Travel – Balmoral

Balmoral - exterior

The British Royal Family lives by tradition and for centuries now they have been spending the summer months, August to October, at Balmoral in the Highlands of Scotland.  Balmoral has been a Royal private residence since the time of Queen Victoria when it was purchased by Prince Albert in 1852.  Initially, when the Royal couple visited Edinburgh as newlyweds, the Highlands reminded Prince Albert of his home back in Germany and they decided it would be a perfect place to bring their young family.

Balmoral has been enjoyed by several generations of the Royal family throughout the years and it was happily where Prince Charles and Princess Diana spent part of their honeymoon in 1981.  But sadly, after their divorce fifteen years later, it is where Prince Charles and his sons heard the tragic news of Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris in 1997.

The History of Balmoral

Prior to the mid-1600s, the first structure on site was a small hunting lodge used by King Robert II of Scotland and in 1451 a larger house with a tower was built by Alexander Gordon and the estate became known as “Bouchmorale”.  In 1662, the estate passed to Charles Farquharson and then in 1798 James Duff the 2nd Earl Fife purchased the property and several years later it was leased it to Sir Robert Gordon in 1830.

Balmoral 1853

Then in 1842, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the Highlands of Scotland and stayed in Edinburgh.  They loved the area so much that they returned again several times over the following years, Prince Albert in particular loved the region as it reminded him of his beloved German homeland.   For this reason the Royal Couple were considering a home in Highlands and decided it would be a perfect for their young family to escape London during part of the hot summer months every year.

Balmoral - Queen Victoria and family

Prince Albert purchased Balmoral in 1852 which meant that the property was held privately by the Royal Family and that it was not part of the Crown.  In addition to Balmoral, the adjacent property known as Birkhall was purchased at the same time to further afford the Royal Family more privacy.  But with their family growing quickly, the Balmoral house proved to be too small and the decision was made to build a larger house.  More room was also needed to accommodate visitors of the Royal Family and also Queen Victoria’s official cabinet members.  William Smith, an architect from Aberdeen, was commission for the building project and he worked closely with Prince Albert who has some very definite opinions on the new home’s designs.  In the summer of 1853, a site not far from the original building was chosen and Queen Victoria laid the corner stone that September.  By waiting to demolish the old building, the Royal Family was able to stay there while the new house was being built.  (Interesting Note:  Located on the expansive front lawn, opposite the tower and about 100 yards from the path, is a stone marker that was placed on the site of the original house at Balmoral that was demolished in 1856)

Balmoral 1897

The architectural design is known as Scottish Baronial style and Balmoral was built with granite found on the property. The home floor plan is symmetrical in design with two blocks of rooms arranged around a central courtyard with a tall 80 foot turret topped clock tower at one end of the block.  The interior of the house was decorated in the distinctive Highland style with plenty of tartan featured throughout the many rooms.  The construction of the main house was finally completed in 1856.

Balmoral - Queen's drawing room 1857

Upon spending increasing amounts of time at Balmoral, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert immersed themselves in the Highland culture.  The interior of the house was uniquely decorated with plenty of distinctive Highland tartan and taxidermy stag heads which were featured throughout the many rooms of Balmoral.  Queen Victoria enjoyed long hours spent walking on the moors and Prince Albert spent days hunting deer on the property.  The Royal Family also attended the Highland games at nearby Braemar and hosted the annual Ghille Ball held at Balmoral.

Balmoral 2

In addition to the new home at Balmoral, improvements were made on several cottages and outbuildings as well as the gardens and woodlands on the property.  Prince Albert supervised the planting of conifers on the grounds, the building of a new bridge and the establishment of a farm and dairy.

After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria went into period of deep mourning and spent an increasing amount of time at Balmoral where she spent so many happy times with her beloved husband and far away from her Royal duties in London.  Several memorials were erected on the property; the pyramid- shaped cairn at the top of Craig Lurachain erected a year after his death and a statue of Prince Albert which was placed on the event of the twenty-eighth anniversary of the engagement of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Balmoral - Prince Albert memorial cairn    Balmoral - Prince Albert statue

