You may not have guessed it from Queen Victoria’s dour and dumpy appearance in her later years, but after the death of her beloved Prince Albert she had one great passion in life: long-distance walking.
She was also fond of solitude, and found room for both deep in Scotland’s Cairngorm mountains, where she and Albert had built themselves a holiday home called Balmoral Castle.
She spent every summer at Balmoral, walking for up to four hours a day and often climbing the steep path to the 1093-metre summit of nearby Lochnagar, which she first scaled in 1848.
In a letter to the King of the Belgians, she wrote: “You can walk forever. The wildness, the solitariness of everything is so delightful.”
Her name for the sylvan valley by the River Dee, in which the fairytale-style Balmoral Castle stands, was “This dear Paradise” and the locals, proud of the connection, renamed the area “Royal Deeside.”
Victoria’s great-great-grand-daughter seems to feel much the same way about it and every year the Queen, and other members of the Royal Family, spend the late summer and early autumn on the 50,000-acre Balmoral estate.
You can see why too. The setting is glorious. In front of the castle churn the wild waters of the Dee, a famous fishing river with its source high in the Cairngorms, and by late summer is something of a hurry to reach the sea at Aberdeen, 50 miles or so to the east.
Behind the castle and its formal grounds lies a thick belt of woodland, before the ground rises steeply towards the vast purplish moorlands and Lochnagar with its secret lake.
Prince Charles shares Queen Victoria’s passion for these high and lonely hillsides where, from early October onwards, the silence is broken dramatically by rutting red deer that roar like lions. Enchanted by the magical atmosphere of the place, he used it as the setting for “The Old Man of Lochnagar,” the story he wrote for his younger brothers when they were children. The story was later published in book form and, not surprisingly, it is still a best-seller on Deeside
The area is now a favourite destination for bus-loads of trippers, many of them hoping for a glimpse of the valley’s best-known summer residents. On Sundays, crowds of sightseers gather outside Crathie Church, almost opposite Balmoral, where the Royals traditionally attend morning service. But a better vantage point might be the Linn of Dee, above Braemar at the head of the valley: it is a beauty spot which the Royal Family are known to favour for picnics.
One event the Queen never misses is the Braemar Gathering, held on the first Saturday in September. A traditional Highland Games event, it has achieved widespread notoriety because of its royal patronage and now attracts athletes and other competitors from all over the world.
The village closest to Balmoral Castle is Ballater. It is remarkable for the fact that almost half its tiny shops wear proudly above their modest doorways the colourful coats-of-arms which indicate that, like some of London’s biggest and best-known stores, they can boast royal patronage. In Ballater, the butcher, baker, grocer and practically every other business can claim a royal customer or two.
The “By Appointment” signs don’t necessarily mean that a footman has been dispatched to the village with a shopping list, either. A woman in the queue at the post office a few years ago turned round to pass the time of day with the head-scarfed figure behind her and found she was addressing the person whose portrait appears on the postage stamps.
And the people of Ballater will tell you that the correct etiquette for such an occasion is “carry on as normal.”
But that is all they will tell you. To the clannish folk of the Dee Valley the royals are “locals” and they deeply respect their privacy. Start asking questions or spreading gossip and this usually friendly corner of the Highlands can start to feel very unfriendly.
It would be tempting to suppose that people visit Deeside in general, and Ballater in particular, because of the royal connection. And maybe they do to begin with, but the area has much more to offer.
The scenery is spectacular, and dotted with Victoriana, like the splendid white suspension bridge that crosses the Dee at Cambus O’May. There are also easy walks along the route of the railway which once ran up the valley from Aberdeen.
But the best piece of Victoriana is Queen Victoria’s waiting-room in the now-defunct Ballater railway station, where the “royal train,” complete with life-like waxwork figures, stands on the platform and where an audio-visual presentation tells the story of the valley’s royal links.
Not long ago the waiting room was used as council offices, but the village is now waking up to its treasures and has set up its own tourist office. Sadly, it has also woken up to the possibility of cashing in on its past – and, unlike Queen Victoria herself, you will have to pay to visit the railway station.
The tourist office probably won’t direct you to the cheap-and-cheerful Coach House Hotel in the centre of Ballater, which does a nice pub lunch and where Prince Philip has been known to pop in for a pint. They are more likely to direct you to the Deeside Confectioners, right beside the old station, where you can watch a huge variety of sweets being made in the spot (their rhubarb rock is to die for).
And they will certainly want to pack you off on the traditional tourist trail. This would include a whisky-tasting in the Royal Lochnagar Distillery by the gates of Balmoral. There you will discover that its most famous customer was Queen Victoria. The oh-so-stern woman who once ruled a quarter of the world didn’t just go hiking over the hills, she enjoyed a dram at the end of the day, too.
In fact, the longer one stays around Deeside the more one begins to ponder Queen Victoria, in particular the mystery of her relationship with her ghillie John Brown, which was so movingly explored in the film “Mrs Brown.” Mr Brown is buried in the old Crathie churchyard, opposite the church and close to Balmoral, her beloved castle home.
At Balmoral, the gardens and ballroom are open Monday to Saturday in May, June and July – unless the royal family is in residence. The ballroom, with its paintings and memorabilia, is particularly worth seeing.