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

Prince Charles With Prince William And Prince Harry
At the time- Prince Charles With Prince William And Prince Harry at Balmoral. Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images

It’s a place where he has experienced life’s major milestones.

King Charles was at Balmoral when he had to break the news of their mum’s tragic death to sons Harry and William.

A quarter of a century later, he was by his own mother’s bedside when the Queen died at the Scottish retreat she adored.

But the Deeside estate is also the scene of countless happy childhood memories, and a haven where he was able to bond with his boys away from the glare of the spotlight.

He spent both of his honeymoons roaming the 50,000-acre expanse.

And it’s where Charles returned to privately mourn just hours after his mum’s funeral.

And at the time of his coronation, we look at what Balmoral means to King Charles.

Queen Elizabeth II with her father, King George VI, and Prince Philip watching a young Prince Charles sitting on a statue at Balmoral in 1951.

When did King Charles first visit Balmoral?

Charles was less than a year old when he was taken aboard the train from London to Ballater for his first stay.

His mum, then just a princess herself, journeyed there with the bundled-up tot at the start of August 1949.

A baby King Charles, in the arms of his nurse, arrives at Ballater on his first visit to Balmoral.

The trip came about 100 years on from the royals adopting the region as their home away from home, after Victoria and Albert fell in love with it.

Images taken over the ensuing decade showed the growing lad returning each summer, later joined by his younger siblings.

This image from 1953 shows the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh with Anne and Charles at Balmoral Castle. Photo by PA Wire

Was a young King Charles fond of Balmoral?

The future Head of the Commonwealth was mainly brought up by nannies and the Queen Mother.

Royal commentators say his was a childhood of “conflicting demands”, combining official ceremonies with time away at boarding school.

Charles shakes hands with his Gordonstoun housemaster Robert Whitby, looking on is the Duke of Edinburgh and headmaster Robert Chew.

Footage from a BBC documentary narrated by the monarch show him playing on the sunny shores of Loch Muick with his dad.

Over the images, Charles answers questions on whether his father was “a disciplinarian”.

The Duke of Edinburgh is seen instructing his son on how to fish, as Charles explains that he “didn’t suffer fools gladly, but was very good at showing you how to do things.”

A sensitive soul, Charles made it clear how much he disliked the hardship of his Gordonstoun education.

It was said to be a “crushingly lonely” time for the bullied youth.

Still bristling years on, he even referred to the Moray school as “Colditz with kilts“.

This video shows a young Charles enjoying some family time at Balmoral:

By contrast, images from his time in Royal Deeside depict a relatively carefree youngster – relishing rare occasions when the family could enjoy something like a normal life.

One picture shows a beaming little boy racing after a runaway calf, his kilt swishing in the wind.

A carefree moment for the kilted Charles as he happily chases a runaway calf that escaped from its pen on the dairy farm at Balmoral.

A future polo player, Charles also nurtured his love of horses on trips to Balmoral.

It’s a passion the entire family shared, and were able to enjoy in peace on their getaway trips.

This 1955 photo shows the little prince holding the reins of “William” while his sister guides “Greensleeves.” Photo by Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock

What tartan does the monarch wear when visiting Scotland?

Charles is often seen in tweeds and tartan on his visits north of the border.

And he has been known to commonly don the Balmoral tartan invented by Prince Albert in 1853.

In this portrait commissioned for his 18th birthday, Charles is wearing the Balmoral tartan.

It is predominantly grey with over-checks of red and black, designed to match the area’s granite.

The pattern was restricted to royals until 1936, when it was adopted by the Balmoral Estate Pipers as well.

Charles is wearing the Balmoral tartan kilt while making a new friend on this visit to Balmoral in 2001.

How often did Charles bring Princess Diana there?

Though Diana would later recount mixed feelings about the Highland hideaway, it was a spot she and Charles often visited as their relationship blossomed.

Princess Diana leaning on Charles’ shoulder on honeymoon at Balmoral. Photo by Reginald Davis/Shutterstock

It was after being spotted fishing in the Dee together, thought to be their third date, that worldwide speculation erupted about their romance.

And the newlyweds honeymooned by the tranquillity of the Dee after their 1981 wedding was watched by an estimated 750 million people.

