Thursday, 25 June 2020

Royal Residences: Balmoral Castle

Balmoral Castle in Royal Deeside in Aberdeenshire, Scotland has been a private residence of the British Royal family since 1852 when it was acquired by Albert, Prince Consort for his wife, Queen Victoria. The royal couple quickly fell in love with this beautiful part of Scotland, and the queen called it her "dear paradise in the Highlands", sparking a deep relationship between the Royal family and Balmoral which continues to this day.

Balmoral Castle pictured in the late 18th century. (Public Domain)

The Royal family had been spending time in Scotland since 1842, finding a great liking for both its people and its countryside in those years, but after a particularly rainy stay in the Highlands at Loch Laggan, they sought a location further east where the climate was gentler.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1854 (Roger Fenton - Public Domain)

On the suggestion of Queen Victoria's Physician-in-Ordinary, Sir James Clark, the Deeside area was selected as a suitable place, and on the advice of Lord Aberdeen the lease for Balmoral, by the River Dee, was signed in early 1848.

Balmoral was obtained with full furnishings and staff, sight unseen, but it was soon found to be too small for the family and their retinue when inspected, and so work was begun to build a house more suitable for a queen, her prince and their entourage.

In 1852, William Smith received the commission to create the new Balmoral Castle. Smith was Aberdeen City's Architect, and son of John Smith, who formerly held that position and designed modifications for the old castle at Balmoral in 1830.

Queen Victoria in her sitting room, circa 1850.

William Smith's designs for the castle, with some alterations suggested by Prince Albert, began realisation in the summer of 1853, and the foundation stone was laid by Queen Victoria in September of that year. It was decided the new castle would be constructed about a hundred yards north-west of the old one, where a better view of the area's beautiful landscape was afforded.

The castle with pine forests and the Cairngorms rising above. (© Nigel Corby - Creative Commons)

The castle was designed in the Scottish Baronial style, which was part of the Gothic Revival, and built from locally-quarried granite. The Gothic Revival had been gaining in popularity since the late 18th century and sought to revive architectural styles of the mediaeval period, which featured such elements as towers, turrets, battlements, finials and lancet windows.

Some of the Scottish Baronial style features in the castle's design, including turrets, finials, and battlements. (© Stuart Yeates - Creative Commons)

The newly-built castle, which contained three floors and some seventy rooms - most decorated in tartan and thistle designs representing Scotland - was ready for the Royal family's visit in autumn 1855, and by 1856 was completed, allowing for the demolition of the original castle. In 1857 esteemed engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel completed Crathie Bridge, which linked Balmoral to the village of Crathie, half a mile east across the River Dee. Crathie was home to many of the Balmoral estate's workers in subsequent years. Over a hundred members of staff were employed to run the house.

With Balmoral Castle finished, Prince Albert set about organising extensive modifications to the grounds and oversaw the construction of workers' cottages, a ball room, a dairy and a large driveway leading to the front. The estate was very large even then, at 7,000 hectares, and required much care and management, which the prince actively involved himself in. Today, the estate covers an area of 20,000 hectares and features large deer herds, forestry, moors for grouse shooting, and even Highland cattle and pony populations.

Prince Albert's sitting room in 1857, displaying the comfortable but not overly luxurious nature of life in the castle. Queen Victoria's Prime Minister Lord Salisbury was known to call Balmoral 'Siberia' as the rooms were often unheated despite the cold.

He also designed and organised the planting of new gardens. In 1847, the prince had been elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, where among other reforms he introduced the study of natural sciences, and in Balmoral he found a place to pursue his keen interest in nature.

Linn of the Dee (Lorraine Adams - Public Domain)

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gave over many hours to outdoor pursuits including walking and hunting, with these being almost daily activities regardless of weather. Such was the royal couple's enthusiasm for these pursuits that many ghillies were in service at Balmoral. The queen and her prince enshrined the annual Ghillies' Ball as an essential tradition on the estate.

Queen Victoria and other members of the Royal family attend the annual Ghillies' Ball of 1868. The ball was sometimes held in a large tent outdoors, as seen in this picture.

On Sundays, the Royal family attended Crathie Kirk in the village of Crathie for Sunday services - a mile-and-a-half walk from the castle to the church. The current church was built between 1893 and and 1895 through private donations and money raised by the queen and other members of the Royal family. It replaced the previous which had fallen into disrepair. Since Queen Victoria every reigning British monarch has attended service there.

Crathie Kirk (© Alexander P Kapp - Creative Commons)

With the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria began a long period of mourning and spent increasing amounts of time at Balmoral, much to the unhappiness of her ministers who did not enjoy the long journeys north to meet with her. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli complained that travelling six-hundred miles north to make decisions "doubles the labour" of government.

Prince Albert's memorial on the Balmoral estate. (Drow69 - Creative Commons)

After Queen Victoria, Balmoral continued as a holiday destination for members of the Royal family, with the monarch visiting in autumn, but few modifications were carried out. King George V added gardens during his reign and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh added a water garden in the 1950's.

Queen Elizabeth II at Balmoral with the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and Princess Anne.

Queen Elizabeth II continues the traditions laid down by Queen Victoria, visiting the castle with other members of the Royal family on a regular basis.

Prince Charles and the late Diana, Princess of Wales on honeymoon at Balmoral.

Balmoral Castle today, a class A listed building, signifying its national and international importance. (© Paasikivi - Creative Commons)

Balmoral Castle is, and will continue to be, not only a magnificent and striking example of architecture, but a testament to the relationship between the British Royal family and Scotland.


  1. What a beautiful place and all the open space. No wonder the Queen loves it there, so would I.

  2. Great background on a lovely family home, thank you. I love the old print of the castle you lead your piece with and that lovely photo with the snow capped hill in the background brings back memories of visits to the area. It reminds me of the little peek you could get of the castle from the road once, though I think it's well fenced off by now! Seeing the picture of Albert's sitting room brings it all to life, what a prodigious worker he must have been to oversee architecture, garden design, and estate management to bring it all together. Many thanks too for the explanation as to why Balmoral, of course Deeside is that bit drier -- if more breezy -- than the west!!

  3. I was lucky to visit Balmoral when I moved from the US to Ireland, then Scotland, for 2 years in 2013. The areas open to the public include the formal and vegetable gardens (incredibly beautiful), the exhibitions in the stable area and the largest room in the castle, the ballroom. There are items from the castle on display in the ballroom, including artwork and gowns worn by the Queen. This is the room where the Queen still hosts 2 Gillies Balls while she is in residence in the late summer. During my visit, there was a video running that showed Princess Diana and Sarah, Duchess of York, dancing during one of the balls. None of the other rooms of the castle are open to the public as this is a private residence. The entire castle and grounds close to the public in August when the Queen and family are in residence. Pets are allowed on the grounds of the castle and I had brought my Riley, an Australian Shepherd, from the States. The breed was pretty new to the UK at the time and the employees and tourists of Balmoral loved meeting Riley as much as I enjoyed touring the castle. As a RF follower since Princess Diana days (we were close in age), I still feel grateful to have been able to visit Balmoral.