Russia History Romanov Nicholas and Alexandra Tsar Nicholas II in Scotland

Tsar Nicholas II in Scotland

On 20 March 1901, Tsar Nicholas II made the following entry in his diary: “At 12 we received the Duke of Abercorn with his Ambassador Extraordinary to announce Uncle Bertie’s coming to the throne. I wore my Scots Grey uniform.” The reason the Russian tsar donned the uniform of the Scots Greys to receive the Duke and his ambassador was because Nicholas was the honorary colonel-in-chief of the Scottish regiment.

The Royal Scots Greys were one of Scotland’s oldest regiments, formed back in 1678 by King Charles II. Their history is much connected with Russia. In the Crimean War, they fought at Sebastopole and took part in the charge of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava in 1854. During the Second World War, the Scots Greys were the first British troops to meet up with the Russians, when they captured the port of Wismar on the Baltic on 2 May 1945.

Queen Victoria had made the Tsar a colonel-in-chief of the regiment in 1894, on the occasion of his wedding to her granddaughter Alix. The day after his wedding, Nicholas wrote to thank the Queen: “Words fail me to express my surprise and the pleasure I felt upon receiving the news that you had appointed me colonel-in-chief of the beautiful Royal Scots Greys, just the regiment I saw and admired so last summer at Aldershot. I shall be happy and proud to appear one day before you in their uniform.”

This was a promise that Nicholas kept two years later, when he and his bride visited Queen Victoria in Scotland in 1896.

Britain at this time appointed a new ambassador to St Petersburg. Sir Nicholas O’Connor had his first audience with the Tsar in April 1895 and reported back to London: “The Tsar ... recalled his happy days spent in Britain. The Empress has spoken to him so much about Balmoral. He felt as if he were quite familiar with its beautiful surroundings. He hopes after the coronation to have a few months’ holiday and that he might be able to pay a visit to the Queen.”

The reason the Empress had told the Tsar so much about Balmoral was because she had spent all her summers there, as a child. Alix was the daughter of Princess Alice, the third of Queen Victoria’s nine children. Princess Alice had married Grand Duke Louis of Hesse and, although they lived in Germany, the family visited Britain every year. The visits increased after Princess Alice’s death in 1878 and Queen Victoria regarded Alix as her favourite granddaughter.

Although Alix lived in all of Victoria’s residences, her favourite was Balmoral. Situated 282 feet above sea level in the Scottish Highlands, on the right bank of the River Dee, Balmoral seemed to her like a fairy-tale castle. It was acquired in 1852 and partially redesigned by Victoria’s late husband, Prince Albert, in the Scottish baronial style.

The future empress of Russia used to spend her days in Scotland fishing in the River Dee and walking through the hills and forests. She often visited a small sweet shop lying between the villages of Balmoral and Abergeldie, known as “The Merchants.” The shop was run by an old lady and her sister, who taught Alix the secret of making traditional Scottish scones. This secret Alix brought with her to Russia, following her marriage to the young Russian tsar Nicholas in 1894.

Nicholas and Alix were married at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg on 26 November 1894. It was less than a month after Nicholas had become tsar, following the death of his father, Alexander III. Nicholas and Alix’s official coronation took place in Moscow on 26 May 1896.

That year, as newly crowned sovereigns, they were expected to visit their fellow European monarchs. The Tsar and his wife visited first Austria, Germany and Denmark. They then boarded their new yacht, the Standart, and sailed to Scotland for the highlight of their trip, a stay with Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle.

The plan was that the Tsar’s yacht would sail into the Firth of Forth and dock at Leith. Nicholas and Alix would then travel by train up the east coast of Scotland to Balmoral. As the capital city, Edinburgh hoped for a state procession along the Royal Mile. But the Tsar declined the offer and, to the delight of Edinburgh’s northern rival, asked instead to have the official welcoming ceremony held at Leith docks.

The Tsar’s yacht entered the Firth of Forth on the morning of Tuesday 22 September 1896, accompanied by several Russian warships. As it entered the Forth, the Russian squadron was saluted by the British Channel Fleet. The Tsar was also greeted by a rather more traditional Scottish welcome – incessant pouring rain. As the Scotsman newspaper reported: “It was one of those days which does Scotland no favours – dreich and misty, with driving rain.”

At a quarter to two, the Tsar and his wife stepped ashore on Scottish soil at the Victoria Jetty. Nicholas was wearing the scarlet tunic and bearskin hat of the Scots Greys. He was officially welcomed to Scotland by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, the Provost of Leith and the head of the Leith Dock Commission.

Accompanied by the Prince of Wales, the royal party then drove out of the docks in an open carriage into North Junction Street and all the way to Leith Railway Station. They were cheered by the wet crowds who had been patiently lining the streets all morning, despite the heavy rain.

