How Balmoral forged the wild, tartan-clad Scotland of travel brochures

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Queen Elizabeth II and The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh with their two young children, Princess Anne and Prince Charles outside Balmoral Castle, 1952

For the very first time, the public will be allowed to step inside Balmoral of a series of special (now sold out) summer tours. This Aberdeenshire estate symbolises the Royal Family’s special relationship with Scotland, but Balmoral means more than that: it encapsulates a romantic image of Scotland which is familiar all around the world, an image which the Royal Family played a key part in creating.

This ‘Balmoralisation’ is a crucial part of Scotland’s story. It’s a story of how English and Scottish Unionists cultivated a new idea of Scotland which bound these two auld enemies together. Today, when foreign tourists think of Scotland, they tend to think of wild moors, rugged castles, bagpipes and, above all, tartan. These elements have always been part of Scottish culture, but the reason they became ubiquitous was due to a shrewd rebranding exercise in which royalty performed a leading role.

This royal makeover began 200 years ago, in 1822, with King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh. It was the first visit to Scotland by a British monarch since the 17th century. There was a good reason for this long absence. During the 1700s there had been three Scottish uprisings against the English, three bids to overthrow Britain’s Hanoverian monarchy and restore a Stuart to the throne.

The Stuarts were Scottish, and Bonnie Prince Charlie was the last of these Scots pretenders. Tartan was the uniform of his Highland soldiers, so after his rebellion, tartan was banned. The genius of the British monarchy was to transform this rebellious garb into the outfit of Unionist Scotland – a badge of loyalty to the crown, rather than a mark of insurrection.

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Balmoral Castle has been a residence of the British Royal Family since 1852 - Getty

Ironically, it was the Hanoverian King George IV who cemented this appropriation of Highland dress by the Unionist establishment, aided by Scotland’s greatest novelist, Sir Walter Scott. Scott’s historical novels were hugely popular – above all Waverley, his dramatic yarn about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion – and when he was hired to stage-manage George IV’s Scottish visit, he transformed Edinburgh into a sea of tartan.

Scott organised a series of banquets and cavalcades to mark this royal visit, and he urged his bourgeois Lowland guests to go along wearing traditional Highland dress. A lot of these Lowland urbanites were aghast. Their ancestors had fought alongside the English against Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highland rebels. Edinburgh was the capital of the Scottish Enlightenment, a city of doctors, lawyers and academics, not rural lairds and Highland chieftains. Yet after King George had his portrait painted in full Highland dress, they obediently followed suit, and tartan became the house style of these festivities.

Following George IV’s example, tartan became mainstream in Scottish society, as Scott’s novels fed a growing appetite for an idealised version of Scotland’s past. Never mind that, before the Clearances, the Highlands had been far more densely populated. Never mind that the Lowlands was now the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. Readers didn’t want dreary stories about industrialisation. They preferred to read nostalgic fantasies about an untamed wilderness, inhabited by fierce warriors and flame-haired maidens.

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The portrait of King George IV, 1830 - Getty

One of Walter Scott’s many fans was George IV’s niece, Queen Victoria. In 1842 she travelled to Scotland with her husband, Prince Albert, to visit the locations in Scott’s novels. In 1847 they holidayed in Adverikie, near Inverness, and in 1848, they discovered Balmoral. It was the start of a royal love affair with Aberdeenshire which has endured until today.

The significant thing about Balmoral was that, despite its antique aesthetic, it was actually a thoroughly modern creation. There was already a house on the estate, but Victoria and Albert wanted something bigger and more comfy, so they built another next door. The architectural style was Scottish Baronial: faux medieval on the outside, all mod cons within, a suitable metaphor for their sincere yet sentimental relationship with Scotland.

Victoria’s family tree was predominantly German, but she had some Scots blood, and so to celebrate her (relatively tangential) Scottish ancestry, she festooned Balmoral with tartan: green Hunting Stewart; white Dress Stewart and red Royal Stewart. She kitted out her servants in kilts and sporrans. One of her prime ministers, Lord Rosebery, dubbed her tartan drawing room the ugliest room in the world.

Rosebery had a point – Victoria’s furnishing was rather naff – but some things are more important than good taste. This ersatz Caledonian décor served a higher purpose. As Scottish historian Michael Lynch observed in his astute book, ‘Scotland – A New History, ‘The very Scottishness of Balmoral helped give the monarchy a really British dimension for the first time.’ And despite a few recent hiccups, it’s a dimension that has lasted.

