by James Peacock
If you ask someone to name a residence of the British Royal Family, understandably they tend to say Buckingham Palace.
That iconic Palace is indeed one of the most recognisable buildings in the United Kingdom- if not the world. It’s located in the heart of the City of Westminster, in bustling London. There, every day, thousands of people pass by. Some have their picture taken at the gates,others watch the changing of the guard, or visit the Royal Mews and the state rooms. Some are even lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Royal Family during Trooping the Colour or the State Opening of Parliament. In this very location some of the most dramatic moments of current Royal history have taken place, from the famous wedding day kiss of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, to the more recent royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. It is where we are most likely to see all the members of the Royal Family gathered together, often on the balcony. But Buckingham Palace is not considered the ‘home’ of the royals, instead it is considered as the ‘office’. It is where The Queen meets with her Prime Ministers, with foreign heads of state, and where the formal functions of the day are held. The actual home of the Royal Family- or one of them at least- is considered to be Balmoral Castle, in the highlands of Aberdeenshire, Scotland. There, the weather may be unpredictable, but the scenery is completely romantic, almost like a dream, far far away from the hectic commotion of central London.
Balmoral and its History
Balmoral Castle is located in Royal Deeside (River Dee), near the villages of Crathie, Ballater, and Braemer. Its link to the Royal Family began in the late 1840’s with Queen Victoria, (although King Robert II of Scotland had a hunting lodge on that very site in the 14th century).
In 1662 the existing estate passed to Charles Farquharson of Inverey, brother of John Farquharson, known as the “Black Colonel”. Ironically, the Farquharsons were Jacobite sympathisers, and James Farquharson of Balmoral was involved in both the 1715 and 1745 rebellions. He was wounded at the Battle of Falkirk in 1746. The Farquharsons’ estates were forfeit, and passed to the Farquharsons of Auchendryne. In 1798, James Duff, 2nd Earl Fife, acquired Balmoral and leased the house. Sir Robert Gordon, younger brother of the 4th Earl of Aberdeen, acquired the lease in 1830.
The acquisition of Balmoral by Victoria and Albert
In 1837, the young Queen Victoria came to the throne. Over the preceding two hundred years, the Monarchs hadn’t cared much to visit Scotland- let alone the Highlands- but little did anyone realise that this young, sheltered Queen was about to assume her own, new direction. Having read the books of Sir Walter Scott as a child, Victoria fell in love with Scotland- declaring her pride in being descended from the Stuart dynasty.
Victoria and Albert visited Scotland three times between 1842 and 1847. It was during the third visit that they came, by chance, across Balmoral. During their trip they encountered rain-soaked weather, which led Sir James Clark, the queen’s physician, to recommend Deeside as a potential home instead for its healthier climate. Balmoral’s owner Sir Robert Gordon died that same year, and Victoria and Albert, having fallen so much in love with the location, acquired the remaining part of the lease on Balmoral (without having even seen the estate first) from Lord Aberdeen- who had inherited it on the death of Sir Robert.
Victoria and Albert create their Scottish home
On the 8th September 1848, the royal couple arrived with their young family to pay their first visit to the estate. They instantly fell in love with it – Victoria recording in her diary that “All seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils”. To Albert, it reminded him of his homeland. The sale of the estate was finally completed in June 1852; the neighbouring estate of Birkhall was bought at the same time, and the lease on Abergeldie Castle secured as well. It was immediately found that the existing house was too small, and a new one would have to be built. Construction for the new house began in the summer of 1853, with Prince Albert paying close attention to every detail- particularly turrets and windows- and amending designs. On the 28th September 1853, during their annual autumn visit, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of the new house.
The new house was fully completed in 1856- although the Royal Family had been able to start living in it in 1855- and the old house was subsequently pulled down. The new house had been built on a site some 100 yards (91 m) northwest of the original building that was considered to have a better vista. A plaque on the front lawn marks the spot where the entrance to the old house stood. Balmoral Castle is built from granite quarried at Invergelder on the estate. It consists of two main blocks, each arranged around a courtyard. The southwestern block contains the main rooms, while the northeastern contains the service wings. At the southeast is an 80-foot (24 m) tall clock tower topped with turrets.
