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‘I really miss her’: Queen’s personal reverend opens up about laughs with monarch who ‘knew everyone’ around Balmoral

One year on from her death, we had an exclusive chat with one of Her Majesty's closest confidants in Deeside.

Queen Elizabeth II and Rev Kenneth MacKenzie at Crathie Kirk.
Queen Elizabeth II and Rev Kenneth MacKenzie welcome visitors at Crathie Kirk in 2019. Image: Peter Jolly/Shutterstock.

Reverend Kenneth MacKenzie’s mood lightens when he talks about The Queen.

Billions knew her as a face on their postage stamps – a friendly yet distant figure whose life was defined by solemn duty to her country.

But Rev MacKenzie knew another side of her.

His recollections, amassed over 17 years, paint a woman who doesn’t seem too different from the rest of us.

Behind the thick royal curtains, she was a loving mother and a dear friend, who would always spare some time for a “bit of nonsense and a bit of fun”.

The Queen’s happiness when visiting Scotland always proved infectious for the big crowds. Image: Aberdeen Journals archive.

But above all, he recalls her as someone that showed great interest in the Deeside community where she felt at home.

“I really miss her,” Rev MacKenzie sighs as we discuss the anniversary of her death.

“She was a big part of our life as a community, but also – my life as an individual.

“I was then, and remain, deeply affected by her passing.”

Queen's Balmoral reverend Kenneth MacKenzie.
Reverend Kenneth Mackenzie became The Queen’s domestic chaplain in 2007 – two years after he became minister of the parish of Braemar and Crathie. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

One year after The Queen’s death, we sat down with her personal reverend who revealed a different side of Her Majesty, including:

  • How she knew the Royal Deeside area “as well as any local”, and would always ask after other neighbours
  • The many laughs they shared as The Queen unleashed her often-hidden sense of humour
  • How an ageing Queen would reflect on the changing place of the monarchy in today’s world
  • And Rev MacKenzie tells us about the day Her Majesty died just around the corner from his kirk

How it all began…

It’s not many who could say they have ever had the edge over The Queen.

But when they first met in 2005, Rev MacKenzie knew something she didn’t.

I’m speaking to the clergyman on a weathered wooden bench outside Crathie Kirk, just a stone’s throw from the gates of Balmoral Castle.

He starts by telling me how he became The Queen’s domestic chaplain in Deeside.

Queen Elizabeth II would spend the summer months at Balmoral Castle and worshippers at Crathie became used to the presence of the Royal Family among the congregation. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

“It’s a remarkable story actually,” he says.

“Meeting The Queen for the first time can be quite strange, as you can imagine. But I also came here knowing that I’ll probably be spending a lot of time in this parish.”

Rev MacKenzie was working as a minister in Budapest when he was invited to come to Crathie Kirk as a guest preacher, and stayed at the adjacent castle for two days.

His faith had taken him all across the globe – including Central and Eastern Europe, as well as America, where he was involved in community projects for those less fortunate.

Queen Elizabeth II at Crathie Kirk for a service of commemoration to mark the start of the First World War<br />First World War centenary. Image: Shutterstock.

And leaving all of this behind wasn’t an easy decision.

But taking over the parish of Braemar and Crathie was an offer he felt compelled to consider.

As Rev MacKenzie shook The Queen’s hand in the front room of the castle for the first time, he already knew this was the start of a long-lasting relationship.

Unlike Her Majesty, who was yet to be informed about the important role he was about to embark on.

He admits he was “somewhat nervous” to begin with, but the beaming monarch quickly rectified that with a kind smile.

The Queen attending The Braemar and Crathie sale of work in 2019 to raise funds for Crathie Kirk. The Queen always used to donate the Raffle prize of a tea set and a cake. Image: Invicta Kent Media/Shutterstock.

“She was so good at making people feel welcome and comfortable,” Rev MacKenzie adds.

“And she was really well briefed and knowledgeable about an awful lot of things.

“I got the sense immediately that this was somebody who was really interested in this place and the community of which she was a part of.

“She knew the parish pretty much as well as anybody who lives here.”

The Queen was ‘full of fun’

Perhaps “funny” wouldn’t be the word that immediately comes to mind when you think of a stoic monarch careful of maintaining decorum at all times.

And it would be natural if some find it hard to imagine Her Majesty cracking a joke or two, or laughing her head off.

But The Queen’s quick wit is forever imprinted on the memory of those closest to her.

