Queen Elizabeth will be 90 in 2016, and one of the things that seems to keep her rolling – indeed, she visibly brightens at the prospect – is spending time in Scotland. She loves her Scottish estate at Balmoral where she is now, as she is every year in August and September. But this year being in Scotland presents one of the trickiest problems of her reign. On September 18 the Scots will vote on whether or not to remain in the United Kingdom.
How the Queen feels about this remains one of the many secrets that she conceals behind her well-practiced inscrutability. She knows that if the vote goes in favor of an independent Scotland she won’t be banished from the land – the nationalists have said they want their country to remain a monarchy for as long as the people wish, and she would remain head of state, as she is still, at least nominally, in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
It’s a fair bet, though, that the Queen doesn’t want to see her kingdom dismembered. She herself represents a congenial mingling of English and Scottish blood. Her mother was the daughter of a Scottish noble, Lord Glamis, descended from one of the royal houses of Scotland. In fact, as Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon the Queen’s mother was the first woman to marry into the royal family who wasn’t from one of the numerous and incestuous branches of the European royal tree.
The spell of Scotland and of Balmoral on the royal family began with Queen Victoria. It had a lot to do with prevailing medical opinion that bracing climates were essential to good health. Victoria’s personal physician was a Scot who believed that there was no tonic to equal the air of the Scottish Highlands, possibly reinforced by “a wee dram” of Scottish whisky.
Thus encouraged, in 1847 Victoria bought Balmoral, which she described as “a pretty little castle” with 17,400 acres. Scotland soon worked its magic: “All seemed to breed freedom and peace,” the Queen wrote of her estate, and it was “wonderful not seeing a single human being, not hearing a sound excepting that of the wind, or the call of the blackcock or grouse.”
Two years later Victoria had the house demolished and, after adding another 6,000 acres, in its place built the house that the present Queen so adores. It was designed, with help from an architect and builder, by her consort Prince Albert. Sniffy visitors from London dismissed it for its cascade of Scottish kitsch: tartan drapes, tartan chair covers, tartan wallpaper and tartan carpets. But this was to Victoria’s taste and heart -- her “dearest Albert’s own creation.”
Here we approach, ahem, delicate ground. Albert was a serious polymath of his day, engaged in the promotion of British technical innovation and industry, as well as practicing architecture and landscaping. He was also a terrific stud. Between 1840 and 1851 Victoria had produced seven of the nine children she would bear. A common double entendre circulating at the time was to praise the Prince’s “great industry.”
Victoria’s own libido was, it turns out, just as vigorous. Obviously the idea of the randy Queen ran counter to the supposed moral constraints of the age named after her, and it’s only recently, thanks to newly discovered letters (one for example referring to “heavenly lovemaking”) that Victoria’s secret has finally been documented. There is also a ravishing portrait of the young Victoria in 1843, given to her by Albert, and later buried in the extensive royal art collection, showing her almost post-orgasmic, bare-shouldered, silken haired and with bedroom eyes, that was discovered and disclosed in 2011 by the BBC.
Now, diligent research has more or less completed the counter-intuitive picture of Victoria as a spirited lover by confirming that she had Albert equip their bedroom door with a lock to prevent the unwanted approach of children. (Victoria was a distant mother.)
Balmoral provided both a level of privacy unavailable at her other residences and a climate that clearly acted as a super stimulant. Scotland for her must have been the location of many treasured moments of intimacy. It also became the place that initiated an extraordinary sexual scandal surrounding the widowed Victoria, the truth of which would have to be teased out from more than a century of officially authorized hagiography and concealment.
Victoria’s grief at the premature death of Albert from typhoid in 1861 was as intense as her passion for him when alive – she became the epitome of the inconsolable widow perpetually in black and invariably sour in temperament. That is, until a rough-tongued Scotsman rekindled the flame.
John Brown began working at Balmoral as a stableboy. He was almost a caricature of the Scottish virtues: iron in frame, unflinching in gaze and totally manned-up by a warrior’s beard. Alone among the servants he had no time for sycophancy or subservience. Albert valued these impertinent qualities and trusted Brown to be the Queen’s vigilant protector – and she liked the way he performed, in her own words, “the offices of groom, footman, page and maid, I might almost say, as he is so handy about cloaks and shawls.”
By the late 1860s Brown’s personal care of the widow was a source of fevered gossip. Members of the royal household referred to him as “the Queen’s stallion.” Victoria took increasingly prolonged absences at Balmoral. Frequently, Brown would go with her from the sprawling main house to a small house in the hills. Although her ladies-in-waiting went too, they were confined to a separate corner of the house while Brown had a bedroom next to the Queen’s.