Since Queen Victoria was staying at Balmoral for a lengthy amount of time during the year, the perpetually mourning Queen came to depend on a local ghillie (a Highland gamekeeper and servant) named John Brown.  Brown was able to meet Queen Victoria’s dark moods and he ultimately encouraged her to move forward with her life.  His constant companionship with the Queen greatly comforted her, some say their relationship was intimate, but still their closeness caused hostility among her family members.  Much like she did when Prince Albert died, when John Brown in 1883 the Queen commissioned a statue of him which was placed on the estate.  After the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 her son, now known as King Edward VII, had many of the Brown memorials destroyed and the Brown statue was moved to a remote place on the property.  (Special Note:  If you are interested in more information about Queen Victoria and John Brown, I would recommend the 1997 film “Mrs. Brown” starring Judi Dench as the Queen and Billy Connolly as Brown)

Balmoral - Queen Victoria and John Brown 1868    Balmoral - John Brown statue

King Edward VII continued the tradition of the Royal Family annual trip to Balmoral during the autumn months.  His successor and son, King George V also enjoyed the annual trip to the Highlands.  After the death of King George V his son, known as King Edward VIII, acquired the ownership of Balmoral when it was passed to him in 1936.  Later that same year when he abdicated the throne to his brother, now known as King George VI, part of the negotiated settlement was the sale of both Balmoral and Sandringham (properties personally owned and not part of the Crown) to King George VI.  After the death of King George VI in 1952, his daughter, the current reigning Queen Elizabeth II inherited Balmoral and she continues the Royal Family tradition of annual trips to Balmoral during the months of August to October.

Balmoral - Queen Elizabeth and family 1972 a

Tourist Information Regarding Balmoral

Balmoral is open to the public daily from the end of March to the end of July, closed from August to October when the Queen is in residence and then opened again on a limited number of days during the months of November and December.  For more information on specific days, times and admission fees, please see the official website at

Balmoral offers visitors a variety of activities for visitors and the price of admission includes parking, a one hour guided tour including the Castle’s Ballroom and access to the gardens, the exhibitions and also an audio tour.  There is also a small restaurant and gift store for visitors.  It is advised that a minimum of at least one and a half hours is reserved when planning a trip.

Points of Interest at Balmoral

The Balmoral Castle Ballroom –

Ballroom is the largest room at Balmoral and it is the only room is open to the public; there is no access to the other rooms of the Castle because they are considered the Queen’s private rooms.  Displayed in the Ballroom are several paintings by Edwin Landseer (an English painter who specialized in Highland landscapes and portraits) and Carl Haag (a Bavarian-born painter for the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha who later became a naturalized British citizen).  Also displayed in the Ballroom are silver statues by John Boehm and several pieces of Minton China (the famous bone china produced in Staffordshire, England)

The Ballroom is probably most famously known as the setting for the annual Ghillie Ball, Queen Victoria started the tradition in 1852 when she wanted to thank her servants and other members of her staff for their good service.  The ball is a much anticipated event for everyone at Balmoral because of opportunity for the servants to socialize and even dance with the Queen and her family.  Historical Note:  In 2014, the Ghillie Ball was postponed for one day by Queen Elizabeth to allow the vote on Scottish independence referendum.  The end result was a decisive 53% vote against independence.

Balmoral - Gillis Ball 1859

Garden Cottage –

Located not far from Balmoral is the Garden Cottage were visitors will be able to view a short film that shows how the 50,000 acre estate is managed.  The original Garden Cottage was built in 1863 but by 1894 it had fallen into disrepair and was demolished.  The current structure was built with stone and wood supplied by the materials on the property and it was completed in 1895.  In her later years, Queen Victoria often used the cottage in the morning to have breakfast or in the afternoon to work on State papers, correspondence and to write in her journals.

The gardens adjacent to the cottage were originally planted under the guidance direction of Prince Albert.  Several years later, during the reign King George VI, Queen Mary re-designed the garden with a fountain surrounded partially by a rock wall, the garden gate still bears the monograms of King George and Queen Mary (GR &MR).  More recently, the Duke of Edinburgh planted a large vegetable garden to supply the Royal Family during the summer months.    Balmoral - Garden Cottage

Birkhall –

The Birkhall property was purchased by Prince Albert in 1849 in addition to the Balmoral estate, it was set aside for the exclusive use of his eldest son, Prince Edward (the Prince of Wales and later King Edward VII).  Later, in 1884 Queen Victoria bought the property back from her son and used it to provide housing for her staff.

When King George V inherited Balmoral after the death of his father, he lent Birkhall to his second son, the Duke and Duchess of York (the parents of the current Queen Elizabeth II).  The Royal couple enjoyed their time at Birkhall with their two daughters and during the time they occupied the house they redecorated the interior and replanted the gardens.  In 1936, when King George VI ascended to the throne, Birkhall was lent to Princess Elizabeth and during the summer months it was occupied by her, Prince Philip and their small children.

