Ask Sir James

Michaela Reid


Ask Sir James

Michaela Reid


In a dark cupboard of her house, Michaela Reid, the granddaughter- in-law of Sir James Reid, discovered forty pocket diaries and thirty- one of his large scrapbooks, as well as some two hundred letters and notes from Queen Victoria. Although Sir James was never allowed to see the Queen undressed, she summoned him four or five times a day, and he quickly became her confidant, privy to all the intimate aspects of her court and family life. It was he who was responsible for persuading Princess Christian to give up her opium addiction, as well as coping with John Brown’s alcoholism. The doctor’s mem- oirs have left us a vivid portrait of the Queen, who was eccentric and stubborn, and yet at the same time perceptive, endearing, and warm-hearted.

‘An exceptionally well constructed biography.’ - Kenneth Rose, Sunday Telegraph
‘This is an engaging story well told.’ - Alan Bell, Literary Review
Add to Basket

Ask Sir James: The life of Sir James Reid, personal physician to Queen Victoria
ISBN: 978-1906011-15-4
Format: 315pp demi pb

Author Biography

Michaela Reid is a Danish/British author. Although her parents were Danes, she was educated in the UK, reading law at Girton College, Cambridge. She married the grandson of Sir James Reid, personal physician to Queen Victoria. She discovered Sir James' papers in the 1960s after moving into Ellon Castle in Aberdeenshire. Her book based on these papers, Ask Sir James, was critically acclaimed and has been reprinted by Eland Books.[1] She lives in Lanton, Scottish Borders.


Extract from Chapter One

CHILL WINDS BLOW in from the North Sea up the estuary of the River Ythan, which flows through the small, grey, granite town of Ellon, in the Buchan district of Aberdeenshire. As the centre of a rich agricultural area it entirely escaped the demoralising effects of the Industrial Revolution so strongly felt in other parts of Scotland. In 1849 Ellon could boast four grocers, three hotels and seven inns for a population of between 700 and 800. Dreary as this bare north- east coast would be to many, to James Reid the Buchan countryside was to act as a magnet all his life and he hurried back to it whenever opportunity arose.

Geographical background has a profound influence upon the development of a community, and nowhere is this more true than in Aberdeenshire. The rigours of the climate in Buchan and the strict puritanical propensities of its inhabitants have bred a tough and resilient people. Thoroughly practical by nature and habit, they do not readily express their feelings. James was a product of this way of thinking and in accepting life’s caprices with equanimity he was following in the tradition of his heritage.

His father, also James Reid, the second of ten children, was the local Ellon doctor, a highly respected and conscientious practitioner who covered vast areas on horseback to visit his patients. The life of a country doctor in the middle of the nineteenth century was rugged to say the least. He was called out day and night, in all weathers, sometimes having to plod through the snow to an outlying farm only to find a sick cow awaiting him; and he would be expected to try his hand at dentistry as well as veterinary surgery. As he had been brought up on his father’s farm, he was well acquainted with the vagaries of animals and could cope with veterinary cases with the same skill that he showed in his treatment of humans.

Devoted as he was to his doctor father, it was to his mother and her family that young James felt a deep and lifelong affection. Beatrice, James’s mother, was the eighth of ten children born to John Peter of Canterland in Kincardineshire, factor for the Earl of Kintore, and in addition an able classical scholar. A kind, sensible homely woman, Beatrice Reid, though a doting mother and especially proud of her clever elder son, was never possessive. The serenity which emanated from her large comfortable frame gave him a sense of security and self-confidence which were to serve him admirably in future life.

James Reid was born on 23 October 1849 at The Chesnuts, the Ellon house which was to be his home for the whole of his life. A modest typical country doctor’s establishment, James enlarged and embellished it as his circumstances became grander, but he never thought of parting with it.

From the first James showed signs of precocity and an ambitious nature, but those characteristics never overshadowed a naturally kind and sanguine disposition. Education was much prized in Aberdeenshire and at the local school in Ellon he flourished under the tutelage of Dr John Davidson, a teacher of outstanding ability. Before the age of seven James had written to his grandmother, Barbara Peter, in his bold neat handwriting: ‘I am at the top of my class.’ And so he was to remain throughout his school career, leaving Aberdeen Grammar School in 1865 covered in glory, having been awarded the Gold Medal for the best scholar.

At the age of sixteen James was still too young to embark upon medicine, his chosen career. So for three years he followed an arts curriculum at Aberdeen University where he acquitted himself with great distinction, once again receiving the Gold Medal. All his life he held firmly to the view that a training in the arts was essential to a scientist.

James had not spent all his childhood and youth bent over his books, however. His father leased a small farm at Hillhead of Fechil, just outside Ellon, where James, and his younger brother John, spent much of their spare time. They fished on the Ythan, one of the finest sea trout and salmon rivers in Scotland. Not only was there pearl-mussel fishing too, but the whole area along the river banks was an ornithologist’s paradise. Occasionally there were day trips to the coast, not far away, to Newburgh, the sands of Forvie, and even to Cruden Bay. During their school holidays James and John stayed with their uncles, George and James Peter, who were Presbyterian ministers living in their respective manses in Kemnay and Old Deer, a day’s journey from Ellon in a horse and buggy. Both were bachelors responsible not only for their human flock but also for their glebe land and stock. Here the boys could indulge in the country pursuits so dear to them and being spoiled by Aunt Barbara Peter who kept house for Uncle George. The Reverend James Peter, known as ‘the Abbot’, had a twinkle in his eye and was a gifted artist who illustrated, with great charm, journals of his travels abroad. From Kemnay and Old Deer James wrote regularly to his parents using such words as bass (doormat), brose (porridge) and lead (harvested), and telling them that he ‘got fine fun at the Backgammon’. Some of his vocabulary would be incomprehensible to a Sassenach or, even in some cases, to a Scot outside Buchan. To the locals the dialect is known as ‘the doric’. The sounds are guttural, as in Scandinavian languages, in contrast to the soft melodious brogue of the West Highlands.