This image of the couple visiting the estate was taken in May 1981, just two months before they married. Photo by Bryn Colton/Shutterstock

Making a rare exception by staging a photo shoot at the private residence while on honeymoon, Charles joked to photographers: “I hope you’re pleased with the picturesque view.”

Asked what she thought of Balmoral, Diana replied “lovely!”

Alison Shaw presented a bouquet of flowers to Diana Spencer during a photo shoot near Balmoral to celebrate her engagement to Charles.

It’s a place they would return to often over their years together.

One suspects the happiness of those initial trips was seldom matched as the fairytale romance fell apart.

How was Balmoral affected by Diana’s death?

Videos from the middle of August 1997 show Charles relaxing by the River Dee with a young William and Harry.

At the time, Diana’s blossoming relationship with Dodi Al Fayed was dominating the headlines.

With a shepherd’s crook in hand, the future monarch can be seen traversing the riverbank while a smiling Harry tries his hand at skimming stones.

With the media invited to snap the scenes, was it a calculated attempt to show off the contrasting lifestyles of the estranged couple?

Watch the video here:

About a fortnight later, the idyllic stay was shattered when Charles had to break the heartbreaking news of Diana’s death to his sons.

In the days afterwards, William and Harry visited the castle gates in their first public appearance since the tragic Paris crash.

Charles led his boys to the gates of Balmoral to take in the floral tributes left for their mum.

In scenes later fictionalised in the Oscar-winning movie The Queen, the family opted to stay at Balmoral to grieve.

They returned to London only on the eve of Diana’s funeral.

In a 2017 interview, Harry said Charles was “there for us” and “tried to protect” his sons during the time of gut-wrenching sadness.

He also backed The Queen’s decision to “keep them away from the public and press” by remaining in Scotland.

In his 2023 autobiography Spare, Harry lifted the lid on his own experiences at Balmoral.

He wrote that his father was wearing a white dressing gown that “made him look like a ghost in a play” as he broke the news that Diana had died.

Read more here.

Where does King Charles stay at Balmoral?

The King’s Aberdeenshire holiday home is Birkhall – which he inherited from the Queen Mother when she died.

That close bond they forged when he was a child lives on in the house.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Rothesay walking to the Balmoral Cricket Pavilion in 2021 to mark the start of the official planting season for the Queen’s Green Canopy at Balmoral. Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

The former hunting lodge, which dates back to 1715, is one of 150 buildings on the estate.

It’s understood that Ballater-based luxury interior designer Mikhail Pietranek led a £1 million overhaul of the building at Charles’s behest.

It occupies a south-facing slope with Lochnagar in the far distance, said to be the King’s favourite mountain in Scotland.

Birkhall House, where Charles has stayed so many times.

It was secured when Prince Albert bought the estate in 1852 and gifted it to then-Prince of Wales, Edward.

As it happened, he preferred the luxury of Abergeldie Castle and Queen Victoria bought it back in the 1880s as accommodation for staff and relatives.

In the years before she took the throne, Princess Elizabeth, Prince Philip and their own children stayed there on their summer breaks.

Charles briefs visiting Japanese investors and representatives of Japanese companies at Birkhall in 1989.

The Queen Mother then used it as her summer residence from the 1950s until her death in 2002.

Charles preserved the expansive gardens in her style as a homage to the grandmother he recalls so fondly.

He said: “It is such a special place, particularly because it was made by my grandmother.

It is a childhood garden, and all I’ve done, really, is enhance it a bit.”

Charles and Camilla at Birkhall in 2005. Photo by Carolyn Robb/Clarence House

And it does appear to have become one of his more favoured residences…

In 2000, Charles and Camilla are thought to have had their first (official) holiday together during an Easter break at Birkhall.

And the couple honeymooned there following their 2005 wedding.

Here is how the Evening Express reported the couple’s arrival on their honeymoon. Image supplied by Michael McCosh, design team.

Who are some of his favourite neighbours?

But there’s more to the King’s love of Birkhall than the refuge it offers…

Prince William has described his dad’s “infatuation” with certain bushy-tailed visitors.