At Buckingham Palace the Queen’s attachment to Brown was a problem that her courtiers were ill-equipped to manage. To them, Her Imperial Majesty and Queen Empress was behaving in a manner unbecoming. The courtiers were an effete and in some cases epicene crew. Their advice was frequently ignored. The Queen trusted Brown, not them. When she died at the age of 81 in January 1901, a photograph of Brown, together with a lock of his hair, was – on her instructions – placed in her left hand as she lay in her coffin.
But then the courtiers and her son Edward, the new King Edward VIII (himself a notoriously debauched figure), began cleaning up. Some of Victoria’s journals were burned. Her letters were combed and purged. Twenty years later a cache of more than 300 letters Victoria wrote about Brown to one of her doctors at Balmoral, many of them said to be “most compromising” by someone who read them, was discovered and bought by the royal family, and never seen again.
But as the grip of Victorian censorship and hypocrisy lessened and faded, modern scholars were able more fully to reconstruct the picture of Victoria’s Scottish idyll. Only the unworldly could still think this was, at its worst, only an unseemly platonic relationship rather than a serious bonding. In 1997 the movie Mrs Brown, in which Judi Dench plays a peppery Victoria and Billy Connolly delivers a tour de force as Brown, left little ambiguity in its picture of this amazing ménage.
Of course, the reason why the idea of a highly sexed woman was more disturbing to the Victorian mind than a healthy male libido had everything to do with the sham of upper class respectability deliberately nurtured by the Queen, her court, aristocrats and politicians, just as they believed the idea of women having the vote or having any kind of real equality was beyond the pale. And it took a long while – several generations -- to see that the concealment of Victoria’s healthy sex drive was as out-dated as all the other attitudes toward women.
These days Balmoral is no longer a remote hideaway. It has become a highly popular part of the tartan travel industry, open to visitors except for when the Queen is there, and replete with gift shop and café (on the menu, venison or steak burgers and haggis served with neeps and tatties – translation: sheep’s heart, liver and lungs minced, served with potatoes and turnips).
The Queen’s mother, beloved as the Queen Mum, was the one with the real Scottish bloodline, and in Glamis Castle a real castle to go with it. Scotland’s history is as thick with ascending and descending monarchs as it with castles, more than 2,000 of them by one count – and the castles indicate what a bloody landscape this was as control of it was contested for centuries. And that’s before the English appeared seeking to impose their rule.
On the surface, today’s case for independence is being argued for practical reasons, the freedom to remove the making of political, economic and social policy from London. Underneath, however, lies the permanently molten lava of Scottish memory and its sense of English repression.
Like many founding legends, the Scottish version is larded with myth. It is fact that at the battle of Bannockburn, near Stirling Castle in central Scotland, on June 24, 1314, Robert Bruce defeated the English army of Edward II. What is less trumpeted is that in order to get to lead that Scottish army Bruce had first to eliminate a more legitimate candidate for the Scottish throne, Sir John Cromyn of Badenoch. This he did by murdering Cromyn on the high altar of a church.
Bruce was smart enough to present himself as the man who had liberated Scotland from an English tyrant, while actually snatching for himself the Scottish throne at the end of a brutal six-year civil war.
Six years later Bruce further inflated the nobility of his mission in a document that not only became the bedrock of Scotland’s independence but also iconic to freedom fighters through the ages, including Thomas Jefferson; the Declaration of Arbroath. Branded a usurper, Bruce had been excommunicated by the Vatican. The Declaration was an appeal to the Pope to have Bruce restored to Christian honor (and to ensure his passage to heaven). But it was couched in the language of selfless service: “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
The Scottish separatists are keen to invoke that sentiment today, proving that what finally matters is the power of the belief, not the actual facts on the ground.
However, as a completely disinterested observer, it is not a freedom manifesto that makes my own blood race at the mention of Arbroath. As well as being the source of the eponymous Declaration, this small port city is also the source of a very singular form of fish, the Arbroath Smokie. This can easily be mistaken for a kipper, the smoked herring that is on the breakfast menus of many British hotels. To connoisseurs of smoked fish such confusion would be a travesty. The Arbroath Smokie is a filleted haddock, split down the middle butterfly-style, salted and then smoked in a unique way in a barrel.
Scotland has an increasing stock of authentic local delights for the mouth – two others that I greatly value: the tart cheddar from the Isle of Mull and the finest single malt whisky made on the distant isle of Orkney, Scapa. But it is the Arbroath Smokey, gently simmered for five minutes in water in a shallow pan, with thin slices of lemon, and then daubed with some butter, that is to me the purest evocation of Scottish exceptionalism. An acquired taste, certainly, but once acquired never regretted.