Balmoral Castle, Scotland: One sugar for me, ma'am

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Balmoral Castle, Scotland: One sugar for me, ma'am

In early 2022, because we were passing we decided to drop in at the Queen's house, Balmoral Castle, in the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands.

Her Majesty wasn't in, but with time to kill on our way to nearby Inverness, we spent a very pleasant morning on this 20,000 hectare estate which the Queen has used for private family holidays in summer, away from royal duties.

This has perhaps been where the royal family has been at its most relaxed and happiest, although it was here they heard of the death of Diana, Princes of Wales – as portrayed in the 2006 Helen Mirren film The Queen.

balmoral__1The vast Balmoral estate has been in the royal family for 150 years, since Queen Victoria and Prince Albert became infatuated with Highland culture after a number of visits and – sight-unseen – bought the property. At that time it had a house on it which was quickly deemed too small for a royal residence.

And so the baronial castle we see today was built in the Scottish style in the 1850s.

It stands at the centre of a flat landscape edged with manicured gardens and gentle tree-covered hills. Beyond are the Grampian mountains.

balmoral__2Balmoral may be billed as a castle, but by royal terms it is – despite apparnetly having at least 50 bedrooms – somewhat modest in size.

Architects would say it is a mash-up of French, Scottish and German styles. But it is very impressive, as are the well-tended grounds.

The grounds are open to the public from early April – by coincidence we arrived on April 1 – until the Queen arrives in late July.

Here are walks by the River Dee, open moors, cool pine forests, Highland cattle and somewhere further away, up in the steep mountains, deer.

balmoral__4Visitors walk across an old stone bridge over the Dee from the large carpark and enter the grounds through the ticket office (adults £15, about NZ$29) where there is a map of suggested sights and a walking route, and a very informative audioguide comes with the ticket price.

As with all such tourist places you invariably exit through the gift shop where visitors can indulge in royal-marque tea-towels, biscuit tins, whiskey, sweets, fluffy toys, jams . . .

Balmoral is a working estate which means productive vegetable gardens and the regular culling of deer. The deer larder scene in The Queen was one of the most memorable in that film, although none of it was shot at Balmoral.

The many pines around the property often need to be felled also, although our visit not long after a series of brutal storms meant there were huge fallen trees, some of which had root systems two metres across.

balmoral__5_mapThe rooms within castle itself aren't open to the public because it is the Queen's family home, but the ballroom is.

Unexpectedly, it much smaller than a tennis court and when we visited it was displaying artworks, uniforms of servants and an installation of contemporary sculpture.

Serious walkers can undertake greater exploration of the Balmoral estate and there are guided tours of the ground available also.

But even just a casual amble around the grounds taking in The Avenue of the Conifers, Queen Mary's Garden and the Riverside Walk is a restful and interesting way to break a journey through the magnificent Highlands.

It was pure chance that took us to Balmoral, but the convenience of a car meant we could make spontaneous digressions like this.

We also went to the breathtaking Castle Howard near York – one of the stars of the television series Brideshead Revisited -- and to Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye which is still the family home of the Chief of Clan MacLeod.

Just as interesting as these however is the heroic chateau-style Glamis Castle, where Shakespeare's Macbeth was Thane (earl) before becoming Thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland. It has rough-hewn wooden statuary of scenes and characters from “the Scottish play” in the gardens including the three witches, .

the_three_witches_glamis_castleThe estate has been the ancestral seat of the Lyon family since 1372 and the castle rooms are open to the public.

It was the childhood home of the late Queen Mother and was where Princes Margaret was born.

The story, artifacts, photos, clothing and documents of these recent royals is utterly fascinating and Glamis -- half an hour's drive north of Dundee – is well worth a visit.

However there's nothing quite like casually starting a dinner table conversation with, “Because we were passing, we decided to drop in at the Queen's house, Balmoral Castle . . . “

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