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Crathie: A royal church near Balmoral

Close to Balmoral Castle is a small church, which is – almost – unique. With the exceptions of St Mildred’s Church, Whippingham – where Queen Victoria’s family would sometimes worship when in residence at Osborne and where the marriage of her daughter, Princess Beatrice was celebrated – or the country parish church of St Mary Magdalene on the Sandringham estate, where the Royal Family worships when at their official Norfolk residence, Crathie Church has been used as a place of worship by the Royal Family over many generations when at Balmoral.

Crathie, like St Mildred’s, Whippingham, is a church which contains many royal memorials of historical interest but can today be used by its congregation for worship, as opposed to being kept purely for private use by the Royal Family. St Mary Magdalene, Sandringham can of course, however, only be visited by the public when the Royal Family is not in residence, such as may be done this year from late March until October.

Crathie Church has a particular association with Queen Victoria’s family; some of the cairns to commemorate the Queen’s children may be seen from the tree-lined walk up to the church, amongst the distant Highland hills. Queen Victoria first visited the ‘old’ church at Crathie in 1848, standing in the picturesque shadow of the great hill, Creag a Chlamhain. It was not the first church on this site, however; the older, Presbyterian example dated from 1805. Today’s church, built on the site of the original, dates from 1893, with the Queen laying the foundation stone.

It was dedicated two years later, two of the Queen’s daughters, Princess Louise and Princess Beatrice having raised £2,000 from proceeds towards the church’s building by the holding of a bazaar at Balmoral. Princess Beatrice gifted four bells for the church tower, whilst the pulpit is decorated with beautiful marble pebbles which were picked by the artistic Princess Louise on the island of Iona.

Pebbles in Queen Victoria’s family were important. The Queen even had some of sentimental importance, which she had picked in special places, mounted into jewellery, even as pins or for her sons-in-law, such as the Marquess of Lorne, who received such a pin, his bride, Princess Louise having a similar pebble set in a brooch. Queen Victoria owned, for example, a pebble bracelet, with pebbles set into it which she had picked in 1842 on visits to Windsor, Claremont and Brighton; there was a brooch made of three pebbles from Bagshot. This would reflect a penchant for Victorian pebble jewellery in the broader sense, but for the Queen, these stones were taken from highly significant places, of emotional significance; one of her brooches contained a cairngorm from Lochnagar. Prince Albert continued this theme by giving the Queen a set of Osborne pebbles set as studs for Christmas 1845; this extended to even heart-shaped earrings for the Queen in 1858, cut from granite (Charlotte Gere, Victoria & Albert, Love & Art, Essays from a Study Day, Pg 13, 2010).

Several charming watercolours of Crathie Church exist in the Royal Collection, some acquired by Queen Victoria, such as that by the artist August Becker, which the Queen described in her journal in 1877, as being particularly keen to buy. The Choir at Crathie was often mentioned approvingly in Queen Victoria’s journal in connection with the church; sometimes the choir sang for the Queen on her birthday, as they did in 1878.

The church is full of fascinating royal memorials, some public, others more personal. The granite font was given to Crathie by Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn. There is a poignant memorial window to six members of the Queen’s family, The Duchess of Kent, Prince Leopold, Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, Prince Albert, Princess Alice and Alice’s husband, Ludwig IV of Hesse. Two windows were given in memory of Prince Henry of Battenberg, Princess Beatrice’s husband, and Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence. Two marble memorials exist to Victoria, Princess Royal, Crown Princess of Prussia and later Empress of Germany, and to Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, both given by Edward VII. There are also three royal busts, of Queen Victoria, George V and George VI.

The Queen’s “dearest and best friend”, her devoted Scottish ghillie John Brown (d. 1883) is buried in Crathie churchyard, as were others of her faithful retainers, who attended her at Balmoral.

The Royal Family had their seats in the gallery of the church and generally used a side door as a private entrance. The new Church at Crathie was visited by Tsar Nicholas II and the Queen’s granddaughter, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna during the imperial visit to Balmoral in September 1896, four months after their coronation, bringing with them their baby daughter, Grand Duchess Olga. They were escorted to Balmoral in carriages, joined by a detachment of the Scots Greys, of which the Tsar was Colonel-in-Chief, and by volunteers from Crathie and Ballater, with the Balmoral Highlanders bearing torches to light the way. Lady Lytton observed with interest, how striking it was to see the Tsar and Tsarina standing near the Queen in the church, “where all is simple and reverent” (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 456, 2000). This area today is known as the Royal Transept, whose royal pew is carved with the Thistle, Rose and Shamrock.

The new church remained the church in which the Royal Family worshipped when in residence at Balmoral; a photograph exists of King George V with the Duchess of York and Princess Elizabeth on their way to Crathie Church in an open-top carriage. George V and Queen Mary gifted Crathie Church its Communion Table and reredos, in memory of King Edward VII. Bazaars continued to be held at Crathie in the reign of George V.

Her Majesty The Queen and the Royal Family continue to worship there today; the red Bible on the small lectern was the gift of Her Majesty The Queen to the church in 1962.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.