King Charles and one of his red squirrel friends at Birkhall. Sue Crawford/Clarence House/PA Wire

Charles has admitted allowing red squirrels into Birkhall, watching as they scamper about and rummage inside his jacket pocket for nuts.

He said: “I see them with their tails sticking out, as they hunt for nuts—they are incredibly special creatures.”

At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Charles chose Birkhall to quarantine after getting Covid.

This still is taken from a video message the King posted in support of Age UK from Birkhall in the aftermath of his Covid diagnosis.

In a 2013 interview with Country Life about the residence, he explained his affinity for the property.

Charles said: “It’s crucial to keep places that link generations or we simply lose touch.”

And whatever may happen with Balmoral, it’s understood Charles would retain his cherished holiday home nearby.

Has Balmoral taken on more significance since the Queen’s death?

King Charles and Princess Anne shared their mother’s final hours with her at Balmoral.

It’s been suggested that, amid her ailing health, the late monarch may have decided to travel there this summer knowing it would be where she saw out the end of her life.

Queen Elizabeth II welcomes Liz Truss during an audience at Balmoral just two days before she died. Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Wire

In the days after she died, tourists visited the area to see why the much-missed 96-year-old loved it so much.

Undoubtedly, the Queen’s death there has elevated Balmoral’s position in history.

King Charles is pictured driving through Ballater following the Queen’s funeral. Supplied by Kenny Elrick/ DC Thomson

A month after her passing, Charles and Camilla visited Ballater to thank people for their response after his mum died.

On the emotional visit, he was presented with a stained glass window featuring Balmoral.

Their Majesties The King and The Queen Consort were given the piece by artist Shona McInnes. Picture by Kenny Elrick

Aberdeenshire Council leader Mark Findlater revealed that Camilla explained to him her love of Aberdeenshire.

Apparently, she told him that “we don’t want to leave”, and that it’s like “going back to school when we have to leave”.

That is really saying something given how the King felt about his schooldays…

What does the future hold for Balmoral under King Charles?

Going back decades, speculation has been swirling about the fate of the famous estate.

In the summer of 1998, Buckingham Palace dismissed “gossip” that it could be handed over to the National Trust for Scotland after the Queen’s death.

People paying their respects at Balmoral Castle on the day of the Queens funeral. Picture by Kami Thomson / DC Thomson

But earlier this year, further rumours emerged indicating the castle could be turned into a museum following the coronation of King Charles.

It was said that the “permanent exhibition” would be a way of paying tribute to The Queen.

And, with this new era now upon us, talk of the transformation has again surfaced.

What would you like to see happen to Balmoral Castle? Let us know in our comments section below

According to the Scottish Daily Express, Charles is considering transferring many royal properties into public ownership to cut costs.

Balmoral Castle. Picture by DC Thomson

Balmoral costs £3m a year to run, with more than £1m going into wages.

That is partially offset by £500,000 in ticket sales contributed by 75,000 annual visitors.

Proposals submitted to Aberdeenshire Council in April 2023 indicated that management are expecting to see visits soar, with a new takeaway needed at the cafe.

Around the same time, the estate began advertising for full-time joiners and decorators to help with renovations.

But people making the pilgrimage to Royal Deeside would be afforded more of a visitor experience if it enters public ownership.

The Queen outside the gates of Balmoral.

And as the people of Caithness already know, Charles does have experience with this kind of thing.

Could Castle of Mey inspire Balmoral changes?

Any plans to turn Balmoral into an attraction would likely mirror what the monarch has already done with the Castle of Mey – the Queen Mother’s former far north home.

The Castle of Mey with Dunnet Head in the background.

After his grandmother’s death in 2002, it emerged that she had wanted to leave the castle to the people of Caithness – and bring visitors there.

The former royal residence is now part of The Prince’s Foundation and operates successfully as a historic attraction.

‘Freedom and peace’

The fate of Balmoral is sure to loom large as his reign gets under way.

As for why King Charles chose to escape to Deeside during his hour of grief in September… Perhaps Queen Victoria explained its allure best.

On her first ever visit to Balmoral, she said: “All seemed to breathe freedom and peace and make one forget the world and its sad turmoils.”

Read more about why the Aberdeenshire estate means so much to the royals here:

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