Fascinating insights of letters from Winston Churchill and Charles Darwin's widow and diaries recording key moments of history

Thousands of letters, diaries and pictures from the family archive of former British prime minister Arthur Balfour have been bought by National Records of Scotland on behalf of the nation.

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The collection, which fills 20 metres of shelves, includes a letter from Charles Darwin’s widow in 1882 following the naturalist’s death, as well as a letter from Winston Churchill in 1925, warning of the need to avoid another conflict or “Armageddon no. 2” between France and Germany.

The is also a Cabinet memo on the 1923 Balfour Declaration giving British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and photographs taken at the family home at Whittingehame in East Lothian.

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The collections features a diary written by Balfour’s sister-in-law Lady Frances Balfour, with a sparse entry recording the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison on Derby Day 1913, saying: “Miss Davidson SPU tried to destroy race. Touched King’s horse, she is dead. The 1st blood.”

Arthur J Balfour (1848-1930) was prime minister from 1902 until 1905, but previously served in Cabinet under his uncle Lord Salisbury and later became foreign secretary under Lloyd George.

He was a delegate at the Versailles peace conference in 1919 after the First World War. Altogether he spent about 27 years in Cabinet posts.

In her diary for October 1922, Balfour’s unmarried sister Alice, who kept house for her brother, describes how they hosted at Whittingehame Lloyd George and several members of his coalition government shortly after it had been ousted by a rebellion of Tory backbenchers.

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The Balfour family on the steps of Whittingehame House with the mystery woman whose face has been blacked out.

She noted: “Lloyd George was full of his reception in Edinburgh. They had got out of the train at the Haymarket and motored in an open hired motor to the east end of Musselburgh, where they got into Arthur’s motor and so here. There were crowds in the street the whole way, cheering and enthusiastic in spite of bitter cold weather and showers of rain and sleet.”

There is also a picture showing Balfour and Lloyd George during that visit to Whittinghehame, said probably to show them on their way to church on the Sunday.

Another photograph of the Balfour family on the steps of Whittingehame House contains a puzzle for researchers. It includes Balfour, his brothers Gerald and Eustace and other relatives, but also an unknown woman whose face has been blacked out, the reason a mystery.

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Balfour was an enthusiastic golfer – he was captain of the Royal and Ancient at St Andrews – and the pictures in the collection include one of him after teeing off at the Old Course in 1894, watched by an appreciative crowd.

Photograph of David Lloyd George and Balfour at Whittinghame in October 1922.

Towards the end of his life, Balfour began to prepare his own memoirs. He wrote that each year from 1891 until 1914 he spent as much time as possible in September playing golf at North Berwick.

“I became infatuated with golf … and I met golfing friends ... with whom during many years I spent the happiest hours of my life,” he said.

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Dr Alan Borthwick, head of private records for National Records of Scotland (NRS), said: “He would spend the whole month at home in Whittinghame, going off to play golf in North Berwick – he would go out about 9am, have a couple of rounds of golf and go back to a hotel in North Berwick.”

Balfour was born at Whittingehame and is also buried there.

An 1894 photograph of A J Balfour at the Old Course, St Andrews, having just teed off. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Dr Borthwick said the collection, bought by the NRS for £500,000, was one of pre-eminent importance on a local, national and international level and included items from 1577 to 1956. It was previously on long-term loan from the family, but negotiations last year led to its purchase.

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“This collection offers a remarkable insight into life in a family whose influence stretched around the world, revealing them at home, at work and at play,” he said. “The purchase means its future is secured for posterity.”

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The diary entry by Lady Frances Balfour for 4 June 1913 records the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire.
Head of private records Dr Alan Borthwick with a photograph dated 1894 of Balfour on the Old Course at St Andrews. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
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