Why the Queen loved Balmoral
The Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew in the grounds of Balmoral Castle in 1960 (Credit: Getty Images)
10 September 2022
Balmoral, where Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II passed away yesterday afternoon, was one of her favourite places to be. Queen Elizabeth inherited Queen Victoria’s love of the castle, and its surrounding estate, spending up to two months at her Highland retreat every summer throughout her long reign, with childhood visits before that.
I had the good fortune of spending five long summers at Balmoral as a former employee of the Queen, so find it easy to understand why Her Majesty loved this special area of Scotland so much. I have travelled to many countries since I left the royal household 12 years ago, but I have never seen a place as beautiful as Balmoral.
The castle – set in 50,000 acres of beautiful Scottish countryside, 500 miles from the bright lights and long lenses of London – offered the Queen a rare thing: an escape from the royal bubble. It was a summer sanctuary where she could relax and unwind largely away from the public gaze. At Balmoral she could experience the ‘freedom and peace’ Queen Victoria spoke of in her Highland journals.
Queen Elizabeth spent her days there walking her beloved corgis, riding her ponies and picnicking with family, friends and guests. Past prime ministers have been delightfully surprised at the informality of these unstaffed barbecues which the Queen and Prince Philip hosted at various picnic cottages on the estate. Margaret Thatcher was horrified at the sight of her Queen doing the dishes. Tony Blair reported his shock at seeing the Queen clear and stack plates herself after lunch. Theresa May shared an anecdote in the Commons today of the time she dropped some cheese at one of these picnics. Having thought no one had noticed, she promptly put it back on the plate, turned and realised to her horror that Her Majesty was watching, smiling gently.
The Queen relished these occasions of normality away from the pomp and ceremony of her official life. Used to a life of chauffeur-driven Bentleys in London, at Balmoral – which is a private home rather than an official residence – she took to the driving seat herself, giving guests tours of the estate in her Land Rover, often driving a little faster than her passengers were comfortable with.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert began the tradition of using Balmoral Castle as their summer holiday home after Albert purchased the estate as a gift for his wife in 1852. The previous castle on site was considered too small for their growing family, so a new castle was built in the Scottish baronial style, and completed in 1856. Victoria called it ‘my dear paradise in the Highlands’. It was here Queen Victoria retreated following the death of Prince Albert, and her spirit still looms large across the castle: its interior has been kept largely the same since Victoria’s reign, with strong traditional Scottish Highland accents throughout: tartan carpets, heather- and thistle-printed upholstery and walls lined with scenic Scottish paintings, and grand antlers from stags shot on the estate.
The Queen’s Pipe Major played the bagpipes for her at 9 a.m. every day at all her residences (except Sandringham), another royal tradition that started with Queen Victoria. There is something particularly special about hearing these pipes in Scotland, especially in the Highlands. I have a memory – one of those of no particular occasion, but of senses of a time and a place that stick in your mind – of opening a window in the castle one September morning and hearing the pipes break the silence in the crisp Highland air and the strong smell of the Balmoral pine trees.
The simple grandeur of the rolling heather-lined hills and the peace you find there on long Highland walks (preferably with dogs in tow) are unmatched. That the Queen spent her final days at her beloved Balmoral will hopefully bring some comfort to the Royal family and all who mourn our gracious Queen.