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Aberdeen & Aberdeenshire

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

Ben Hendry
The Queen with the Duke of Edinburgh and their children at Balmoral Castle, the royal family's Scottish home for generations. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The Queen with the Duke of Edinburgh and their children at Balmoral Castle, the royal family's Scottish home for generations. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Balmoral Castle was the Queen’s retreat from the glare of the spotlight.

Pictures taken over the years show her beaming as she roamed the scenic countryside, getting back to basics with picnics by the side of Loch Muick and playing with her children.

On September 8, 2022, the 96-year-old monarch died peacefully at the spot she has loved since she was a little girl.

But how was this link between the royals and Deeside forged – and what might the future hold for it?

Balmoral Castle has been a home away from home for generations of the royal family. Image from Shutterstock.

Why does this all begin with literary legend Sir Walter Scott?

Before the 19th Century, the royals rarely visited Scotland.

But reading the books of Sir Walter Scott as a child instilled a love of the nation in Queen Victoria, and sparked a desire to see it for herself.

It was considered something of an “exotic” holiday when she first ventured over the border with Prince Albert in 1842.

The pair were greeted by Scotland “at its romantic best” at Drummond Castle, near Crieff.

Victoria and Albert were entranced by Drummond Castle

It reminded Albert of the forests in his native Germany – and Victoria even declared her fondness for porridge after having her first taste.

They soon decided to buy their own getaway in the glens.

Why did Queen Victoria choose Balmoral?

It’s said she viewed the 15th century castle as a place to “escape the sadness of the world” at a time when wars were raging across Europe.

Speaking in a documentary, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes said: “The moment she saw it, she felt she had come home.”

And the couple bought the castle only after seeing a picture of it.

Queen Victoria, with John Brown, at Balmoral in 1868.

How much did it cost?

Unlike other royal residences, the castle is not public property.

Prince Albert spent £30,000 on it in the 1850s, which is more than £4.4 million in today’s money.

Was it big enough for them?

Apparently not.

The new owners saw fit to erect a seven-storey tower in their bid to turn the spot into their fairytale Scottish castle.

The additions were designed by Aberdeen architect William Smith – who also masterminded the layout of the humbler Fittie community.

Victoria and Albert bedecked the place from top to toe in tartan, creating what historians called a “pre-Disney vision of Scotland”.

Was everyone impressed?

No, not everyone shared their tastes.

Royal historian Philip Ziegler termed Balmoral a “gruesome house” and “totally charmless”.

How big is the estate?

The estate measures 50,000 acres – which is twice the size of Manchester.

It has about 150 other buildings, including cottages, farms and a distillery.

You can roam the surrounding glens for hours at a time without seeing another soul, which is part of the allure for the royals.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh during a visit to a farm on their Balmoral estate, to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary in 1972.

Isn’t it awfully cold?

Yes, neighbouring village Braemar is the coldest place in the UK.

While it might sound strange, this struggle with the elements is something that seems to appeal to the royal family – or some of them, at least.

Queen Victoria is said to have enjoyed “frequent” walks in the hills and picnics regardless of the fierce conditions.

Queen Victoria at Balmoral pictured with some of her children, ladies in waiting, guests and estate staff at a celebration in a marquee in the grounds. The picture is likely to date from the 1880s or ’90s.

What happened after Albert died?

The death of her husband was the major event in Victoria’s life, and she retreated from the world after it.

Naturally, she spent more and more time at Balmoral, in a “widow’s house” on the shores of Loch Muick.

The estate was plunged into a joyless state for years, and Victoria erected a huge cairn in memory of her beloved – which is one of the main attractions for visitors today.

Prince Albert’s cairn offers stunning views across the Balmoral estate. Supplied by Aberdeen Hillwalking Club

Queen Victoria paid her final visit to Balmoral in January 1901, and died a few weeks later.

The sprawling estate would prove something of a “testing ground for royal behaviour” among her descendants…

Which members of the royal family passed ‘the Balmoral Test’?

First in line was King Edward VII, known as a “prince of pleasure” and not one for outdoor pursuits. He failed the Balmoral test.

Next to sit on the throne was King George V, who said he was “never so happy as when fishing the pools of the River Dee”. A natural fit, he passed.

That the controversial King Edward VII was ill-suited to Balmoral will come as little surprise to anyone familiar with him.

September 1936: King Edward VIII inspects a Scottish regiment at Balmoral. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

Much more at home on the French Riviera, Balmoral was not his cup of tea (or glass of champagne).

This conflict reached new highs when his American socialite wife Wallis Simpson sent shockwaves through the castle by declaring: “This tartan has to go!”

