SUPPORT OUR JOURNALISM: Please considering donating to keep our website running and free for all - thank you!


From Scotland with love: Queen Victoria

By Alexander Bassano -, Public Domain

Queen Victoria’s visited Balmoral in her beloved Scottish Highlands in the late autumn of 1900. The Queen could not know it, but it was the last time that she would see the new castle which Prince Albert had erected in her words as his ‘own work… as at Osborne’ and which had become a box of intensely personal memories. So deeply did the Queen feel her first visit to Balmoral after Prince Albert’s death in May 1862 (in pouring rain) that she wrote with painful dread to her eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia of the strange reality of everything: ‘Oh! Darling child… the stag’s heads – the rooms – blessed, darling Papa’s room – then his coats – his caps – kilts – all, all convulsed my poor shattered frame!’ (cit., Delia Millar, Queen Victoria’s Life in the Scottish Highlands, 101). Even the Queen’s lonely pursuit of spinning wool, which later became synonymous with her early widowhood, had been a vigorously traditional Highland activity (Ibid, 76). Now her widowhood of waiting was drawing to an end, forty years later, with the Queen’s approaching death.

I want to explore how in subtle ways, Scotland was with Queen Victoria not only until the very end – but even beyond. Poignantly, it was Marie Mallet, one of the Queen’s Extra Women of the Bedchamber, who recorded Queen Victoria commenting towards the end of her life, perhaps valuing it as all the more precious precisely because it was nearer its venerable conclusion: ‘She said to me, “After the Prince Consort’s death I wished to die, but now I wish to live”…’ (cit., Ibid, 141).

The Queen’s unknowing leave-taking of Scotland took place gradually, over these last days at Balmoral. Touchingly, she was still referring to ‘tea’ – although by now, it consisted only of arrowroot and milk (Ibid, 142) – drinking it at her secluded Highland retreat of Alt-na-giubhsaich. Queen Victoria’s last day included luncheon in Prince Albert’s rooms with her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice and her Battenberg children. She left Balmoral fittingly, with the weather ‘wretchedly gloomy & dark’ (cit., Ibid, 142) whilst with her, she had a wreath to take back to Windsor, to place on the tomb of the Prince Consort at Frogmore (Ibid, 142); possibly it also contained the Balmoral heather she loved so much. Perhaps there may have been a presentiment, within the sentimental.

The Scotland which she came to love predated her love for Balmoral. Queen Victoria first visited the country with Prince Albert in 1842, enjoying not only its oatmeal porridge but its spectacular fresh landscapes, which captivated them both and inspired a rich new adoption of ideas. Later, they took on Highland life in the fullness of its tastes and traditions, something which was recorded in a wealth of artwork, not least in the Queen’s watercolours. The Queen not only acquired certain Scottish expressions but even furnished many of her private rooms predictably, with tartan.

Scotland had been present from the very beginning, though Queen Victoria would not have remembered it. An enchanting early watercolour of Princess Victoria by Paul Johann Georg Fischer in 1819 is thought to have been prepared as a study for the picture intended for the birthday of her father, the Duke of Kent on 2 November 1819. Tellingly, the six-month-old Princess Victoria wears a ‘Scotch bonnet’; fragments of the ribbons she wore on the frock in this portrait, similarly survive in the collection. A velvet dress in the Royal Collection dating 1835-7 was woven in the style of tartan fabric but in itself is not the tartan of any actual Scottish clan (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 92).

Balmoral and the Highlands became celebrated in the Queen’s personal jewellery, which she prized as particularly precious gifts. One such souvenir was the holly brooch set with stag’s teeth and a Royal Stuart tartan ribbon by R & S. Garrard & Co, which Prince Albert gave to her for her birthday in 1851 (Charlotte Gere, Love and art: Queen Victoria’s personal jewellery, 12); on it was engraved the inscription: ‘Dee Sep. 11. 1850 from Albert May 24 1851’ (cit., Ibid, 12). Ordinary pebbles picked up at Balmoral were polished and set into commemorative jewellery as befitted a growing trend, in the ornamental German fashion. Indeed, so deeply did she prize the pearl and enamelled gold ring brooch set with a cairngorm picked by Prince Albert in 1848 that the Queen numbered it amongst those particular pieces of jewellery which was willed to the Crown on her death (Ibid, 13-14). Another necklace with pendants of stag’s teeth, had its clasp engraved: ‘All/shot by/Albert’ (cit., Ibid, 14). In 1863, Queen Victoria made a deliberate pilgrimage to the spot near Lochnagar where Prince Albert had shot his last stag and made a sketch: ‘My Angel’s Stone – On the Meikle Pap Oct 17 1863’. 

The Queen’s trusted doctor, Sir James Reid was with her at Osborne when she died, so presumably, the Queen would have had the comfort of a Scottish voice at her side, in between her lingering states of consciousness. After her death, the Prince of Wales spoke a moving sentence of gratitude for Reid’s devoted service: ‘You are an honest straightforward Scotchman… I shall never forget all you did for the Queen’ (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 494). Significantly, the Queen instructed amongst the many sentimental items to be put in her coffin ‘some of which none of her family were to see’ (cit., Hibbert, 497), a photograph of her devoted Highland servant, John Brown, which she ordered to be placed in her left and, with a lock of his hair. These were both tactfully hidden inside a silken case, the handiwork of the Queen’s late wardrobe maid Annie MacDonald, wrapped in tissue paper. Afterwards, the Queen’s left hand was covered with Queen Alexandra’s flowers (Kate Hubbard, Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household, 360).

