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Issue 42 - Victoria's Highland legacy

Scotland Magazine Issue 42
December 2008


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Victoria's Highland legacy

Dave McFadzean explores the Victorian Heritage trail in Royal Deeside.

It is not that unusual for inspiring monarchs to leave their mark on the land where they once ruled. Scottish place names with royal connections abound, and from the Picts, Scots and Vikings right through to modern times different rulers have brought their regal names to the areas of land where they once held sway.

This is particularly true of an area in the north-eastern Highlands which has now become associated with one specific monarch.

It is now simply known as Royal Deeside and it is still frequented regularly by our present queen and royal family.

It was, however, another long reigning sovereign who first put Deeside firmly on the royal map. In the late 1830s, William Scrope published his popular book The Art of Deerstalking and taking a lodge in the Highlands for the autumn deer shooting season became the ‘in’ thing for fashionable people. No self respecting family would be without their place in the north for the sporting season, and the young Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were no exception.

The royals spent some seasons as honoured guests on different Highland estates and thought seriously about acquiring Ardverikie Estate at Loch Laggan. Ardverikie’s climate, being inland, was often poor, and during the royal couple’s stay beside Loch Laggan it rained relentlessly. “There is little to say of our stay at Ardverikie,” commented Victoria.

“The country is fine but the weather was most dreadful.” Following the advice of their doctor, Victoria and Albert decided to look to the drier eastern Highlands. On Deeside they found just what they were looking for when Balmoral came up for lease suddenly after the existing tenant choked to death on a chicken bone.

Watercolour paintings of Balmoral by James Giles were sent south and on the strength of what they saw in those rather fanciful canvases, Victoria and Albert took on the leasehold. When they first visited Deeside in 1848, they quickly realised that they had made a wise decision. “All seemed to breathe freedom and peace and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils,” Victoria wrote of her new holiday home. The poet Robert Burns had famously written that his heart was in the Highlands, and the young Queen also fell deeply in love with the north.

By 1852, with an unexpected inheritance, the Queen had bought both the Balmoral estate and castle. The existing old tower was far too small for the expanding royal family, and Albert commissioned the building of the magnificent baronial edifice we see today.

Using the expertise of William Smith, City Architect of Aberdeen, he had constructed from sparkling Deeside granite a Highland home that was fit for a Queen. Victoria loved the isolation and backdrop of her new castle.

“Every year my heart becomes more fixed in this dear paradise,” she wrote.

To celebrate her enduring association with the region, a special royal route has been set up. Signs with the distinct silhouette of the famous Queen now point the way to many of the locations associated with Victoria on Deeside.

“This trail was set up specifically to promote the area’s Victorian connections,” explained Gillian Thompson of VisitScotland.

“Along the way you can see Balmoral of course, and Crathie Kirk is still used today for royal worship. Also at Crathie you will find the old kirkyard where the Queen’s loyal servant, John Brown, is buried.

“Aboyne is where the old Highland games took place, and Ballater was whereVictoria’s train terminated on the annual royal visits to Balmoral. You can also take in the Queen’s View near Tarland. In fact, the whole trail is quite extraordinary in that you can go along in Queen Victoria’s footsteps.” The whole route can be explored in no particular order, but Linn o’ Dee in the shadow of the high Cairngorms is a good starting point.

At the Linn o’ Dee, the peaty waters from the mountains cram though a magnificent rocky gorge. In 1857, Victoria and Albert dressed in the finest Royal Stewart tartan came here to open the new bridge spanning this ravine. “The valley looked beautiful,” the Queen wrote. “Atriumphal arch was erected, at which Lord Fife and Mr Brooke received us, and walked near the carriage, pipers playing – the road lined with Duff men. On the bridge, Lady Fife received us, and we all drank whisky in ‘prosperity to the bridge.’ The view of the Linn is very fine from it.” Braemar is where the rivers Dee and Clunie meet. It has been a famous gathering place since King Malcolm Canmore held an assembly here to select his best fighters and couriers.

Much later, in 1715, “Bobbing John,” Earl of Mar, gathered the Highland clans here to form his ineffective Jacobite army. After the later 1745 Rising, the wearing of tartan was banned and clan gatherings outlawed. It was not until the early 1800s that the Braemar Wright’s Society started holding such gatherings again. In 1826, they eventually restyled themselves the Braemar Highland Society. By that time, however, the old clan structure of the Scottish Highlands was in ruins, and the Highland Clearances of the 19th century in full swing.