At nineteen, now at the Aberdeen Infirmary, Reid was on the brink of an unusual medical career. He had bright blue twinkling eyes, wavy brown hair, and a beard. He was short (five feet eight and a half inches) and sturdy, and, as has been observed, spoke with a strong Aberdonian accent which never left him, though with time some local expressions were modified and his style of writing became Anglicised. He enjoyed exceptionally good health and, judging from his reports, he never missed a single lecture during his time at University.

Once while he was a medical student Reid went to London, and wrote to his mother in great excitement: ‘I think London is by far the best place I have ever been to – I have been driving about with Mrs Cruickshank a great deal and making calls with her. Today we drove in the Park and saw all the aristocracy of England in their carriages. It is a sight really worth seeing and which you have no Idea of.’ In those days London would have seemed as remote to the inhabitants of Ellon as the moon is to most of us today.

At the Aberdeen Infirmary he continued to achieve great heights academically. Alex Harvey, the Professor of Materia Medica and Consulting Physician to the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, wrote a glowing letter to Reid’s father after his son’s final pre-clinical examinations. ‘Last Wednesday, on announcing the prize-list, I did, what I believe I never did before, on an occasion of the kind, namely this – compliment your son in the face of the clap – I could not help doing so. I was so pleased with the style and substance of his exercises.’ His parents had good reason to be proud of him.

In his final year as a medical student he was top of his class and obtained the first prize in Botany, Chemistry, Materia Medica, Anatomy, Zoology with Comparative Anatomy, Physiology, Surgery, Midwifery and Medical Jurisprudence. After Reid had graduated in April 1872, James Brazier, Professor of Chemistry and Secretary to the Medical Faculty in the University, wrote in his testimonial: ‘On presenting himself for the medical professional examinations, Dr Reid obtained the highest mark in each of the branches comprised in the three separate divisions of the examinations, and necessarily thereafter graduated with the highest academical honours that the University could confer.’ So ended an exceptional academic career.

With glowing testimonials to support him, Reid decided to seek his fortune in his favourite city, and joined Dr William Vacy Lyle’s practice at 6 Westbourne Terrace, Paddington. Here he had considerable experience in practical medicine, managing large dispensaries and dealing with a great number of midwifery cases. Vacy Lyle was absent through illness much of the time so Reid was left in charge of a busy practice in what was then not a salubrious district. Yet he found time to contribute two articles to the British Medical Journal.* He also enjoyed London and told his mother he went ‘to the Park for a little to see the swells. I was rather in luck as on my way down I met the Queen and Duchess on their way to the station for Windsor.’ But after nine months in London Reid became restless and dissatisfied with his prospects. Vacy Lyle offered him a partnership on favourable terms, being afraid to lose him, but even this did not induce him to remain.

He determined instead to consolidate his studies in Vienna which then boasted one of the highest medical reputations in Europe. But first he must learn German. In November 1874 he left London for the Continent and wended his way slowly via Antwerp, Cologne, and Munich to Klagenfurt, in southern Austria, where he took up a position as tutor to the eight-year-old Karl, Count de Lodron.

It was Reid’s first visit abroad and he made the most of the opportunity to see the fine churches in Antwerp, and the cathedral in Cologne. He was immensely impressed by the scenery along the Rhine, and then even more by the Alps, writing to his parents: ‘The Tyrolese Alps by the Brenner Pass beats hollow everything I have ever seen, Rhine and all being nothing to it in my opinion. It must cost ever so much to keep the line clear of snow in winter. There seemed a man every few yards enveloped in fur and up to the ears in snow.’

By now he had ‘got into a country where nobody knew English or French and I was a little at sea. The second-class carriages are quite as good and comfortable as our first class. All the higher middle classes here travel second class, only fools and Dukes and adventurers go first class, a German gentleman told me.’

At last he arrived at Klagenfurt and was gratified to find himself thrown into a social life more exciting and elegant than any he had hitherto encountered, for Karl’s father was Civil Governor of Carinthia, and represented the Emperor Franz Joseph in that province. Karl was precocious, being an only child, and a little spoiled, but he was amiable and they soon became firm friends. It was not long before Reid was writing home: ‘I can lingo away quite well now and have no trouble with the Chamber maid!’

Although reasonably assiduous in attending church on Sundays, he was not deeply religious and he was openly tolerant towards denominations other than Presbyterian. He light-heartedly regaled his Uncle James, ‘the Abbot’, with a description of Lenten fare:

But inner man has been on short commons here the last two days, that is to say that we have been fasting and nothing but fish and slops on the go. In my desperation I have been driven to make onslaughts on fried ‘puddocks’ [frogs] and the soup made from the same lively little animals, and (would you believe it) I actually rather like the fare! Glory be to Allah! However the fast is over, and today we shall revel in the wing of the ox.

In summer Reid accompanied Karl on a round of visits to de Lodron relations, moving from one fine castle to another, and, now that he could ‘lingo away’ with greater ease, he enjoyed himself among these charming jolly country-loving aristocrats. From the Tyrol he wrote home to his parents: ‘It is a pity you could not have seen us climbing like Chamois among the rocks, and then sitting on the top, all three puffing at our cigars and taking in the magnificent view.’