After the death of King George, his daughter, Queen Elizabeth moved to the main house at Balmoral during their summer visits and her mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, returned once more to Birkhall and she continued using it until her death in March 2002.

After the Queen Mother’s death, Prince Charles (the Prince of Wales) inherited Birkhall.  When he married Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, in 2005 they spent their honeymoon at the Birkhall.

Balmoral - Birkhall

Craigowan Lodge –

Craigowan Lodge is located on the Balmoral estate about one mile from the main house.  The seven bedroom stone house was frequently used by Prince Charles and Princess Diana when they would visit Balmoral during the summer months.  Now the lodge is used for the housing of very important guests or sometimes various Royal Family members and when the Queen arrives at the estate in mid-July, she uses the lodge while the main house is being prepared for her extended stay during the summer months.

Balmoral - Craigowan Lodge

For more information about another privately owned British Royal residence, please click on the link to Sandringham.

Celebration – Victoria’s Day

1838 - Queen Victoria coronation portrait by George Hayter 1   1897 Queen Victoria in Diamond Julbilee photograph by W&D Downey

This year on May 20th Victoria’s Day will be celebrated in Canada.  It is a federal holiday and the day is observed on the last Monday before or on May 24, which was the actual birthday of Queen Victoria.  The day is also known in Canada as the “official” Sovereign’s Birthday for the current British monarch, which is Queen Elizabeth II.

Years ago, I read several books by Jean Plaidy, aka Victoria Holt, about the life of Queen Victoria of England and I became fascinated by her.  I enjoyed reading about her life from the time of her ascension to the British throne, to her marriage to Prince Albert and her sudden widowhood after his untimely death, to the birth of her nine children and her difficult relationship with her son who was destined to become the future King Edward VII, through to the time of her death at the beginning of the 20th century.  For this particular post I will concentrate on Queen Victoria’s personal life and leave the political information and details of her almost 64 year reign for the experts!

A not so brief history of Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria (Alexandrina Victoria born: May 24, 1819 died: January 22, 1901) was the monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; later in 1876 she received the additional title of the Empress of India.  Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901, which is longer than any other British monarch.  (Queen Elizabeth, the current British monarch will soon break that record)  The almost 64 years of her reign became known in history as the Victorian era.  This period brought great industrial, cultural, political and scientific changes within the United Kingdom and also was a time that marked by the great worldwide expansion of the British Empire.

Victoria was the daughter of Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent and the Duchess Victoria, formerly the German born Princess of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.  Prince Edward was the fourth son of King George III and she became fifth in the line of succession.  Within a year after her birth both Prince Edward and King George III died in 1820, making her uncle King George IV.  When the Duke of York died in 1827 and King George IV died in 1930, her last surviving uncle became King William IV making Victoria the heir presumptive.

Victoria was raised at Kensington Palace in London under the close supervision of her extremely protective mother.  Victoria’s life was very lonely and she was isolated from other children and most of her time was governed by private lessons with tutors and very little free time spent with her dolls and her King Charles spaniel, Dash. Victoria was held under a constant watch by her governess, Baroness Louise Lehzen, and at night she shared a bedroom with her mother.  These rules and restrictions were devised by the Duchess and the ambitious Sir John Convoy and they became known as the Kensington System.  With this system, the Duchess and Sir Conroy were positioning themselves to take power as regents if an underage Victoria took the throne before turning 18 years old.  Luckily King William IV lived long enough so this was avoided thus ending the plans of the Duchess and Sir Conroy.   At this same time another person was trying to control the life of the young Victoria.  Her uncle on her mother’s side, King Leopold of Belgian, hoped that his niece would marry his nephew Prince Albert.  A meeting was arranged in 1836, but fate soon intervened and King Leopold’s marriage plans were postponed. (Victoria’s mother, Albert’s father, Ernest the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and King Leopold were siblings and this lineage made the future Queen Victoria and Prince Albert first cousins)

1838 - Queen Victoria coronation portrait by George Hayter 2

King William IV died in 1837, and a young Victoria became queen of Great Britain at the age of 18 years old.  Almost a year later, her elaborate coronation took place at Westminster Abbey on June 28, 1838.  The crown that was previously used by the former British kings weighed seven pounds, too large for the young Queen’s head.  A new crown was made that was smaller, weighed about 31/2 pounds, and was covered with over 2,100 precious stones such as diamonds, pearls, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.  To prepare for the coronation, the streets of London were festively decorated and soldiers on foot and horseback lined the streets.  On the morning of the coronation, the future Queen Victoria left Buckingham Palace in a Grand State Carriage pulled by eight cream-colored horses.  Westminster Abbey has been the site of every coronation since Edward I in 1274 and every monarch has been crowned sitting in the Chair of St. Edward. (For more information regarding the Coronation regalia, please click on the link Crown Jewels of England – Part One)