At the station, Nicholas and Alix boarded the special eleven-carriage train that was to take them to Ballater in the north of Scotland. The train travelled up the eastern coast of Scotland from Leith to Ballater via Edinburgh, Kirkcaldy, Cupar, Dundee, Arbroath, Montrose, Laurencekirk, Stonehaven and Aberdeen.

Nicholas and Alix had the chance to see one of the prides of modern engineering, the new Forth Road Bridge. The bridge had only been opened in 1890 and was described as “Scotland’s Eiffel Tower.” When the tsar and his wife crossed over it in 1896, it was still the world’s longest bridge. It was raining too heavily, however, for the Russian royal couple to see anything from the bridge.

The train then passed through the Kingdom of Fife and crossed the Tay Railway Bridge, scene of the infamous Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879, when seventy-five people had lost their lives in a storm. The Tsar’s train safely passed over the replacement bridge and drew in at Dundee.

When the local councillors learned that the royal train would stop at Dundee for fifteen minutes to take on water, they decided that they too would organise a welcoming committee. When the Tsar’s train pulled in at Dundee Station, it was greeted by the sound of the Dundee City Rifles playing the Russian national anthem. Nicholas stepped out onto the platform to receive an official welcome from the people of Dundee. The acting chief magistrate read the Tsar an official address and presented him with a silver casket. Nicholas thanked him for the gift and reboarded the train for the onward journey.

The rain continued as the train moved northwards, reaching Aberdeen in the late afternoon. Not to be outdone by the likes of Leith or Dundee, Aberdeen also decided to organise an official reception. This time, the crowd was limited to a select number of a hundred local dignitaries, by invitation only. At Aberdeen, the Russian party changed onto a train of the Great North of Scotland Railway for the last leg up Royal Deeside.

The train reached the village of Ballater at seven o’clock in the evening. There, Nicholas was greeted by his cousin, the Duke of York, and a guard of honour of the Black Watch in regimental kilts. The party then drove in carriages along the Braemar road to Balmoral, accompanied by the burning torches of a traditional Highland welcome.

There was still no escaping the rain. The drive to the castle took an hour and, as it was in an open carriage, Nicholas and Alix were almost frozen by the time they arrived. Scots Greys, Balmoral Highlanders and the men of the Crathie and Ballatar Volunteers walked beside the Tsar’s carriage, the flames of their torches lighting up the dark sky. All along the way, huge bonfires were lit on the hills, as the music of the Queen’s pipers filled the valley.

Queen Victoria was already waiting in Balmoral. As they approached the castle, Nicholas and Alix could see the seventy-seven year-old Queen standing at the castle entrance, surrounded by tall Highland guards. Victoria recalls the meeting in her journal: “We went down at 7.30 pm into the visitor’s room, and waited there till we heard the church bells ringing and the pipers playing. Punctually, at eight, the procession reached the door. The escort of the Scots Greys came first, then the pipers and torchbearers, and finally the carriage ... I was standing at the door. Nicky got out first, and I embraced him, and then darling Alicky, all in white looking so well.”

Perhaps the greatest moment for the Queen was when Nicholas and Alix presented their ten-month-old daughter, Olga, the Queen’s great granddaughter. There was a family dinner at nine o’clock. That night, Victoria wrote in her diary: “It seems like a dream having Alicky and Nicky here.” Nicholas himself records the welcome: “Granny was waiting for us on the steps ... Marvellously kind and amiable to us and delighted to see Olga.”

Although Balmoral Castle was relatively large, it was not big enough to accommodate the entire Russian suite. Many members of the party had to be housed on the Balmoral estate, in newly-built round huts made of stone. Other members of the Tsar’s retinue found themselves in farmhouses and inns some distance away, unable to understand the strong local dialect of their Scottish hosts and themselves not understood when they tried to speak English.

It was a double celebration for Queen Victoria, as during the visit she became the longest reigning monarch in British history. The event was marked by a peculiar Scots institution known as the Ghillies’ Ball. This gave the Russian autocrat an original lesson in Scottish democracy.

“Ghillie” is a Scottish word meaning a hunting or fishing attendant. The Ghillies’ Ball was given annually by the royal family for their servants and staff in the castle ballroom. Alix was accustomed to this tradition and joined in the Scottish reels, wearing the royal family’s Balmoral tartan. Nicholas was unused to the idea of dancing with the wives of gamekeepers, but donned a kilt and joined in. The Tsar and his wife performed traditional Scottish dances on the ballroom floor, to the accompaniment of Scottish pipers.

History was made a second time on 3 October, when a Mr Downey came to take the first ever moving pictures of a British royal family. Queen Victoria was filmed both walking on the castle terrace and seated outside, with her great granddaughter jumping up and down in her lap. Nicholas and Alix were filmed planting a tree.

Victoria spent her days playing with Olga and chatting with Alix about her new life in Russia. Nicholas, on the other hand, was expected to go hunting every day with the Prince of Wales. Nicholas was not pleased at being separated from his young bride for hours on end, especially as the weather continued to be atrocious, with wind, rain and even some snow. In a letter home to his mother, Nicholas writes: “They seem to consider it necessary to take me out shooting all day long ... The weather is awful, rain and wind every day and, on top of it, no luck at all – I haven’t killed a stag yet.”

