Victoria's Life in the Highlands
by Howard Cutler
Chance, they say, favors the prepared mind, and so, perhaps, does geography. To understand Scotland's powerful hold on the imagination of Queen Victoria, it's worth noting that the first novel she ever read was Sir Walter Scott's Bride of Lammermoor.
Scott was the first great historical novelist to write in English, and he was a romantic poet besides. He lived in Scotland and wrote about it passionately many times in poems and novels that included The Lady of the Lake, Guy Mannering, The Heart of Midlothian, Bride of Lammermoor, Rob Roy, and The Lay of the Last Minstrel. He is not much read today (although both Rob Roy and Ivanhoe were again recently adapted for film), but Queen Victoria was an ardent, lifelong fan.
So when she first traveled to Scotland in 1842 at the age of 23 with her new Prince, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the eyes with which she surveyed the scene were colored by Scott's combination of romance and history. This first adventure to the north was as much a state visit as a holiday, however, and she was far more than a reader of historical fiction. She was Queen, and certainly understood the long, complex relationship between the Scottish and the English thrones, knowing well, for instance, the facts about her predecessors, those great rival Queens, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. She was equally aware of the destinies of James I, Mary's son who followed Elizabeth to the throne; of Charles I, who came down from Scotland to assume the English crown and lost his head in doing so; and of the Scottish rebellion of 1745, led against her blood ancestor, King George, by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Yet beyond all the history lay something even more powerful: the awesome beauty of the Highlands, and the vigorous way of life the region demanded.
By 1852 Albert had successfully negotiated the purchase of Balmoral and leased or purchased a good deal of adjoining territory besides, and by 1855 the royal family had built an entirely new and larger castle 100 yards from the original site. Albert and Victoria were to spend seven more treasured family holidays there before his untimely death in 1861.
The new castle they built may seem ludicrously large for a rustic summer retreat, but it must be remembered that the couple had nine children and traveled with a substantial entourage of domestic and civil servants to sustain not only their personal lives but the ongoing business of government. In addition, they needed to be able to provide guest quarters for the intermittent visits of ministers such as Disraeli, and sometimes even foreign heads of state.
Despite the presence of this mini-bureaucracy, their Highland retreats allowed the royal couple to cast off much of the rigid formality of European court protocol, to draw closer as a family, and, for a few moments in their lives, to gain some sense of what it might be like to live a "normal" life. This alone might account for the peculiar tenderness with which Victoria always cherished her Highland experiences. The Highlanders treated the family differently, displaying a straightforward candor and humor in relation to their rugged life that stirred the royal couple deeply. Victoria and Albert could roam the high places and thundering mountain streams as they chose, traveling always in the company of reliable, open-hearted guides who were servants, but also companions. There was a smaller, much simpler cottage along the loch to which the Queen and her Prince Consort could retreat even further when they wanted to. By Victoria's own accounts, the summers spent at Balmoral with Albert and her children were the happiest days of her life.
Throughout her life, her daily diary recorded in detail the vivid, highly emotional impressions made during her sojourns to the North. She often painted and sketched there as well, and her lively artwork is housed today in the Royal Collection at Windsor.
The trusted service of John Brown
From their earliest summers at Balmoral, John Brown was a fixture in both Albert and Victoria's daily routine. He was seven years Victoria's junior. She would have been about 29, he 22, when they first met. He soon became a trusted companion of the entire family on their "Great Expeditions," assisting them to assume the guise of anonymous folk and so go about the mountains and the wild countryside largely unrecognized -- at least at first. John earned the particular trust of Albert, who saw to it that he became the Queen's personal "gillie," a role for which the closest American equivalent might be a trusted and experienced backcountry hunting or fishing guide.
It was upon this longstanding relationship of candor and trust with the royal couple that John Brown drew when he boldly stepped forward to coax Victoria back from her grief over Albert's death into a relationship with the living world.
The publication of the first volume of Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands was, in fact, part of Victoria's healing process after Albert's death. Its dedication reads: "To the dear memory of him who made the life of the writer bright and happy, these simple records are lovingly and gratefully inscribed."
How much Brown had to do with motivating her to take on the project of publishing her account of those happy times is unknown. He was promoted to the role of her personal attendant in 1865; the Journals were first published privately in 1867 and publicly in 1868. The book immediately became a bestseller and produced one unfortunate, unintended side effect: Deeside was now turned into a high-profile tourist destination for royalty watchers.
Grief strikes again
The publication of the second volume of the Journals in 1884, covering her times in Scotland after Albert's death, was likewise undertaken by Victoria as a way of dealing with deep grief. This time it was the death of John Brown himself. "The Queen is trying hard to occupy herself," she wrote, "but she is utterly crushed and her life has again sustained one of those shocks like in '61 when every link has been shaken and torn and at every turn and every moment the loss of the strong arm...is most cruelly missed."
She had expected John Brown to outlive her and had built him a cottage at Balmoral for his retirement. It was not to be. The dedication to the second volume of the Highland Journals reads: "To my loyal Highlanders, and especially to the memory of my devoted Personal Attendant and faithful friend, John Brown, these records of my widowed life in Scotland are gratefully dedicated. Victoria R.I."
But Victoria's deepest tribute to John was inscribed on his gravestone, in words taken from The Parable of the Talents as told by Jesus in Mathew 25:
Well done, good and faithful servant,
Howard Cutler is Executive Producer of Masterpiece Theatre Online.
Both volumes of Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands are unfortunately out of print in the United States at present, though a fine edition of selections from both volumes, titled Queen Victoria's Highland Journals, is available in England, edited by David Duff and published by Webb & Bower.
In the absence of a published U.S. edition, selected excerpts from both volumes have been posted as a special feature on this Web site.
Images: (1,3,4) Courtesy Hulton/Getty Collection; (2) Courtesy Oxford University Press.
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