Focus on the Collections, Number 9
Featuring new, interesting, and unusual items in the Library's Collections



Queen Victoria was inconsolable following the premature death of her husband, Albert, Prince Consort, in December 1861. She retreated into the confines of Balmoral, Windsor, and Osborne House on the Isle of Wight becoming a virtual recluse. The one person she turned to was John Brown (1826-1883), a highland attendant or gillie in the Royal Household at Balmoral. He alone provided companionship to the forlorn monarch, and the extent of their relationship has been the subject of speculation ever since. Several books and the well-known movie Mrs. Brown dwell on this.

In late November 1870, the court left Balmoral Castle in Scotland and arrived at Windsor Castle shortly thereafter. It traveled on to Osborne House the week prior to Christmas. A note in the Illustrated London News (ILN) for Saturday, December 31, 1870, gives a brief account of the court over the Christmas period:

The Queen distributed the customary gifts on Christmas Eve to the wives and children of the labourers upon the Royal Estate at Osborne, Isle of Wight. Her Majesty, accompanied by members of the Royal family, entered the servants’ hall at four o’clock, the recipients of the royal bounty having previously assembled there.

One special Christmas present was set aside for John Brown: a large, handsome, two volume folio set entitled Highlanders of Scotland published the same year.  This publication had its origin in a collection of watercolor drawings by Kenneth Macleay, R.S.A.  that had been commissioned by the Queen (now in the Royal Collection). The thirty-one pictures painted between 1865 and 1869 illustrated the principal clans of Scotland and portraits of some of the retainers of the Royal Household including John Brown. Each portrait was set in a specific location in Scotland.  In the spring of 1869, the drawings along with pictures of the late Prince Consort, and Prince Alfred,  the Duke of Edinburgh, were exhibited at Mitchell’s Royal Library, 33 Old Bond Street, London. At the same time, the noted lithographer, Vincent Brooks, was busy at work creating lithographic copies of the watercolors that would be subsequently hand-colored, and visitors to the exhibit were invited to subscribe for the work. The subscription book bore the names of several members of the royal family, as well as foreign princes and other dignitaries. Queen Victoria herself accompanied by her youngest child, Princess Beatrice, drove from Buckingham Palace to Mr. Mitchell's establishment on Friday, April 9, 1869, "and inspected the collection of drawings of the Highlanders of Scotland...painted for her Majesty" (ILN April 17, 1869, page 379). The reviewer of  the exhibition (ILN  February 27, 1869, page 218) noted that in the painting of John Brown, the Scotsman wears mourning "but less deep than in Sir Edwin Landseer's picture" that appears above. This was to honor the memory of Prince Albert.

Macleay2.jpg (131772 bytes) Macleay3.JPG (214425 bytes) Macleay6.JPG (227559 bytes) Macleay7.JPG (271668 bytes)
John Brown. Her Majesty's Personal Servant

(Osborne, 1866)

Donald McBeath. William Duff, Atholmen  

(The Tay of Dunkeld, Perthshire, 1867)

William Ross. Her Majesty's Piper

(Windsor Castle, 1866)

Maclachlan, Graham, Macfarlane & Calquhoun

(Loch Lomond, Ben Lomand from Luss, 1869)

The two volumes appeared in the spring of 1870 published in London by Mitchell and in Edinburgh by Blackwood and sons, and cost eighteen guineas a set. Volume one contained 15 colored lithographic plates while volume two had an additional 16. Each plate was accompanied by a descriptive letterpress listing biographical and historical details of the subjects depicted. Besides the portrait of  John Brown, there were likenesses of his brothers Archibald, valet to Prince Leopold, and William, a farmer. The accompanying text  for John Brown states that he became one of the Balmoral gillies in 1849, "and was in frequent attendance on the Queen." He entered the Royal service permanently in 1851 and "by good conduct and intelligence, he gradually rose, and was appointed, 1858, the Queen's Personal Servant in Scotland; this appointment was, in February 1865, extended to wherever Her Majesty may be; and in December of the same year, Brown was promoted to be an upper servant. Characteristic honesty, steadiness, and devoted faithfulness have uniformly marked his career." Interestingly, his date of birth, printed as December 28th, 1827, has been crossed through with pencil and corrected to read December 8, 1826.

In 1946, Anne S. K. Brown purchased a set of the Highlanders of Scotland from Francis Edwards Bookshop in London. Macleay5.JPG (81854 bytes)However, this turned out to be no ordinary set. Both volumes contain the following manuscript dedication written in ink by Queen Victoria: To my faithful & devoted Attendant John brown from Victoria R. Osborne Christmas Eve 1870. Here was the actual set given on that Christmas Eve in 1870. While a catalogue card bearing this information had been created at the time of its acquisition, the two books lay in the stacks of the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University Library until their recent ‘rediscovery’.


Note: The image at the top depicts Queen Victoria and John Brown at Osborne House, and was painted by Sir Edwin Landseer, R.A.  in 1866 (now in the Royal Collection). The Queen is reading dispatches from the box by the feet of John Brown; other letters litter the floor. On the seat to the left are the Princesses Helena and Louise (from a reproduction in Sixty Years A Queen, 1897)


‘The Highlanders of Scotland’, The Art Journal, April 1, 1869, p. 97-98.

‘The Scottish Highlanders’, The Art Journal, April 1, 1870, p. 116.

Evelyn Ernest Percy Tisdall: Queen Victoria's Mr. Brown; the life story of the most remarkable royal servant in British history, New York, F. A. Stokes company, 1938.

Tom A. Cullen: The Empress Brown: The true story of a Victorian scandal, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1969.

For further information about the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, visit the website at:

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