The Queen and Rev MacKenzie at Crathie Kirk. Image: Lex Ballantyne/Newsline.

Rev MacKenzie says she just had a knack for bringing cheer to the people around her.

He can’t help but chuckle as he reminisces about the laughs they’ve had together over the years – some of which he thought it’s better not to reveal.

Within her intimate circle, she was known for her great talent to mimic people’s facial expressions and accents – holding a secret desire to be an impressionist in another life.

And Rev MacKenzie is certain she would often use him as a target of her wit when he was out of sight. In a nice way, of course.

The Queen during her Jubilee celebrations last year. Image: Jonathan Brady/PA.

Her humorous side shone through just hours after their first meeting at Balmoral when the pair got stuck behind a locked deer fence as she was driving them to a BBQ at Craigowan Lodge.

Through a giggle, Rev MacKenzie says: “The Queen looked really surprised it was closed, so – thinking I’m doing the right thing – I jumped out of the Range Rover to open it.

“When I got to the gate, I realised there were two padlocks there and neither would open.

“I turned around after a while and The Queen was dangling a set of keys through the window – ‘I think you might need these’.”

Queen Elizabeth II and her son at the Braemar Highland Games.
Queen Elizabeth II and her son at the Braemar Highland Games. The royals have been regular visitors to the games since Queen Victoria first attended in 1848. Image: Press Association.

He adds: “She was genuinely very quick-witted, lively and fun. The one thing that will remain stuck in my memory would be her sense of humour.”

‘How I saw another side of The Queen’

That rather amusing event laid the foundation of a strong and enduring bond of respect and affection.

Over the years, Rev MacKenzie became a trusted confidant with whom Her Majesty would share her happiness – but also her moments of vulnerability and doubt.

He was “privileged” to spent a lot of time with her – probably as much as anyone in Deeside – and see her in a different light.

Queen Elizabeth II has been coming to Balmoral for the summer months ever since she was a little girl. In this photo Prince Charles is sitting on a statue watched by his parents, and King George VI. Image: Shutterstock.

Rev MacKenzie holds fond memories of how she was with her children, saying he witnessed a dynamic similar to the one he had with his own mother.

After the death of her father, The Queen – then Princess Elizabeth – ascended to the throne and swore to faithfully serve the nation as their sovereign.

In a speech, broadcast on radio from Cape Town, she said: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”

And that she did with “responsibility, knowledge and dignity” until the end of her days – becoming the longest-serving monarch in British history.

From a young queen to the grandmother of the nation, decade after decade, she smiled, waved, shook hands and chatted to all – despite any family scandals and tragedy.

Speaking of her 70-year reign, Rev MacKenzie says she was led not only by a sense of duty – but a sense of calling.

The Duchess of Cornwall, the Prince of Wales, Prince George, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Queen Elizabeth II on the balcony at Buckingham Palace following Trooping the Colour at Horse Guards Parade in 2015. Image: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

He adds: “She had a really clear sense that this was something she has been enabled to do by the grace of God and with the support of those around her.

“And she did it not just with sober solemn duty, but with a kind of enthusiasm and a certain joy.”

But in her later years, she would often have moments of reflection on her reign, the ever-shifting patterns of modern society and her place in this new world.

Crathie Kirk was used by Queen Victoria and her entourage from 1848 when they came to Balmoral Castle. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

Rev MacKenzie says: “There would have been times in her life when she might have looked at her mother and sensed how different her role was compared to hers.

“But around here, she was treated not only with respect but with genuine affection.

“We felt honoured that she clearly felt so much at home in Deeside and had such love for this community, this parish and this church.”

Watch The Queen officially being welcomed by guard of honor at Balmoral for the final time in summer of 2021:

Why did The Queen feel ‘she belonged’ in Deeside? 

Balmoral Castle was The Queen’s retreat from day-to-day royal duties.

In the tranquil Aberdeenshire countryside, she had the chance to enjoy time with her family away from the glare of the spotlight.

Her visits were not something unusual for those living in Deeside, who had taken her in as one of their own – “a neighbour that was just a little bit more special”.

Her Majesty remained very engaged with the community throughout her life and would often ask after the wellbeing of others.

Making a happy group on the lawns at Balmoral, are the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and their three children Princess Anne, Prince Charles and baby Prince Andrew.

“She would quite often ask me about people who were getting married or people who weren’t well, or if people had retired and moved away,” Rev MacKenzie says.

“It was very natural, just like any other person would do.

