Seduced by Scottish clan traditions of the past and evoking a time honored homage to the crown, Balmoral Castle is the private residence of her Majesty the Queen.
It has remained a favorite residence for the Queen and her family during the summer holidays located on Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Its history transcends time starting with Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the Highlands and fell so much in love with the Scottish highlands they first leased then later bought the ‘pretty little castle’ of Balmoral by the River Dee. The baronial estate extends to 50,000 acres and is working estate, with ancient woodland. In her journals Queen Victoria described Balmoral as “my dear paradise in the Highlands”.
After acquiring the lease on Balmoral castle, complete with the staff and furniture, the Queen found the fifteenth century house to be pretty, but small. Later after the purchase was complete, the royals commissioned William Smith to design new ancillary buildings for the castle, as well as improve it. Although Smith was the architect, Prince Albert was clearly in control of the construction and contributed to the design.
The foundation stone for Balmoral Castle was laid by Queen Victoria on 28th September 1853 and before the stone was placed in position, Queen Victoria signed a parchment recording the date. This parchment, together with various english coins, were then placed in a bottle and placed into the stone.
The ‘discovery’ of the Highlands dates back to the late 18th century, when literary and artistic-minded travellers came north in search of the sublime. The coming of the railway, the invention of photography and the widespread success of literary and artistic works contributed to the dramatic transformation: the Highlands had become ‘all the rage’.
Although an economic depression and enforced evictions depopulated the glens, Victorian tourism industry flourished, with the Highland games full of colorful costumes and pageantry. For sportsmen, the Highlands were a paradise as many local lairds were selling or letting their lands as sporting estates for the growing numbers headed north for the seasonal migration.
Much has been made of Victoria and Albert’s Celtic enthusiasms, not only for the scenery ‘beautiful… severe & grand’ the air ‘remarkably pure and light’ but also for the people ‘more natural and marked by honesty & simplicity which always distinguishes the inhabitants of mountainous countries’ and their ‘historical traditions’.
The adoption of previously outlawed tartan cloth at Balmoral was not only an interior decoration choice, but mandatory kilts and tweed jackets for the men, while keepers and shawls for the women. Bagpipes announced dinner, yet remarkable given the Queen’s ancestors declared it an instrument of war.
The enchantment was far from one-sided. On their first visit to Scotland in 1842, the royal couple was given an ecstatic welcome of fireworks, bonfires, reels, boating on Loch Tay to Gaelic rowing songs, a Grand Ball and piping at every meal, all enacted by clansmen ‘plaided and plumed in their tartan array’.
The weather didn’t deter them; the remote, cold place, coupled with their stamina for enduring the elements and the discomforts of long outdoor expeditions, is legendary. The Royal family relished full physical exercise by walking out into the wilds and pitting themselves against the elements. Queen Victoria writes about the rain soaked landscape ‘I seldom walk less than four hours a day and when I come in I feel as if I want to go out again’.
Balls at the castle are given full reign as Highland life and the gillies’ ball at Balmoral remains an annual event to this day. But not everyone was as enamoured as its owners or countrymen. Rooms were criticised for being small and cluttered, while Lady Augusta Stanley ventured tactfully that the Scotch-themed decor was ‘not all equally flatteux to the eye’.
‘Thistles,’ wrote Lord Clarendon ‘are in such abundance that they would rejoice the heart of a donkey.’ Marie Mallet writes in the 1890s, about the dreadful food and footmen reeking of whisky. The ladies-in-waiting frequently complained ‘the Queen had the windows open while we were at dinner’.
Some guests failing to enter into the spirit of whisky-fuelled evenings of merriment and dancing around carcasses of newly slain stags, as depicted in Carl Haag’s acclaimed Evening at Balmoral. Others found life here boring. Campbell Bannerman wrote to his wife ‘It is the funniest life conceivable. Like a convent. We meet at meals, breakfast at 9.45, lunch 2, dinner 9 and when we have finished each is off to his cell.’
But for Victoria, life at Balmoral represented the happiest days of her marriage, a time when she saw most of her husband and could enjoy all their favorite activities of picnics, hill walks, socializing with local lairds, sketching expeditions, visits to local cottages and of course shooting.
Albert’s appetite for shooting was insatiable and he was happy to endure long days on the hill, sometimes starting at 5am, to bag his quarry of grouse, otters or deer. After Albert’s death in 1861, the atmosphere at the castle changed: ‘How different from my first visit here,’ wrote Leitch in 1862. ‘The joyous bustle in the morning when the Prince went out: the highland ponies and the dogs; the gillies and the pipers. Then the coming home-the Queen and her ladies going out to meet them and the merry time afterwards; the torch-light sword-dancers on the green, and the servants’ ball closing the day. Now all is gone with him who was the life and soul of it all.’
But the grief-stricken Queen soon came to rely on Balmoral as her solace. She would spend as much as a third of the year here, to the frustration of her private secretary, who complained of ‘innumerable difficulties from the Queen staying on here. She took up Gaelic and spinning, ensured that the outdoor staff wore kilts and bonnets and commissioned Kenneth MacLeay to paint a series of Balmoral retainers and clansmen.
These interests pervade Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands, which many thought would damage her image by dwelling too much on the servant classes and projecting herself as too ordinary and sentimental. However, despite a lack of literary polish, the Queen’s chronicle of her Highland life was a publishing sensation and helped spread the fame of Balmoral.
The royal romance with the Highlands created an influx of tourists and sportsmen. For new money, a Highland sporting estate was the ultimate status symbol and simple shooting boxes were replaced by mansions for entertaining on a lavish scale. Balmoral played a key part in establishing the social phenomenon of the Scottish season and it exemplified the blend of ‘unionist-nationalism’ that shaped the cultural identity of Victorian Scotland.
Since then, it has been passed down by family inheritance. Unlike Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle, Balmoral Castle is one of the Queen’s private family estates where the royal family spends summers enjoying the highland games, hunting and outdoor recreation.
There are even ghost stories, particularly of John Brown, friend and royal retainer of Queen Victoria, who has been seen walking around the castle corridors. John Brown was one of the servants of Balmoral Castle is said that Queen Elizabeth II has reported seeing the ghost of John Brown in the corridor and feeling his presence. He is said to be always wearing his kilt.
Over the years, improvements have been made by successive generations of the Royal family; most recently by The Duke of Edinburgh who has enlarged the flower and vegetable garden and created the water garden.
Uniquely documented in pen, paint and photograph, its role today as the Royal Family’s Scottish holiday home has remained relatively unchanged since 1848, offering England’s royalty a private refuge far from official life as a family holiday home where they could recuperate from the trials of public duty and enjoy outdoor sports and other pursuits.
Today Balmoral Castle is in essence a picturesque holiday retreat created by the royal family that is never happier than when pursuing outdoor activities in the Scottish wilds.