Rare insight into King and Queen’s private life as Balmoral opens to public first time


One of the many signs of the everyday, outdoorsy lifestyle so beloved of the royal family is a rack holding a pile of picnic blankets, regularly used when they head into the grounds and the surrounding hills for walks, rides and shoots.

Visitors will be treated to a “bespoke” 50-minute tour of seven rooms by a rotating group of 15 specially trained guides.

Before entering, however, they will be required to put dust covers on their shoes and hand over their mobile phones: all photography will be banned.

Until now, the interior of the vast castle has largely remained out of bounds to members of the public, with tours limited to just the ballroom, the grounds and the gardens.

When the Balmoral estate announced in April that it would be hosting private tours for the first time since the castle was completed in 1855, the tickets sold out in just two hours.

Those who managed to snap one up may leave the private family home with an unrivalled understanding of why the late Queen so loved to “hibernate” there, why Prince William speaks so fondly of his childhood summer holidays and why the King is “never happier” than when he has escaped the rigours of public life to relish the freedom of the Scottish hills.

Since inheriting the 55,000-acre estate, the green-fingered King has been busy planting new birch, Japanese maple and acer trees around the lawn in front of the castle.

Balmoral Castle has been a royal residence since 1852 and is on the south side of the River Dee, near the village of Crathie, Scotland.Credit: Visit Scotland

He has also started work on a new thistle maze and an extended kitchen garden filled with flowers and vegetables including bok choi, borage, kohlrabi, squash and Duke of York potatoes.

After filing through the entrance hall, visitors will find themselves in what is called the red corridor, where mounted on the wall is the brass “chauffeur’s whistle” once used to alert the carriage drivers when they were needed by guests.

The flock wallpaper designed by William Morris for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 is stamped with VRI, which stands for “Victoria Regina Imperatrix” (Victoria Queen Empress), while the Prince Albert statue, commissioned by Victoria after his death, was mounted on a rotating plinth so it could be turned to follow her as she made her way upstairs to bed, his gaze always upon her.

Balmoral was purchased for Queen Victoria by Prince Albert in 1852 and their presence is keenly felt throughout the house to this day.

Victoria described the castle as her “dear paradise in the Highlands” and wrote in her diary: “All seemed to breathe freedom and peace and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils.”

Mounted at each end of the main dining room are two large Winterhalter portraits of the couple, painted when both were 26 years old, Albert wearing his Grenadier Guards uniform.

On the dining table are impressive silver equine sculptures by Edgar Boehm, commissioned by Victoria, including one of John Brown, her favourite personal attendant, depicted with his pony, Flora, and his collie dog, Sharp.

In the page’s lobby, once used as a private chapel by Queen Victoria before being redesigned and repurposed by Edward VII, is an 1872 marble bust of Dr Norman Macleod, Victoria’s favourite pastor, and another of Prince Albert, commissioned two weeks after his death.

The family dining room is the more “informal” dining room where the royal family takes breakfast and afternoon tea.

The Royal Banner of Scotland above flew above Balmoral Castle after the announcement of Queen Elizabeth II’s death.

The Royal Banner of Scotland above flew above Balmoral Castle after the announcement of Queen Elizabeth II’s death.Credit: AP

Here, a glass cabinet displays two silver and ivory decorative trowels, used by Queen Victoria to lay the foundation stone of the new Balmoral Castle and the foundation stone of Crathie Kirk, the local church in Ballater where the family still regularly worships.

On the wall is a painting by the Bavarian-born artist Carl Haag, depicting Victoria and Albert ascending Lochnagar, a mountain immortalised by the King in his 1980 book, the Old Man of Lochnagar.

Brennon Jacobs, a Balmoral guide, said: “Haag visited Balmoral from 1853 to 1856, painting a series of pictures for the royal family. At the end of this period, he presented Victoria with a very large bill, which shocked her so she never had him back.”

At the personal request of the King, visitors who paid £50 extra to enjoy afternoon tea as part of their tour will be served their treats on a reproduction of the White Stuart Tartan china commissioned by Victoria and Albert and still used by the family today.

King Charles and Queen Camilla at Royal Ascot in June 2024.

King Charles and Queen Camilla at Royal Ascot in June 2024.Credit: AP

In a side room is a display cabinet which the King personally asked to be brought downstairs for public view.

It features “Prince Albert’s Highland attire” – all of his accessories including silver pistols, gunpowder horns, his sporran, the eagle feathers worn in his cap, his kilt belts and skene-dhu – a blade worn in the sock as part of highland dress.

The cosy drawing room is considered “the heart of the castle”, adorned with tartan and tasselled curtains, several Landseer paintings, including two of Victoria on horseback and known as Sunshine and Shadow, one depicting her happy at Balmoral when Albert was still alive and the other when she was in mourning at Osborne House.

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A satin birch side chair to the left of the fireplace was Victoria’s favourite chair and even today, nobody dares sit on it.

An anecdote was described in Andrew Morton’s biography, Diana: Her True Story, which revealed that uninitiated newcomers were greeted with a chorus of “Don’t sit there!”

The drawing room features the only working fireplace in the castle, with all other rooms fitted with electric radiators.

Family photographs on the piano include a Hugo Burnand Coronation portrait of the King and Queen and a photograph of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

‘We are making history here’

Sarah Hoare, curator, visitor enterprises and one of the new tour guides, said: “We are making history here. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert entered the castle in September 1855 and no public have ever had access to any of the rooms that we’re about to tour next week.

“They will see where the royals go for their summer holiday. There’s nothing grand, no large staterooms, but they will see amazing pieces of artwork, in particular Edwin Landseer, one of Queen Victoria’s favourites. We’ve got lovely sculptures that the public have never viewed before, so some lovely surprises.”

The public opening is in line with the King’s wish to make royal residences more accessible to the public.

James Hamilton-Goddard, visitor enterprise manager, said: “The King wanted it to happen. We’ve made it happen. For us, as a department. It’s just been the most fantastic project.”

However, the month-long summer tour programme is considered a trial period during which estate staff will be able to gauge how the historic building copes with increased footfall.

Palace sources note that Balmoral, unlike other royal residences such as Buckingham Palace, is not set up as a visitor attraction.

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The King, who is currently staying at nearby Birkhall, visited Balmoral on Thursday to inspect new signage in the gardens and is expected to return to the castle in the coming days.

He and his household move to Balmoral on August 19 and it will close to the public a week earlier.

The royal family will depart again on September 22 and Balmoral will reopen to the public on October 1.

The Telegraph, London

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