THE three-part BBC series A Very British Scandal shown last week has caused considerable controversy and a lot of questions about whether Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, really was the kind of character portrayed so memorably by Claire Foy. The answer, by and large, is that she was much as shown in the drama, but there was so very much more to the Duchess.

Her divorce from the Duke of Argyll was certainly a huge scandal, and the producers quite rightly concentrated on that element of her life which is part of Scottish history of the 1960s and remains the most controversial and famous or infamous divorce case in Scottish legal history. Yet the woman born Ethel Margaret Whigham in Newtown Mearns, now in East Renfrewshire, on December 1, 1912, was much more fascinating than merely a victim of misogyny and the crushing power of the British Establishment.

Above all, the Duchess ended up a truly tragic figure, her undeniable beauty fading and her wealth disappearing so that she died a lonely figure in a nursing home. The factual stuff of her life would make for a much more interesting film or a series. Producers would not even have to rely on the rumours that still surround her more than 28 years after her death at the age of 80 on July 25, 1993.

There are so many “facts” declared about the Duchess that it is difficult to know where to start with establishing the truth. Ethel Margaret was the only child of George Hay Whigham and his wife Helen Mann Hannay, and her father’s wealth and social connections meant she could live as only a millionaire’s daughter could do.

Due to her father’s work as head of the giant Celanese Corporation, she was brought up in New York where she was educated at private classes for girls run by English-born teacher Caroline Hewitt. Her parents lived a transatlantic lifestyle, and at the age of 15 Margaret Whigham was already renowned for her beauty. On a holiday on the Isle of Wight she was impregnated by an 18-year-old David Niven and her father arranged for her to have an abortion, then a criminal offence.

Like so many wealthy girls of the time, she took part in the debutante season in 1930, being presented at Court and reckoned to be deb of the year. Her fame – which she enjoyed – was assured by the many flattering newspaper reports of her undoubted style. She was regularly voted in the top ranks of the world’s best-dressed women and many copied her hairstyle and dress sense. She was a celebrity superstar.

She had various romances and was at one point engaged to the Earl of Warwick, but broke it off to marry Charles Sweeny, a noted amateur golfer from a wealthy American family. She converted to Roman Catholicism at that time, and her wedding at Brompton Oratory literally stopped the traffic as people queued for a glimpse of her dress designed by Norman Hartnell – today it can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Much has been made of the head injury she suffered in 1943 when she fell down a lift shaft. It supposedly wakened her sexual desires, but the truth is she was already highly-sexed and proved it by having extra-marital liaisons. She and Sweeny were divorced in 1947, and according to her memoirs she took up with Theodore Rousseau, curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum or Art. Then she met Ian Douglas Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, on a train and their marriage took place on March 22, 1951, when she was 38 and he was 47. He had been married twice and had inherited his title from his cousin in 1949. He already had an heir, Ian Campbell, father of the current Duke.

The marriage started well but disintegrated, their battles usually being about money, of which the Duke was perennially short. It was Whigham money that saved the family seat, Inveraray Castle, which the Duchess loved. There is nothing more I can add about the actual divorce beyond that which has been extensively written about, though one small detail which has emerged is that during the highly publicised divorce she took refuge in the small Borders village of West Linton where she is still remembered.

After the divorce was finalised in 1963, with Lord Wheatley’s excoriation of her hitting front pages everywhere, the Duchess’s reputation was shattered, precisely as the Duke had wanted, with the willing accompaniment of the media who turned against her. Her many friends in society still championed her and the Duke’s conduct saw him ostracised in several quarters.

There then began the long slow dwindling of a woman who had been such a star but was now reduced to selling her memoirs to earn money. She lost her London home and in 1990 she was evicted from the Grosvenor House Hotel for unpaid rent, spending her last days at the St George’s nursing home in Pimlico where she died at the age of 80 after a fall.

Our sister paper The Herald noted the words of the funeral celebrant Fr Michael Beattie who quoted St John’s Gospel and said: “Many things have been said about Margaret in recent days, justifiably or otherwise I cannot pass judgment. Much should have been said about her qualities of generosity, of friendship, of her care and concern for many people.’’ The Herald recorded that she had asked for her ashes to be scattered in the grounds of Inveraray Castle: “The family objected, however, and she was buried in Surrey next to her first husband, American Charles Sweeny.”

So her life was a tale of triumph and tragedy, and much more than a scandal.