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Issue 74 - Fit for a queen

Scotland Magazine Issue 74
April 2014


This article is 4 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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Fit for a queen

Charles Douglas looks at the history of this most royal of residences

It is the most iconic family home in Scotland, with the name replicated in the names of hotels and street names in locations such as Edinburgh and Aberdeen, which you might expect, and Thornton- Cleveleys in Lancashire, Singapore, Dubai, and Australia, which you might not.

The very name of Balmoral has spawned a Scottish tourism tradition fuelled by the early nineteenth century writings of Sir Walter Scott. These reflected a heather-clad landscape of mountains and glens and a noble, romantic heritage, which were very much in tune with the emotions experienced by Queen Victoria when she first set eyes on the holiday home which she and her husband were to create in the mid-nineteenth century.

Confiding in her diary in 1842, the young Victoria wrote: “I feel a sort of reverence in going over these scenes in this most beautiful country, which I am proud to call my own, where there was such devoted loyalty to the family of my ancestors – for Stuart blood is in my veins, and I am now their representative, and the people are as devoted and loyal to me as they were to that unhappy race.” On their first three visits to Scotland after her Coronation, the Queen and Prince Albert stayed with the Marquis of Breadalbane at Taymouth Castle, two years later at Blair Castle with Lord Glenlyon, and then leased Ardverikie, at Laggan, best known nowadays as the setting for the BBC television series
Monarch of the Glen.

“Alas!” the Queen wrote in her diary, “the country is fine, but the weather is most dreadful!”' And it was the “dreadful” weather which, the following year, took the Royal couple to Balmoral Castle situated on the eastern side of the Cairngorm Mountains, where there tends to be comparatively little rainfall over the summer months.

The original castle had been built in the 15th century by the Farquharsons of Iverey, a branch of the Invercauld clan. After their support of the Jacobite Rising in 1715, the estate was seized by the Crown and sold on to James Duff, 2nd Earl of Fife.

Between 1834 and 1839, the Balmoral estate was leased to Sir Robert Gordon, a younger son of the Earl of Aberdeen, who extensively renovated the existing castle. When Sir Robert died ten years later, Queen Victoria acquired the lease on behalf of her husband Prince Albert who, in 1852, purchased the freehold for his wife.

It was essentially Prince Albert who made the decision to rebuild, considering the existing building inadequate for their needs.

An alternative site 100 yards to the North West was chosen, and this enabled the Royal Family to make use of the old house while the new one was under construction. The work which was undertaken by John and William Smith of Aberdeen was completed four years later and the original castle demolished. A commemorative stone marking where it stood can be seen on the front lawn opposite the tower, approximately 100 yards from the path.

In the meantime, the replacement Balmoral Castle was built with granite quarried at Invergelder on the Balmoral estate. The design of the completed structure comprises two main blocks, each arranged around a courtyard.

The south-western block contains the main living rooms, while the north-eastern range contains the service wings. At the south-east end of the building stands an 80-foot high clock tower topped with turrets.

Over the the century and a half that followed, foreign monarchs, the aristocracy, overseas dignitaries, clerics, court painters, writers and politicians all enjoyed the hospitality of this fine Scottish Baronial masterpiece. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, the estate passed to King Edward VII, and since then to each of his successors, providing them with a serene and private Scottish retreat from the relentless demands of a highly visible public life.

Originally, the estate had consisted of 10,000 acres to which, in 1849, Queen Victoria added 14,000, purchased from the neighbouring Abergeldie estate. Abergeldie Castle itself was acquired for Queen Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent, and later used by King Edward VII when Prince of Wales.

With other subsequent acquisitions such as the purchase of Birkhall and Dalnadamph in 1979, the landholding was increased to 50,000 acres.

In the 21st century Balmoral Castle remains the private Highland home of Her Majesty the Queen and her family and therefore the domestic interiors are not accessible to the general public.

However, the Ballroom, with its own entrance, and the largest room in the castle, is open from April until the end of July and this year houses works of art by Sir Edwin Landseer and Carl Haag, silver statues by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm together with Minton China and artefacts from within the Castle. Also on view is a beautifully restored Victorian cot, allegedly used by some of Queen Victoria's children.

This summer, the Ballroom features an additional exhibition entitled
Faithful Friends which explores the Royal Family’s association with dogs of all breeds and formal portraits of past and present members of the Royal Family with their pets.

There is also the opportunity to view a short film about modern life on this classic Highland estate. When the Queen is in residence between August and September, the Ballroom is used for two big private dances held for estate workers and neighbours.

Members of the Royal Family regularly worship at the nearby Crathie Kirk, and they attend the annual Braemar Gathering and Highland Games held on the first Saturday in September.

Begun under the supervision of Prince Albert, the formal gardens at Balmoral Castle cover some three acres and contain a range of splendid Victorian glasshouses and a conservatory which features flowering pot plants throughout the year.

More recently, the Duke of Edinburgh has enlarged the flower and vegetable garden to create a water garden.

Overlooking this is Garden Cottage where Queen Victoria occasionally took breakfast, dealt with State correspondence, and wrote her diaries.

In those days it was a wooden building occupied by a gardener with two of the rooms set aside for the Queen. Its first recorded use was in 1964 as an isolation hospital for a Lady in Waiting who developed scarlet fever, but the original wooden cottage having fallen into disrepair it was replaced with a stone one in 1895, clad in part with timbers from Ballochbuie wood.

Every year, the Balmoral Ranger Service offers a series of guided walks and luxury Land Rover safaris. The estate is also the setting for the Balmoral Road Races, and Bike Balmoral, a family event raising funds for Children 1st.

When the Royal Family is not in residence, charity events, gala dinners, training courses, team building exercises, car rallies, conferences and concerts can all be facilitated.

The Balmoral estate is also used for Running The Highlands training weekends ( For anglers, there is salmon fishing available on the River Dee.

In the Castle grounds there is a large self-service coffee shop serving hot and cold snacks.

The grounds, gardens and exhibitions at Balmoral Castle are open on a daily basis from April until Thursday 31 July, 10.00 to 17.00. Please note that the last recommended admission is at 16.30 approximately.

Admission charges during 2014 * Adults: £11.00; Seniors / Students £10.00 Children: Five to 16 years £5.00 Family Ticket: Two adults and up to four children £28.50 * Admission charges include parking, access to the formal and vegetable gardens, and exhibitions in the stable area and the Ballroom, the largest room in the Castle.

Admission charges include the audio handset tour, available in English, French, German and Italian. The audio tour is only available for admissions before 16.30.

Please note that all other rooms within the Balmoral Castle are Her Majesty The Queen's private rooms, and not accessible to the public.

Balmoral Estates, The Estates Office, Balmoral Estates, Ballater, Aberdeenshire, AB35 5TB.

Tel: +44 (0)13397 42534
Fax: +44 (0)13397 42034 E