An unknown fact about the visit of the Russian Tsar to Scotland was only revealed to the public after Nicholas had left the country. Just five days before the Tsar’s arrival on Scottish soil, Scotland Yard had uncovered a plot by Irish nationalists to kill both Nicholas II and Queen Victoria, with the aim of causing an international crisis.

The ring-leader was Patrick Tynan, an Irish-American already wanted for the Phoenix Park Murders in Dublin fourteen years earlier. He was apprehended by British detectives in France, while another accomplice, Edward Bell, was arrested in Glasgow at the Victoria Hotel next to Queen Street Station. Patrick Tynan was found to be carrying a forged letter saying that he was a special envoy of Queen Victoria, authorised to personally deliver a letter to the Tsar.

Despite these two arrests, all the time Nicholas was on Scottish soil the authorities could not be sure that they had caught all the terrorists and that there would not be an attempt on the life of the Tsar. The Scotsman later wrote of these fears of an assassination attempt: “The rumours and suspicions of a plot against their lives ... were enough to create a certain feeling of anxiety in the mind of the public of this country. That harm should have befallen them anywhere would have been a mournful calamity; that it should have reached them in Scotland would have been an unspeakable grief to the nation.”

Another little-known fact of Nicholas II’s visit to Scotland in 1896 is that the Tsar held a series of important talks on international affairs with Queen Victoria and her prime minister, Lord Salisbury, who had specially travelled to Balmoral. The Tsar even complained in a letter home to his mother: “I see even less of Alix here than at home, where deputations and audiences with ministers interfere enough.”

Nicholas came to an agreement with the Queen and the Prime Minister regarding Turkey, Egypt and the balance of power in Europe. Regarding Turkey, the Tsar stated that he was in favour of the territorial status quo of the Ottoman Empire and did not intend sending Russian troops to occupy Armenia, following the slaughter of six thousand Armenians in Constantinople.

Nicholas told Victoria that Russia would not take France’s side in the Anglo-French dispute over Egypt, although he reminded her of the importance of the Suez Canal to Russia as well. The presence of British troops in the Sudan was also discussed. Regarding Europe, the Tsar assured Victoria that the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894 was in no way aimed against Britain.

The close relationship between Nicholas, Alix and Victoria made it easier to settle political problems and territorial disputes. In a letter to Victoria after he had left Balmoral, Nicholas notes with regret: “Dearest Grandmama ... Politics alas! are unfortunately not the same as private or domestic affairs.”

Queen Victoria also had long talks with the new Russian empress. As a child, Alix had always been shy and withdrawn, and Victoria was worried that her granddaughter had not had enough time to adjust to her role as tsarina. The more experienced Queen tried to impress on Alix the importance of always smiling and appearing kind and pleasant.

Unfortunately, Victoria had no more opportunities to offer her granddaughter the wisdom of her advice, which might have helped the empress to become more popular with her subjects. This was to be the last time that Alix and Victoria ever met. The Queen died in January 1901 and Alix was unable to attend her funeral, as she was pregnant with her fourth daughter, Anastasia. She did, however, attend the memorial service held at the Anglican Church in St Petersburg. During the service, the Russian empress wept openly in public.

The weather at Balmoral eventually improved towards the end of the Tsar’s visit, allowing Nicholas and Alix to go for walks and picnics on the moors and to visit the Duke and Duchess of Fife at Mar Lodge.

When it was time to leave Scotland, Nicholas gave expensive presents to all the Balmoral servants and staff. The local police sergeant was given a diamond ring and every policeman on duty received a silver watch and chain inscribed with the Russian eagle.

Alix wrote in her diary: “It has been such a very short stay and I leave dear, kind Grandmama with a heavy heart.” The Queen’s last journal entry for the visit reads: “At ten dear Nicky and Alicky left, to me a great regret, as I am so fond of them both. I went to the door to see our dear visitors leave. There were again the Highlanders bearing torches, but this time no pipers.”

Nicholas and Alix travelled back to Ballater by carriage. From Ballater they travelled by overnight train down to Portsmouth, where their yacht was waiting to take them across the Channel to France.

In her book on Queen Victoria’s relations, Meriel Buchanan, the daughter of the last British ambassador to imperial Russia, writes: “How far removed were those peaceful days at Balmoral from that basement in Ekaterinburg!” But Ekaterinburg had a sequel eighty years later, when the remains of Nicholas, Alix, Olga and the rest of their family were finally laid to rest at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg.

On that day in July 1998, Scotland paid its last tribute to the colonel-in-chief of one of its most distinguished regiments. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards escorted Nicholas and his family to their final rest, to the sound of pipes and drums, just as they had done 102 years earlier on the road to Balmoral.

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