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Issue 13 - Searching for Queen Victoria

Scotland Magazine Issue 13
March 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Searching for Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria's love of Scotland is well documented. Ian R Mitchell, author of 'On the trail of Queen Victoria in the Highlands', chooses 10 of his favourite Victoria locations on Deeside.

Balmoral Castle

Victoria rented Balmoral without having visited it, persuaded by paintings she viewed of the Deeside location, done by Aberdeen artist James Giles.

It was also recommended as a good and dry location by the Royal Physician, Sir James Clark, for helping with both Victoria and Albert’s rheumatism.

She visited first in 1848 and bought the 17,000 acre estate in 1852, demolishing the 1830s castle, and starting anew.

The architect was William Smith, though Victoria’s husband Albert had a big input into the design leading to its look of a cross between a Scottish castle and a German schloss.

It was completed in 1855, delayed by labour disputes amongst the masons building it.

The interior of the castle is a fine example of 19th century Highland ‘Balmorality’ culture, with antlers and tartans galore.

The grounds are full of memorials to members of the royal family – and to John Brown, Victoria’s servant and subject of the film, Mrs Brown.

Parts of the building are open to the public when the Royal family are not in residence.
Tel: +44 (0)1339 742 334 for details.
(Parking at Crathie car park. O.S. Map 44)

Braemar Castle

But the real castle on Deeside is not Balmoral, but the one at Braemar. In Victoria’s time this was (and still is) owned by the Farquharson family, from whom she bought Balmoral itself.

It was built about 1625 by the Earl of Mar and has a fine curtain wall, a dungeon and a muckle yett (iron gate). It eventually passed to the Farquarsons after Mar lost his estates in the 1715 Rebellion and was garrisoned by Government troops from 1746-1831.

It contains a selection of Jacobite relics. Victoria visited here for social occasions, and also for the Braemar Highland Games, which originally rotated between here and Balmoral.

Tel: +44 (0)1339 741 219 for details of opening. (Parking at castle. O.S. Map 43)

Ballater Station

The railway from Aberdeen came to Ballater in 1866, and was closed almost exactly a century later.

Though Victoria opposed successfully the extension of the line to Braemar, she – after initial reluctance – became a devoted train traveller, and the royal train took her from Aberdeen to Ballater, on her way to Balmoral, and also from thence all over the ever-expanding railway system of Scotland.

The track was lifted and many of the part timber-built stations demolished, but the one at Ballater, possibly the finest, remains intact and open as a tearoom and a railway memorabilia location, and is unmissable.

(Parking at Square, Ballater. O.S. Map 44)

Crathie Kirk

The present Crathie Kirk was opened by Victoria, but only dates from 1895.

It was built by a local architect, Alexander Mackenzie, from local granite, but is more elaborate than traditional Presbyterian places of worship, and has an Olde English look about it that was popular at that time.

Victoria donated money to its building, and the royals even organised a bring and buy sale in the grounds of Balmoral to raise funds!

In the old Crathie Kirk, she heard many preachers but her favourite was the Rev Norman Macleod. As head of the Anglican Church, Victoria raised many an establishment eyebrow by attending Presbyterian worship. But she liked Scotch religion ‘just as she liked Scotch drink.’

(Parking at Crathie. O.S. Map 44)

Lochnagar Distillery

Which leads us to the local distillery, operated by John Begg, and visited by Victoria in 1848. Victoria drank whisky regularly, mixing it with water on her mountain rambles. Given that she also took opium, she must have been ‘high’ quite a lot of the time.

John Begg had originally been an illicit distiller, but turned legal and opened this establishment in 1845.

The distillery produces the fine Lochnagar single malt whisky, named after the mountain below which it sits, and is open to visitors.

Tel: +44 (0)1339 742 273
(Park at Distillery. O.S. Map 44)

Pannanich Wells

Excessive consumption of Lochnagar might need an antidote in the imbibing of pure Deeside water, and after many years, this is now being produced and bottled, and is widely available.

