Inside the Royals' Favorite Scottish Getaway, Balmoral Castle
The royal family is nothing if not consistent. Before her death, at the end of every summer, Queen Elizabeth mades her annual pilgrimage north to Scotland for a multiple week-long holiday at Balmoral Castle. It is also where she passed away on September 8, 2022, and her coffin departed the estate on September 11, as it began its final journey back to London and then to Windsor Castle.
If you've never heard of the royal country home, which is also featured in several recent seasons of The Crown, read on for everything you need to know about the centuries-old castle that Tony Blair once called "freaky." Princess Eugenie, on the other hand, describes it as "the most beautiful place in the world."
The Queen's Annual Vacation
Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where Queen Elizabeth spent her summer holiday, was widely thought to be the monarch's favorite residence. "I think Granny is the most happy there. I think she really, really loves the Highlands," described her granddaughter Princess Eugenie in the documentary Our Queen At Ninety.
Free from public duties, she relaxed and spent time with her family members, who also often made the trip.
“Walks, picnics, dogs—a lot of dogs, there’s always dogs—and people coming in and out all the time,” Eugenie continued. “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.”
While at Balmoral, the royals "act as normal people—to a point," Lord Lichfield, a former photographer for the family, said in 1972. "Lunch is always outdoors and they are outside every day going on expeditions."
Indeed, the Queen was known to explore the grounds on horseback (or behind the wheel of a Range Rover). Before he died, Prince Philip liked to spend his time manning the grill.
Prince Harry writes in his memoir Spare about his grandparents in the kitchen. "Grandpa, who’d set off half an hour before us, was already tending his grill at the back of the lodge. He stood amid a thick cloud of smoke, tears streaming from his eyes. He wore a flat cap, which he took off now and then to mop his brow or smack a fly. As the fillets of venison sizzled he turned them with a huge pair of tongs, then put on a loop of Cumberland sausages. Normally I’d beg him to make a pot of his specialty, spaghetti Bolognese. This night, for some reason, I didn’t," Harry writes.
He continues, "Granny’s specialty was the salad dressing. She’d whisked a large batch. Then she lit the candles down the long table and we all sat on wooden chairs with creaky straw seats. Often we had a guest for these dinners, some famous or eminent personage. Many times I’d discussed the temperature of the meat or the coolness of the evening with a prime minister or bishop. But tonight it was just family."
And after dinner, Her Majesty even did the dishes. "You think I’m joking, but I’m not,” Blair once revealed. “They put the gloves on and stick their hands in the sink. The Queen asks if you’ve finished, she stacks the plates up and goes off to the sink."
Royals, apparently, really are just like us—though, only a true monarch can pull off having a pillow that says simply "It’s good to be Queen."
The first home at Balmoral was reportedly built in 1390, but the property didn't enter into the British royal family until 1852, when Prince Albert purchased the estate as a gift for his wife, Queen Victoria, who loved the Scottish countryside. However, when the residence was deemed too small, the royal couple built an additional castle—the one that still exists today—to fit their growing family. The new structure was completed in 1856, and the other building was torn down. Now, the 50,000-acre estate features 150 buildings in total.
In more modern royal history, Balmoral served as the destination for Prince Charles and Princess Diana's less-than-romantic honeymoon. It's also where Prince Harry and Prince William learned of their mother's tragic death in 1997. Additionally, in 2022, Queen Elizabeth stayed at Balmoral to appoint a new prime minister, Liz Truss, instead of traveling to Buckingham Palace in London for the occasion.
In Prince Harry's memoir, Spare, he writes about the inside of Balmoral.
"Balmoral. Closing my eyes, I can see the main entrance, the paneled front windows, the wide portico and three gray-black speckled granite steps leading up to the massive front door of whisky-colored oak, often propped open by a heavy curling stone and often manned by one red-coated footman, and inside the spacious hall and its white stone floor, with gray star-shaped tiles, and the huge fireplace with its beautiful mantel of ornately carved dark wood, and to one side a kind of utility room, and to the left, by the tall windows, hooks for fishing rods and walking sticks and rubber waders and heavy waterproofs—so many waterproofs, because summer could be wet and cold all over Scotland, but it was biting in this Siberian nook—and then the light brown wooden door leading to the corridor with the crimson carpet and the walls papered in cream, a pattern of gold flock, raised like braille, and then the many rooms along the corridor, each with a specific purpose, like sitting or reading, TV or tea, and one special room for the pages, many of whom I loved like dotty uncles, and finally the castle’s main chamber, built in the nineteenth century, nearly on top of the site of another castle dating to the fourteenth century, within a few generations of another Prince Harry, who got himself exiled, then came back and annihilated everything and everyone in sight."
Inside, he writes, there's a statue of Queen Victoria that he and Prince William always bowed to when they passed it.
Want to visit? Here's how.
When the royal family is in residence, Balmoral is typically closed, but they do offer guided tours on several dates throughout the winter.
If you'd like to visit, admission, which includes an audio tour and parking, traditionally costs £15. For more information, visit balmoralcastle.com. For a truly royal experience, consider booking a cottage on-site. The property offers several accommodations that are available for bookings year-round (although not typically during the royal visit).
Or, if you have no plans for a trip to Scotland, tune in to the Castle's squirrel cam.
The royals aren't the only "special residences" of Balmoral. The castle grounds are also home to an endangered species of red squirrels. Per the Balmoral website, "The red squirrel is one of Scotland's favourite mammals but it is declining in numbers and classified as an endangered species. However at Balmoral we are lucky to have several scurries of squirrels living and you can watch them feeding." Check out the special video feed here.
Notably, King Charles is quite fond of the creatures, and sometimes even lets them run around inside his home, Birkhall.
"He is completely infatuated by the red squirrels that live around the estate in Scotland—to the extent that he's given them names and is allowing them into the house," Prince William has said in the past.
Charles, who is also the patron of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, doesn't deny it. "They come into the house at Birkhall and we get them chasing each other round and round inside. If I sit quietly, they will do so around me," he says. "Sometimes, when I leave my jackets on a chair with nuts in the pockets, I see them with their tails sticking out, as they hunt for nuts—they are incredibly special creatures."
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