Putting the Royal in to Royal Deeside

20 Mar 2023

There is something about Deeside. Well there must be as the British Royal family have a passionate love affair with this corner of Scotland that has burned for almost two centuries. Join me now as we follow Queen Victoria deep into the wooded glens and surging waters to put the Royal into Royal Deeside. We have poets, epic scenery and hikes to enjoy too.

Queen Victoria on her first visit in 1848 could scarcely have been more impressed - “All seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils.” It was soon clear this was no Highland fling as she went on to fashion Balmoral, her own castle, here by the fast-flowing salmon-rich River Dee. The fortunes of the Royal Family may ebb and flow, but this dramatic slice of rugged, mountainous Aberdeenshire has become their granite bedrock.

Royal Deeside

Visiting is to taste Victoria’s joy, to immerse yourself in the real life ‘The Crown’ (Season Four featured Balmoral), and to experience a rare Royal intimacy. You learn not only where Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, bought the coals for his beloved barbeque, but also what he cooked up for the kids.

It’s not just the Royals – poet Lord Byron was a Deeside fan too. I find it impossible not to think of him atop ‘Ballater’s Hill’, oak-clad Craigendarroch. Partly as there is an information board reciting his verse. Byron was perhaps rather harsh on England, if anything trumping Victoria’s praise: “England, thy beauties are tame and domestic,” he wrote, in comparison to “the crags that are wild and majestic. The steep frowning glories of dark Lochnagar.”

Ballater (2)

To be fair to Aberdeenshire-raised Byron it is verse-inducing landscape. Peering down from Craigendarroch, Ballater sparkles below: all ageless granite, trim streets and wee green spaces, with the River Dee framing the foreground. Glowering behind, a thick rug of gnarly Scots Pine cloaks the lower slopes, giving way to unforgiving rock slabs as you battle on to the peak of Lochnagar, Prince Charles’ favourite mountain, which spends much of the year snow-capped.

Royal Deeside stretches its bucolic tentacles well beyond Ballater and Balmoral, surging for over forty miles between Braemar and Banchory, through the Cairngorms National Park, the UK’s largest. This is an oasis for cyclists, walkers, climbers and dreamers. Manicured villages teeter on the edge of proper wilderness, none more so than Braemar, braced below the nine Munros of Glenshee.

Cutting east the Dee’s ice-clear waters guide us to Balmoral. The visitors who are frustrated at only being able to visit the ballroom miss the point. Balmoral is not about this mock Baronial castle – indeed the Royals spend much of their time in other estate houses, and there are finer Deeside castles at Crathes and Craigievar. Balmoral is the invigorating embrace of the great outdoors. An audio guide brings the estate alive as you learn how Prince Albert saw his native Bavaria in Balmoral, and how the Queen brought her own style to the estate.

Ballater 10

How about a lunch of Shetland mussels and venison in the Balmoral restaurant, then tackling the estate’s walking trails? The highlight is the one that strives with the leaping salmon up the Dee to one of the few pet cemeteries open to the public in Scotland. There are Land Rover wildlife safaris too to some of the Royal’s favourite spots - they culminate in decadent style with afternoon tea back at the castle.

Venturing back further east, Ballater is the quintessential Royal Deeside village. The rail line from Aberdeen halted here so Victoria would not be disturbed by the rumble of rail at Balmoral. The station still stands, or rather a brilliant rebuild of the wooden Victorian old dame that was savaged by fire in 2015. It serves as a museum that transports you deep inside the Royal Family - a faithful recreation of the Balmoral dining room stars, alongside the very carriage that used to transport Queen Victoria. Cakes and scones tempt by day; the Rothesay Rooms – the superb Scottish restaurant set up with the backing of Prince Charles – elevates the evening dining.

The local Farquharson clan may have taken up arms for the Jacobites at Culloden – the clan chief only spared from execution by a last minute reprieve – but Ballater has since firmly embraced the status quo. You cannot miss the Royals in Ballater. Princess Anne is a regular at the bakery on the square. Then the Royal Family are etched indelibly into Ballater with the signs of Royal Warrant standing proud outside bakers, butchers, delis and, yes, the store where Prince Philip sourced his barbeque coals.

Balmoral 2
Ballater Railway Station

I recommend hiking too up Ballater’s other hill, Craig Coillich. Nearby Gordonstoun helped forge Prince Philip through an education driven as much by the outdoors as the Classics. An accomplished shot (unlike Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert), with wide-ranging views on land management in what remains the fragile part of the world you see unfurling below you, it’s easy to taste what so entranced Philip and the Queen about Deeside.

It’s easy to imagine the Royal Party returning from a day in the hills, the smoke of Philip’s barbeque alive with the exoticism of octopus (apparently a favourite of his) augmenting freshly shot venison and grouse; salmon plucked from the wild, mountain waters. Afterwards perhaps enjoying a wee dram in the soft light of the gloaming as the sun burned down over “wild and majestic” Lochnagar. I’m sure Byron and Queen Victoria would have approved. And it’s a world you can savour too, escaping to Royal Deeside for yourself.

Craigendarroch Summit
Royal Warrant Baker In Ballater
The Dee

Your hostel – Ballater Hostel – This 29 bed five-star hostel is right in the heart of Ballater in the Cairngorms National Park. Owners Dominique and Daniel await with a friendly welcome and a wood-burning stove. There is a handy hosepipe too for cyclists. You can snare some Royal Warrant foodie goodies and cook up a storm in their kitchen fit for Royalty with the money you’ve saved staying at a hostel.

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