The wells at Pannanich were noted for their mineral and healing properties from the mid-eighteenth century, and an attempt was made to develop a healthful spa town here.

Many famous people visited, including Victoria herself, who commented in her diary that John Brown had once worked there. She also remarked that the water was “strongly impregnated with iron.”

But Pannanich never became a Strathpeffer or a St Boswells, despite claims that its water was “beneficial to those suffering from gravely, scorbutic and scrofulous conditions.”

Try both the mineral water and the Lochnagar; one or other should cure your ills. (O.S. Map 44)

Mar Lodge

The present Mar Lodge is at least the third such, and – again built in a sort of Anglified mock Tudor style – was opened in 1895.

At that time the estate was owned by the Duke of Fife, and he married one of Victoria’s granddaughters, so she was a regular visitor here, and the house contains some memorabilia of her.

She had also been a visitor at the previous lodge, down river at Corriemulzie, and described a ball given in her honour there in 1852 in her Highland Journal:

“It was really a beautiful and most unusual sight. A space about 100 feet in length was completely surrounded by Highlanders, bearing torches. There were seven pipers playing together. All the Highlanders wore kilts.”

After the Fifes, Mar Lodge and its estate went through many owners and a process of ecological decline.

Purchased by the National Trust for Scotland as by far its largest landholding, a process of renewal has begun in the forests, wetlands and mountains of the 72,000 acre estate, of international significance.

It is possible to rent apartments at the Lodge, for a week or a short break.

This is the way to really feel you are back in Victorian times, as you travel around Deeside. It is also a way of contributing to the work of the NTS at Mar.

Contact National Trust for Scotland on +44 (0)131 243 9331 or email for a holiday accommodation brochure.

(Parking at the rear of Lodge. O.S. Map 43)

Gelder Shiel

This lies below, and with wonderful views of, the mountain of Lochnagar.

A place where in 1966 I encountered the present Queen, Gelder Shiel was also a haunt of Victoria. There is a small locked lodge, and adjacent lies a building now a mountain bothy, which used to function as a royal stables.

In 1879, after they had ridden there, Victoria entertained the deposed Empress Eugenie of France to a tea of herring cooked by John Brown. This was in an area where she often sketched while Albert went off on his famous shooting expeditions.

Start at Easter Balmoral, heading south past many hilltop memorials. As the path approaches the Gelder Burn, a left turn takes you to the Shiel. The easy round trip is about eight miles on a good land rover track; allow four hours. (O.S. Map 44)

Loch Muick

As well as Balmoral itself, Victoria had constructed several smaller dwellings in remoter parts of the estate, to which she made day or overnight trips.

A visit to Loch Muick allows you to see these, and to take an enjoyable walk round the loch.

Leave the car park and walk across the head of the Loch to Allt na Guibsaich, one of Victoria’s ‘bothies’, then south along the Loch to the Glass Allt Shiel with its fine waterfall.

Victoria spent a lot of time here after Albert’s death. Cross the burn at the head of the Loch and return to the car park on the east side of Loch Muick.

This walk is 10 miles long – so you should allow five to six hours.

Parking at Spittal of Loch Muick. Picnic site and toilets. (O.S. Map 44)


Almost the first thing Victoria did when she arrived at Balmoral in 1848 was to ascend Lochnagar, a climb she repeated many times over the years.

She did not ascend by any of today’s normal routes, but following in her steps allows a glimpse into the mountain’s less-known side. This is a full mountain expedition, and requires proper equipment: waterproofs, boots, food, and a map and compass.

Start at Invercauld Bridge, (Grid. ref. 185/910) an old General Wade military construction. Cross it and take the path through the Ballochbuie Woods to the Garbh Allt waterfalls.

The path continues south through the woods to the open moor.

Thence ascend the Stuic and follow the well worn path to the summit of Lochnagar; the highest point is Cac Carn Beag. Descend to the Sandy Loch and thence back to Ballochbuie and the staring point. (12 miles; allow six to eight hours. Limited parking near bridge. O.S. Maps 44/43)

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