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert quickly became engaged after their second meeting in 1839.  They were married on February 10, 1840 in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace in Windsor followed by a wedding breakfast held at Buckingham Palace and a honeymoon at Windsor Castle.  Prince Albert was dressed in a red British Field Marshal’s uniform and proudly wore the Order of the Garter Star on his chest.  Queen Victoria wore a white satin wedding gown trimmed with Honiton lace and orange blossoms.  Instead of wearing a jeweled royal tiara, Victoria choose to wear a wreath of more orange blossoms over a long Honiton lace veil.  At the time, orange blossoms were traditionally worn by brides as a symbol of fertility.  The clothes of a royal wedding tend to be very lavish, but a normal bride would simply have chosen to wear her “best dress”.  It has been said that Queen Victoria started the fashion tradition of wearing a white wedding dress.  (For more information about the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, please click on the link British Royal Weddings – Part One and for more information about Queen Victoria’s wedding dress, please click on the link British Royal Wedding Dress – Part One)

1846 Family of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert portrait by

It took a little time after their marriage for Queen Victoria to trust Prince Albert with any government information but eventually he came to be her most trusted political adviser and a very dominant and influential person in her life.  The royal couple had nine children: Princess Royal Victoria in 1840, Prince Albert Edward (known as Bertie, the future King Edward VII) in 1841, Princess Alice in 1843, Prince Alfred in 1844, Princess Helena in 1846, Princess Louise in 1848, Prince Arthur in 1850, Prince Leopold in 1853 and Princess Beatrice in 1857.  Despite the fact that she had so many children, Queen Victoria greatly disliked being pregnant and thought newborn babies were ugly.  Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s choose wisely and married their children into royal and noble families throughout Europe.  With her nine children, forty-two grandchildren and thirty-seven great grandchildren who are all related throughout the world’s royal families Queen Victoria has been called the “Grandmother of Europe”.

In 1861, Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent died.  The two had been estranged since the time of Victoria’s ascension.  Her mother’s death greatly affected Victoria and she went into a great depression cause by her intense grief. Unable to function, Prince Albert took over most of her duties despite the fact that he was ill with chronic stomach pains. Then, when their son Bertie, the Prince of Wales, became involved in a scandalous relationship with an actress and Prince Albert traveled to Cambridge to confront his son.  Prince Albert had extremely high moral standards and felt his son’s behavior was unacceptable and advised Bertie to remember his royal responsibilities. When Prince Albert returned from his trip he became very ill and was diagnosed with typhoid fever and died shortly after on December 14, 1861.  Queen Victoria was devastated by the death of her beloved husband and felt that Prince Albert’s intense worry over Bertie’s scandalous behavior brought on her husband’s illness and hastened his death.

With the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria went into deep mourning and withdrew from her royal duties too distraught to function.  She immediately cancelled all the royal court calendar events and after a period of official mourning never worn anything but black clothing, her widow’s veil and a small diamond crown.  Because of the way she dressed after Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria was called the “Widow of Windsor”.  She left London and remained isolated in her other royal residences and divided her time between Windsor Castle, Osborne House and Balmoral Castle in Scotland.  It was at Balmoral Castle that Queen Victoria came to increasingly rely on her personal servant named John Brown.  There have been rumors of a romantic relationship between them and even a possible secret marriage.  Despite these scandalous rumors, John Brown has been credited for coxing Queen Victoria out of her deep mourning and severe depression, causing her to return to her royal duties and a public life.

Unfortunately, more sorrow and death came to Queen Victoria’s life.  In 1871, her son Bertie contracted typhoid, the same disease that killed Prince Albert.  Bertie made a full recovery and his estranged relationship with his mother greatly improved after he was so close to death.  Sadly, in the following years three of Queen Victoria’s children died.  In 1878 Princess Alice died of diphtheria, in 1884 Prince Leopold died from a cerebral hemorrhage and in 1900 Prince Alfred died of throat cancer. Then, in 1883, John Brown’s loyalty to Queen Victoria ultimately cost him his life when he ignored his own health concerns, refusing to take care of himself when he first became ill and instead stubbornly continued to attend to his duties as her servant, he died from pneumonia.

