Margaret Thatcher is said to have described her visits there as “purgatory”, while Tony Blair once described it as “a vivid combination of the intriguing, the surreal and the utterly freaky”.
Balmoral Castle – one of two private residences owned by the Royal Family, as opposed to the Crown – has long divided opinion, with Princess Eugenie describing the Scottish residence as “the most beautiful place in the world”.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Located in Royal Deeside in Aberdeenshire, Balmoral might never have come into royal hands if it wasn’t for a spell of bad weather. In 1847, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Ardverikie on the edge of Loch Laggan in the west Highlands, but “their time there was marred by terrible weather”, said the Royal Family’s official website.
During their stay, the son of the Queen’s physician received a letter from his father, who was convalescing at Balmoral, describing blue skies and dry conditions at the estate. After deciding that the Balmoral climate would make for a more suitable Scottish residence, Victoria bought Balmoral Castle in 1852. She paid £31,000, according to englishmonarchs.co.uk.
The original castle was built in the 15th century and consisted of a square tower with battlements and a thick stone wall surrounding a small square.
But a year after buying the estate, the Queen laid the foundation stone of a new castle. The Scottish baronial-style property was completed in 1856.
When Queen Victoria died in 1901, Balmoral passed to King Edward VII, and then to succeeding British monarchs.
After ascending to the throne in 1952, Queen Elizabeth II travelled to Balmoral with the Duke of Edinburgh. “With their family, they continue to enjoy the place and take a great interest in its running,” said the Royals’ official website.
However, the castle has also been the setting of some less happy scenes, noted Town And Country magazine. Balmoral “served as the destination for Prince Charles and Princess Diana's less-than-romantic honeymoon” and was also “where Prince Harry and Prince William learned of their mother's tragic death in 1997”.
The estate now covers more than 50,000 acres of land, while the castle has 52 bedrooms and is estimated to be worth in excess of £100m. The Castle Ballroom is considered the jewel in the estate’s crown. The largest room in the residence, the ballroom features “works of art by Landseer and Carl Haag, silver statues by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm together with Minton China and artifacts from within the castle”, said the Balmoral website.
The ballroom is also home to a colony of pipistrelle bats that nest in the rafters, The Sun reported in 2019. The paper said that the bats would “defecate all over the place”, and that “Her Majesty has even pointed them out to her staff so they can catch them with nets”.
The Guardian has claimed that the general atmosphere at Balmoral is “homely rather than grand”. According to the paper, Her Majesty mulls over “important events in the sitting room clutter of paper piles, books, china ornaments and family photographs, in front of a thistle-tiled fireplace hosting an incongruous electric heater”.
There was also said to be a cushion embroidered with the words “It’s good to be Queen”.
Outside, a vegetable garden created by the late Prince Philip adjoins the lavish gardens on the north side of the castle.
Life at Balmoral
The property is the Queen’s summer retreat. While there, she and her family “act as normal people – to a point”, then-royal librarian Jane Roberts told The Telegraph in 2011.
“Lunch is always outdoors and they are outside every day going on expeditions,” she added.
Princess Eugenie has also spoken about life at Balmoral, describing “walks, picnics, dogs – lot of dogs, there’s always dogs – and people coming in and out all the time”.
Balmoral is a working estate, with grouse moors, forestry, and farmland, as well as managed herds of deer, Highland cattle, and ponies.
One of the buildings on the estate, Birkhall, is sometimes used by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall for their summer holidays. Craigowan Lodge, a seven-bedroom stone house approximately a mile from the main castle, is also used as quarters for important guests.
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.