After Edward abdicated, King George VI took over and married a Scot in Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (better known as the Queen Mother).

A fan of all things Scottish, he embraced Balmoral.

What did Balmoral mean to The Queen?

A “country woman at heart”, Elizabeth II embraced Balmoral with a passion that would make Queen Victoria proud.

Queen Elizabeth II arranges wares at a sale at Abergeldy Castle, near Balmoral Castle. Princess Anne watches closely while Princes Charles appears interested in other items. The sale was organised by the Queen Mother to help raise funds for a vestry at Crathie Castle. Picture by AP/Shutterstock.

Legend has it, she was even able to converse quite comfortably in Doric when chatting with locals.

For her, it has provided a getaway from her busy lifestyle and something of a portal into the past.

Where did The Queen spend her time at Balmoral?

The Queen was known to reside at the nearby Craigowan Lodge when not in the castle itself.

With a relatively modest seven bedrooms, this property was the closest thing she had to an “ordinary” home.

Craigiowan Lodge is the royal equivalent of a but and ben. Photo by Peter Jolly/Shutterstock

When the castle is open to the public in the summer months, the monarch was known to stay in the nearby house.

The matriarch was thought to enjoy the relative lack of grandeur and relished the chance to enjoy life as a “normal married couple” there with Prince Philip.

Prince Charles and a less-than-impressed Diana honeymooned there in 1981.

Has Balmoral Castle featured in The Crown?

There has been much discussion on how Netflix hit The Crown depicts the royals.

And whether the scenes reflect reality or not, many important episodes have had Balmoral front and centre.

It has been the setting for a focus on Margaret Thatcher’s thorny relationship with the family.

That same episode, called The Balmoral Test, also featured a young Princess Diana’s attempts to impress the royals

However, Ardverikie House in Kinloch Laggan has played the role of Balmoral in external scenes.

Ardverikie House.

How did Diana feel about Balmoral?

The People’s Princess denounced the “myth” that she “hated” the summer residence according to her interviews with biographer Andrew Morton.

Roaming along the banks of the River Dee, the kilted Prince of Wales with his princess during their holiday in Scotland while staying at Balmoral Castle with other members of the royal family.

She said she “loved Scotland” but found the atmosphere at the castle “draining”.

She said: “Instead of having a holiday, it’s the most stressful time of the year. It’s very close quarters.”

And how does Prince Harry remember his childhood retreat?

Prince Harry’s book, Spare, lifted the lid on much about his life (some would argue, too much).

While the estranged royal took aim at several aspects of the establishment, he spoke lovingly of his time at Balmoral.

Prince Harry plays at Diana’s feet on the banks of the Dee. Image: Brendan Beirne/Shutterstock

Harry recalled King Charles doing headstands in his boxer shorts and how staff would “use measuring tape” to ensure the banquet table was perfectly laid.

In his infant years, Balmoral was “a cross between Disney World and some sacred Druid grove” though it became more like “a crypt” in the days after Diana’s death.

Spare, released in Spain ahead of the UK, offered a rare peek into life at Balmoral. Image: Shutterstock

Other memories include eating fish fingers, bowing to a statue of Queen Victoria and even saying his final farewell to the Queen.

One harrowing chapter recounts how he “feared he would die” as his head was shoved inside a dead deer in a gruesome initiation.

Read more about that here.

Is there anything else about Balmoral you’ve always wondered about? Let us know in our new comments section!

What famous faces have visited the royal family at Balmoral?

Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, visited the Deeside spot to see Victoria.

Tsar Nicholas II and Queen Victoria at Balmoral

Traditionally, the Prime Minister has been invited to join the Queen at Balmoral at some point every summer – beginning with Winston Churchill in 1952.

In 1959 Dwight D Eisenhower became the only American president to be invited to the Queen’s estate.

Meanwhile, Cherie Blair and Boris Johnson are among some of the notable figures thought not to have passed the Balmoral Test.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex reportedly enjoyed a break there after their May 2018 wedding. What Meghan thought of its old-fashioned tartan pageantry remains unknown.

What’s it like inside?

Privacy is paramount at Balmoral, and glimpses inside the regal residence are few and far between.

But, on the occasions cameras have been permitted past the doors, they have captured a traditional home unlikely to have changed too much over the centuries.

A video in 1977 shows The Queen and Prince Philip in a front room lined with huge hardback books, sitting by a roaring fireplace and selecting fishing rods from a wood-panelled room adorned with mounted stag heads.

Images released showing the visit of Canada’s governor general-designate, Julie Payette, 40 years later reveal the room is largely unchanged.

