The Angry Corrie 48: Jan-Feb 2001

TAC 48 Index

Empty vassals? On the trail of Queen Victoria in the Highlands

by Ian R Mitchell

Luath Press, 2000, xxiii+137pp, ISBN 0 946487 79 0, 7.99

Review: Perkin Warbeck

This book is part of a Luath Press "On the trail of" series. One therefore assumes that Ian R Mitchell wasn't necessarily desperate to write about Queen Vic but rather, as a jobbing writer, accepted the commission. Which of us apart from Heller, Crompton and Burchill has the luxury of writing only about what we want?

My own commission from TAC Towers was a double-header: attend the launch and review the book. The former took place in the lecture bittie of Tiso's new multi-experience barn near the M8 in Glasgow and was a very enjoyable evening. Mitchell has a dry wit about him and I left keen to start part two.

On the trail of Queen Victoria is a bit of a curate's egg. We have Mitchell the Marxist (it calls him that on the jacket, presumably with his acquiescence) decon-structing "Balmorality" using the tools of the dialectic trade. We have Mitchell the Gorms Man suggesting walks in the footsteps of Queen Vic. And we have Mitchell the hired hand doing his best to pack the book with Victoriana for those whose bag that is. Whether these three fit together in the one book is doubtful and probably my one misgiving. The deconstruction he certainly does to good, if predictable effect. TAC readers are unlikely to need chapter and verse on royalty's annexation of Deeside and the Gorms. What we might look for from Mitchell therefore would be a laugh at it all. This was certainly provided in the slide show and talk, where several belly laughs were delivered.

The book is less amusing and more scholarly. The clearances, feudalism, blood sports and Victoria's fear of chartism are given the expected treatment. Mitchell makes the case that this latter fear of the mob drove Vikki to invent - and to have played out by her vassals - the idealised depiction of rural life that became Balmorality. Works of art of the time are dissected to show how the painter has been dragooned into depicting a misty-eyed romantic view of the noble Highlander. Some of us have to live with this still, if the duty of best man befalls us. The kiltie getup appears to have been invented by Vikki, and John Brown is duly photographed in the full regalia. Coincidentally, Brown's celluloid portrayer Billy Connolly seems happy in real life to camp it up in the same tackle with Robin Williams and (sadly) Eric Idle, of whom one might have expected more.

For those such as myself with a meagre knowledge of history and even less of royal lore, Prince Albert is known only for his eponymous piercing. Should the gaps require filling (ouch - sensitive Ed.), Mitchell does a bit of a job. Whereas a grudging respect for Vikki fills the book, Albert arouses nothing but disdain. The man is described as having been physically less up to the strains of the royal peregrinations and, almost inevitably for a royal male, obsessed with shooting animals: "Albert was constantly complaining of being tired and it is astonishing that a woman of Victoria's spirit appeared to worship the ground her husband walked on and hung on his every - usually unmomentous - word. Possibly his desire to kill things was Albert's compensation. He is always disappearing on walks to hunt some harmless beast and even on the royal yacht he bangs away at innocent seabirds."

The puffin-shooting image is a good one. The blood-letting of nutters like Clarissa and her countryman is justified on the basis that the target might end up in the fat lady's pot. Albert at least just kills the beasties because he likes killing. Mitchell returns to Albert repeat-edly. "Fushionless", he calls him. I loved this. My dad uses this word and I have never seen it in print before.

Mitchell's disdain for Albert is in contrast to Vikki's unstinting praise for her wee German. But why look to the loved one for sense or objectivity? It is Saturday night in Warbeck's ingle-nook and Gambaccini is on. Oh Yoko by John Lennon is playing. It's the biggest pile of tosh ever written. Can this really be the man who wrote Don't let me down? Of course it can. Critical marbles are easily mislaid when it comes to the loved one - be they Japanese conceptual artist or German piercing artist.

Thus it must have been with Vikki. She sees a lion of a man; Mitchell sees a mouse. Mitchell enjoys speculating on the inevitable question of whether John Brown was ever more than the Noble Servant, and hints that feelings for Brown were already aflame while this gushing over Albert was ongoing.

Hillwalkers will note that Victoria describes Brown's ultraNaismith performance as a "vigorous, light, elastic tread which is astonishing". Five mph was apparently reached.

Various other historical snippets have been dug up. Vikki liked a dram. Vikki would by today's standards be considered a prescription drug abuser. Vikki ate a sheep's head and found it "really good". Balmoral was acquired because its owner, Sir Robert Gordon, died from a fishbone stuck in his throat. No change there, then. The Cairngorm Club was founded by guys celebrating Vikki's jubilee in 1887. The SMC toasted the queen as recently as 1977.

Ultimately, Mitchell keeps his republicanism in the background, but he doesn't hide it. He finishes by offering this take: "the image that will remain with me after writing this book, is that of the 656 horses it required to take the Royal party to Breadalbane in 1842, for a piece of neo-feudal nonsense ... 656 horses. The Highlands were starving and in the Glasgow slums people slept a dozen or more to a room [...] Remember those horses, as you walk in the footsteps of Queen Victoria".

The image that remains for me is one of Mitchell struggling to fit together the three aspects of his commission, but it was still a good read and if you get the chance to catch him in the flesh, that's a good night.

TAC 48 Index