Book Reviews

Ian Mitchell, On the trail of Queen Victoria in the Highlands

Luath Press, 7.99. ISBN 0-946487-79-0

If I had been asked to suggest a suitable author for a book about Queen Victoria's Highland travels, Ian Mitchell's is probably the last name I would have considered. As he says himself,

How could I, an outdoor author whose writings on the issue of mountains had been described...as either 'enlivened by' or 'marred by' a Marxist perspective on the issues of land usage, how could I write with any empathy on the peregrinations of Vikki Regina?
His answer is what he describes as "a Bolshevisation of Balmorality", an examination of how the British Royal Family came to establish its very own pseudo-Celtic Ruritania on Deeside. Victoria legitimised a romantic view of the Highlands and their people which conveniently ignored the deliberate destruction of Gaelic culture and the enforced departure of the majority of the Highland population to the New World or the slums of Glasgow. Her contribution to the Scottish tourist industry was enormous and her "Highland Journals" reinforced the novels of Sir Walter Scott in establishing the Highlands as a prime leisure destination for the upper and middle classes.

This is not, however, simply a radical dissection of the iniquities of monarchy. The author recounts Victoria's Highland travels, in the course of which he credits her with the ascent of 8 Munros, including Ben MacDhui, Beinn a'Bhuird ,Lochnagar and the first recorded ascent of Carn a'Chlamain. He also provides sketch-maps and route descriptions of 21 walks which retrace the monarch's footsteps (or pony-tracks). Victoria may have been able to turn a blind eye to urban poverty and rural depopulation but she clearly responded to mountain landscape. Of the view down to Loch Avon, enjoyed in September 1861, she says "nothing could be grander and wilder - the rocks are so grand and precipitous, and the snow on Ben Muich Dhui had such a fine effect." Victoria's travels certainly enjoyed considerable logistical support. A trip to Breadalbane in 1842 called for 656 horses. Not even queens were immune to the Highland rain or the Highland midgie. Victoria, however, seems to have taken it all in her stride, assisted by generous quantities of Scotland's national spirit.

The role of Victoria's two main men, Prince Albert and John Brown, is also explored. Albert is dimissed as a "fushionless cratur", usually cold and tired, his main amusement the extermination of wildlife while Brown is characterised as "a downstairs tyrant and an upstairs boor." The Victoria who emerges from these pages is, in spite of her short-comings and unfortunate family background, a woman of energetic and adventurous spirit, one who might have had the makings, according to the author, of "a half-decent bothy companion" Whether this accolade will be sufficient to encourage monarchists to overlook the republican stance of the author or whether republicans will find the radical critique of Balmorality sufficiently inviting to overcome an instinctive antipathy to the central character are questions which only Luath Press's sales figures will answer. On the trail of Queen Victoria in the Highlands could also be regarded as a development from Ian Mitchell's last book, Scotland's Mountains before the Mountaineers, a further study in the pre-history of Scottish mountaineering. However you look at it, Victoria's impact on Deeside and on perceptions of the Highlands in general has left a mark which remains to this day.

As well as the route maps, the book is generously illustrated with reproductions of relevant contemporary paintings, some in colour, and with Washington Wilson photographs. There is a short annotated bibliography, a list of places to visit and a chronology of key historical events during Victoria's lifetime. There is, however, no index.

Will Campbell, 11 March 2001


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