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Balmoral cairns: Seeking out royal relics

Gayle and her dog Toby check out Prince Albert's cairn on the Balmoral Estate.
Gayle and her dog Toby check out Prince Albert's cairn on the Balmoral Estate.

Hidden in woods surrounding Balmoral Castle in Royal Deeside are 11 stone cairns erected by Queen Victoria. Gayle tracks down seven of them.

Nicknamed “the monoliths of the Cairngorms”, the stone cairns dotted around Balmoral estate are an impressive and unusual sight.

I knew nothing of their existence until last month, when a friend mentioned he’d tracked down the towering relics on a woodland walk.

Most were erected by Queen Victoria in honour of various family members, but the icing on the cake – the daddy of them all – is the enormous granite pyramid commemorating the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert.

A six-mile trail takes you right past the historic cairns and the views afforded of Deeside are outstanding.

The sun was shining when I headed to Crathie, usually swarming with tourist buses, but I was delighted to discover very few people around.

After parking beside the (closed) shop, I consulted my phone for directions – the trail isn’t signposted and it’s worryingly easy to get lost.

If you doubt your phone’s signal, I’d advise going armed with a print-out of instructions, or a book and a map.

And you need to be fairly fit to take on this expedition – there are a lot of hills to scale!

Crossing the shaking suspension bridge (my quivering-legged dog wasn’t a fan), I followed a private road uphill, passing a row of pretty cottages.

Stunning woodland on Balmoral Estate.

The eagle-eyed may spot a miniscule cairn symbol on a telegraph pole indicating the way, but it’s easily missed.

Nearby, there’s a signpost for Prince Albert’s cairn, but it’s a steep scramble and I fancied hunting down the smaller ones first.

Heading through a gate into dense woodland and over a rickety old bridge, I continued alongside a dry gorge.

The first cairn, marking Princess Helena’s marriage to a German prince in 1866, is tricky to spot – you can’t see it from the path – but if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll spot a rough track winding up through the forest.

Princess Helena’s cairn.

Next up, sitting on a rocky knoll, is Princess Louise’s cairn, erected to commemorate her marriage to the Marquis of Lorne in 1871.

Gayle and Toby in front of Princess Louise’s cairn.

The third one, probably my favourite, is the Purchase Cairn, erected in 1852 to honour the purchase of Balmoral estate by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

The views across Deeside are utterly stupendous and it’s the perfect picnic spot, complete with wooden bench.

Toby at the Purchase Cairn.

I sat there basking in the warm sunshine and taking in the panoramic vista for a good half hour, enjoying my smoked salmon sandwiches and flask of coffee. Absolute bliss.

Stunning views across Deeside.

Just around the corner I found Prince Leopold’s cairn, boasting spectacular views down to Balmoral Castle.

The poor lad had haemophilia and sadly died aged 30 in 1884.

At this point of what felt like a treasure hunt, I got lost and somehow missed Prince Arthur’s cairn.

I went round in circles and deliberated retracing my tracks but my legs were getting weary and time was kicking on.

Instead, I paused for a moment in a clearing to drink in the glorious views of snow-capped Lochnagar.

Princess Alice’s cairn.
A stone plaque on Princess Alice’s cairn.

Minutes later, I found Princess Alice’s cairn perched on a mound, surrounded by moss-covered rocks and anthills.

She too died young – aged 35 – in 1878, having married Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse, in 1862.

A long and steep march uphill through dense woodland and muddy tracks eventually led me to Prince Albert’s Cairn.

And what a beast is it! The huge, granite pyramid-like structure apparently measures 41 feet by 41 feet at the base and makes taking a selfie beside it rather difficult!

Prince Albert’s impressive cairn.
A plaque on Prince Albert’s cairn.

After Albert’s death aged 42, heartbroken Victoria began spending increasing periods at Balmoral, staying for as long as four months a year during early summer and autumn.

When her favourite ghillie John Brown died in 1883, she erected a statue in his memory, although there are rumours she built a cairn dedicated to him.

The statue was originally sited next to Garden Cottage, but locals removed it, fearing Victoria’s son, Albert Edward, who disliked John, would destroy it. Instead it was placed on the remote hillside of Craig Gowan where it stands to this day.

As I headed downhill, I passed my final cairn of the day – Princess Beatrice’s.

The youngest child of Victoria and Albert, she married Prince Henry of Battenburg and 1885 and died aged 87 in 1944.

A signpost to Prince Albert’s cairn.

Back home later that night, I wondered why I’d only spotted seven cairns when I’d read there were 11.

I knew I’d missed Arthur’s but what of the other three – Princess Victoria, Prince Albert Edward and Prince Alfred?

A quick Google indicated there are indeed cairns dedicated to them, but they’re on hills a bit further away.

That leaves one more on the Balmoral estate – the Diamond Jubilee Cairn, constructed by two dry stone “dykers” from Crieff and gifted to the Queen in 2012.

And it transpires there are a good few more dotted around the area as Queen Victoria was very fond of erecting the structures.

The walk to the Balmoral cairns takes you through glorious woodlands.

Having spent years exploring the Cairngorms and never known about this fab journey of discovery at Balmoral, I can highly recommend it.

It’s got everything – history, heritage, cracking views, unusual features, and is a fantastic calorie burner and thigh-tightener!

  • The Balmoral Cairns trail is best avoided when the royal family is in residence.