The Royal’s love of Balmoral and all things Scottish. Every summer (July through September) and sometimes even into October the Queen and much of her family live in Balmoral Castle. It started with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Balmoral Castle is a large estate house in Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, near the village of Crathie. Balmoral has been one of the residences for members of the British Royal Family since 1852.
Soon after the estate was purchased by the royal family, the existing house was found to be too small and the current Balmoral Castle was commissioned. The architect was William Smith of Aberdeen, although his designs were amended by Prince Albert. The castle is an example of Scottish baronial architecture, and was completed in 1856 and the old castle [was] demolished shortly thereafter. The term Castle simply means a large building fortified against attack—typically with thick walls, battlements, towers, and often a moat. There are well over 2,000 Castles in Scotland (however many are in ruins today).
Last week we booked an all-day excursion to Royal Deeside and Balmoral Castle for £45 GBP. We met Carl and his Range Rover at 9:45 a.m. under clear skies and bright sun. It remained partly cloudy and mostly sunny for the entire day, a real rarity for Scotland (especially this time of year). Carl’s Range Rover could hold six passengers but there were only five of us including Joel and me. Sweet. We love travelling with very small tour groups—big coaches with throngs of tourists is not to our liking. This was perfect. Other points of interest included: Crathie Kirk (Church), the Royal Lochnagar Distillery and Ballater.
Carl’s first stop was a brief roadside moment at the Queen’s Overlook overlooking Royal Deeside and the Dee Valley (both named for the Dee River). It’s reputed this overlook was Queen Victoria’s favourite stop on her way to Balmoral Castle with Prince Albert. I can understand why—it’s a beautiful valley with the Scottish Highlands in the background with their snow-capped mountain peaks. As you can see from the photo it was perfect photography weather—interesting skies bordering on the dramatic with some sunshine thrown in for good measure.
Crathie Kirk (Church) was our next stop and it’s very close to the Castle. During her summer visits to Balmoral the Queen and her family attend church services there with the locals. It’s a very small parish church with a separate entrance for the Royal family leading to a private seating area. I asked Carl about security when the Royal family visits and he said it’s very informal and not too burdensome for the village people. The original church was built in 1804 and then Victoria laid the foundation stone for a new and much larger church in 1893. Unfortunately, the church was closed when we visited.
In just a very few minutes we were entering the grounds of Balmoral Castle itself and we spent a total of three hours viewing the various displays and grounds. The normal admission price is £11.50 GBP pp but we got a discount of £1.50 GBP because we were with Carl and another £1.00 GBP discount because we are Old Farts—our final price was £9.00 GBP pp. The tour around the grounds is self-directed with a portable audio device that explains all the various sights. The former stables now house displays of vintage Range Rovers, old carriages and other cool stuff (including exhibits of stuffed wildlife).
The Castle itself is closed to the public except for the Ball Room. It would have been neat to see the kitchens, bedrooms and parlours but it is still a private residence and not a museum. The Castle and its grounds are closed from July to September during the Queen’s annual visit but for the rest of the year Carl takes tourists to visit three or four times a week. During the Royal’s summer visits he has seen many of them on different occasions. Prince Charles and Camilla live close to the Castle almost year round and Carl used to see Princess Margaret while driving with her trademark scarf and cigarette dangling from her lips.
Joel and I spent some of our time wandering around the grounds and followed the River Dee walkway. There was still some snow on the ground and the weather was chilly but not freezing. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits with the beautiful sunshine and blue skies. We had a less than remarkable lunch at the cafe and gift shop for about £9.00 GBP pp (just a sandwich, chips that they call crisps and beer). It was interesting that many of the locals visiting brought their dogs—I hadn’t seen that many dogs in one place for quite a long time. The grounds must be spectacular when all the gardens are in full bloom.
A short five-minute drive away was the Royal Lochnagar Distillery. You cannot visit Scotland without visiting a distillery or two (or three or four). Scotland is world-renowned for its Scotch Whisky and frankly I LOVE IT. Our host Eric was actually French (which was kind of weird) but he did a great job in explaining the whole distilling process. Joel and I had a sneak preview recently in the USA because our friends own and operate Kalifornia Distilleries. The process of distilling whisky is pretty straightforward and simple but not easy—there is a lot of work involved.
For £11.50 GBP pp we got the full one hour tour plus two tastings with explanation (no Old Fart’s discount unfortunately). I guess they know how some Old Farts (Steve & Joel in particular) love their whisky—especially Scotch Single Malt Whisky. After the tour and tasting we were invited to buy a bottle or two—we saw bottles ranging in price from £2,500 GBP (almost $3,000 USD) to more modestly priced bottles at £45 GBP to £50 GBP. Single Malt Scotch Whisky ain’t cheap. Our day was coming to a close and we departed the distillery for our last stop at the small village of Ballater.
Ballater is small, quaint and very picturesque Scottish village that sits on the banks of the River Dee which is very beautiful. Two major rivers flow into the harbour at Aberdeen, the River Dee and the River Don. We only had about thirty minutes in Ballater but it gave us enough time to wander around a wee bit and to view the River Dee from the stone bridge leading into town. Carl told us that two years ago the River Dee experienced a historic 100-year flood that caused a lot of damage and almost toppled one local castle into the river—the owners had to evacuate post-haste.
Carl was a great guide and with such a small group it was easy to bond quickly. He has been a tour guide for over twenty years and his presentation still sounds new and fresh. He had a quick & nimble sense of humour that was a lot of fun and when talking about food his demeanour was almost orgasmic—evidently Carl has a real thing about food. He said he used to be heavy but these days he looks slim and trim. I wish Joel and I could say the same, since arriving in the UK I’m certainly not shedding any pounds and I suspect Joel isn’t either.
On the drive back to Aberdeen Carl stopped at the Cullerlie Stone Circle, near Echt, Aberdeenshire which was built in the second millennium BC. Cullerlie Stone Circle is also known as the Standing Stones of Echt and is a small stone circle consisting of eight irregular stones of red granite arranged at approximately equal intervals to form a circle of 10.2 m (33 ft) diameter, enclosing the same number of small cairns. The cairns are characterised by outer kerbs or rings of stones, with a double ring surrounding the central cairn and a single ring in the others.
Field Notes: I captured all the images on this page with my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR and EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM ultra wide-angle zoom lens. I love the dramatic effects you can get at 16mm on a full-frame sensor camera like my 5D Mark IV. I like my EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM wide-angle zoom lens too but sometimes the 24mm FL just isn’t wide enough. We booked our tour with Carl at Aberdeen Day Tours in Aberdeen, Scotland. We were very pleased with the tour, especially Carl and his Range Rover, and can recommend them highly. SFD