A week in a cottage on the Balmoral Estate proved interesting and relaxing by Gerry Smart
Royal Highland Fling
When my wife Trish and I were planning a June break in Scotland, we thought that a destination acceptable to generations of the Royal Family might just fit the bill for humbler folk with a taste for the better things in life and the promise of a return trip after a journey through the Highlands some years earlier that impressed us with the surrounding scenery. For a holiday in Scotland with a difference, we booked a cottage on the Balmoral Estate after a tip from friends.
Accommodation and Activities
Our furnished cedar shingle chalet came with a TV, DVD player and Sky box, a well-equipped kitchen and electric heating (hardly needed in June with thick double glazed windows). With the cottage key came a remote fob to open the Estate front gates. We had free access to the Estate every day, much of which is accessible by a network of footpaths - for which the free audio guide handset (refundable deposit required) gives an excellent informative tour.
We had surprisingly sunny, warm weather and many photo opportunities of the castle and grounds, though the interior of the castle was only open for guided tours at weekends. Balmoral is used as a holiday home for the Royal Family (mostly in autumn), and though coaches arrived daily with foreign tourists, we often had the grounds to ourselves.
The staff on the Estate were very helpful and friendly, and the best day we had was a Land Rover Safari in a nearly-new Discovery 3 with air conditioning and a knowledgeable guide who took us off road to places we could not get to alone to see a wide range of the wildlife there and explain a great deal about the running of the Estate.
The air on Deeside was thought by the Victorians to have therapeutic properties (I read that Byron was sent there for his health) and we noticed the difference when we came home to Surrey. We explored part of the surrounding area by car and the village of Ballater, just along the road was well worth the short drive to see the interesting shops (many with Royal Warrants) and an old station (long disused and now a museum, but highly photogenic all the same) and cafés. Balmoral was bought in the 1880s by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert after they rented it for a holiday and fell in love with Scotland, after which Albert remodelled the building to reflect the style of castles in the German mountains of his youth. . An interesting visit was to the small-but-perfectly formed Crathie church just over the road from the castle gates, where the vicar held the doors shut to allow us time to wander without disturbance. Just for the record, Crathie is where John Brown, the ghillie made famous to recent generations by Billy Connolly in the film Mrs Brown, was born and brought up.
We found the air invigorating, but I appreciate that not everyone is that keen on hiking the great outdoors. There is a bike shop next to the station in Ballater that hires mountain bikes of good quality for visitors to explore the many tracks in the area, so this could be your chance to try a most enjoyable way of seeing the scenery and keep fit (I was a keen mountain biker and have ridden in the French Alps). On a sober note, remember that Highland weather can change rapidly and it’s important to take waterproofs with you when outdoors (it’s not just sandwich lunches that fill those hikers’ backpacks, you know!) I always used to wear gloves and a helmet on two wheels.
We found the food in that part of Scotland to be excellent, much of it using local produce, and the venison burgers (apparently the only burger Prince Philip will eat) in The Bothy café were just the thing for brunch before taking a walk around the nearby Loch Muick (pronounced ‘Mick’), - worth the short drive for the scenery and the chance to hear our first cuckoo song, but you need to take some coins for the car park machines (at least the money goes towards the upkeep of the area). We had a stunning meal in Ballater’s Auld Kirk restaurant and boutique hotel(http://www.theauldkirk.com/), with great service and truly tender venison - all the venison in the area comes from the Estate hunts that are run as culls to maintain the quality of the herds of red deer (yes, we saw a small herd on our safari). The restaurant is in an old church, hence the name. We browsed the photo album of its conversion while we waited for our table after ordering in the comfortable bar. The chicken breast stuffed with haggis in a whisky sauce we had in the Alexandra Hotel/pub/restaurant in Ballater was a delicious combination (the information folder in the cottage had copies of the menus in local restaurants) with plenty of perfectly-cooked vegetables. Another treat was the guided tour of the Royal Lochnagar distillery, (http://www.scotlandwhisky.com/distilleries/highlands/Royal), just up the road from the Estate front gates, was informative and very interesting (a first time in a distillery for us), well worth the entrance fee with the glass of single malt at the end and little pressure to spend more in the gift shop.
The cottage was a truly relaxing way to take a break in the Cairngorms National Park, with a location that allowed a day trip through the countryside to the picturesque little harbour town of Gardenstown on the Aberdeenshire north coast (http://www.discovergardenstown.co.uk/). We have already passed on this tip to family and friends, with the comment that we did not expect to buy sunglasses in an outdoor activity shop in Scotland and need to wear them!
For larger groups the Estate’s properties offer some stunning accommodation. We will be back. We booked a cottage for a week in June on the website (http://www.balmoralcastle.com/balmoral_availability.htm). Though there is a wide variety of places to choose from, we opted for a semi-detached (shared hall) chalet cottage with a double and a single bedroom. The chalet was set amongst trees that made it secluded and quiet with fine views of birds and the occasional red squirrel in the mornings. It didn’t take long to get used to the idea of having a Royal castle in the grounds of ‘our’ cottage. A good alternative source of rented acommodation in Scotland is the National Trust for Scotland (