The Monarch Abideth: Queen Victoria Comes to Aberdeen

Victoria

Guest blog by Textor

 

As much as Scotland has now a reputation for trashing the status quo in British politics it’s sad but probably true that the Scots since the Union of 1707 have favoured monarchy over republic.   Even the attempt to overthrow the established state in 1715 and 1745 was in large part to do with re-establishing the rule of an ousted royal family, the Stuarts.   The Stuart cause was defeated, extreme violence, cultural suppression and changes in the mode of Highland landholding took the heart out of the clan system.   And irony of ironies by the end of the 18th century many of the members of the formerly oppositional tribes had rallied to the British flag (with the enthusiastic urging at times of their commercially orientated clan betters) with the kilted Highlander becoming an icon for all that was brave and loyal in the post 1746 world and after the Crimean War many a kilted “Jock” proudly wore the mark of valour, a Victoria Cross.

Having leased Balmoral Castle Queen Victoria first journeyed to Aberdeen in 1848. She swiftly adopted not the manners and culture of the locals but what she thought was their mode of dress.   She and her husband Albert adored tartan and when in 1852 they bought Balmoral, their Highland Home, tartan became de-rigueur, found on floors, walls, attendants and covering the Royal torso.   With the political and military threat from the Stuarts dealt with, so the trappings (or what was claimed to be the trappings) of clan society could be brought back to the daylight and used to demonstrate the Royal affinity felt for the Scots’ traditions and their nation, at its most visually preposterous when George IV wore pink tights in 1822.

For Aberdeen Victoria’s Balmoral, the royal connection became an object of local pride and a cultural link in an ideological chain which helped secure many Aberdonians fast to the established order.   Until the 1840s Royal Visits had been few and far between, but now, with Balmoral so close to the city visits became at the very least an annual affair affording subjects frequent opportunity to see the monarch.  

When Victoria first landed at Aberdeen the harbour was in the process of converting from entirely tidal to one with a lock system ensuring some deep water berthing at part of the quayside although other areas at low water still stank and consisted of mud banks, betraying effluent and occasionally bodies.   And it was to this mix of a very insanitary and an increasingly viable commercial harbour that she arrived on the 7 September 1848.   The Aberdeen Journal, a local conservative newspaper, was overjoyed and immediately set about constructing an identity for Victoria and Balmoral, something which the paper hoped would lead Aberdonians to show deep respect and some reverence (being then a Presbyterian country straight worship of the monarch would have been idolatrous) not only for the Queen but for all that she embodied, in other words the British state.   Aberdeen, Victoria and Balmoral all became agents in an ideological threesome.

When it became apparent in August 1842 that the Queen was to tour Scotland Aberdeen Journal assumed that all who bear the name Scotsmen would be naturally aware of their duty and have the correct inclination i.e. fervent loyalty. This for a tour which missed Aberdeen.   Six years later the Queen’s highland jaunt was scheduled to include Aberdeen, the local newspaper was overjoyed: God Bless Her; the new harbour lock almost completed was, if not the very wonder of the world then at least one of the noblest work in the kingdom and would provide an impressive berth for Victoria’s ship.   By the end of August 1848 the Town Council had prepared to meet Her Majesty and the editor of the Journal believed that the visitors would find a city at fever pitch with loyalty, greater than any ever previously seen in the Granite City; sounding like a free market in ideological emotion the editor wrote that citizens will vie with each other in acts of devotion.  

Balmoral

There is a question mark over the extent to which the weekly newspaper directly impacted on the working classes of Aberdeen as it was relatively expensive (4½ old pence) there still being a tax on newspapers, a circumstance introduced specifically to put radical publications out of circulation. The Journal was not directed at working classes but largely at the “opinion forming” men (not women) of the city, primarily businessmen and professionals including clergy, especially men of the Church of Scotland most of whom could be relied on to give a lead or place a restraining hand on all who might be inclined to republicanism.   This was not an academic question as it was a time of revolutions on the Continent and Chartism at home, not to mention unrest in Ireland .   So serious was the latter that Victoria and her advisors decided to cancel a visit to this particular “dominion”- The Times noted that sound-minded and sound-hearted Englishmen would approve cancelation of the Irish tour as it would save the Queen being confronted by wretches and seditious and calumnious cries.   Just in case any wretches might confront the Queen in Aberdeen Special Constables were sworn-in to keep order as the royals processed through the town.

