Situated between Abergeldie and Balmoral is a house and little shop which claims a charming association with Queen Victoria’s grandchildren. The shop was originally owned by Mr and Mrs Symon, who were related to Queen Victoria’s devoted Highland servant John Brown and a house that Brown once occupied on the Estate is bypassed on the way to the shop. Mr and Mrs Symon were photographed by George Washington Wilson in the mid-1860s, and their photographs survive in one of the albums belonging to Princess Helena, the third daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Wilson was commissioned in the early 1860s to photograph the families on the Balmoral estate. Mrs Symon’s photograph shows her in a dark gown with a black bonnet trimmed with lace. To visit this shop today (still functioning as a small local store) is to tread in the steps of many of Queen Victoria’s family with their pocket money across decades of regal childhood.
There is something touching about the stories of these royal children trotting down the paths at Balmoral to Mrs Symon’s shop, which sold sweets in Queen Victoria’s reign (Greg King, The Last Empress, 23). According to her biographer Baroness Buxhoeveden, the last Tsarina of Russia Alexandra Feodorovna, used to visit the shops on the Balmoral estate as a child, together with her cousins the Waleses and as Princess of Hesse. The little shop seems to have been a favourite and was known to the Queen’s grandchildren simply as ‘the merchants’. Mrs Symon’s shop – according to Buxhoeveden – sold everything which might appeal to the royal children as small gifts; in addition to sweets, their wares included notepaper. By this time, Mrs Symon appears to have been running the small shop with her sister. It is to Buxhoeveden that we owe the delightful story that the future Tsarina of Russia was taught how to make scones in Mrs Symon’s shop. If true, this was something which was never forgotten and apparently recounted much later to the Tsarina’s own daughters, the four Grand Duchesses, in far-distant Russia (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, pp. 7-8). Like much of Buxhoeveden’s memories, she does not tell us exactly when and how these stories were recounted, yet we must remember that she knew the Tsarina personally and much was apparently told to her.
Queen Victoria apparently also visited the shop, often referring to the little collection of buildings that made up the houses and shops on the estate as its own village. Unsurprisingly, the widowed Queen Victoria noted the death of Mr John Symon in her journal on 25 July 1876 and went on to write with sympathy of Mrs Symon without her husband. This might also explain why Buxhoeveden wrote that the future Tsarina was taught by Mrs Symon and her sister, as Princess Alix was born in 1872 and her earliest visits to Balmoral would have meant she only saw Mrs Symon as a widow. The Queen’s journal shows that she continued to call on Mrs Symon when she was at Balmoral even as late as the 1890s. At Osborne in January 1898, she recorded the death of Mrs Symon with genuine sadness, noting typically how many years she had known her and the nature of their connection. It is this journal entry which in fact tells us that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had built the house and shop that belonged to Mr and Mrs Symon. As Tsarina, Alexandra apparently revisited the little shop during the Russian imperial visit to Balmoral in 1896, a touching fact, if so (Annie Gray, The Greedy Queen, 283).
Characteristically for Queen Victoria, who expressed a warm interest in the families of her faithful retainers as well as all those who lived on the royal estates, the Symon family were also photographed and the subject of the artwork, even by the Queen. The girls Victoria-Alice and Mary Symon (sometimes spelt Symons) were photographed at Balmoral; Queen Victoria twice sketched Mary Symon and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Stewart and the artist Carl Haag painted them. The Queen considered them ‘dear little lassies’ in true Scottish tongue and photographs of Mary Symon exist in the Royal Collection showing her as a young woman in the 1870s.
There is something about the little shop near Balmoral not unlike the Swiss Cottage at Osborne, with its kitchen gardens for the royal children and model shop of Spratt the grocer, which was shown to Alfred, Lord Tennyson and his children in 1863 (ed. Michael Turner, Osborne House, 28).
When I visited the shop in 2004, I was pleased to note that like any local store, it still sold sweets.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019