Queen Victoria, a Different Perspective

Scone's Scottish and Celtic Internet Book

Scottish History and Culture

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"Queen Victoria Part One and Two"

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Scottish Highlands and Islands Partnership

"another page in my book"

Queen Victoria - Part One

The Celtic revival owes much to Queen Victoria's devotion to the Highlands. 'At a quarter past seven o'clock', the Queen recorded in her 'Journal of Our Life in the Highlands' in the autumn of 1855, 'we all arrived at Balmoral...the new house looks beautiful...an old shoe was trown after us into the house for good luck when we entered the hall. The house is charming, the rooms delightful, the furniture, papers, everything perfection.' It was the first time that she had seen the castle since the new alterations had taken place and from the first she delighted in all she saw. 'This dear Paradise' is what it became to her then, and it remained so ever afterwards.

It was in 1842 that the Queen and Prince Albert had paid their first visit to Scotland. They were entertained for some days by Lord Breadalbane in Perthshire, and here for the first time they discovered the Highlands. To the Queen, 'the coup d'oeil was indescribable' while the Prince Consort found it put him very much in mind of Switzerland. Five years later they were back, and this time, using the Royal Yacht, they explored all the west coast as far north as the Hebrides. It rained with monotonous persistance throughout the visit, and as a result of this, the half-formed plan to buy a house somewhere in the west Highlands was abandoned and instead the Queen's thoughts turned to Deeside, of which she had heard good reports. In 1848 Balmoral, a modern castle built around the nucleus of a much older house, was leased to the Royal family for the first time.

The property had belonged in Jacobite times to the Farquharsons, one of whom, 'Balmoral the Brave', had taken part in both the '15 and the 1745. (His property was purchased by royalty just 102 years after Culloden.) At an earlier date the Braes of Mar, lying a little to the west of Balmoral, were one of the favourite hunting grounds of the Scottish Kings, and when Queen Mary 'took the sport of hunting the deer in the forest of Mar and Atholl', it is recorded that she and her party accounted for three hundred and fifty-six deer, five wolves and some roe.(Excessive - no?) Although she enjoyed her visit to the Highlands, even declaring that it made her long to have been born a man, 'to know what life it was to lie all night in the fields, or to walk in the causeway with a jack and knapscalle (steel cap), a Glasgow buckler and a broad sword', Queen Mary showed no desire to live there permanently. Falkland and Holyrood were the palaces of sixteenth-century Scotland, and Linlithgow, where she herself was born. It was not until Queen Victoria came to live at Balmoral that any Scottish sovereign had entertained the notion of acquiring a permanent seat in the Highlands. [It is at this point, this author, sees a pattern. Victoria herself loved the Highlands and Albert loved the lands in the Highlands. Queen Victoria, was much influenced by the men in her life, and you will see later that she took on the opinions, likes and dislikes of the men who she admired. Albert love the Highlands, thus Victoria loved the Highlands. Later after his death, she became close friends with the head of the anti-Tory forces and left the cabinet minister do what he proposed to her was best. She lost her interest in the Highlands and enjoyed the Queenly duties, to a point, then turned them over to her trusted men friends. She did not love the everyday duties of the Queen and delegated her work to these men. ]

When the property became hers, four years after it had first been leased to the Royal family, a decision was made to replace the old buildings, with something more in keeping with contemporary taste. The new castle was built to the design of a local architect, but as the Prince Consort's wishes were consulted at every step, to the Queen it was his creation, and his alone. When at last it was finished no-one could doubt that the Celtic revival had come to stay. Writing soon after to her sister, Lady Augusta Stanley, who was then Lady-in-Waiting to the Duchess of Kent, described in some detail the furnishings of the new house. 'The general wood-work is light coloured maple and birch chiefly, with locks and hinges silvered. In addition, there are beautiful things, chandeliers of Parian,..... Highlanders, (beautifully designed figures) holding the light.... appropriate trophies, and table ornaments in the same style.'

