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Issue 33 - Friend more than servant

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 33
June 2007


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Friend more than servant

History has preserved the friendship between the widowed Queen Victoria and her personal attendant John Brown. Jackie Cosh reports

Queen Victoria described him as ‘friend more than servant,’ but not everyone was as complimentary about John ‘Ghillie’ Brown.

Rumours were rife that he was conducting an improper relationship with the Queen, some even suggesting that she had secretly married him, while the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) made it clear that he resented the influence Brown had on his mother.

John Brown was born in 1826 at Craithienaird in Aberdeenshire. The house where he was born is no longer there, but was one of about 18 thatched houses in the hamlet. When he was five the Brown family moved to a larger house at The Bush Farm, Craithie, and it was here he spent his childhood.

For Brown, schooling ended at age 14 and working life began as an ostler’s assistant. Next he worked as a stable lad at Pannanich Wells before taking on a similar role at Sir Robert Gordon’s estate at Balmoral. He was working as a ghillie on the estate when the new owners, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, arrived that year.

The Queen first mentioned John Brown in her journal in 1849, and it was through Prince Albert that the relationship began. Prince Albert took a liking to Brown and as one of the most skilled ghillies, chose him to ride on the box of the Queen’s carriage. He soon began to look after the Queen when Prince Albert was busy, taking her and her daughters on painting trips, showing them the best locations. Soon, his duties began to expand, until he became the Queen’s personal attendant.

The Queen grew used to his straight talking, and did not take offence when his comments were far from complimentary. In 1850, when picking up Lady Jane Churchill after a fall, he remarked to her, “Your Ladyship is not as heavy as Her Majesty.” ToQueen Victoria he was discreet, intelligent and attentive. While leading her pony he would pass on gossip and new jokes and she would ask advice on choosing new staff.

But it was following Prince Albert’s death in 1861 that the friendship began to deepen. In an attempt to rouse the Queen from her depression, John Brown was summoned to Osborne House to lead her pony in daily rides, to encourage her to get more fresh air.

So began their daily trips, with the Queen’s favourite pony ‘Lochnagar.’ She began to rely on Brown more, and he would even accompany her on trips abroad. His dedication was unquestionable. Once when he cut his leg so badly that he could hardly move, he refused to abandon his duties.

Brown received many gifts from the Queen, and in 1865 he was given the title of Queen’s Highland Servant with a salary of £120 per annum. He was to have holidays should he wish, a cottage at Balmoral if he married, and another cottage for retirement.

His salary rose rapidly as did his influence with the Queen. She began to avoid foreign places where he was not welcome and began to rely on him more. In 1876 she even cancelled a trip to Germany, because of problems Brown was having with his legs.

While John Brown was happy to share court gossip with the Queen, increasingly they were becoming the main piece of gossip. In 1866 Punch ridiculed him in its columns, and the Swiss publication Gazette de Lausanne claimed that the Queen had married John Brown and was now pregnant by him.

This was despite the Queen being nearly 50 at the time.

John Brown simply ignored the rumours, and the Queen’s actions did nothing to dispel them. She gave him many gifts, awarded him at least two medals, and had a portrait commissioned of him.

Her devotion to Brown soon earned her the nickname, ‘Mrs Brown.’ However, his popularity did not extend as far as the Queen’s immediate family. Most of them disliked him, particularly the Prince of Wales who never referred to him by name, but instead called him ‘that brute.’ In March 1883 Brown came down with a chest cold at Windsor. His devotion to Royal duties meant that he did not take the time to rest and so by Easter Sunday he was in bed with a high temperature. His condition deteriorated fast and he died on the following Tuesday.

The task of telling the Queen fell to Prince Leopold who wrote to his brother-in-law that “he was sorry for the Queen’s grief, but not the cause of it.” On 3 April, following a short service attended by the Queen and Princess Beatrice, John Brown’s coffin was conveyed by train from Windsor to Ballater, then by hearse to Baile-na-Coile, the house the Queen had given him for his retirement. On 5 April, he was buried at Craithie Cemetery.

For a time afterwards Queen Victoria went into mourning and began commissioning Brown memorabilia. These included tie pins and funeral brooches, and a life size statue of him, erected in the grounds of Balmoral. She wanted to write and publish a biography of him but was persuaded not to.

Queen Victoria survived John Brown by 18 years but never forgot him. On her death, she left instructions for a lock of his hair and his photograph to be placed in her coffin. His mother’s wedding ring, which the Queen was known to have worn regularly, went in too.

Now it was time for the Prince of Wales (now King Edward VII) to exact his revenge. He ordered the removal of all busts, statues and artefacts of John Brown, flattened the memorial cairn stone she had raised for him at Balmoral, and had the life size portrait of him removed and sent to Brown’s brother William.

Were John Brown and Queen Victoria lovers or even married? The answer may lie in a secret cache of letters between the two found in a house near Ballater. But the owner of the letters has said that they will not be released while the present members of the Royal Family are alive.

Places to visit
Crathie is on the A93 road, eight miles west of Ballater and a quarter of a mile east of Balmoral Castle. John Brown was buried at Crathie Church and today his grave can be found within the old walled cemetery. The church is open to visitors daily from 09.30-17.00 from Easter to 31st October.

The house where he was born is no longer there but the village of Crathienaird can be found by walking up the hill behind the church in Crathie.

Balmoral Castle is open to visitors also from Easter to the end of July each year. It is easily accessible from Aberdeen, Edinburgh or Glasgow.

From Aberdeen travel straight out the A93 towards Braemar and approximately nine miles west of Ballater you will come to Balmoral Castle.

From Edinburgh or Glasgow follow signs for Perth. Take a route to Perth. Then take the A93 over the Spittal of Glenshee to Braemar. Approximately nine miles east of Braemar you will come to the castle.

On the Balmoral Estate a statue of John Brown can still be found, as well as Baile-na-Coile, the house given to him by Queen Victoria.