These most personal of orders were contained within an envelope carefully labelled ‘Instructions for my Dressers to be opened directly after my death and to be always taken about and kept by the one who may be travelling with me’. It was dated 9 December 1897. I have checked the Queen’s journal entry for this day and found that the Queen spent this date at Windsor Castle when she wrote these orders. There is no mention in the entry of the writing of these instructions.

These guarded instructions detailed a whole clutter of objects which in many ways replicate in miniature, the Queen’s private rooms at Osborne, Windsor and Balmoral, stuffed with sentimental pieces, photographs, frames, presents – her life’s collection. These objects of deep emotional significance would be placed inside her charcoal-lined coffin, her great wooden suitcase into the beyond. These intensely personal pieces also included a handkerchief of her Highland servant, John Brown and extraordinarily – for a Queen and Empress – the plain gold wedding ring which was once owned by John Brown’s Scottish mother.

Also put into the Queen’s coffin was a simple sprig of Balmoral heather (Hubbard, 359), which Sir James Reid covered with a quilted cushion – made especially to fit the coffin – to preserve the Queen’s privacy in death. Sir James later recorded that these instructed items placed with the Queen’s body were ‘all souvenirs from her life’ (cit., Staniland, 172). ). A charming watercolour of a branch of pink Balmoral heather by Emily M Jackson (1870) can be seen today, somewhat endearingly, hanging in Queen Victoria’s lift corridor at Osborne.

After the purchase of Balmoral, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had built a cairn at Craig Gowan and celebrated their new Highland home fittingly, to the sound of bagpipes. The Queen visited the cairn on Prince Albert’s birthday in 1862 – after his death – Craig Gowan being noted its beautiful heather. Queen Victoria later gave a set of Scottish bagpipes to her beloved son-in-law, Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse, the widower of her second daughter, Princess Alice, for Christmas 1882 (ed. Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, 42).

Scotland was at her funeral, in the form of her Highland ghillies, as the Queen’s German grandson, Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse, wrote in his private memoirs: ‘[The moment] when her coffin was lowered in the mausoleum at Frogmore, remains unforgettable to me… I remained a moment there alone. When I looked about me, there were kneeling near me all of her ghillies [Highland servants] from Scotland, all strong, sturdy men, who were weeping there uncontrollably like sons for their mother…’ (cit., Ernst Ludwig, Grossherzog von Hessen und bei Rhein, Erinnertes, 84). For her funeral, the Funeral March by Handel was substituted as per the Queen’s instructions, for music by Chopin and Beethoven and importantly, Highland dirges (Longford, 615).

Movingly, Queen Victoria had seen on her last visit to Balmoral in 1900, the great quarry at Aberdeen, where huge blocks of granite lay waiting to be transported to Coburg, for the tomb of her second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and later Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who had died that same year. The elderly Queen wrote sadly: ‘I thought he would have liked the idea, of its coming from Balmoral itself, but it gave me quite a turn seeing it, & knowing what use it was going to be put to’ (cit., Millar, 142).

It would also be to someone in Scotland, Dr Story, Principal at the University of Glasgow, that the Queen’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice would express her sense of profound grief at her mother’s death: ‘It is indeed a calamity that has fallen on the whole Empire, and to us her Children, you may imagine what the grief is. I, who had hardly ever been separated from my dear Mother, can hardly realize what life will be like without her, who was the centre of everything’ (cit., Matthew Dennison, The Last Princess, 213).

Now symbolically, the Queen would be laid to rest inside something Scottish, similarly from a Highland quarry. The Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, where her body was placed finally next to that of Prince Albert who had predeceased her by some forty years, included in the material used for its walls, granite from Aberdeen and Mull (Royal Collection Enterprises, Frogmore House and the Royal Mausoleum, 41).

However, there was more. The sarcophagus or tomb chest was hewn from a flawless block of grey Aberdeen granite from the quarries at Cairngall (Ibid, 43), a granite described in the Statistical Account for Scotland 1791-99 as being ‘very beautiful’. Three attempts were made before this one was successfully carved out and it is purportedly the largest of its kind ever to have been hewn for such a use (Ibid, 43).

It was an appropriate Scotch bed for the Queen’s final sleep. Upon this sarcophagus, the effigies of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria lie still, a more sublime rendering of their marriage bed, staring into the beyond. Touchingly though, the head of Queen Victoria’s effigy is half-turned towards that of Prince Albert, as if it somehow suggesting that he died before she did. As in life, she is leaning, straining after the beloved husband that she mourned for half of her life.

The fact that their sarcophagus was quarried in Scotland is an appropriate choice for a royal couple who loved that country so much, becoming a little more Scotch with every visit. Appropriately for the Queen, parts of Eastern Central Scotland still celebrate Victoria Day, the last Monday before or on 24 May, Queen Victoria’s birthday.

Scotland was indeed with them, in the end.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer, poet and researcher. Her subject area is royal studies, specializing in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna and also researches and writes about Queen Victoria. She has spent nearly ten years conducting original research on historic royalty and speaks as an independent scholar on TV and radio, including the BBC. Her research interests include royal correspondence and royal weddings, speaking on historic royal weddings at Windsor on BBC Radio Berkshire prior to the marriage of TRH The Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2018.