Victoria & Balmoral

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Victoria and Balmoral

Queen Victoria was the first English-born monarch of Great Britain ever to fall in love with Scotland. She thought it was the finest country in the world, and came north of the border as often as she could.

Yet the Queen - who ruled over the British Empire for 64 long years - only discovered the delights of the Scottish landscape, scenery and people by accident.

She was meant to be going to Brussels for a summer holiday in 1842, but she fell ill and her advisers thought a trip to Scotland would provide a good but less strenuous alternative.

Victoria came north and was immediately captivated. The affection she had for the Scots from then on was to profoundly shape both her own life and that of the country she effectively adopted.

She put the Highlands on the map, made them popular, sparked off a craze for tartan in fashionable society - and struck up a relationship with a servant which almost certainly developed into an illicit love affair.

Victoria's first sight of Scotland after arriving by ship at Leith was Edinburgh. Incredibly, she was only the second reigning British monarch to come north of the border - the first was George IV in 1820 - but she took to the country and its people straight away.

The young Queen was immediately enchanted with the capital, but her true heart lay in the Highlands. She travelled on to Perthshire, with her husband, Prince Albert, enjoying the deerstalking.

The pair immediately fell in love with the vast, open views and the stern but respectful people. And they quickly developed an affection for Balmoral, with its pocket-sized castle hidden deep in the Deeside countryside

At that time, the castle and estate were owned by Sir Robert Gordon, the brother of the Earl of Aberdeen. Victoria was offered the remaining lease when he died in 1847, and she decided to take it, renting the place out for her by-now annual visits north of the border.

The castle was small, but it afforded her privacy and an escape from the rigid protocol and often dull routine of royal life in faraway London. Prince Albert loved it as much as she did, partly because the countryside reminded him of his childhood in Germany.

The royal couple were offered the chance to buy the property and estate in 1852. They snapped up the opportunity, and decided to build a far grander castle on the site.

The old property - which, in any case, was in pretty bad repair - was demolished and a replacement, fashioned in granite and designed in the new and fashionable Scottish baronial style, built in its place.

But Victoria didn't just like the building and the countryside - she loved the local people too, and forged an affection between the Royal Family and the inhabitants of nearby villages such as Braemar and Ballater which continues to this day.

The Royal couple delighted in adopting Scottish customs. They ate porridge for breakfast, for instance, and quickly fell in love with tartan - to the extent that they decked the castle out in it.

Victoria often wore a tartan plaid and clothed her children in the kilt, while Albert actually designed his own tartan for use by the Royals. Their interest in the subject created an enthusiasm for it which made it the most fashionable cloth of the age, and which secured its position in the fashion world right through to the present day.

The Queen also deliberately set out to make contacts with local residents, and even visited them in their homes and made friends with their children. However, there was one local who stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of her affection - the ghillie John Brown.

Victoria first met Brown shortly after taking the lease on Balmoral. At the time, he was a 21-year-old stable hand on the estate; the Queen was eight years older.

Prince Albert also took to him quickly, since the two men shared a love of shooting, hillwalking and deer shooting. As a result, the ghillie was a natural choice to accompany the Queen when she ventured out in the area alone.

When her beloved husband died suddenly from complications arising from a chill in 1861, Victoria was devastated, and took to the mourning black she would wear for the rest of her life.

In a bid to try and revive the shattered Queen, who was virtually on the edge of a nervous breakdown, courtiers summoned Brown. He travelled down to the Isle of Wight where she was staying at the time and her condition immediately improved.

There is little doubt that from then on, their relationship deepened and probably turned into a love affair. Remarkably, she became submissive to him. If he told her to do something, she immediately obeyed - she would, for instance, change an outfit if he didn't like it or felt it wasn't right for her.

His influence became overpowering. No longer were they just together in Scotland - the dour ghillie from the Highlands was expected to be by the Queen's side in London, too.

On one famous occasion, she refused to attend a military review in Hyde Park unless Brown was with her. Her advisers gently tried to persuade the Queen that with gossip over their relationship at fever pitch, this could cause a riot, but she refused to budge.

The problem was only solved when the Mexican Emperor fortuitously died, allowing relieved officials to cancel the whole thing as a mark of respect for his passing.

Unsurprisingly, rumours about the relationship spread far and wide, and there were even wild allegations that the Queen had given birth to a secret love child by Brown during a holiday in Switzerland in 1868.

Brown's position was deeply resented by the Royal Court, and the Prince of Wales - later to become Edward VII - is said to have loathed him. Yet his power over Victoria simply seemed to increase as the years passed.

He began to be privy to state secrets and exert his own influence and opinions over the politicians of the time. He could hire and fire household staff, and is said to have saved her life on a number of occasions by grabbing attackers and taking control of her runaway horses.

Then, in 1893, tragedy struck again for the ageing Queen. She had bought Brown a house at Balmoral for his retirement, but he never lived to enjoy it. Like Albert before him, he caught a chill while outdoors. Complications turned it to fever, and he was dead within days.

Once again, Victoria went into acute shock. She lost the use of her legs, complaining bitterly: "My grief is unbounded, dreadful, and I know not how to bear it or how to believe it possible. Dear, dear John, my kindest and best friend, to whom I could say everything."

This time, she never really recovered. Four years later, she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, and four years after that, she died.

An age was finally over. But it had been an age which had been good for Scotland. At the end of Victoria's reign much of he country was prosperous, and its people well educated, ambitious and content.

Thanks to the efforts of the Queen who loved Scotland and everything about it, the country was finally on the world map in a new and different way. Stories of impoverished Highlanders and slum cities had been replaced by the powerful imagery of the shortbread tin - lochs, heather, porridge and tartan.

It was false, kitsch, and touristy, but the world loved it - and continues to love it to this very day.


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