John Brown - close confidante to Queen Victoria, the man who pulled the queen out of deep depression and seclusion after the death of her husband – was born in Craithie, near Balmoral, in 1826. Queen Victoria and her husband Albert bought the Balmoral lands in the mid-nineteenth century – they proceeded to build Balmoral Castle and knock down the older building which had taken pride of place on the estate. Victoria and Albert inherited John Brown with the estate – he had been ghillie to the previous owner, Sir Robert Gordon.
Brown became a favourite of Albert, who asked his ghillie to spend time with the queen – initially this involved taking the queen on excursions, but his role grew in to one of attendant to the monarch when she was at Balmoral.
After Albert’s death in 1861 the queen withdrew into herself; her prolonged period of seclusion and mourning damaged her public image, and her household decided that the ghillie both she and Albert had favoured might be just the person to bring her out of depression. Although his benefits as a tonic for the queen were recognised, many felt uncomfortable with Brown’s ways – his Scottish brogue, his straight talking, his commitment to and familiarity with a woman far above his station.
Stories abound about the possibilities of a relationship between Queen Victoria and John Brown. The title of the film Mrs Brown plays on the rumour that the queen and Brown married secretly. It has also been suggested that they had a child together, though it is unlikely this could have taken place after Albert’s death, for Victoria was forty-two when her husband died, already the mother of nine children. No solid evidence has emerged for these claims (although the queen did frequently give her favourite servant gifts), but some believe it is possible that any papers evidencing an improper relationship between the queen and her ghillie were destroyed. Given that most of her family did not like the man and resented John Brown’s relationship with the queen, the theory may hold merit.
John Brown saved his queen’s life at least once – foiling one of several assassination attempts. It could be argued that he also saved her life by rescuing her from the misery of her own company after Albert’s death. In 1883 Brown caught a bad cold, but as ever devoted to his royal duties he did not take time to rest and recover – the result, an early death at the age of fifty-six. Brown was mourned by his queen who placed a statue of her ghillie in Balmoral’s grounds; she was persuaded not to publish a book about her servant, but she did dedicate her book More Leaves from the Journal of a Life in the Highlands to John Brown.