Royal Deeside: Scotland’s Victorian Heritage Trail

Balmoral Castle
Balmoral Castle. Credit: VisitScotland/Kenny Lam

Janice Hopper follows the Victorian Heritage Trail in Royal Deeside, Scotland, to discover the land that Queen Victoria fell hopelessly in love with

When Queen Victoria wanted somewhere to escape to, it was to Royal Deeside in Aberdeenshire that she headed. Victoria was so enamoured with the raw beauty of the Scottish countryside on her first visit in 1842 that by 1852 she’d secured land and her very own castle. Describing the landscape in her diary, she wrote: “All seemed to breathe freedom and peace”.

After a glorious rebuild, a new castle was completed for Victoria in 1856: Balmoral is still the Scottish holiday home of the Royal Family, where HM The Queen returns every summer. The area is rich in history and heritage, and it’s still possible to follow in the footsteps of Queen Victoria and experience what she referred to as “my dear paradise in the Highlands”.

One port of call worth making is the Royal Deeside Railway at Milton of Crathes, which offers return heritage journeys. Once leading all the way to Ballater, today’s passengers can get a sense of the steam rail journey Victoria would have taken along one mile of restored scenic track – the railways revolutionised travel across Britain, including that of the Royal Family. A Victorian station and railway carriage tearoom complete the picture.

The great outdoors

Sunset over Braemar. Credit: iSTOCK

One of the core attractions of Deeside for Victoria was the scenery, and the freedom it afforded her. Victoria and Albert went on pony treks into the wilds of Scotland, occasionally with just one servant in attendance. The couple also set off on ‘Great Expeditions’, as they called them, with their children, sometimes staying overnight in low-key inns where locals were unaware that they were in the company of royals. It was a true antidote to the family’s bustling London life.

The Linn of Dee, with its photogenic rocky gorge, is a sublime spot where Queen Victoria opened the bridge in 1857 with a celebratory tot of whisky. Other escapes and picnic spots favoured by the monarch include Queen Victoria’s Picnic Cottage at the Linn of Quoich, Alltnaguibhsaich Lodge in Glen Muick, and the Queen’s Shiel ‘Ruigh nan Bhan Righ’ at Glen Gelder. ‘Queen’s View’, just outside the village of Tarland, is considered one of Victoria’s favourite viewpoints, taking in vistas of Lochnagar, Morven and Mount Keen. After exhilarating exploits, Victoria and her family returned to the sanctuary of Balmoral Castle. Today, when the Royal Family isn’t in residence, you can visit the magnificent grounds and gardens as well as the Carriage Hall Courtyard and Castle Ballroom. Unfortunately, the rest of the castle is out of bounds.

Displays and films in the courtyard focus on the local wildlife, which includes golden eagles, red deer and mountain hares. The ballroom is home to artworks by Landseer and Carl Haag, as well as silver statues by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm.

The Braemar Gathering

Highland dancers perform at the annual Braemar Gathering. Credit: Andy Buchanan/Getty

As well as serenity and peace, Royal Deeside was a place where Victoria, her friends and family could revel and celebrate. The Highland Games, full of colour, bagpipes, dancing and caber tossing, were popular events, and Victoria attended the lively Braemar Gathering at Braemar Castle from 1848. Today, the world famous-event is held on the first Saturday of September at the Princess Royal and Duke of Fife Memorial Park, just outside the village of Braemar, and HM The Queen attends every year.

In terms of revelry, Deeside was a place for parties and sport. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert held regular balls at Balmoral, such as the famous ‘Ghillies Ball’, which was both raucous and prestigious.

Sporting lodges, including the stunning Mar Lodge near Braemar in Cairngorms National Park, reveal the popularity of hunting during the Victorian era: Prince Albert was a keen and enthusiastic huntsman. Mar Lodge’s Stag Ballroom, festooned with some 2,500 stag antlers, is a breathtaking sight.

Victoria and Albert attended balls at the lodge, piped into the ballroom by torchlight, and later it became the home of their granddaughter, Princess Louise. Today, Mar Lodge is under the stewardship of the National Trust for Scotland and offers elegant self-catering accommodation.

Anyone for whisky?

Glas-allt Shiel
Glas-allt Shiel on the shore of Loch Muick on the Balmoral Estate. Credit: Sheila Halsall/Alamy

Queen Victoria was also partial to the local whisky and she was known to have visited the Royal Lochnagar Distillery. Built in 1845, owner John Begg of Aberdeen knew the value of royal regulars, so he wasted no time at all in writing to the Queen’s private secretary inviting Victoria and her family for a tour and tasting. Unexpectedly, Victoria, Albert and their three eldest children arrived the following afternoon and a Royal Warrant was bestowed shortly afterwards.

The queen’s initial visit, which took place on 12 September 1848, is marked annually by a commemorative selection of casks for a limited bottling of Royal Lochnagar Selected Reserve. Fewer than 3,000 bottles are released each year.

But while the Scottish Highlands brought Victoria much joy, it was also a place of retreat when she was mourning her husband.

The land around Balmoral Castle is peppered with evidence of Victoria’s loss. Loch Muick is a handsome example. Here, visitors can follow a circular route around the water’s edge, passing Glas-allt-Shiel. This building is known as the ‘widow’s house’, as it was rebuilt for the queen in 1868, following the death of Prince Albert.

As such, this lodge didn’t overwhelm Victoria with memories of her beloved husband, so it provided a rural retreat in quiet, stunning surroundings. A statue of Prince Albert, wearing a kilt, holding a rifle and with a hunting dog by his side, stands proudly on the Balmoral Estate. Designed by William Theed, it was unveiled on 15 October 1867.

A royal church

Craithie Church. Credit: David Gowans/Alamy

Then, when Victoria’s loyal ghillie, John Brown, passed away, a bronze full-height statue by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm was erected of him on the estate. John Brown’s grave can be found in the quaint Crathie graveyard, and Crathie Kirk is a popular stop on the tourist trail as it’s where the Royal Family goes to worship when at Balmoral.

But perhaps the memorials that reveal the most about the pained queen are the cairns built around Royal Deeside commemorating or celebrating key moments in her life.

Of the many cairns decorating the landscape, the vast stone pyramid erected for Prince Albert in 1862 attracts the most attention. Its inscription reads: “To the beloved memory of Albert the great and good Prince Consort. Erected by his broken hearted widow Victoria R”.

The cairns are set in relatively remote, wild nooks of rural Deeside, proving that Victoria really knew the land. She knew the viewpoints, the hillsides, mountains, glens and valleys, and she considered, rejected and authorised the creation of cairns at locations close to her heart.

Victoria was no armchair-enthusiast; she was out in the changeable Scottish weather, pursuing life. The adventures, expeditions, pipes and drams were a breath of fresh air for a queen in an era renowned for hierarchy and stiff upper lip.

While Victoria is remembered for the loyalty she showed to the men in her life, perhaps her biggest love story of all was with Scotland.