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The Royal Family's summers at Balmoral: Grouse shoots, barbecues and picnics

What exactly do the Royal Family get up to when they head to Balmoral every summer? [Photo: Getty]
What exactly do the Royal Family get up to when they head to Balmoral every summer? (Getty Images)

Queen Elizabeth II spent the last few weeks of her life at Balmoral Castle, where she annually enjoyed her summer holiday and break from official engagements and duties.

The Duke of Edinburgh would spend from August until early October at the Gothic revival estate alongside the late Queen, while the rest of the Royal Family would come to visit for their summer holiday.

Widely understood to be her favourite of the royal residences, the Queen was able to escape from life as monarch and throw herself into her beloved country pursuits.

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 06: Queen Elizabeth II waits in the Drawing Room before receiving newly elected leader of the Conservative party Liz Truss at Balmoral Castle for an audience where she will be invited to become Prime Minister and form a new government on September 6, 2022 in Aberdeen, Scotland. The Queen broke with the tradition of meeting the new prime minister and Buckingham Palace, after needing to remain at Balmoral Castle due to mobility issues. (Photo by Jane Barlow - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
One of the late Queen's final engagements, greeting Liz Truss as prime minister, took place in the Drawing Room of Balmoral Castle. (Getty Images)

Now the 50,000 acre estate has been inherited by King Charles, it remains to be seen how many of the late Queen's family traditions will continue on, but the Windsors still enjoy the month of August as a break from public appearances.

But what exactly did the Royal Family used to get up to on their Scottish holidays?

From family barbecues to controversial grouse shoots, here’s how the Windsor clan traditionally spent their summers together.

When did the Royal Family start going to Balmoral Castle?

The Scottish estate has been in the Royal Family for over 170 years and was purchased by Prince Albert as a seriously lavish gift for Queen Victoria back in 1852, sight unseen. The royal residence cost just £32,000 back in the day and they soon snapped it up after falling love with the countryside in the local area.

Queen Elizabeth II has been visiting Balmoral Castle every summer since 1952. (Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II has been visiting Balmoral Castle every summer since 1952. (Getty Images)

The original property was replaced with the current one that stands today, which is larger and was completed in 1856. The foundation stone was laid by Queen Victoria and a piece of parchment she signed and dated to mark the occasion is buried beneath it — alongside coins from the time — to create a royal time capsule.

Ever since, the royal retreat has been passed on down the generations and has been Queen’s beloved holiday home since 1952. The property remains privately owned and is not part of the Crown Estate.

What’s it like at Balmoral?

Balmoral is undoubtedly grand boasting over 50,000 acres of countryside and 150 separate buildings on the estate. For instance, Birkhall, which belongs to King Charles and has long been his go-to holiday home, even before he inherited the Balmoral estate.

Balmoral Castle was first purchased back in 1852 by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria. (Getty Images)
Balmoral Castle was first purchased back in 1852 by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria. (Getty Images)

When the late Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh used to arrive at Balmoral for their summer holidays, they tended to stay at the even more private Craigowan Lodge for the first week. With seven bedrooms and located a mile away from the castle, it was, in comparison, a mini break — at least by royal standards.

Who bags an invite to Balmoral?

When the Queen left Buckingham Palace for a well-deserved break from the media spotlight, she was joined by several members of the Royal Family throughout the summer months.

The Birkhall residence is Prince Charles’ private holiday home tucked away in the grounds of Balmoral Castle. (Getty Images)
The Birkhall residence is Prince Charles’ private holiday home tucked away in the grounds of Balmoral Castle. (Getty Images)

The Prince and Princess of Wales, for instance first started holidaying at a cottage known as Tam-na-Ghar during their breaks from St Andrew’s University. Charles and Camilla were also regulars at the Scottish hideaway, often residing at Birkhall.

Prince Harry described his experiences of the Balmoral summer holidays he experienced since childhood in his memoir, Spare, which provided never-before-seen insight into life behind closed doors of the castle.