Victoria visited these Deeside games on her first visit to Balmoral, and, with her patronage, they went from strength to strength. The Queen’s ghillie was the fastest man on one occasion to reach the summit of Creag Choinneach. Unfortunately that loyal ghillie sustained a severe and debilitating illness due to his exertions and, as a result, the Queen asked that the hill race be withdrawn from subsequent festivities.

Nowadays a fell race is run up Morrone on games day from Braemar where this historic gathering is now held. The Royal Family still attends, and the first Saturday in September has become a firm favourite on the Highland games calendar.

When Victoria first came to Deeside, the old church was still in use at Crathie. By 1895, a far bigger kirk had been built from local stone and its pulpit is said to be made from 18 different types of granite. Today Crathie Kirk holds several royal memorials and busts including one of Queen Victoria.

The royal family still worship here, gaining access through a private side entrance, and are also seated to one side away from the public glare on service days. Down the hill in the old kirkyard, Victoria’s faithful servant John Brown is buried. Brown was an estate workman until Prince Albert took him on as a personal ghillie. He became indispensible, and after Albert’s death became the Queen’s ever present travelling companion.

Following her husband’s death, Victoria depended heavily on Brown, and he became her closest confidante. Unsubstantiated rumours of romance between them abound, but what is known is that Victoria thought the world of her Deeside ghillie. Throughout her reign there were several assassination attempts on her life, and the dashing Brown is said to have thwarted attacks on the Queen on more than one occasion. When he died, a desolate Victoria had several memorials made in his memory. One included the tribute, “Friend more than servant, Loyal, Truthful, Brave...” Fettercain has a fine Victorian archway which commemorates the Queen’s visit there after a 40 mile trip crossing the mountainous Mounth Road. The Queen and Prince Albert stayed incognito at a local inn and managed to walk the village streets unrecognised.

Drum Castle is a place that spans across the centuries being a hotchpotch of a medieval tower and Jacobean mansion house, brought together with several Victorian additions.

Between Lumphanan and Tarland, we find the Queen’s View. It is not hard to imagine Victoria stopping off here on her wide-ranging Highland journeys to admire her beloved Deeside. The hills of Morven dominate the entire scene to the west, and across the Howe of Cromar, “Dark” Lochnagar and the Mounth peaks encircle the view. From over the Muir of Dinnet, it is not far to Victoria’s fairytale castle of Balmoral.

Tourists are allowed in from spring right up to the end of July. Then the staff prepare for the Royal Family and their guests who still very much enjoy field sports, angling and the great outdoors.

Inside the stables and outbuildings of the castle there are a series of exhibitions showing different aspects of Balmoral from Victorian times to present day. The ballroom is the only room of the actual castle open to the public.

This is where the famous Ghillies’ Ball was held in Victoria’s time and today it is full of unique royal memorabilia. The outside of the castle and the gardens are open to visitors and the royal ponies graze in the parkland much as they did in Victoria’s time.

One favourite area of Victoria’s was Glen Muick, and there, at Alltnagiuthhasach, Victoria and Albert had a retreat they called ‘the hut.’ From there they sallied out on climbs up the steep frowning glories of Lochnagar and beyond. When Albert died, Victoria could not longer face the fond memories of the hut and so he had a new lodge built for her at Glass Alt Sheil.

The premier attraction of this trail is Ballater old royal railway station. “When Prince Charles opened the station visitor centre in 2001, he commented on how the place was lacking a royal carriage,” told Sally Wallis of VisitScotland. “Seven years on, an exact replica of Victoria’s carriage was craned into the station and that, along with a new exhibition, was opened by Prince Charles.” That Royalty and Railway Exhibition encompasses the busy Victorian era and shows the opulence of travel in those times.

“It’s not just the carriage itself,” explained Sally. “There are lots of interactive exhibits on the platform and then there is also the Queen’s Waiting Room. Although I cannot imagine that Victoria would ever have had to wait for her train, she may have used the very fine looking loo on occasion.” INFO Details of the Victorian Heritage Trail can be found on: or Tel: +44 (0)1339 755 306.

Year round local tourist information is available at Aberdeen, Braemar and The Old Royal Station in Ballater. Information on Balmoral is also available from their estate office.

Tel: +44 (0)1339 742 534 or