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Queen Victoria’s Garden Cottage at Balmoral

In the grounds of Balmoral Castle is a building touching in its simplicity. Called the Garden Cottage, it was built in the grounds at Balmoral and used by Queen Victoria and her family. In addition to the rooms of the private wings occupied by the Queen and Royal Family at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, the smaller residences of Balmoral Castle and Osborne House were private houses as opposed to official royal homes, and so lacked the state apartments necessary for ceremonial representation. This meant that within these private residences, any smaller buildings in the grounds were purely for personal royal use and therefore lend to unique insights. They give windows into private activity and pursuits, imply royal solitude as well as sociality. One such building is the Garden Cottage, close to Balmoral Castle.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert purchased the freehold of Balmoral from the trustees of the Earl of Fife in 1848 (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 179, 2000). A new Balmoral was designed, however, to Prince Albert’s designs, with the assistance of Scottish architect William Smith, just as a new, private, family paradise was his creation at a rebuilt Osborne, on the Isle of Wight. The serene beauty of the Highlands struck a deep chord of resonance with the Queen and Prince Albert, a love which was reflected in not only the furnishing of the new Balmoral’s interiors but in everything from the wearing of tartan kilts, Scotch porridge for breakfast, Prince Albert’s purchase of a Gaelic dictionary. It could also even be sen in jewellery for the Queen, incorporating the teeth of Highland stags, such as the fringe necklace with stag’s teeth pendants in 1860, or the two stag’s teeth set in a holly brooch and tied with a Royal Stuart tartan ribbon, a birthday present for the Queen in 1851 (Charlotte Gere, Art and Love: The personal jewellery of Queen Victoria, Essays from a Study Day, Pg, 12, 2010). Similarly, as at Osborne, pebbles from Balmoral were set into jewellery (Ibid, Pg 13).

The Garden Cottage was built for the Queen, perhaps to serve a similar purpose as the Queen’s Alcove on the beach at Osborne after Prince Albert’s death, or Queen Victoria’s tea house at Frogmore, in Windsor Great Park. Unlike Queen Victoria’s tea house at Windsor, the Garden Cottage at Balmoral does not have its windows shut or blinds drawn, so visitors today to Balmoral can at least glimpse inside the rooms, which are well preserved. The walls are hung with pictures, such as an engraving of the Queen’s second daughter, Princess Alice, with the Prince Consort’s dog, Eos. Photographs of the Queen and her family survive at the Garden Cottage, such as that taken in 1898. A more well-known picture at Garden Cottage was that in 1895 of Queen Victoria and her devoted ‘Munshi’, or Indian attendant, Abdul Karim, with a dog at her feet, whilst she works on papers. One of the cottages is now available to rent on the estate as holiday accommodation, is named after him – Karim Cottage.

Importantly, it is the present Garden Cottage which dates from 1895, which is why later photographs refer to it as the ‘New Garden Cottage’. The previous Garden Cottage had originally belonged to the gardener at Balmoral and was built of wood, in 1863. The following year, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting convalesced there, from scarlet fever. The original building was demolished in 1894.

This exquisite cottage was a place where the Queen wrote her journal, attended to state correspondence or breakfasted on the veranda. The artist William Simpson visited Balmoral in 1881 before the arrival of Queen Victoria and made sketches of the grounds; the result of one is his watercolour from 1882, ‘The Garden Cottage at Balmoral’, which shows the Queen ‘writing or signing’ (Delia Millar, Queen Victoria’s Life in the Scottish Highlands, Pg 133, 1985). The design of the cottage reflects the strong Scottish influence of surrounding Royal Deeside and the Highland sports of hunting and deer-stalking, with stag’s horns featuring in the roof decoration of the Garden Cottage, just as the stags which had been shot by Prince Albert had their heads mounted on the walls at Balmoral. A year after the Prince’s death, the Queen gave orders that no head should be taken down of any stag that the Prince had personally shot (Ibid, Pg 66). This in itself, reinforced the feeling that Balmoral was “dearest Albert’s own creation” (Hibbert, Pg 180).

The gardens at Balmoral contain many interesting memorials, including a Celtic cross in memory of Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse; an obelisk in memory of Queen Victoria; and statues of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, which appropriately, now eternally face one another. There is also a splendid water garden and the grave of the Queen’s beloved collie dog Noble. The Garden Cottage adds to these memorials, giving us yet another private insight into the life of Queen Victoria.

©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.