How Balmoral became the Queen's special place

As the Queen’s coffin leaves Balmoral, how the Scottish royal retreat became a sanctuary for treasured family holidays, hosting Prime Ministers away from London’s glare and enjoying horse rides with her beloved Philip

  • The Queen visited the estate since a baby, falling in love with the Highlands 
  • Guests were often expected to join in country walks and barbecues in the rain
  • Estate was loved by many, including Harold Wilson, but hated by Princess Diana
  • Also became infamous for the ‘Balmoral test’ – failed by Margaret Thatcher
  • Full coverage: Click here to see all our coverage of the Queen’s passing

Today the Queen’s coffin left Balmoral, marking her final goodbye to a place that she held so dear.

Brimming with memories, it was also a favourite place of her husband, Prince Philip, who became known for his legendary barbecues, regardless of rain or midges. 

While the Cambridges too are known to love spending summers there, along with other royal grandchildren. 

Indeed, in his statement released yesterday, William spoke about the happy memories he has of holidaying with the Queen and his children George, nine, Charlotte, seven, and Louis, four.  

The Queen captured in the Drawing Room of Balmoral before receiving the new prime minister Liz Truss in September 2022

Beloved bolthole: Balmoral Castle, where the Queen spent her last hours, was a huge comfort to her during her lifetime

September 1960: Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, with their children, Prince Andrew (centre), Princess Anne (left) and Charles, Prince of Wales sitting on a picnic rug outside Balmoral Castle in Scotland

It was this mix of family time, relaxed holidays and the stunning landscape and space that the 50,000 acre offered, that captured the late Queen’s heart. 

It is also where she spent her final days before her death on Thursday, aged 96.  

In the 2016 documentary, Our Queen at Ninety, Princess Eugenie said of Balmoral: ‘It’s the most beautiful place on earth. I think Granny is most happy there. I think she really, really loves the Highlands.’ 

Speaking before her grandfather’s death in 2021, Eugenie added: ‘Walks, picnics, dogs – a lot of dogs, there’s always dogs – and people coming in and out all the time.

‘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.’

In the BBC’s A Tribute To Her Majesty The Queen, Princess Anne echoed this sentiment, recalling wonderful holidays. 

She said this was partly because Balmoral comprised all the things that the Queen enjoyed, including ‘the countryside, the dogs, the horses and just being out and about and being able to get away a bit from that public gaze’. 

Edward, the Queen’s youngest child, added: ‘The happiest times inevitably that we’d spend together would be on holidays, so Balmoral and Sandringham stand out very, very clearly as favourite places.’

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in a field with some highland cattle at Balmoral, Scotland, 1972

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, walking on their Balmoral Estate in Scotland, on their Silver Wedding anniversary year, UK, 27th September 1972

The Queen’s memories of Balmoral, of course, were also so rich as they spanned her long lifetime.  

The secluded castle and estate, located just off river Dee in Aberdeenshire, has always been in her family, having been purchased by Queen Victoria’s husband Albert in 1852.

It is notably one of only two royal residences privately owned by the monarch – the other being Sandringham in Norfolk. 

The Queen traditionally travelled to the estate each July, staying until October.

There she spent her time balancing work and play – reading diplomatic papers from the famous red boxes and hosting prime ministers, while also enjoying the solitude and nature. 

And it was also the place she felt most at home – enabling her to swap pomp and ceremony for wellies, brisk walks and views of the Cairngorm mountains.

The Queen’s Scottish communications secretary Louise Tait recently told The Metro: ‘Balmoral is a castle but it’s an intimate space.’

She added it was a ‘home’ and somewhere Her Majesty was ‘very, very happy’.

And she later told People: ‘Balmoral has always been a place of rejuvenation and reflection. 

‘She’s been going there since she was a baby.’ 

Perhaps this deep affection the Queen held for Balmoral was also because it was so intertwined with her beloved Philip. 

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at Balmoral, Scotland, 1972. Both famously loved the outdoors life

The Queen’s life in Balmoral revolved around walking her dogs and riding her horses – her two key passions in life 

For this was where the Queen reportedly first set eyes on him as a teenager, and it was where he proposed to her in 1946. 

The pair also returned for their honeymoon in 1947, spending time at the Birkhall hunting lodge, one of the many residences in the grounds and now said to be Charles’ and Camilla’s favourite haven. 

Indeed the Queen described this happiness spent with Philip and her corgis shortly after her wedding in a letter to her mother.

She wrote: ‘It’s heaven up here. Philip is reading at full length on the sofa (he had a cold), Susan is stretched out before the fire, Rummy is asleep in his box by the fire and I am busy writing this in one of the armchairs near the fire (you see how important the fire is!).’

It is a small snapshot into the relaxed existence the estate offered her. 

Others have spoken of the Queen pondering important events in the sitting room in front of a fireplace hosting an incongruous electric heater and among a clutter of paper and family photographs.

It has also been said she ate dinner off a tray looking at the television with Philip beside her.  