“The fact that she was the monarch didn’t make a difference. She knew she could just be natural and felt relaxed here.”

A “country woman at heart”, she relished spending time with her horses and was interested whether they would be parading at the Blair Horse Show or local Highland Games events.

And sometimes, she would just enjoy a picnic by the side of Loch Muick or reading a book in the garden.

Queen Elizabeth at a charity horse riding event at Balmoral Estate.
Queen Elizabeth at a charity horse riding event at Balmoral Estate. Image: Rhuary Grant/Shutterstock.

Rev MacKenzie says: “I think she felt she belonged here in a way that felt like home to her.

“She trusted the people who would come to spend time with her, or who would meet her while out on a walk in the woods.

“You’d notice how her eyes would light up when she spoke about her horses or reminiscing about stories in the mountains around here.

“She still had duties and was kept busy, but here there were just times when she can get away and enjoy the beauty of this place.”

Queen's Balmoral reverend Kenneth MacKenzie.
Kenneth MacKenzie at the pulpit he has presided over for almost 20 years. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson

‘Her death was a big change for us – we lost one of our own’

Rev MacKenzie’s demeanor changes as our conversation takes a different direction.

“It was inevitable that day would come, and the nation had known for a long time that The Queen wasn’t in perfect health.

“It was quite unlikely that the Queen would die here in Deeside but that’s what happened.

“But because so much had happened that week, none of us were really prepared for what happened on the Thursday.”

Queen with Liz Truss at Balmoral Castle.
Queen Elizabeth II welcoming Liz Truss during an audience at Balmoral on Tuesday, September 6. This was the last photo of The Queen before she died. Image: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

On September 8, just days after she welcomed Liz Truss as the new Prime Minister at Balmoral, The Queen died peacefully at the spot she loved since she was a little girl.

That morning, Rev MacKenzie received a call from the Royal Palace to inform him her health was getting worse.

He had been planning to attend a wedding rehearsal in Dunkeld – an arrangement hastily scrapped when he learned of Her Majesty’s rapid deterioration.

A few hours later, he shared a moment in solitude with The Queen for the final time.

The details of this, he kept to himself.

The hearse carrying the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, draped with the Royal Standard of Scotland, leaving Balmoral as it begins its journey to Edinburgh.
The hearse carrying the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, draped with the Royal Standard of Scotland, leaving Balmoral as it begins its journey to Edinburgh. Image: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire.

“I really did spend a lot of time with The Queen,” he says as his eyes wander off across the nearby field.

“I had enormous personal respect and affection for her. To all of us, it felt like we lost one of our own – one who really knew us and engaged with us.”

Flowers, gifts and heartfelt messages flooded Balmoral Castle that day as the nation went into mourning.

Behind the iron gates, a family was grieving the loss of a loving mother and grandmother.

Tributes for The Queen at Balmoral.
Hundreds of heartbroken people left tributes. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

How did Rev MacKenzie help grieving royals after the death?

But there was a glimpse of relief and comfort among the sorrow – Her Majesty had died at home surrounded by her closest people.

On Saturday afternoon, Rev MacKenzie held a private vigil at Crathie Kirk where members of the Royal Family could pray and reflect.

The service was led by beautiful music from local musicians – including Aberdeenshire fiddler Paul Anderson who performed Lament for the Death of King George V.

The more intimate procession finished with locals coming to pay their respect to the monarch – all people she knew from the village.

Watch Paul Anderson play Lament for the Death of King George V at Crathie Kirk:

Do you have any memories of meeting The Queen? Let us know in our comments section below.

‘I’m glad she was able to spend so much time with us’

And as the cortege made its way through Deeside, thousands more lined up the route to bid final farewell to The Queen.

“It was a really poignant experience – there were just that sense of reverence and respect,” says Rev MacKenzie who followed the coffin during its voyage.

“We all understood the high regard which she held across the world – but also, here in Deeside.

“And I’m glad she was able to spend so much time with us right up to the end.”

I’m about to leave Crathie Kirk, when another pair of visitors approaches the centuries-old church.

“Is this the royal chapel?” they ask.

And as Rev MacKenzie takes them through, he once again begins to tell the story of the extraordinary monarch who he came to think of as a friend.

Read about how The Queen’s memory took centre stage at the first Braemar Gathering since she died here

 And learn about her life-long love of Aberdeenshire with our guide: 

Why did Balmoral matter so much to the Queen? Everything you need to know about the Deeside castle fit for royalty