If you’ve ever seen a film involving Queen Victoria, you’ve heard of Balmoral Castle. This is the place the queen used as her escape: her place in the country. She loved Scotland, and this location in Aberdeenshire is stunning, with its rolling hills and deep forests.
Note added September 9, 2022: Queen Elizabeth died today. I see that many people have landed here today after googling Balmoral, where she died. Despite the following rather mixed review of the castle as a tourism destination, I’m glad that Queen Elizabeth was able to spend her last days at Balmoral, clearly the place where she was happiest. Rest in peace.
As I was planning my October trip to Scotland, which I would start in Aberdeen, I googled castles in Aberdeenshire. Coming upon Balmoral Castle, I figured we had to see it. Queen Victoria loved this place, after all.
I knew from Balmoral Castle’s website that visiting didn’t actually involve seeing the inside of the castle: we’d see the grounds and a couple of outbuildings – the website lists a stable and an icehouse. The only part of the castle itself we’d see inside would be the ballroom.
I booked it anyway, figuring that the castle would be pretty and good for a photo or two, and the forested land around it would be colorful.
I was wrong. On both counts.
Note: I visited briefly again in the spring when my husband and I traveled around Aberdeenshire visiting more castles. My husband wanted to stop here and it was, fortunately, much prettier at that time of year. I’ll add some comments here and there in this article about our springtime visit.
Balmoral Castle History
Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, bought Balmoral in 1852, according to Wikipedia. A castle already stood on the land by the 17th century, and, when Sir Robert Gordon owned it in the 19th century, he altered it. However, the existing castle was too small for the royals. By 1856 they had built a new castle and torn the old one down.
I’d neglected to actually look at the photos on Balmoral’s website or to read the history ahead of time. The fact is that Queen Victoria’s taste ran to what is called Scottish Baronial Revival style: a 19th-century romanticized view of the Middle Ages.
While I appreciate the desire to have all the mod-cons like plumbing and central heating, the medieval look as filtered through the Victorian eye just doesn’t work for me. I was disappointed.
The new castle is, according to Wikipedia, similar in style to the original castle at Balmoral – understated compared to other Scottish Baronial buildings of the same period: see Dunrobin Castle in all its turreted glory.
To be fair, my judgement might have been affected by the weather on the October day when we visited. It was pretty miserable: raining and sleeting and just generally grey. While my friend Kate and I were warm enough, my son wore shoes that were not waterproof. A small child in our tour group kept up a constant low whimper throughout the tour.
It was much better in the spring!
Visiting Balmoral Castle tour
Normally, tourists follow an audio tour to see Balmoral. I suppose because it isn’t often open outside of the April-July tourist season, we only had the option of a guided tour. It was led by an older lady who was clearly very knowledgeable about everything concerning the royal family. But first, before the tour began, we sat down for tea and a biscuit, included in the tour price.
In the spring we were offered the audio tour, but didn’t take it since I had seen it already and my husband just wanted a quick look. In any case, walking around wherever we wanted instead of having to shuffle along a set route with a tour guide was much more pleasant!
Tea was in a cavernous hall, devoid of charm. While the tea was pretty standard and the biscuit was packaged Scottish shortbread (of course!), Kate had the coffee instead. She took one sip and commented “It tastes like coffee from a church hall. Or an AA meeting.”
Our first stop on the tour was a former stable, now housing an exhibit about the history of Balmoral Castle. The tour guide showed us around the room, telling us about the tartans on display, the coaches parked in the middle of the room, and a play-by-play of the construction of Balmoral as shown in a series of photos mounted on the wall. It was crowded and I more or less stopped listening to her spiel, just happy to be in a warm place for a few minutes.
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The grounds of the castle
Next we walked through a bit of the grounds, where the tour guide pointed out a few buildings: a bunker-like structure that I think was an icehouse, a cottage where Queen Victoria’s ghillie (an attendant for hunting and fishing) lived and where she had a room as well, and a “deer larder” where the royals stored the spoils from hunting parties.
Passing around the outside of the castle, the tour guide pointed out details like the original foundation stone set in place ceremonially by Queen Victoria, the formal gardens (now, in October, quite wet and lifeless-looking), and the window of the room where Elizabeth sleeps.
All interesting enough, but in our cold, bedraggled state, we just wanted to get inside.
Inside the castle
The only part of the actual castle we got to see from the inside was the ballroom. The best thing about it, really, was the opportunity to thaw out a bit. We were not allowed to take photos, but, to be honest, there wasn’t much to see anyway. The ballroom is a longer, narrower rectangle than I expected, with a grand stairway at one end, presumably leading further into the castle, and large windows on one wall. The ceiling is painted with a simple pattern of square crests. The whole package isn’t as grand as I expected.
Here and there around the floor of the ballroom stood display cases; the guide explained that they remove them when an event is held in the ballroom. For the most part the display cases held china, but one of them seemed to me an illustration of Victoria’s rather poor taste. It held a collection of solid silver figurines, each about a foot tall, each illustrating some aspect of Scottish sporting life. Now, I know she had plenty of money to throw around, but who needs silver figurines of people to such an extent that you would go ahead and order them to be produced for you?
The royal family at Balmoral
According to the tour guide, Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family spend time every August at Balmoral while it is closed to tourists. For a family that lives so constantly in the public eye, it must be a wonderful time of year, when they can relax and just be themselves in this isolated place. It may be ugly, as castles go, but to them it must feel like a haven of sorts, which is just what Queen Victoria intended. Besides, the living quarters are probably much prettier inside than outside.
On my second visit, we walked just a bit in the grounds surrounding the castle. Filled with enormous old-growth trees, I can imagine the royal children would love a good game of hide and seek in this forest. It’s the stuff of fairy tales.
Is it worth visiting Balmoral Castle?
Well, that depends. If you’re a fan of the British royal family – you can name the last ten kings and queens from memory, you know the order of succession, and you cried at the latest royal wedding – then by all means you should visit. Balmoral has been woven into the British royals’ lives for 150 years. You won’t see any royals, but you can walk where they’ve walked.
For us, though, it felt like a wasted hour, especially when we compared it to other castles we’d seen in Aberdeenshire. I can’t speak, though, for other times of year. Since visitors are allowed to walk around the grounds (50,000 acres!), it might be worth a visit just for that, even if you’re not a fan of the royals. In the summer the formal parts of the garden would be pretty and the forests around it would be green. A bit earlier in the fall than when we visited and the leaves would be bright with fall foliage.
Now that I have seen Balmoral in the springtime, I feel a bit more positive about the place. The castle, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t worth a stop, unless, as I said above, you’re a royal aficionado. The grounds, though, are lovely and worth a nice long walk.
Read Aberdeenshire Castles Worth Visiting for other (better!) options.
Balmoral Castle tour information
- Balmoral Castle is halfway between Balleter and Braemar off the A93 in Aberdeenshire, about 1½ hour’s drive from Aberdeen, a bit longer from Inverness, and about three hours from Edinburgh.
- Open 10-17:00 daily in April-July. Check their website for additional open days like the one we visited in October. If they’re offering guided tours, you might need to book ahead as we did.
- Admission: £11.50 (€13.50 or $15.30), including the audio handset, though you’ll need to leave a deposit for it.
Have you visited Balmoral? Did you have a more positive impression than I did? Leave a comment below! And please share this article using the pins below.