candidate to take responsibility for Mark’s spiritual welfare. The family lived in Gloucester Square, just north of Hyde Park. Mark’s mother, Antonia, was an accomplished pianist, and from her Mark inherited his great love of music.

Mark’s early childhood was an unclouded one. 1939 however was a momentous year of upheaval for him; his parents, who had been temperamentally unsuited to each other, divorced, and John, at the age of 40, went away to fight in the war. Antonia in the meantime married Cyril Radcliffe, the most eminent lawyer of his generation, who was devoted to his two stepsons, and from whom Mark inherited his respect for the law. The family moved to Hampstead and during the war years Cyril was Director General of the Ministry of Information. Mark used to recall visiting him in his office and eating copious numbers of chocolate biscuits which were otherwise in short supply.

Mark went to school at Ludgrove and Eton where he acquired a handful of lifelong friends. Eton was also the place where his love of music blossomed. As a child he had enjoyed piano lessons, but at Eton he took up the flute. Mark got on famously with the Director of Music who created the post of Keeper of the Orchestra for him and encouraged him to write chamber music which was performed at soirées organised by sympathetic masters.

In Mark’s first year at Eton, his father returned from the war. He had been in a Prisoner of War camp at Braunschweig and reappeared, thin and weak, but longing to be reunited with his two sons, and so there followed a series of holidays together, and, most formatively for Mark, wonderful summers at Edinglassie, the estate in Aberdeenshire which Mark’s uncle Archie had inherited and which became a magnet for the whole family, and where the seeds of Mark’s great love affair with Scotland and all things Caledonian began.

In his first shooting season, when he was 14, on an evidently blustery day at Edinglassie, he killed his first right and left of grouse. The occasion was commemorated in verse by his proud father:

With mutterings and heavy labour
Mark scaled the summit of Mount Tabor
Like steeplejack on dizzy platform
He towered on this minor Cairngorm.
How odd he chose this troublesome day
With nimbus clouds a scurrying grey,
To show his quality as gunner
At swirling grouse, and not a runner!
He brought one down from high in heaven
Shot altogether six or seven
And gave his host and father pleasure
In quite considerable measure. 

Mark loved his shooting and remained an enthusiastic and effective shot until his scoliosis made it difficult for him to continue.

Following 18 months National Service in the Green Jackets, Mark went up to New College, Oxford to read Greats. His love of Classics remained with him and for the rest of his life he would follow the New Testament lesson in church, in Greek.

Mark’s career was in the law. He loved and respected it with all its processes and idiosyncrasies, but for him it was also a means to an end, a backdrop from which he could fill his life with all the other things that absorbed and interested and fulfilled him.

Mark practised as a barrister for almost 30 years until in 1988 he was appointed Master of the Supreme Court, Queen’s Bench Division, an important part of the judiciary dealing primarily with the resolution of civil matters. If we remember Mark today as a witty, sociable, intelligent, good-natured personality with a generally sunny disposition, those who encountered him professionally often had a different story to tell. On numerous occasions Sophia and Lysander, meeting friends who had become solicitors, would mention who their father was, only to find that the jolly smile would disappear and beads of sweat would break out on their troubled brows as they recollected their latest encounter with the fearsome Master Tennant who had held them accountable for the fumbling mess they had brought before him. Mark took his duties as a public servant very seriously and believed strongly that others should do so as well.

As Baron of Balfluig, Mark had created his own personal flag with special devices and quarterings, which he could fly from the battlements of Balfluig whenever he was in residence. In his room at the Royal Courts of Justice, his computer sat in a corner with a spare copy of the flag draped over the top of it. When Mark retired, his fellow Masters purloined the flag and hoisted it on the flagpole of the Law Courts. There they took a photograph of it proudly fluttering in the breeze, which, much to Mark’s pleasure and amusement, they later presented to him.

A cause to which Mark devoted much energy and dedication was the Royal Orchestral Society. Now almost 150 years old, the ROS has an illustrious history. Mark played the flute with them for over 30 years and, first as Chairman and subsequently President, his fundraising efforts were tireless, enabling them to perform ambitious programmes in major venues with prestigious soloists.

No account of Mark’s life would be complete without a chapter devoted to Scotland and in particular Balfluig, his spiritual home. As a young man Mark had a burning ambition to restore a Scottish tower house, and toured the Highlands to find the ideal site. That he eventually hit on Donside, the area he knew so well from his childhood summers, was a happy coincidence. It was however a daunting project, particularly for Harriot, to whom he was not yet married. When he found Balfluig, there was farm machinery in the ground floor rooms and chickens roosting in the Great Hall. The cracks in the main wall were so serious, it seemed likely that another severe winter would cause it to collapse completely.

Mark’s initial attempts to get government support for the building works, met with total refusal, but his persistence paid off and eventually led to a significant change in policy and the award of grants towards the restoration of many other historic buildings.

Mark was undaunted by the fact that his family holidays would henceforth revolve around a freezing stone edifice in what Harriot described as ‘a blasted heath’. Mark’s passion and energy however won the day, and he was justifiably proud of his achievement, styling himself Mark Tennant, Baron of Balfluig. My father once addressed a letter to him as Mark Tennant of Balfluig and Maida Vale, a blague which I am afraid caused more amusement for the sender than the recipient. At Balfluig Mark created a world of entertainment for his friends and his family, and there was a constant stream of visitors in the summer months enjoying, walks, Highland games, stimulating conversation, music making, parlour games, reeling parties and on wet days visits to Gordon’s antiques shop in Alford.

Another facet of Mark’s life with which many of you will be apprehensively familiar, was his exploits as a motorist. Mark was a truly atrocious driver. Anyone climbing into the passenger seat of a car with Mark behind the wheel, did so at risk of life and limb. As a young man, Mark was the owner of a gleaming Bentley, in which he cut a considerable dash. After his marriage, however, the cars that he owned went from one extreme to the opposite end of the spectrum, as one clapped-out old model replaced another and was in turn driven into the ground. On journeys to Scotland their old Renault would regularly conk out around Watford Gap and the AA relay service would be summoned to winch the car onto the back of a truck and drive them the rest of the way to Alford. This happened so frequently that Sophia and Lysander grew up believing that this was the way everyone travelled to Scotland.

Mark’s appearance was a mixture of fogeyish and flamboyant. On holiday he was the quintessential Brit abroad, but on other occasions the peacock would emerge and a trip down Jermyn Street would often result in an efflorescence of stripes and paisley patterns which had the other members of Brooks’s reaching for their dark glasses.

Finally we come to Mark the belle-lettrist. In the dull, dank days between Christmas and New Year, the most eagerly anticipated event would always be the arrival of Mark’s thank-you letter. These were little masterpieces of erudite, baroque, whimsical, Beachcomberish absurdity and elaboration. Here, to sign off, is an example of Mark in his own words, an extract from a letter he wrote to my brother Patrick, thanking him for some Christmas tree decorations….

And we thank you, Mark, favourite uncle, adored husband, father and brother, and affectionate, wise, funny, generous, kind and thoughtful, warm-hearted friend, for brightening up our lives and for all the pleasure we have had in your inimitable company.