Within hours of the death of their mother, Princes William and Harry showed bravery and dignity when, with their father and other members of the royal family, they sought comfort and solace in Crathie's hilltop kirk.

It was at Balmoral that the Prince of Wales and Diana's romance began. They announced their engagement at Sandringham in 1980, and at Balmoral the following year, made their first public appearance in Britain after their marriage.

It was in the early hours of this morning, at the place he describes as ''the best in the world'', that Prince Charles was told of the tragedy and in turn had to break the dreadful news to his sons.

It is less than three weeks since Prince Charles and the two boys posed on the banks of the River Dee in the hope that the photocall would allow them a summer break free from the attentions of photographers.

They braved the cameras again yesterday, this time as they made the short car journey from Balmoral to the kirk with which the family has such a close bond, and at which Diana worshipped so many times.

As most weeks during their summer stay, about 200 people lined the route - mainly holidaymakers - in the hope of catching a glimpse of members of the royal family.

Many only learned of Diana's death when they arrived at Crathie, and then expected, at most, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to attend the service.

They were, however, struck by the courage of Prince Charles and his sons when they appeared in the three royal limousines, at the heart of one of the biggest royal attendances at Crathie in recent years.

In the first was the Queen Mother, the Duke of York, and Peter Phillips. Prince Charles, in his kilt and flanked by his sons, travelled in the second, and the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were in the final car.

All looked solemn but composed.

About 100 people, mainly parishioners, but including a few tourists were in the small hilltop church when they arrived for the service, just two or three minutes before the scheduled 11.30 start.

Two foreign visitors who stood up in order to see the royals take their seats in the transept in which they normally sit, away from the glare of the public, were politely told it was not protocol.

The service was a joint one, with visiting minsister the Rev Adrian Varwell, from Benbecula, sharing the occasion with the Rev Robert Sloan, the minister of Crathie and the Queen's Chaplain in Scotland.

No mention was made of Diana, but there was clear reference to the tragedy in the prayers.

Mr Varwell asked God to help those who are grieving and whose hearts and lives are broken.

In his service, the Mr Sloan said: ''We remember all those who at this time need to know your presence. All those whose lives are darkened by tragedy and grief need to know more than human comfort and friendship.''

Later, he said it had been the normal service but the prayers reflected, as usual, what was going on in the world.

''Today, as we always do, we prayed for the royal family, but today especially for the Prince of Wales and the children.

''His family are very much a part of this community and the community loves them, and Diana is part of the royal family and they know her so there was a feeling of great shock and sadness,'' said Mr Sloan.

He said he hoped they were able to take comfort from the service.

''They come every Sunday when they are here on holiday and it was nice to see the Prince of Wales and the boys. They were remarkable, they were very, very good indeed, despite what must have been going on in their lives and hearts in the last six hours.

''I welcomed them before the service and said how pleased we were to see them and conveyed the love and the prayers of the people of Crathie, and assured them we were there for them.''

He said it was a very difficult service for him personally.

''I am the domestic chaplain in Scotland to the Queen and I meet her a lot, and they are part, not just of the parish, but of our Church family.''

Asked what he hoped the Prince of Wales might take from the service he said: ''That there is hope. Whatever happens in the world there is still a tomorrow.''

Mr Sloan said the royal family had been ''very sombre and very upset, but I think they appreciated the Church was here and it was Sunday.''

As they left, the Duke of Edinburgh and the the Queen, dressed in black, like the Queen Mother, smiled slightly and waved at the crowd.

Among tourists from America, Germany, and Sweden, was Ms Sheila Clark, from Newton Mearns, Glasgow, who said that she was stunned to learn the tragic news before she drove with her mother to Crathie to see the royals attend the service.

''I go up most Sundays during the summer to see them,'' she said.

''I have followed the royal family since I was about four, when I took my first photograph of Prince Charles.

''I last saw Diana at Sandringham, at Christmas 1994, when I took a photograph of her with the two boys. That will now be a treasured photograph.''

Ms Clark said that she had spoken to Diana on several occasions when she was in the crowd at engagements and the princess had walked amongst the public.

''She was a very warm person,'' she said. ''I just feel so much for the two boys.''

Also at the Kirk were Brenda and Raymond Whyatt, from Bolton, also keen royal followers, who made the drive from Pitlochry, where they are on holiday. They said they usually make at least one trip a year to Crathie.

''We didn't know anything about the tragedy until we arrived,'' said Mr Whyatt. ''It was the car park attendant who told us.''

Flowers were left outside the church by visitors wishing to pay their respects to Diana.

At the nearby Craigendarroch Country Club, where Diana was a regular visitor during her marriage, a ''fun day'' was cancelled as a mark of respect.

In nearby Ballater, Union flags few at half mast outside several of the shops which for many years have supplied Balmoral