In the remaining years of Queen Victoria’s life and reign as monarch, she eventually returned to a public life after her self-imposed isolation and eventually regained her popularity with the English people as their beloved matriarchal Queen.  In 1887, she celebrated 50 years on the throne with a lavish Golden Jubilee that was celebrated throughout England.  Then, in 1896, Queen Victoria became the longest reigned monarch in British history and she requested that any special celebration be postponed to coincide with her Diamond Jubilee.

In 1900, Queen Victoria continued to observe her annual tradition of celebration of Christmas at Osborne House on the Isle of Wright.  Severe rheumatism in her legs had made her unable to walk and her eyesight was extremely poor due to cataracts.  By the start of the new year and the dawn of a new century, she had become increasingly weak.  Queen Victoria died on January 22, 1901 at the age of 81 years old.  Her funeral took place at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle and she was interred beside her beloved Prince Albert in the Frogmore Mausoleum.

1882 Queen Victoria photograph by Alexander Bassano

Queen Victoria facts and trivia

  • When Victoria was still heir presumptive to the British crown and before she became queen, she was forbidden from walking up or down the stairs by herself without holding onto someone’s hand.  Her over-protective mother had a strict set of rules and was fearful that her daughter would be pushed or tripped down the stairs and killed to make way for another heir.  From birth, Victoria was forced to share a room with her controlling mother and, as a defiant act of independence, one of her first orders after becoming Queen was to have her bed removed from her mother’s room and into another bedroom far away in another part of the palace.
  • When Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne in 1837, it prohibited her from receiving a marriage proposal from a man.  Then in 1839, five days after their second meeting, Queen Victoria quickly fell in love with Prince Albert and wished to marry him but protocol prevented him from asking for her hand and she had to propose to him!
  • There is a legend that all British Royal brides carry a sprig of myrtle that was grown from Queen Victoria’s bridal bouquet.  The origin of the myrtle is false, although it is still a fact that British Royal brides do carry a sprig of myrtle in their bouquets on their wedding day.  The true story is that Prince Albert’s grandmother gave Queen Victoria a posy of myrtle when she visited Germany.  The Queen had the myrtle planted at her home, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight.  The myrtle plant still grows there today and this is the source of the myrtle that is carried in the British Royal bridal bouquets.
  • Queen Victoria youngest son, Prince Leopold, was affected by the blood-clotting disease hemophilia and two of her daughters, Princesses Alice and Beatrice, were also carriers of this disease.  Several of Queen Victoria’s descendants including her great-grandson, Tsarevich Alexei of Russia, also suffered from this disease.  The presence of the disease in her descendants and not her ancestors led to speculation that the Duke of Kent was not Victoria’s true father since male carriers always suffer from this disease.  There is no documented evidence of a hemophilia connection thru her mother, the Duchess of Kent.  It is likely possible that the hemophilia gene mutated because the Duke of Kent was over 50 at the time of Victoria’s birth and hemophilia frequently accurses in the children of older fathers.
  • Queen Victoria publicly endorsed the 19th century cocaine-based drink Vin Mariani; this drink would later inspired Coca-Cola in the United States.  Vin Mariani was a medicine or tonic created in 1863 by a French chemist named Angelo Mariani.  Originally the drink was made from Bordeaux wine and coca leaves and contained 7.6 mg of cocaine per fluid ounce of wine.  Vin Mariani was very popular during this time and other notable people endorsed the drink.  Thomas Edison claimed that the drink helped him stay awake for long hours and Ulysses S. Grant began drinking it while writing his memoirs.
  • Queen Victoria keep a series of detailed journals throughout her long life writing on an average of 2500 words per day.  After her death, her daughter Princess Beatrice had the daunting task or transcribing and editing the 122 volumes that covered Queen Victoria’s life from the time of her ascension to her death.  Unfortunately, Queen Victoria’s personal and intimate history, private feelings and observations that were written by her own hand were lost when Princess Beatrice burned the original journals.
  • Several years prior to her death, Queen Victoria had written very specific instructions regarding her death and funeral.  Her son and successor, King Edward VII gently put her into her coffin and she was dressed in a white dress and her wedding veil.  Within the coffin were several mementos: on her right side was an article of Price Albert’s clothing and a plaster cast of his hand, on her left side were a lock of John Brown’s hair and a small photo of him wrapped in a handkerchief and place in her left hand and concealed by a carefully placed bouquet of flowers.