Where does one go?
Well, Balmoral of course! The Queen’s highland estate of Balmoral was purchased by Prince Albert in 1852, but the current castle was designed and built by William Smith of Aberdeen to the specifications of Prince Albert. The nearest villages, however, are Ballater and Braemar – where the Queen famously attends the Highland Games each year, often accompanied by her family.
The Balmoral estate is around 50,000 acres and the good news is that you can visit, or even stay on the estate. There are a number of holiday cottages to rent – but don’t get your hopes up too much, as they aren’t let during the Royal visit. In fact this year, due to Covid, members of the Royal Family will be staying in the estate cottages rather than up at the ‘big house’.
There are, however, plenty of places to stay nearby. The castle grounds and its gardens are usually open to the public, but Covid has put a stop to that for now. As Scotland has right to roam laws however, you can visit the wider estate.
But holidaying like the Queen doesn’t have to mean Balmoral. Naturally, ‘Balmoral’ has featured in a number of films and television programmes about the royals, such as Mrs Brown, The Queen, and most recently in the Netflix series, The Crown. But other houses played the part of Balmoral. In The Crown, Ardverikie House, on the shores of Loch Laggan in Inverness-shire, was used for many of the scenes, while Ardverikie was also used as a replacement Balmoral in Mrs Brown. As at the real Balmoral, you can rent holiday cottages on the estate, including the beautiful turreted Gate Lodge. In The Queen, Blairquhan Castle in South Ayrshire was the replacement Balmoral, while Duns Castle in Berwickshire was also used for some scenes in Mrs Brown.
How to get there
The recently revamped Caledonian Sleeper train departs from London Euston and travels to Inverness, Fort William or Aberdeen, with numerous stops en route. Otherwise, you can of course drive or take a day train, while there are airports at Inverness and Aberdeen, as well as Edinburgh and Glasgow.
One thing I would advise doing is to make sure you have a car at the other end; there are organised coach trips around, but you probably won’t be able to explore to your heart’s content without your own set of wheels.
What does one do?
Well, if you actually are a member of the Royal family, the answer is lots of walking, horse-riding, grouse shooting, fishing, picnicking and barbecuing. Princess Eugenie recently described a trip to Balmoral as involving: ‘Walks, picnics, and lots of dogs!’.
Unless you’re top-class shooter and the covid recession hasn’t yet hit you, you might not want to give the grouse a go; but the other activities are all very feasible.
Hiking is, of course, a very Scottish activity, and the tourism industry is well prepared for walkers of all stripes and abilities. The most dedicated are the ‘munro-baggers’, who spend their lives trying to ‘bag’ (or climb) all of Scotland’s 282 Munros; that is, any mountain over 3,000 feet. The most famous of them all is Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak, near the town of Fort William. But there are plenty to choose from, some easier than others. And, of course, there are thousands of more leisurely strolls all over the country, so you needn’t try anything quite so taxing.
Horse riding; well, the Queen has her own Highland Pony stud where she breeds top class examples of the tough, native Scottish breed, which are used both for riding and as working ‘garrons’. Pony trekking is alleged to have been invented in the Cairngorms of Scotland, and there are a number of places offering pony trekking, either up in the hills, or along the beautiful beaches. Have a look for whoever is closest to where you choose to stay, but the likes of the Newtonmore Riding Centre, the Carrbridge Pony Trekking Centre, and Strathspey Highland Ponies are a good place to start. Many places also organise longer-distance treks including overnight camping, if you’re super keen.
And to eat?
Food is a vital part of the Royal family’s time at Balmoral; but that doesn’t mean sitting down at the dining room table three times a day. Lunch is always outdoors; so picnics and barbecues are the order of the day – I hear Prince Philip is a dab hand when it comes to grilling the sausages.
The weather is famously temperamental, so don’t just head out in shorts and hope for the best. Going back indoors when the goose pimples arrive is simply NOT an option, so take a jumper or two. You’ll need a tartan rug to sit on of course – and perhaps a spare one to wrap around yourself when the wind gets up and it starts to get a bit too chilly. Take some midge-repellent as well!
