Queen Victoria Writes of Her Life in the Highlands

From picnics at Glencoe to tasting haggis for the first time – Queen Victoria's best-selling book of her life in the Highlands.

Exquisitely gilded manuscript from the Royal Collection is on display in Scotland for the first time. Compiled from her diaries and dedicated to ‘my loyal highlanders’, Queen Victoria’s book “More leaves from the journal of a life in the Highlands, from 1862 to 1882” provides a lively and intimate glimpse into the royal author’s life at Balmoral – from surviving a carriage accident to finding moments of solace after the death of Prince Albert.

First published in 1884, the book became an instant best seller. The following year a beautiful Persian translation covered in dazzling gold illumination was created for presentation to the Queen by Major-General Sir Robert J Murdoch Smith, director of the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art. Born in Kilmarnock, Smith had worked in Tehran, where he acquired objects for the South Kensington Museum (renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899).

The translation is on display in Scotland at The Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh. It is one of the highlights of the exhibition Gold, which explores the enduring qualities of this rare and precious metal through more than 60 works in the Royal Collection.

Queen Victoria’s book followed her earlier publication covering the period 1848–61. Beginning in August 1862, less than a year after the death of Prince Albert, it not only reflects the depths of the Queen’s sorrow, but also, as the writer herself notes in the preface, how her ‘sad and suffering heart was soothed and cheered by the excursions and incidents it recounts’.

Queen Victoria visited Scotland for the first time in 1842 and fell in love with the Highlands. Prince Albert took on the lease to the Balmoral Estate in 1848, purchased it four years later, and in 1856 the Castle was completed. After Albert’s death, the Queen spent up to four months a year at Balmoral, her ‘dear paradise in the Highlands’, recording her appreciation of the natural beauty of the landscape – ‘this solitude, the romance and wild loveliness of everything here’.

The Queen’s diary entries include numerous anecdotes, from opening the Aberdeen waterworks in 1866 to visiting Mary, Queen of Scots’ apartments at the Palace of Holyroodhouse on the way to Balmoral. During one picnic at Glencoe, she and her companions were spied on with a telescope by ‘impudently inquisitive’ reporters. Visiting Loch Shiel, near where Bonnie Prince Charlie hid as a fugitive, she wrote ‘What a scene it must have been in 1745! And here was I, the descendent of the Stuarts and of the very king whom Prince Charles sought to overthrow, sitting and walking about quite privately and peaceably’.

In 1865 she travelled to Dunkeld to stay with the Dowager Duchess of Atholl, who had ‘a very good cook, a Scotchwoman’, and on 12 October was served ‘several Scotch dishes, two soups and the celebrated haggis which I tried last night and really liked very much. The Duchess was delighted at my taking it’.
In 1867 the Queen writes of celebrating Halloween at Balmoral with a torch-lit procession of estate keepers and their families. Her daughter Princess Louise was given a torch to hold and walked ‘by the side of the carriage…looking like one of the witches in Macbeth’. Afterwards, a bonfire was made from the torches, and the royal party danced reels while the pipes were played. The Queen took a keen interest in the estate, writing of her visit in October 1868 to the residence of William Brown, the farmer, to watch the process of ‘juicing the sheep’, a technique of preserving wool. Later that week she attended a christening at the house of John Thomson, the wood forester. The ceremony was held in their ‘little sitting room’, and the baby girl was baptized ‘Victoria’. The Queen gave a silver mug to the father and wrote that the service ‘was all so nicely done, so simply, and with such dignity’.

Among the more dramatic incidents in the book is the Queen’s account of a carriage accident on the way back from Alltnaguibhsaich in 1863, when the vehicle overturned and she fell facedown on the ground. She recalls, ‘I had time to reflect on whether we should be killed or not, and thought there were still things I had not settled and wanted to do’. She remarked to her daughter Princess Alice, who was also in the carriage, that it was terrible not to be able to tell what happened to ‘my dearest Albert’.

Exhibition curator Lauren Porter of Royal Collection Trust, said, ‘This striking translation of an extremely popular 19th-century title contains some beautiful examples of calligraphy and highly intricate gilding. Given Queen Victoria’s enduring relationship with Scotland, it is fitting that the book should be displayed at The Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh.’  More information at www.royalcollection.org.uk

[Image credit: Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015]