A Brief History of Queen Elizabeth’s Beloved Balmoral

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Every summer, Queen Elizabeth II escapes to Balmoral, her beloved 50,000-acre country estate nestled in the Scottish Highlands. This summer, her first without Prince Philip, is no exception. The queen was seen departing for Balmoral on Friday, July 23, perhaps to mourn privately in the cozy castle where their love story reportedly began over 70 years ago.

Since the 19th century, British royals have found solace and serenity among the heathers and soaring peaks of Aberdeenshire. For Queen Victoria, Balmoral was “my dear paradise in the Highlands.” Princess Eugenie has called it “the most beautiful place in the world.” But beyond the soaring rhetoric, Balmoral is simply a place royals can kick back, relax, and muck about. “I am never so happy,” King George V once said, “as when I am fishing the pools of the Dee.”

According to Balmoral: Queen Victoria’s Highland Home by the historian Ronald Clark, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were seduced by Scotland from their first visit in 1842. “All seemed to breathe freedom and peace,” Victoria wrote, “and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils.”

Prince Albert, enamored with the Scottish landscape, which reminded him of his German childhood, began to look for a private vacation home for his growing brood. He got lucky in 1847, when Sir Robert Gordon, who held the lease for Balmoral, choked to death on a fish bone, Clark writes. The artist James Giles was commissioned to do watercolors of the property. Besotted with Giles’s images of the estate’s pocket-sized castle and “wilderness of moss and moorland, interspersed with craggy ridges,” the royal couple took out a lease on the estate in 1848.

They soon discovered the small castle was much too cramped for a royal household. “We played at billiards every evening,” Lady Charlotte Canning recorded that year. “The Queen and the Duchess (her mother) being constantly obliged to get up from their chairs to be out of the way of the cues.”

In 1852, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert purchased Balmoral outright, and began to design a new castle with the help of architect William Smith. Peak Victorian confusion, the romanticized Scottish baronial style home (made of granite from nearby quarries) featured a profusion of turrets and French Tudor accents. Inside, the queen indulged in her love of Scottish heraldry and tartan. “The curtains, the furniture, the carpets, the furniture [coverings] are all of different plaids,” Secretary of State Lord Clarendon noted wryly in 1856. “And the thistles are in such abundance that they would rejoice the heart of a donkey if they happened to look like his favourite repast, which they don’t.”

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While in residence at Balmoral, the royal family indulged in a myriad of country pursuits far removed from stiff London court life. Victoria, an avid amateur artist, was fond of sketching the landscape. The queen also adored going on well-organized hikes, which she called her “great expeditions.” Always a romantic explorer, she wished she could always “travel about in this way, and see all the wild spots in the Highlands!”

Prince Albert, an obsessive organizer, threw himself into modernizing Balmoral (a mantle later taken up by Prince Philip), a vast estate that included farms, stables, livestock, cottages, and longtime farmers, estate workers, and house servants. Appalled by his tenants’ poor living conditions, he built new, modern stone cottages, opened a library free to all Balmoral residents, and planned a state-of-the-art dairy that was completed after his death. But the generally uptight prince consort also took time off, becoming so obsessed with deer stalking that he occasionally impulsively took a shot from his wife’s carriage.

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