She may not have been amused by many things, but Queen Victoria might have been tickled pink to watch Victoria & Abdul, Stephen Frears’s recent film about her infatuation with an Indian servant.
The movie is a colourful tale: Abdul Karim was brought to England from India in 1887 and soon found a place in Victoria’s affections.
She fell for his exotic charm and named him her munshi, or teacher. She went on to appoint him her Indian Secretary – to the intense irritation of courtiers.
Royal favourite: Blair Castle, first visited by Queen Victoria in 1844, is a must for history buffs
The film’s opening titles warn that the narrative is ‘based on a true story… mostly’, allowing Frears to have some mischievous fun with the facts. But in one respect the film is absolutely correct: Queen Victoria was indeed head over heels in love – not with Abdul Karim, but with the Scottish Highlands, where key scenes in the movie were shot.
She first visited the Highlands in 1842 and was struck by the spartan beauty of this mountain wilderness. Here was a place to escape from the cares of the world – an empire of glacial valleys and empty heathland. Her second visit came two years later: thereafter, she spent most of her summers in this remote corner of her realm, buying Balmoral Castle in the Cairngorms and remodelling it as a Royal Family home.
She spoke so fondly of her Scottish holidays that others flocked there in her wake, placing the Highlands firmly on the tourist circuit. With the tourists came the railways: even today, one the most enjoyable ways to visit is by train. The Highland landscape that so inspired the Queen is virtually unchanged.
As I drive from Inverness towards the Glen Affric Nature Reserve, a pristine landscape begins to unfold – one of ancient Caledonian pine woods and dollop-shaped mountains.
Glen Affric was the setting for the film’s picnic scene, with the Queen (Judi Dench) taking wicked delight in forcing her courtiers to eat outside during a Scottish rainstorm. As she munches her sandwiches under the protection of an umbrella, they all get soaked.
Hollywood backdrop: The picnic scene in Victoria & Abdul was filmed at the picturesque Glen Affric
I swing off the main road at Cannich and head into the wilds of Glen Affric, driving through a U-shaped valley that holds the turgid waters of a near-frozen Loch Affric.
The winter sun never reaches the depths of the glen and the place looks as if it’s been given an Arctic makeover. Trees are blasted with hoar frost and waterfalls are frozen into spear-sized crystal icicles. They hang from the rock face that flanks the single-track road. On the surrounding moorland, snow is more than a foot deep.
This is a land of pine forests and fairytale castles, many of which have been transformed into elegant country hotels. I spend the night at Achnagairn Castle, a Scottish-Georgian extravaganza that was falling into ruin before being rescued and restored by Gillian and Michael Lacey-Solymar.
Achnagairn Castle (perfect-manors.com) offers rooms from £100 a night.
For information about Blair Castle, visit blair-castle.co.uk.
For more information about the Scottish Highlands, go to visitscotland.com.
Victoria & Abdul is available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download.
The highlight is the Edwardian ballroom – now the dining room – built in 1912. It’s pure Harry Potter: a vast, wood-panelled room lit entirely by candles. After a few tots of whisky, you’ll never want to leave.
But there are other sights to see, and the highlight of any visit to the Cairngorms is Blair Castle, ancestral seat of the dukes of Atholl and now open to the public. It was to Blair that Queen Victoria first travelled in 1844.
Castle archives reveal that she loved strolling in the grounds and accompanying Prince Albert while staking deer. He was a hopeless shot, which perhaps accounts for the massive £100 gift she gave to the beaters.
Blair Castle is so postcard perfect that it might have been conjured by Hollywood. There’s a martial gallery of arms and armour, hunting trophies galore, and antique furniture, some of it acquired for the Queen’s visit. To top it all, the castle still has Queen Victoria’s bed. Little surprise that it has been the setting for many films and TV series, including ITV’s Victoria.
Breathtaking: Queen Victoria was a well-known fan of the Scottish Highlands. Pictured: Glen Affric
More beguilingly, the castle has an archive of private letters written by Victoria – many of them unopened and unread since they were first sent here in the 1840s. Some will be included in a new exhibition that opens in March: I am lucky enough to witness the opening of one of these letters.
As castle archivist Keren Guthrie gingerly lifts the black wax seal, the flap springs open and out pops a tress of perfectly golden hair. The accompanying note reveals that Victoria snipped the lock from the head of her beloved Prince Albert and sent it to Lord and Lady Glenlyon – a memento to thank them for their hospitality.
The Queen’s enthusiasm for Scotland transformed the Highlands from a little-visited backwater to the destination of choice for wealthy Victorians.
More than a century and a half later, Victoria is still doing much to promote this stunningly unspoilt wilderness.
- Victoria & Abdul is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital Download.