Historic Events

The Scottish incident: Edward VIII’s scandalous Balmoral holiday

How a holiday at Balmoral proved disastrous for the reputation of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

Words by Alexander Larman

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson are often associated with a range of glamorous places throughout the world. As King, Edward divided his time between London and Fort Belvedere near Windsor, and when he abdicated, became Duke of Windsor and married Wallis, the two of them mainly lived in France, bar a wartime posting to the Bahamas, where he became governor.

Yet Edward had a crucial connection with Scotland in his possession of Balmoral, and when he and Wallis visited his Scottish estate it led to a series of scandalous and controversial events that only served to hasten his departure from the throne.

Edward and Wallis. Credit: PA Images/PA Wire/PA News

Edward had always had a great affection for the traditions of Scotland. The society figure Lady Diana Cooper reported, while she was a guest at ‘the Fort’ in February 1936, watching him don a kilt and play the bagpipes. She was most amused by the spectacle, writing to a friend that “his Majesty’s evening kilt was better than ever…I think it was a mourning one, tho’ he denied it…on Sunday, by request, he donned his ‘wee bonnet’ and marched around his table, his stalwart piper behind him playing Over the Sea to Skye and also a composition of his own.” She waspishly added that “it’s clever to have chosen the pipes as one’s ‘shew off’ for which of us can detect mistakes or know good from bad artistry?”

Balmoral Castle. Credit: Gimas/Shutterstock

However, when Edward finally had a charge to hold what he called ‘[his] first house-party’ at Balmoral in September, his choice of guests proved disastrous and politically embarrassing. Royal gatherings traditionally were supposed to consist of bishops, politicians and diplomats, but Edward and Wallis preferred the company of fashion magazine editors, men-about-town and lounge lizards of both sexes. One of them, ‘Emerald’ Cunard, was a reputed Nazi sympathiser who took particular delight in irreverently referring to the King as ‘Majesty Divine’. This was not merely unprecedented, but downright improper.

The poet and social observer Osbert Sitwell wrote dismissively of the “jolly crew” gracing “Balmoral’s Coburg towers”, in which they “danced to the gramophone”. This proved to be a mild description of what occurred at Edward’s Scottish seat when he, Wallis and their guest list of unlikely friends arrived there in September 1936.
Some aspects of Sitwell’s description were tainted by a dislike of Mrs Simpson, but nonetheless the Balmoral visit was a largely disastrous one, as the King’s equerry Sir John Aird had anticipated when he wrote “Heard today that [Wallis] is to be at Balmoral. Thank God I shall not be there.”

Balmoral Castle and gardens. Credit: Anastas Styles/Shutterstock

As with so much in his reign, the King’s arrogant carelessness saw the holiday begin terribly. Edward decided to eschew his royal responsibility to open the new Aberdeen Infirmary on 23 September and instead drove to the station himself to collect Wallis, on the spurious grounds that he was still in official mourning for his father, who had died in January that year.

Read the full feature in the July/August 2020 issue of Scotland.

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