The occasion became an opportunity to show loyalty and make money.   Leading the charge in this was a local shopkeeper, Martin the Hatter on Union Street, a man with a keen sense of advertising who placed many humorous and lengthy ads. in the Journal.   Victoria’s coming visit was too good an opportunity to miss: he called for Three Hurrahs for our Noble Queen for the mother of Britain’s future, and was pleased to report that Scotland has not degenerated from the loyal and patriotic feeling which has ever characterized her as a nation; first extolling patriotism he then went on to the hard sell advising customers it would not do to gaze at the Queen wearing an unseemly old hat better that they should be seen in Martin’s beautiful Satin Hats.

As Martin laid in a stock of silk hats so also the Town Council prepared by commissioning the building of a triumphal arch bearing the Royal Arms and national banners all under the supervision of the City Architect John Smith.   Additionally an immense ampitheatrical stage was erected to hold 2000 spectators anxious to behold the person of their beloved Queen.   The Journal confidently predicted that Aberdonians, a free and enlightened people, would show a deep feeling of attachment . . . towards the person and Government of Her Majesty.   The beauties and tranquillity of Balmoral and Deeside were emphasised and the editor asked that Victoria be allowed to enjoy them undisturbed much as was said to be attainable by her humblest subjects.  How far the lives of Aberdeen ‘s unemployed, not to mention the distressed in Ireland, were tranquil and beautiful is a moot point and not one that concerned the Journal.  

Effusive exclamations of loyalty began to pour from the mouths of the North East’s great and good.   Civic heads, churchmen and local aristocrats met to assert their devotion to Victoria and all that she symbolised stressing that in no part of the Empire could your Majesty be surrounded by more loyal, more attached, and more devoted subjects.  

In the event the royal party arrived twelve hours early on the 7 September, catching the expectant Aberdonians off-guard, many still in their beds, but in an act of gracious condescension the Queen chose to remain on board the royal yacht in order that her subjects were not disappointed.   Victoria and Albert appeared on deck with their interesting children . . . arrayed in the simplest garb . . . the picture presented was one of high moral power and grandeur, producing an ecstasy of feeling which could only vent itself in tears.   The Queen stood on deck as mother of her children and by implication mother of the nation, capable of love, affection and through her government a strong hand when required, as had been applied to Chartists and others.   Hinting at how things had changed since the Stuart’s had sought to impose themselves upon Britons through Divine Right the editor stressed devotion was freely given by rational beings, not because of idle or superstitious regard for rank or outward show, but from a solid conviction of the many privileges and blessings which they enjoy under her sway.   In other words she was monarch under parliament.

Victoria

It was from this visit of September 1848 that the whole sorry mess of Victoria and Deeside emerged.   There’s little doubt that the area gained from the royal connection, especially after the railway was pushed westward 1853-1866 (although Victoria insisted as much as the hoi polloi might love her she did not want them disgorging from trains near Balmoral, hence the railway stopped at Ballater).   She bought Balmoral from the Earl of Fife’s estate in 1852 and finding the property, a pretty little castle, too modest had built the silliness which stands by the banks of the Dee.   Almost 170 years on and Balmoral remain a favourite amongst many Royals and is still a potent part of the ideology of the British state even if today the Monarch must tolerate the great adoring unwashed walking in the castle grounds, through the castle doorway and gawking as she attends services at Crathie Kirk.   Some might see this as a sign of the willingness and ability of the of the Royals to be “just like us”.   But they are not like us, they are part of an institutional framework which helps maintain class divisions and the ruling power of capital.   Reminders of Victoria’s foundational role in this abound in the North East not the least being signage for the Victorian Trail.   In this tale of forging mind-chains the Queen is dead but the Monarch abides.

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