The tartan motif was everywhere repeated. There were carpets in Royal Stewart as well as in the hunting sett. 'The curtains of the same Dress Stewart and a few chintz with a thistle pattern, the chairs and sofas in the drawing-room Dress Stewart poplin. All highly characteristic, but not all equally 'flatteuse' to the eye.' Even the draperies in the carriages were of Royal Stewart material, and in addition to the old tartans, two new ones were invented; the Victoria, which we owe to the Queen, and the better known Balmoral, of which the Prince Consort was the designer.

Once settled in Aberdeenshire, Queen Victoria allowed full rein to her interest in everything pertaining to Highland life. She had always enjoyed dancing, and at Balmoral everybody was encouraged to take part in the reels and country dances that she herself loved to see performed. Even in England the habit persisted, and when balls were given at Windsor or in London, it was not only mazurkhas and gavottes that were seen, but Scottish dances, whose unfamiliar patterns must have been a source of constant anxiety to the foreign diplomats. Dancing was not the only form of exercise the Queen favoured. One of the most surprising things about the Victorians was the pleasure they took in walking, and to this rule she was not the exception. Moreover, she enjoyed every kind of expedition, and would travel over rough tracks and in all weathers with little or no regard for time or comfort. The distances covered seem by modern standards enormous -- as much as sixty miles sometimes in a single day. Even allowing for the fact that ponies and carriages were used for the longer journeys, it must still have required considerable stamina to embark on them at all.

Queen Victoria - Part Two

After Queen Victoria died, a reaction of the most violent kind has set in against all that is represented by the dread word 'Balmorality'. For years comic ghillies, and even more comic lairds, kilts, whisky and Scottish Baronial architecture have provided material for innumerable jibes. Nor is it hard to see why this should be so. The Victorians, among other qualities, were possessed of an overwhelming desire to transform and improve almost everything on which they laid their hands. And as there was no lack of money in the latter half of the ninteenth century, this instinct was given full play. In Scotland the result, aesthetically speaking, was calamitous. A country that had always been very poor found itself suddenly rich, and at a time when ostentation was a sin very easily forgiven. What followed was an orgy of destruction affecting all branches of the arts, but architecture perhaps the most. We owe to the Victorians that in the whole city of Glasgow there are now only five buildings more than three hundred years old, the Cathedral being one of them, while in Edinburgh the banality of Princes Street has to stand comparison with the inspiration of the Adam brothers on the one hand, and the roistering panache of the Old Town on the other. The Highlands were particularly vunerable, as they were almost entirely undeveloped, and obviously ripe for improvement. When it was known that the Queen had bought a property in the north, their popularity was assured. Although Balmoralality has been blamed for all the excesses committed then an later, in its name, the criticism is to a large extent unjustified. The pepper-pot castle, tartan carpets, and romantic attachment to Jacobitism, all these elements, it is true, were present at Balmoral, but there was every reason why they should be, as they were part of a fashion to which most of Scotland already subscribed. If Queen Victoria had never bought a house in the Highlands it would have done nothing to check the popularity of songs such as 'The Bonny Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond and there would still, without doubt, be tartan souvenirs in all the shops.

In one way the Celtic Revival conferred a benefit on Scotland, for in an age of violent change, it strengthened the feeling of continuity with the past. Without the great interest of the ninteenth century, tartan, for one thing, would probably have ceased to be worn altogether, and the fate of the traditional Highland trews (these were mostly worn by Lowlanders) would also have overtaken the kilt. {Writers note: Trews were pants with very tightly fitted leg and made in tartans, which were quite outlandish looking, this writer doubts that trews would have overtaken the kilt.} As it is, tartan continues to be an acceptable form of modern dress, and such is the hold it has on the imagination that whenever some new use is found for it, within a very short space of time this will have grown into a tradition, too sacred to touch. Tartan sashes are are a case in point. Until the present century, it was unknown for the ladies at Highland balls to wear tartan, other than in the form of a dress, or a 'screen' (shawl) draped round the shoulders. Then of a sudden a new fashion prevailed and everyone who could lay claim to a tartan started to wear it in the form of a long sash, passed over the shoulder and secured with a brooch. Today at all the Highland meetings, as the annual subscription balls at Inverness, Oban and in other places are called, nearly all the women wear them and it is an unwritten law that they must all be worn over the left shoulder, and never on the right. For men the sartorial rules are less inflexible and it is no uncommon sight to see together on the same ballroom floor a dancer in the full Panoply of the eighteenth century, with kilt and jacket in two different tartans; another wearing a plain velvet doublet with lace jabot and cuffs; and a third exhibiting the most modern version of all, a short black coat and bow tie. Plaids, for evening use, are now virtually unknown, though they were once made in fine silk for great occasions. The Sobieski Stewarts claimed to have seen one at Cluny that had been especially woven in Spain for one of the chiefs. It was said of them, as it is of Kashmir shawls, that they could be pulled without difficulty through a wedding ring. {Writers note: The Sobieski Stewarts were proven to be imposters and all their tartan information to be a vision of their imagination. Their views can pertty much be discounted, but this author chose to leave this information in her papers}.