The same carriage clock sits atop the mantle, the only notable change being an electric fire below instead of the flames filmed in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, in 2012, ITV cameras documented David Cameron’s visit, sitting with the Queen in a room featuring a grand piano with a framed photograph of a favourite horse on it.

Among the newspapers on her table was a copy of that morning’s Press and Journal.

What was life like at Balmoral during lockdown?

Like the rest of the UK, the entire estate was plunged into lockdown.

It was only a few weeks into the pandemic that Charles was diagnosed with Covid, shortly after arriving for a stay in Aberdeenshire.

The Duke of Rothesay sent a video message to guests at the opening of the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the ExCel centre in London in April 2020. Image: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Nurse Sharon Falconer told of her time visiting the expanse during those surreal months. 

With everyone isolating, she went from room to room carrying out throat swabs.

Sharon recalled staff leaving meals outside doors so that royals staying there could collect them without coming into contact.

The Queen and Prince Philip stayed there that summer, though they had to avoid many of their usual traditions such as the Braemar Gathering – which was cancelled for the first time since 1945.

The August journey was their first trip from Windsor since the outbreak began.

In 2021, the Queen arrived for a bittersweet stay without Philip by her side. 

How did the estate change to home The Queen in her twilight years?

In 2021, the late monarch had a £20,000 lift installed at Craigowan Lodge.

Plans for new CCTV were formed for the site too, on the understanding she might end up spending more time there.

In late May 2022 the Queen arrived there for a short stay, just the tonic ahead of the busy Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

Steve Mitchell and daughter Constance, four, laid flowers at the gates of Balmoral as the public joined the royal family in mourning the death of Prince Philip last April. Picture by Kenny Elrick

It’s understood there was some question about her returning a few months later for the usual summer stay, in what turned out to be the final weeks of her life.

Biographer Gyles Brandreth has suggested she “knew her 96th birthday would be her last”.

But a stickler for tradition, and relishing the chance to return to the spot she adored, the Queen made the trip north.

Queen Elizabeth II welcomes Liz Truss during an audience at Balmoral. Jane Barlow/PA Wire

On Tuesday, September 6, she broke with tradition to appoint Liz Truss new prime minister from her Aberdeenshire abode.

Typically this is done at Buckingham Palace, but Ms Truss and predecessor Boris Johnson flew to the north-east due to her health.

Crowds gathered at the Balmoral gates to show their respects as the Queen’s serious condition became clear. Picture by Kami Thomson.

Just 48 hours later it emerged that The Queen was nearing the end.

During rolling coverage from Balmoral, the BBC’s Huw Edwards described it as a place where she had “so many happy memories during her long life”.

He added: “It brings back memories of times with her parents and her sister Margaret, and of her family when they were young.

“It is a place of great happiness for the Queen, despite mobility problems and health issues she wanted to leave Windsor and journey to Balmoral as usual this year.”

Vanity Fair’s royal correspondent Katie Nicholl told the BBC she believed the Queen wanted to spend her final days there.

She said: “The Queen knew she wasn’t going to come back [to Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace], I think she wanted to be in Balmoral and she wanted to pass there.

“I think Balmoral was the one place where she could actually leave her crown at the gates and be a different role, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother.”

How did the Queen spend her final weeks?

Little remains known about how Her Majesty saw out her days, though it was with some regret that her health problems meant she had to miss the Braemar Gathering the weekend before she died.

Pictures from around the time do appear to show she was still able to enjoy her final summer stay there, though.

An Italian publication shared images of her walking her beloved dogs around the estate, with the help of a shepherd’s crook.

Pictures also emerged of her taking in a pipe band performance while sheltered under a gazebo.

The newspaper said that, despite becoming increasingly frail, she remained as “sparkling” company as always.

Pipe Major Bethany Bisaillion told how the Queen was “thrilled” by the performance and appeared in high spirits as they played on August 17.

And The Daily Mail reported that, four days before she died, she hosted a shooting party for her cousins at Balmoral.

How much is Balmoral worth?

A Guardian investigation estimated the value of the estate as £80 million.

This is comprised of sporting rights, the commercial forests worth £20m, a £17m hydroelectric dam, and the Delnadamph grouse moor tipped to be worth £8m.

But they say that pricetag could be conservative… A buyer might shell out more “because of its powerful royal associations”.

When can I visit?

The castle and grounds are open to the public from April 1 to August 2, and tickets should be booked in advance.

Plans for a takeaway kiosk were lodged in April, 2023, with visitor numbers expected to soar.

What does the future hold for the royal family at Balmoral?

The new King is thought to be considering turning the castle into a museum.

Read more on that, and the new monarch’s relationship with the estate, here:

Honeymoons, heritage and heartbreak… What does Balmoral mean to King Charles?