Genealogists quickly learn a love of graveyards and monuments as a wealth of biographic information, a unique personal link to the past, set in stone.
Possibly the oldest surviving headstone in my own family tree, is that of my 8x great grandparents, James Innes and Elspet Gordon, located in Dipple Churchyard, Scotland.
It lay buried and forgotten under three foot of turf until discovered by the Moray Burial Ground Research Group in the early 2000s, as part of a project to uncover forgotten tombstones in the region.
An excellent example of 18th century grave art, it displays several macabre mortality emblems, then common, including the skull and cross bones motif, today more often associated with piracy and witchcraft in popular imagination, but originally intended to remind visitors of the shortness of life and the importance of pious Christian living.
Trochelhill Farmstead, in the ancient Scottish parish of Dipple, occupied by my ancestors, James Innes and Elspet Gordon, in the early part of the 18th century.
Dipple, where my ancestors lived and were laid to rest, is a small village, on the west bank of the River Spey. Another contemporary monument there records the death in 1702 of Eupheme Gordon, wife of the minister of Dipple. She was a descendant of Sir James Gordon, the First Laird of Lesmoir, who lived in the early 16th century, as was an Alexander Gordon, recorded occupying the lands of Dipple, until his death in 1649. It's very likely Elspet also belonged to this branch of the Gordon family, who often married into the Innes family, the local Lairds.
Another branch of the family, Patrick Gordon, Alexander Gordon of Dipple’s first cousin, held the lands of Nethermuir. His grandson Patrick, then in his early twenties, left Scotland during the persecution of the Catholic faith in the 1650s, which followed the removal of the ruling Stuart dynasty in the Civil War and the regicide of King Charles I.
In mainland Europe, Patrick swiftly achieved fame as a soldier of fortune. In winter 1658 with several other British assosciates in exile, he attempted to assassinate Cromwell’s ambassador to the Court of the Russian Tsar, as he passed through Swedish lands, in the mistaken belief he had been one of the judges who passed the death sentence on the late King Charles.
Patrick Gordon of Aberdeenshire, Scotland (1635-1699)
In the 1660s he travelled to Russia himself and entered the service of Tsar Alexis (1629-1676), rising to the rank of General and Rear Admiral.
In 1672 in recognition of his deeds he was asked to be Godfather to the Tsar’s infant son, the future Peter the Great (1672-1725), and later played a decisive role in his rise to power and rule, serving afterwards as his military advisor, close confident and friend.
When Peter left Russia to embark on his eighteen month grand embassy across Europe in 1697, he effectively left Gordon in charge as de facto ruler in his stead. His actions during this time in suppressing an uprising by the disaffected Streltsy infantry regiments of Moscow, further secured and shored up Peter's position as absolute ruler.
Peter the Great painted during his four month stay in London in 1698
Patrick Gordon died a year later, in late November 1699, with the young Tsar stood loyally at his bedside. He was buried in the stranger’s cemetery in Moscow, where a grave monument was later erected to him in the 19th century. A statue also stands to him today in Ekaterinburg recording his route from Scotland, to Russia, through Sweden and Poland, and commemorating his unique position as the highest ranking and most influential foreigner in 17th century Russia.
Russian monuments to Patrick Gordon
Through his mother Mary Ogilvy, General Patrick Gordon had inherited the lands of Auchleuchries, one time also a possession of the Gordons, like those at Dipple, handed down in the Gordon families descended from Sir John Gordon of Huntly, killed by the English at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388.
Sir John was also an ancestor of the later Dukes of Gordon, and the famous romantic poet, Lord George Gordon Byron, (1788-1824), whose mother Catherine Gordon, was heiress of the Gordon family of Gight.
Byron himself influenced Russian culture, with the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin drawing much inspiration from him for his early works of the 1820s.
The following decade saw a renewal of the ancient connection between the Scottish Gordons and the Russian Tsars when the 5th Gordon Duke, George Gordon, and his Duchess, Elizabeth Brodie, dined with Peter the Great’s descendant Tsar Nicholas I and his family, in Silesia, in September 1835, at the court of Nicholas’s father-in-law, Frederick William III of Prussia.
The Duchess records this encounter in her diary, noting the Tsar ‘was exceedingly civil’ and complains that were he not meeting with the Austrian Emperor at Teplitz immediately after, they would have certainly chosen to accompany him back to St Petersburg, instead of heading on to Vienna their intended destination.
1835 newspaper report detailing the meeting beween the Gordons and Tsar Nicholas I and the imperial family in Silesia, modern Poland.
Medal struck commemorating the 1835 meeting between Tsar Nicholas I and Frederick III of Prussia, in Silesia, for which the Gordons were present.
At Teplitz, immediately after their meeting with the Gordons, Olga the Tsar’s fourteen-year-old daughter, danced with Queen Victoria’s future husband, Prince Albert, then seventeen, though was quick to reject him as a potential suitor, finding him boring for preferring a waltz to a gallop, pithily noting in her dairy ‘others were said to find him handsome’!
Despite this ill-fated meeting, through the marriage of Olga’s niece, three decades later, Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna, into the Greek royal family, and the later marriage of her grandson, Philip, to Queen Elizabeth II, the blood of the Romanov Tsars nevertheless still made its way into the modern British Royal family and the current line of succession.
