Tomorrow, Friday, 1st August, more records from our Aberdeenshire collection will go online.

This latest release includes the burial record of John Brown (1826-1883), ghillie and later personal servant to Queen Victoria. Brown was brought back to popular attention when he was played by Billy Connolly in a 1997 fictionalized film version of his life.

Queen Victoria on 'Fyvie' with John Brown at Balmoral, by George Washington Wilson, 1863; medium: carte de visite; from the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland
John Brown was born in Crathie, Aberdeenshire in 1826, the son of a tenant farmer on the estate of Colonel Farquharson. He was employed as a ghillie, or outdoor servant, first in Crathie and then at nearby Balmoral Castle, which Victoria and Albert began visiting in 1848. After the death of Albert in 1861, the Queen became notably attached to her servant. She particularly appreciated Brown's loyalty. On 29 February 1872, the Queen presented Brown with the Victoria Devoted Service Medal for "presence of mind and devotion" in recognition of his defending her from an attack by Arthur O'Connor at Buckingham Palace earlier that month.

Sketches of John Brown by the young Queen Victoria
In Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands (1868), Victoria wrote of her servant, "His attention, care, and faithfulness cannot be exceeded, and the state of my health, which of late years has been sorely tried and weakened, renders such qualifications most valuable, and, indeed, most needful in a constant attendant upon all occasions. . . He has all the independence and elevated feelings peculiar to the Highland race, and is singularly straightforward, simple-minded, kind-hearted, and disinterested: always ready to oblige; and of a discretion rarely to be met with."

Members of Victoria's court questioned the relationship, with rumours spreading that a morganatic marriage had taken place and that they had even conceived a child. Still today, it is not known how close the two were. When the Queen died in 1901, she was buried with a lock of John Brown's hair, his photograph, his letters and a ring belonging to his mother.

When Brown died in 1883 at the age of just 56, the Queen was distraught. The Times of 29 March 1883 reported that Brown died "in the Clarence Tower at Windsor Castle, after a short but painful illness resulting from an attack of erysipolas in the face, partly induced, it is believed by the recent severity of the weather."

Although John Brown died at Windsor Castle, his body was returned to his native Aberdeenshire to be laid to rest. An article in The Times of 4 April 1883 noted, "The body, with the mourners, was conveyed by the 5.35pm train to Waterloo, where a special engine was provided to take it on to Euston Station, to meet the down train to Scotland. It is to be taken to Bhaille-na-Coille, the residence of the brother of the deceased, and will be interred at Crathie tomorrow. The outer coffin is of polished oak with brass fittings, and bears the following inscription:-"John Brown. Born December 8 1886. Died March 27, 1883." He is buried in the kirkyard of Crathie, near the banks of the river Dee, across the water from the Balmoral estate.
Statue of John Brown in the grounds of Balmoral

Not long after the funeral, Victoria commissioned a life-size statue of John Brown that still stands in the grounds of Balmoral. The inscription on the statue indicates her true feelings for her late servant and friend:

Friend more than servant.
Loyal. Truthful. Brave.
Selfless than Duty, even to the grave.


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