Balmoral Castle: A tour fit for the Queen

Even before you arrive at Balmoral Castle itself, you'll see things etched in history.

There is the beautiful stone bridge over the River Dee where Lady Diana Spencer posed with Prince Charles for the official photograph announcing their engagement.

There is Crathie Kirk, the village parish church where the Queen goes to worship every Sunday for the 10 weeks each summer when she holidays in her private Scottish home.

And the separate churchyard where John Brown – Victoria's "faithful servant" (and reputedly her lover) – lies buried, his coffin containing a photo of Victoria which she placed there herself.

Unlike Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court and Britain's other royal palaces, Balmoral (along with Norfolk's Sandringham House) is privately owned by the Queen, having been bought for Victoria in 1852 by Prince Albert using money left to her by an eccentric Belgian miser.

It's a beautiful spring morning when we drive the 90-minute journey west from Aberdeen through the picture-postcard landscapes of Royal Deeside to Balmoral. Each year the palace is open to the public from March to July, closing when the royal family arrive for the start of the grouse shooting season on August 12.

A trust runs the 123,000-hectare property within the Cairngorms National Park as a working estate employing up to 100 staff, with grouse moors, commercial forests and farmland containing herds of red deer and highland cattle.

The landscape is superb, ranging from the fast-flowing Dee River to Balmoral's highest mountain, the 1155-metre Lochnagar (subject of The Old Man of Lochnagar, written by Prince Charles for his younger brothers, Andrew and Edward).

The public is encouraged to enjoy the estate, too. If you have time, you can book a highland safari, go running through the hills with a trained guide, fish for salmon on the royal stretch of river, play a corporate game of golf at the nine-hole course or book one of the six cottages that can be rented around the estate.

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Sadly, we have only a couple of hours so are confined to a tour of the immediate house and gardens. Our Australian group is a little disappointed (ready to turn republican?) when we find that only one room in the palace   – the ballroom – is open to the public. The rest, monarchists point out, are private rooms used by the royals.

There is plenty of interest in the ballroom – and particularly in half a dozen outfits worn by the Queen with details of the designer and milliner and photographs showing when Her Majesty wore them (the outfits remind you how small the Queen is!)

Still, on a sun-filled morning like this, it is joyous to walk around the immaculate gardens at our own pace, listening to the highly informative audio guide which skilfully reveals the human foibles of a family permanently under the spotlight of media scrutiny.

These three qualities – sunshine, scenery and privacy – drew Albert and Victoria to Balmoral in the first place. They had first visited the Scottish Highlands in 1842 as newlyweds and were captivated by the landscapes of the west coast, yet dismayed that they returned each day from their strenuous walks thoroughly saturated.

Advised that Scotland's eastern Highlands were considerably drier, they first leased Balmoral in 1848 (the year of Europe's revolutions). Four years later, Albert bought it (cannily ensuring Victoria's chancellor of the exchequer would have no claim over it) and set about  a typically adventurous reinvention.

William Smith is officially credited with designing what we now know as Balmoral Castle. But it was always Albert's baby. He decided the old castle wasn't big enough for the royal family he and Victoria were planning (they had nine children), that it didn't make the best use of its superb location, and that it needed to be built as a grand Scottish country manor rather than a castle or palace.

The audio quotes directly from Victoria's diary, showing how happy she was with her husband's handiwork. Most days at Balmoral, Victoria would walk for at least four hours a day,  while Albert would spend the time stalking a stag or standing thigh-deep in the Dee, fly-fishing.

The royal family today relax in much the same way. The Queen is far more at home in a head scarf, driving a Land Rover to a shoot, than she is wearing a crown at the opening of Parliament.

You see this most at Balmoral in the gardens. Queen Mary, wife of George V, is usually seen as a cold, hard ice-queen. But I defy you to stand in the charming but formal garden she designed in 1923 – with its semi-circular wall of rocks around a fountain and its fine gates bearing the monograms GR and MR (George Rex and Mary Regina in Latin) – and not be moved.

Or venture into the kitchen gardens which Prince Philip moved to its present, expanded spot "60 years ago" and witness the environmental side of the supposedly iron-hearted duke.

Balmoral will forever be associated with the death of Princess Diana. The film, The Queen, depicts how Tony Blair, the then British prime minister, had to fly to Balmoral to coax the royal family back to Buckingham Palace to confront a nation's grief.

Only when you're at Balmoral can you understand their reluctance to leave their sanctuary.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/scotland

balmoralcastle.com

ARRIVE

Balmoral is 80 kilometres west of Aberdeen, which has the nearest railway station and airport. It's an hour by hire car from Aberdeen. For buses, see stagecoachbus.com

TOUR

Captain's Choice has a 17-day Bespoke British Isles tour aboard the MS Hebridean Sky, leaving Portsmouth and visiting Douglas, Mull, the Outer Hebrides, the Orkney Islands, Inverness and Edinburgh among other destinations. From $22,270 a person twin share including flights from Australia. It leaves Australia on June 4, 2017. Call 1300 176. See captainschoice.com.au

Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Captain's Choice.

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