Queen Elizabeth II had been visiting her beloved holiday home Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire since she was a child. Set within the Cairngorms National Park on the banks of the River Dee, it was reportedly her favourite residence for its green, wide-open spaces, the beauty of which she could enjoy away from the public eye. It also enabled her to enjoy a more ordinary kind of family life: reportedly, Prince Philip used to enjoy manning the barbecue, while the Queen would put on rubber gloves and do the washing up, before gathering to play after-dinner parlour games.
This year, she made the journey as usual, arriving on 21 July; and while ordinarily, she would have returned to Buckingham Palace to swear in the new Prime Minister Liz Truss last Tuesday, her declining health necessitated the event to take place at Balmoral. Then, yesterday, members of the Royal Family rushed to Scotland to be at her bedside as she peacefully passed away at the age of 96.
Historically, Balmoral has been the site of many momentous royal occasions, both sorrowful and joyous. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip spent their honeymoon there in 1947; a young Prince Charles brought Diana Spencer there in 1980, before they later married and spent their honeymoon at castle’s hunting lodge; and it is said to have been the location for Prince Harry’s 32nd birthday party. It was also where Princes William and Harry learnt of their mother’s tragic death in 1997.
Dating back to 1390, the 50,000-acre estate was originally bought by Prince Albert as a gift for his wife Queen Victoria, after she had fallen in love with the Highlands on a trip in the autumn of 1842. The couple built the castle in 1856 to house their growing family, and after Albert’s death in 1861, it became Queen Victoria’s sanctuary – amid the sprawling gardens stands a statue of Queen Victoria’s dog, Noble.
When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip took over the estate, Philip created a large vegetable plot beside Queen Mary’s flower garden. Today, there are 150 houses on the sweeping grounds, including Birkhall, where King Charles spent his honeymoon with the Queen Consort Camilla in 2005. (It is also rumoured that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have their own hideaway there, too.)
While Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace are owned by the Crown Estate, Balmoral is the Royal Family’s private property. As such, only a small number of people have explored the castle in full, although visitors are permitted inside the house’s ballroom. However, through glimpses shared by the family and depictions in films and television shows such as The Crown, it is known that the interiors feature traditional green tartan, marble fireplaces and cosy armchairs with box-pleated skirts. But the real draw for the royals is its surrounding nature, with mountains, forests, lochs and valleys wandered freely by wild deer, ponies, Highland cattle and red grouse.
Queen Elizabeth II so loved the area that she named her corgi puppy Muick last year, in tribute to the nearby Coyles of Muick. It was a place she could relax, walking through the hills with her dogs in tow and traversing the grounds on horseback – which she did well into her nineties. “I think Granny is the most happy there,” Princess Eugenie once said of Balmoral. “I think she really, really loves the Highlands.”
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