One thing that the Queen likes to ensure is that, wherever possible, any food served is sourced either from the estate or locally. At Balmoral this might mean locally-caught salmon, grouse (‘The Glorious Twelfth’ – the start of the grouse-shooting season which begins on 12 August coincides with her summer holiday), or beef from the Balmoral farm. The Queen apparently ‘loves grouse’ and game, which at Balmoral would typically be served as roast grouse with game chips, bread sauce and redcurrant jelly.
For picnics, try cold beef sandwiches (Scottish beef, of course), or if you can get it, freshly caught salmon. The farmed type tends to be frowned upon these days! Or if you’re by the seaside, see if you can go mackerel fishing, which can be freshly cooked on the barbecue. Mackerel pate is a goer, too. Scotch eggs, as the name implies, are a good option, or cold game pie. If you are barbecuing, bear in mind that the Queen’s favourite meal is, apparently, grilled Dover sole.
Prince Charles particularly enjoys foraging, once inviting chef Antonio Carluccio to spend three days at the castle, showing him which mushrooms were edible. Do make sure you know which ones are safe; this activity is not recommended for a newbie! Other things can be foraged more safely however; wild crabapples, blaeberries, rosehips and rowanberries (good for making jelly or schnapps!), as well as seaweed and seabuckthorn by the coast, and nettles if you’re feeling adventurous. On the coast, winkles, mussels, cockles and limpets can be found if you’re lucky, and even razor clams.
It doesn’t all have to be healthy though; the Queen is apparently partial to a takeaway ‘fish supper’ from the local chippie in the nearby town of Ballater.
Afternoon tea is also a very important meal, which at Balmoral is never ignored. Dundee cake is a favourite, and Scottish shortbread is always on the tea menu.
And what about clothing?
This, perhaps, is where things might get complicated, because you need to tread carefully. You might be tempted to try and fit in by buying up the entire stock of your local country clothing store, but you don’t want to look too brand new and shiny, as any locals or ‘country people’ will spot an impersonator a mile off. The important thing is to be warm, dry and comfy (do wear in those new hiking boots before you set off up that challenging munro!). Jumpers (Scottish wool only; holes very much acceptable, and ideally cable-knit); jeans or cords; wellies. These are all your normal Scottish holiday fare.
The Royals are fond of tartan kilts, especially on children, and although they can be very twee if you’re trying too hard to embrace the Scottish vibe (remember that scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral: ‘It’s bloody Brigadoon!’). You might well see them at smart dos on both women and men, as well as on gamekeepers and ghillies, and at Highland shows (though not this year sadly). If you’re a man, long socks are a neccessity.
Pack a waterproof; your umbrella won’t go far. An old barbour will do the trick, preferably with a miniature whisky in the pocket. For the full royal look, go for a gilet, either fleece (try Schoffel if you really want to fit in) or a quilted husky from 1980s. Wellies should be green ideally; not floral or bright pink. And tweed is a favourite too for smart jackets, coats and skirts; Harris tweed only, please.
If you do need to kit yourself out, no fear. The House of Bruar, conveniently situated on the A9 near Pitlochry, is essentially a rural department store. It stocks everything you could possibly need, with shelves full of knitted sweaters, socks and waistcoats, tweed and tartan skirts, hats, plus fours, dog collars, grouse-flavour dog treats… the list goes on. Don’t let that description put you off; it has something for everyone, with an excellent food hall and butchers, gift shop with toys, crockery and the like, as well as clothing halls for men and women, fishing equipment, and even a fish and chip shop (which also serves lobster and chips and yummy ice cream).
If you’re near Inverness, pop into Campbell’s of Beauly, a country outfitters and tailors with reams of tweed and tartan by the metre, as well as off-the-shelf clothing.
Well, that’s it, I think you’re set. I wonder what Boris and Carrie will be packing in their picnic…