It has now become the fashion for dress tartans to be worn in the evening, while the hunting version of the sett is reserved for more humdrum occasions. {I like my Gunn hunting tartan very much and wear it evening if I want to--Writers note}. While no one would wish to quarrel with this, it ought to be remembered that the distinction is of quite recent origin, and binding on no one. In any case, not all clans and families posses two tartans, or even one. For everyday wear the kilt, whether it be made of dress or of hunting tartan, can boast of great practical advantages, without which, indeed, it would hardly have survived so long. It does not cling to he legs when wet, as trousers do, nor is it so hot for walking. And at all times the thick pleates at the back are a protection against both wind and rain. Women in kilts are not encouraged, perhaps rightly so, as it is not a garmet calculated to flatter the female form. Until recently the girl dancers who competed at the various Highand games were allowed to dress in the same clothes as the boys, and it was a very melancholy spectacle to see such a jumble of buckles, tartan, velvet and lace. The organizers themselves now seem to have reached the same conclusion, and under the new rules it is no longer possible for competitiors to appear looking like characters out of the pantomime. [ Writer's note: This Highlander lassie can concure that the uniformity of dress was put in place when the Scottish Highland Board Dancers and Teachers, was formed in 1962; as I am a member dancer and teacher. Uniformity of dress was not the only thing achieved. There were numerous versions to the dances of the Highland Fling, Sword Dance, Sean Trews, etc. and all were made uniform dance steps at that same time. The dance steps are complicated Scottish step dances and French ballet steps and leaps and are quite difficult to manuver ].

One question about tartan alone remains to be answered, and it is the one most frequently asked; namely, who is entitled to wear it. Strictly speaking, only those whose families possess tartans of their own cllan, can claim historically that they have a right to assume them. But as this rule is broken by the vast majority of tartan sellers and users, and gives great offense to those who base their claims on a Scottish grandmother, their is no likelihood of its being generally accepted. Looking back on the history of tartan, it is hard to explain how anything genuine could have survived the shoddy commercilization to which it has been subjected. And yet when all has been said, in spite of the vulgarity and the sticky sentiment, there still lurks behind the garish shop window, a quality heroic and irrational, of which tartan is to some degree emblematic, and it is to this indefinable quality, the saving virtue of the Scottish, that this paper is dedicated.

Writers note: In the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other Scots around the world, Scots sometimes take great delight in wearing the tartan of their grandmothers, if they want to. They are not bound by the stuffy rules of the one researched author. or the Lord Lyons Office, and most of them express theirselves by wearing their, Modern, Ancient or Hunting (weathered) tartans whenever they please. It is just the Free Spirit in the Celts and Norsemen who make up most of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. They realize that most of southern Scotland never owned or wore a tartan until Queen Victoria made it a necessary item to be worn at ther parties and dances or any occasion she demanded.

Researched and partially written by:
Nancy MacCorkill, F.S.A. Scot.
Clans Gunn, MacLeods of Lewis and Keith
Author, Poet,
Historian of the Ancient Clans of Scotland

Sources: Innes - Highland Clans,
Clans and Tartans,
Tartans and Clans, C. Heskeith
Victoria's own writings,
Journal of "Our Life in the Highlands",
'Tartans', as well as the author's own knowledge and research.
Lord Lyons Office, Agent of the Queen Elizabeth


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