Philip, meanwhile, also became known for planting several gardens – including a vegetable garden and water garden – and organising riverside picnics and informal barbecues for whoever was there. 

In 1972, Lord Lichfield, a former photographer for the family, told The Telegraph:  ‘Lunch is always outdoors and they are outside every day going on expeditions.’ 

In his later years, Prince Philip reportedly spent many hours fly-fishing for trout and occasionally salmon, wearing chest-high protective waders and only breaking to join the Queen and guests for lunch.

The Queen, in turn, spent time riding on the estate, which is home to herds of deer, Highland cattle and ponies, or enjoying it from behind the wheel of a Land Rover. 

It was also well documented that the couple preferred staying in the hidden seven-bedroomed Craigowan Lodge, where they could be ‘just like’ any other married couple. 

She and Philip were at their happiest in the Highlands, where they enjoyed the existence of a fairly normal married couple

Indeed, this was where the Queen stayed until a month before her death, where she moved into the castle proper.  

In the Channel 5 documentary, Secrets of the Royal Palaces, royal expert Wesley Kerr spoke of this lodge, saying: ‘I don’t imagine that she’s doing the cooking or anything, but she and the Duke are able to be up there as an ordinary married couple without the grandeur.’

Other visitors too have remarked on the Queen’s down-to-earth existence at Balmoral – with many remarking on her unlikely desire to do the washing-up.

In the biography, Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, author Sally Bedell Smith wrote of how the Queen and Prince Philip ‘loved having barbecues’ on the ‘massive estate, the most beautiful grounds’.

She added: ‘And afterwards the queen does the washing up.’ 

This was backed-up by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who told the Guardian: ‘You think I’m joking but I’m not. 

‘The Queen asks if you’ve finished, she stacks the plates off and goes off to the sink.’

Recently, former prime minister Theresa May also reminisced about a time she dropped some cheese before the Queen while visiting Balmoral. 

Her Majesty arriving at Balmoral Castle for the start of her summer break on July 21

She told the House of Commons how she dropped the cheese on the floor, before swiftly picking it up and placing it back on a plate before realising the Queen was watching.

She added: ‘I looked at her, she looked at me, and she just smiled’. 

But it was not just former prime ministers who caught a glimpse into her life in the highlands. 

Former Beirut hostage Terry Waite, now 83, was put up in a cottage by the Queen following his release in 1992.

She loaned him and his family a cottage typically used by Princess Anne for as long as he wished, and ‘left him alone’ to recover. 

He recently told BBC Radio 4 how it was ‘a real example of personal care.’

The Queen’s family too were, of course, regulars. 

The Queen helped Terry Waite (pictured in 2021) overcome his five-year ordeal as a Beirut hostage by arranging for him to stay in a cottage on the Balmoral estate, he revealed yesterday

In past years, Prince Charles was often seen spotted with his two boys – sometimes donning a tartan kilt and teaching them how to fly-fish.

According to Town and Country, Prince William said of his father: ‘He is completely infatuated by the red squirrels that live around the estate in Scotland – to the extent he’s given them names and is allowing them into the house.’

He added: ‘Sometimes when I leave my jackets on a chair with nuts in the pockets, I see them with their tails sticking out. They are incredibly special creatures.’

The estate was also where Prince Harry and William learned of their mother’s tragic death in 1997. 

More recently, Prince William has taken his own family up there, even visiting this summer before the Queen’s death.

Prince Harry and Meghan reportedly declined an invite. 

Despite the Queen’s affection for the estate, however, it had mixed reactions from others.

Former prime minister Harold Wilson adored it, foraging for wood for the barbecue, as did David Cameron, who enjoyed his bracing walks, which were, according to the Guardian, ‘a bit of a change from running in the park’. 

John Mayor, however, reported difficulties on trying to have a phone conversation with the Italian prime minister while the bagpipes played.  

The Queen spent her final hours in the bosom of her family, at the place where she spent so many happy times with her beloved Philip

But Margaret Thatcher – who had a famously tense relationship with the Queen – thought it was ‘purgatory’, according to the Queen’s biographer, Ben Pimlott.

Holding no interest in horses, dogs or country life, she also reportedly disliked the bagpipes at breakfast, the tartan rugs, draughty corridors and enforced parlour games. 

She would apparently show up ill-prepared for the outdoor life of games and sports with only her high-heels – failing the infamous ‘Balmoral test’.

She would also arrive at dinner very early, and leave as soon as possible, and once left a stag hunt at the very start to go back and work. 

While Princess Diana reportedly passed the ‘Balmoral test’ – being happy, according to journalist Tina Brown, to ‘yomp over sodden moors’ with the then-Prince Charles, she also came to hate Balmoral. 

According to her interviews with Andrew Morton, recounted in the biography Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words, she complained of ‘negative atmospheres’, adding: ‘The house sucks one dry’.

Clearly, though, this was not the view of the Queen, or most of those who spent time there.

And for those closest to her, and now missing her most, it is likely most of their memories will be intertwined with her beloved Scottish retreat. 

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