Living like ordinary folk
Balmoral gave Victoria and Albert a chance to promote their version of Monarchy- a ‘family orientated Monarchy’. In the words of one historian, no longer was the British Monarchy appealing to a select few of the aristocracy. With a clear image of the Royal Family at home in the country, it began to appeal to the entire nation. Victoria and Albert had done what few Monarchs over the previous two hundred years had wanted to do- not only visit Scotland – particularly the Highlands- but they purchased property there. Now they could live as close to an ordinary life as their status allowed. Within days of their arrival, Victoria climbed the mountain of Lochnager- though she was thoroughly unimpressed by the weather. Courtier Charles Greville wrote of how Victoria loved to visit the ordinary folk, sit down at their tables and talk to the women. Tartan, which had been banned by Victoria’s great-great-grandfather King George II in 1745 after the Jacobite uprising, adorned not only the carpets at Balmoral, but also the royal attire.
New plantings and exotic conifers were established on the grounds during the 1850’s. Prince Albert continued to have a significant involvement in these designs. In 1861 (the year of his death), he developed a model dairy farm (which Queen Victoria completed after his death). Albert and Victoria wanted their children to know how to grow their own vegetables, and on another of their private estates, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, each of their children had their own allotments. It was at Balmoral that Prince Frederick of Prussia asked for the hand of their eldest child, Princess Victoria. Not everyone enjoyed visiting Balmoral, many of Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting were left shivering when Victoria-always a lover of cold weather- would throw open the windows of the estate, even on the days when it was absolutely freezing. Lord Clarendon even claimed he had frost bite in his feet from the cold! Many ministers, particularly in the early days whilst work was still going on, complained that their rooms were so small they had to write their dispatches on beds, because there were no desks in the rooms.
Following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Victoria largely withdrew from public life for much of the 1860’s. Yet she traveled to Balmoral (as well as Osborne and Windsor), where she sought sanctuary. There are many memorial tributes to Albert throughout Balmoral, including cairns and statues. It was after Albert’s death that Victoria became dependant on her servant John Brown, a local ghillie from Crathie, who became one of her closest companions during her long mourning, earning her the nickname ‘Mrs Brown’. Only a few changes were made on the estate in the years following Albert’s death; those alterations being to mountain paths, the erection of various cairns and monuments, and the addition of some cottages (Karim Cottage and Baile na Coille) built for senior staff.
In 1887, Balmoral Castle was the birthplace of Victoria Eugenie, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She was born to Princess Beatrice, the fifth daughter of Victoria and Albert. Victoria Eugenie would become the queen of Spain. In November 1900, Queen Victoria left Balmoral for the last time, with the parting words “keep well until I come back”. Sadly, she never did, for less than three months later, Victoria died at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, another of the peaceful retreats she enjoyed with her beloved Albert. She was greatly mourned throughout Deeside, and the entire United Kingdom.
After Victoria’s death in 1901, the Royal Family continued to stay at Balmoral. Her grandson, King George V, made substantial improvements during the 1910s and 1920s, which notably included formal gardens to the south of the Castle. Balmoral was not visited during the war. Today, though, it is very much a favourite of the Royal Family of the United Kingdom. The current Monarch Queen Elizabeth II, Victoria’s and Albert’s great-great-granddaughter, continues to use Balmoral as her beloved summer residence, enjoying long walks, and horse riding into the surrounding mountains.
Whilst she is in residence at Balmoral, on the 9th September 2015, she will overtake Queen Victoria to become the longest reigning Monarch of the United Kingdom. She will be surrounded by memories of her great-great-grandparents, whom she holds dear and in high regard. Elizabeth, like Victoria before her, will pass this symbolic milestone in the place which Victoria famously referred to as “My Dear Paradise in the Highlands”.
Balmoral will open again to the public on the 25th February 2016. This will include the gardens, exhibitions, ballroom in the Castle, gift shop and coffee shop. It will close at the end of July, when the Royal Family will again take up residence for the summer. However, winter tours of the gardens are being run on selective dates this year. Do check out the Balmoral website for more information, including renting out holiday cottages on the estate.
My Dear Paradise in the Highlands documentary presented by Roy Stewart.
Becoming Queen by Kate Williams
Balmoral Castle Guidebook
Balmoral: The Royal Family documentary 2010