Bust of Tsar Nicholas I, at Vitebsky railway station, opened by Nicholas, in October 1837, two years after his meeting with the Gordons in Silesia. Prince Charles, his 3x great grandson, will become the first descendant of a Romanov Tsar to rule over a European Royal House, since the Revolution of 1917. Charles's two sons also descend, maternally, from the Gordon Dukes.
The Duke and Duchess of Gordon’s European trip in summer 1835 was taken just weeks after the Duchess suffered the traumatic loss of most of her valuable family jewellery in a burglary on their London apartments at Belgrave Square, close to Buckingham Palace, where the Duchess was then in service as a Lady in Waiting to Queen Adelaide. Distraught at her friends misfortune, the Queen gifted the Duchess several items of her own personal jewellery to compensate for the loss.
Further misfortune followed, when six months after their return home, the Duke of Gordon died unexpectedly from stomach cancer, prompting the widowed Duchess to retire entirely from court life in London, spending her remaining years living in Scotland at her main residence Huntly Lodge.
Monument in Scotland to George, the last Duke of Gordon.
At Huntly Lodge, my 3x great grandmother Elspeth Troup Gordon (1829-1890) along with her aunt, uncle and cousin, were part of the Duchess’s personal staff of twenty two.
Elspeth is listed on the 1851 Census resident at the Lodge with the Duchess. She had been born twenty one years earlier, on the Duke and Duchess’s private 5,500 acre forested hunting estate Glenfiddich, six years prior to the Gordon's European trip and meeting with the Tsar, whilst her father William Troup, a master gardener, was in service there to the Gordons, employed in landscaping.
Devoutly religious, the Duchess was unusually close to all her staff, which comprised of locals, mostly unmarried or widowed, caring for their welfare, and praying with them twice daily.
The Duchess of Gordon depicted around the time of her meeing with the Russian imperial family, and a later stone monument to her made after her death in the 1860s.
After the death of the Duchess’s relative, Sir Robert Gordon, in 1847, his country estate of Balmoral, located forty miles south of Huntly Lodge, was purchased by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Newspaper reports show the Duchess accepted an invitation to dine with them there during their first autumn in residence in September 1848, and did so again in October 1857, and that she also travelled to London to dine with Victoria and Albert and other members of the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace in May 1852. These recorded visits are probably a few of many, as according to her biographer she was a regular visitor to Balmoral, a favourite of the royal couple, and always made most welcome there.
The Queen herself had hosted Tsar Nicholas I in London in June 1844, during a two week state visit, noting in her diaries he was ‘tall, striking and very handsome, with classical features’, so their mutual familiarity with the Russian imperial family may have provided just one of many points of bonding and conversation between monarch and subject.
Victoria's diary entry recording her first visit to Balmoral, her newly acquired 'pretty little castle' in Scotland, in autumn 1848, and a contemporary depiction of that occasion.
Victoria photographed at Balmoral in October 1857, in the week she dined with the Duchess of Gordon. Also in the photo is eldest daughter Victoria, later Empress of Germany and mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and son Alfred, who went on to marry Maria Alexandrovna, daughter of Tsar Alexander II and grandaughter of Tsar Nicholas I.
These visits to Queen Victoria at Balmoral by the Duchess of Gordon, may be how a badge belonging to Victoria’s faithful man servant John Brown later found its way into the possesion of our family, alongside the Spectacles of her late husband, the Duke of Gordon.
These are believed to have been gifted by the widowed Duchess, to the Reverend Alexander Milne (1840-1888), headmaster of her Gordon School set up in neighbouring Drumblade.
Baptised at Huntly Lodge in 1840, in the Duchess’s library, which served as her private chapel, he was my 3x great grandmother Elspeth's cousin and also the godfather to her son, my grandad's grandfather, Alexander Milne Gordon (1868-1929) named for him, who moved to East London as a young man.
Bronze cuff button, displaying the crown of royal service, belonging to John Brown, Queen Victoria's loyal man servant at Balmoral, (seen wearing them on his costume in the picture) and the spectacles of the last Duke of Gordon, son of the 4th Duke shown here, found in the belongings of my relative the late Reverend Alexander Gordon Davidson Milne of Huntly, Scotland (1840-1888).
As one of the Duchesses’s personal household staff at Huntly Lodge, Elspeth perhaps heard first hand stories of palace life in London at the court of William IV, and of the Duchesses meetings with British Royalty at home and European Royalty on the continent.
The greatest honour of the Duchess's life was undoubtedly serving as Mistress of Robes at the Coronation of King William IV and Queen Adelaide in 1831, in which function she had been the only person allowed to accompany the royal couple in their carriage on the processional route to Westminster Abbey.
Later gifted the coronation robes in thanks by the Queen, they were kept on proud display at Huntly Lodge, throughout my ancestor Elspeth’s time there in service, and later passed to the Duchess's relations after her death.
1831 newspaper report of the coronation with the Duchess of Gordon's prominent place in the ceremony noted.
The coronation robes of Queen Adelaide on display at the Duchess's family seat, Brodie Castle.
Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs, a 2018 Exhibition celebrating the links between the British and Russian Royal Families, held in the Queens Gallery Edinburgh, a building originally commissioned and built in 1840 for the Duchess of Gordon, as a Gordon School, five years after her personal meeting with Tsar Nicholas I and his family in Poland.
Descent of the future King William, from Romanov Tsar Nicholas I, and his double descent from the Huntly Dukes of Gordon, through the two sisters of George, the Last Duke.