Zara Tindall and Peter Phillips, Princess Anne's children, have also taken their young children up to Scotland for a Balmoral break in recent years.

Prince Andrew and his family, including ex-wife Sarah Ferguson, also were regular attendees, although there have been conflicting reports about whether this will continue under Charles's tenure.

What do the Royal Family get up to at Balmoral Castle?

When the Royal Family reside at Balmoral Castle, they can let their media-proof barriers down and enjoy some time away from the cameras.

In an interview aired in the 2016 documentary Our Queen At Ninety, the late Queen's granddaughter Princess Eugenie described the royal residence as "the most beautiful place on earth" and revealed that it’s where "granny is the most happy".

The Queen and Prince Philip relax at Balmoral Castle in 1975. (Getty Images)
The Queen and Prince Philip relax at Balmoral Castle in 1975. (Getty Images)

But what was on the itinerary during the late Queen’s holidays? Eugenie revealed: "It’s a lovely base for Granny and Grandpa, for us to come and see them up there; where you just have room to breathe and run."

She added, "Walks, picnics, dogs – a lot of dogs, there’s always dogs – and people coming in and out all the time."

The Ghillies Ball

Every year, the Queen also hosted a Scottish dance known as the Ghillies Ball in Balmoral’s ballroom .

The tradition was first introduced by Queen Victoria and was designed as a ‘thank you’ get-together for members of staff.

(Original Caption) Royal Family at Balmoral. Princess Anne tempts the queen's corgi, Sugar, with a ball, and the Duke of Edinburgh's dog, Candy, looks up at Queen Elizabeth, as with the duke and Prince Charles they walk in the grounds of Balmoral Castle during the royal family's summer holiday, August 1955. The castle, private property of the sovereign, at Deeside, West Aberdeenshire, Scotland, was bought by Prince Albert in 1852 for $31,000. The castle was rebuilt three years later. The castle was Queen Victoria's favorite residence and she often held court there. Since then the royal family have kept up the annual custom of staying at Balmoral during the shooting season. The sporting estate abounds with grouse and red deer.
The late Queen and Duke of Edinburgh with Princess Anne and then-Prince Charles, alongside some of the family dogs at Balmoral. (Getty Images)

The Royal Family’s summer barbecues

Some of the most relatable photographs taken at Balmoral are those which depict Prince Philip-turned-makeshift-chef tending to the barbecue, prodding sausages.

Far from their Buckingham Palace personas, the royals all pitch in when it comes to the family bash.

Balmoral’s housekeeper, Sheena Stuart, previously revealed: “The Duke, he cooks, the Queen sets up the table. There are no staff that come out to serve.”

However, during a heatwave, the late Queen reportedly banned barbecues through fear of spreading wild fires. We wonder what Prince Philip had to say about that.

Controversial grouse shoots

On August 26 2018, the Royal Family sparked controversy after Prince George reached a divisive royal milestone.

The five-year-old was photographed heading to a grouse shoot at Balmoral alongside the Queen, his mother Kate, Charles, Prince Edward and his wife Sophie, Princess Anne, Zara and Mike Tindall.

A long-running family tradition, the activity is a usual holiday pastime for the royals which Charlotte and Louis will no doubt eventually participate in. And with 50,000 acres of rolling countryside and streams, fishing and horse riding is also a favourite pastime for guests.

Prince Philip enjoys a spot of fishing at Balmoral. (Getty Images)
Prince Philip enjoys a spot of fishing at Balmoral. (Getty Images)

Can I stay at Balmoral?

Self-confessed royal fans will be pleased to learn that a handful of quaint cottages are available to rent on a weekly basis in the grounds of Balmoral.

Connachat Cottage for instance, offers accommodation for up to six people and boasts a traditional decor from a stand-alone bathtub to a log fire fit for a King.

For those of you who simply wish to have a wander, the grounds are open from April until July every year.

Watch: Future of the monarchy - how toxic is the Royal Family's relationship with the press?