“All seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to forget the world and its sad turmoils,” wrote Queen Victoria, poetically, of Balmoral, and it is clear that in her own more down-to-earth manner, her great-great granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, felt much the same. A frequent visitor throughout her childhood, alongside her father, King George VI, and her grandfather, King George V, during her 70-year reign she spent most of her summers here.

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Queen Victoria on horseback with her gillie John Brown at Balmoral - Getty

With numerous residences to choose from, what attracted Elizabeth to Balmoral? The late Sir Malcolm Ross, Comptroller of the Royal Household, put it best. “It’s the setting, it’s the place, it’s the atmosphere,” he explained. “It’s the wide-open spaces. No distractions, no aeroplanes, no noise, no traffic – just this lovely estate where she can roam freely everywhere.” The estate encompasses 50,000 acres of pine forest, farmland and moorland, home to red deer, grouse and Highland Cattle. Elizabeth loved to walk her dogs and ride and picnic here.

Elizabeth remained faithful to Victoria’s Caledonian house style: the Queen’s Piper played the bagpipes every day at 9am (a tradition begun by Victoria); the upholstery bore heather and thistle motifs; the walls were hung with Scottish landscape paintings, and the antlers of stags shot on the estate. Yet her lifestyle here was more informal than it was in London, and that was part of the appeal. Visiting Prime Ministers were pleasantly surprised to see Her Majesty clearing up after meals, stacking crockery and washing dishes.

Balmoral was also a welcome refuge for the Duke of Edinburgh. Elizabeth’s devoted husband manned the grill at numerous Balmoral barbecues. He also helped to tend these gardens, adding herbaceous borders and water features. During the pandemic, the devoted couple spent lockdown at Balmoral, celebrating their 73rd (and final) wedding anniversary here.

They both had close affinities with Scotland, albeit for different reasons. Prince Philip’s fondness for Scotland stemmed back to his schooldays at Gordonstoun. Queen Elizabeth was actually half Scottish – her mother hailed from an ancient Scottish clan and was raised at Glamis Castle, one of Scotland’s most historic stately homes, the setting for Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Elizabeth’s love of Scotland extended far beyond Balmoral, encompassing the entire nation. Opening the Scottish Parliament in 2021, she spoke of her “deep and abiding affection for this wonderful country,” a country whose public image her family had done so much to shape.

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Princess Elizabeth with her children Prince Charles and Princess Anne at Balmoral - Getty

So does it matter if that public image is partly fantasy? Does it matter that Scotland isn’t all grouse and deer and Highland games? Not really. All travel, all tourism, is partly an act of imagination. We see what we want to see – we find what we wish to find. Of course, there’s more to Scotland than Balmoral, but it’s still a part of Scotland, and the things it represents, the things Elizabeth championed, are real.

The King’s Scottish roots run just as deep as his late mother’s. Educated at Gordonstoun, like his father, his love of Balmoral is reflected in his charming children’s story, The Old Man of Lochnagar, named after the highest hill on the estate, one of seven Munros (peaks over 3,000 feet) within its borders.

Like his late mother, Charles’s love of Scotland isn’t confined to Balmoral. There are numerous instances of his philanthropy, but Dumfries House is a particularly good example. Built by John and Robert Adam, and furnished by Thomas Chippendale, Dumfries House is one of the most perfectly preserved Palladian houses in Britain, and when it came up for sale in 2007 it looked as if its priceless collection might be lost forever, until Charles led a consortium which bought it for the nation.

Thanks to Charles’s charitable trust, Dumfries House remains open to the public, and its precious contents remain in situ, but it isn’t just a dusty old museum. The house also provides work and training for numerous local youngsters, in an area which has suffered from high unemployment. Dumfries House demonstrates that, at its best, ‘Balmoralisation’ is more than mere nostalgia. As Charles has shown, it can also be a progressive force.

Dumfries House
Dumfries House - Getty

The Balmoralisation of Scotland was clever PR, designed to integrate a turbulent nation into the United Kingdom, but like all the best PR campaigns, it was employed to sell a brilliant product. The tartan cliches may be corny, but they’re rooted in reality. Much of Scotland remains a wilderness and its cultural heritage remains unique.

Queen Elizabeth was right about Scotland, as she was right about so many things. “It is the people that make a place,” she said, “and there are few places where that is truer than it is in Scotland.” How fitting that she should have died at her beloved home from home, Balmoral.

This article was first published in September 2022 and has been revised and updated.