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‘A little bit of privacy in such a public life’: What Balmoral meant to the Queen

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Day 69:16What Balmoral estate meant to the Queen

Queen Elizabeth II died Thursday at Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands — a place that had a great deal of significance throughout her life. 

It’s where she spent many summers as a child and later met her husband. She liked to serve guests, wash dishes and “play act” a normal life at Balmoral, said writer and historian Hadley Meares

“I think it’s really a place where they [the Royal Family] can just be a family and play bizarre games like ‘kick the can,’ and just relax,” said Meares.

The Queen returned to Balmoral when her husband, Philip, died last year. 

Meares says the place represents the kind of traditional British values that signified the Queen’s time as head of state. 

Meares spoke with CBC Radio’s Day 6 and here is part of her conversation with host Saroja Coelho:

I want to get an image of this place in my mind. Can you describe the Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands? What does it look like? 

It’s in Aberdeenshire and the beautiful highlands of Scotland. It’s this kind of strange-looking, mini-turreted castle that was actually built in the 19th century, but it was built to look more like a romantic, medieval castle.

It’s surrounded by all of these natural wonders and streams and crags and moors and all of the things we associate, you know, kind of with Wuthering Heights and the kind of misty romanticism of the United Kingdom. 

Balmoral was purchased in the middle of the 19th century by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. They fell in love with the Scottish Highlands. (John Curtis/Shutterstock)

I can almost feel the blustery wind rolling around me. What about inside? 

There are several buildings on the estate. The family was obsessed with tartan and with heavy furniture and dark furniture. It has a very homey, kind of gothic, overstuffed feel — [that’s] what many who have visited have commented on.

The Queen has said herself that she found it very interesting to try and keep it as close to the times of Queen Victoria as possible. 

Why was that? 

I think that it’s a connection with tradition. Also, when the Queen grew up, the highlight of her year … for her and her sister Margaret was getting to go up to Balmoral in the summers. I think, also, it’s kind of a sense of comfort and continuity and hope, right? A lot of people like to find their favourite childhood place much like it has always been. 

I understand there’s also a moment later on in her life where Balmoral becomes very meaningful for her as the backdrop to her romance with Prince Philip and the early days of their relationship?

That’s correct. You know, Prince Philip was her distant cousin — her third cousin, to be exact. Their romance really blossomed at Balmoral. They would go on hunting expeditions with other young people and fishing expeditions and have a few drinks together. And then they’d sometimes steal away for a private drive. A little bit of privacy in such a public life. 

I think a lot of people, you know, when they’re getting to the end of their life, they want to be surrounded by the things they love.– Hadley Meares, writer and historian

That seems to be what this place is all about, a private place where they could just be among themselves. 

Absolutely. The Queen commented, you know, you can walk for ages and not see anyone. I think it was such a blessing for this quiet, kind of shy, retiring country woman to be able to just muck about and ride horses and enjoy picnics and barbecues with her family. 

Elizabeth rides a horse near the banks of the River Dee at the Balmoral estate in Scotland in 2019. (Invicta Kent Media/Shutterstock)

It was also the place that she returned to when Philip died last year, isn’t it? 

It is. It’s the place she went to privately mourn, of course, during the COVID pandemic. And I think it’s quite poignant. So many important events happened for the Royal Family — above all, private family events.

Of course, they were at Balmoral when they learned of the tragic passing of Princess Diana. They were at Balmoral when they got engaged. And now, of course, it is the place she passed away. I think a lot of people, you know, when they’re getting to the end of their life, they want to be surrounded by the things they love. 

But not everybody was a fan of Balmoral. You just mentioned Princess Diana. She was not that fond of the place. Why not? 

Diana absolutely hated Balmoral. It was freezing and raining all the time. She hated shooting. She hated the muck about the country. No matter if it was drizzling, you still had to go to the family picnic.

Prince Philip would often complain that she would just show up to breakfast and dinner late, and just put on her headphones and listen to music. It was just so far from the very cosmopolitan and modern Diana’s sensibilities. 

The Queen stops the vehicle she was driving to feed her horses at Balmoral estate, in Scotland, in 2018. (Invicta Kent Media/Shutterstock)

When did the Royal Family purchase Balmoral?

Balmoral was purchased in the middle of the 19th century by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. They fell in love with the Scottish Highlands. The man who owned the lease to Balmoral ended up dying by choking to death on a chicken bone.

They were able to get the lease and then eventually buy Balmoral outright. It was a sanctuary and a refuge for Victoria’s giant family, and was where she also retreated after the death of her beloved Albert. 

When you think of Balmoral and all of the grandeur and the rolling hills that you’ve described, what does it signify to you? 

To me, it signifies this tradition that the monarchy is supposed to uphold. It’s very much a place that is kind of trapped in days gone by — in the days of what we now know was a very problematic imperial United Kingdom. It very much symbolizes what we think of when we think of classic England. The countryside horses — which we know the Queen was absolutely obsessed with — the rain, the drizzle. 

As we imagine those last days of Queen Elizabeth, we know that she was at Balmoral. Do you think that she anticipated her death when she travelled there for the last time? 

One can only speculate on that. She was quite a practical woman — she was working until two days before her death. I think she probably knew that she was increasingly giving King Charles III … the powers of a shadow king.

I just think it’s so lovely that she got to pass away in this place where she had fallen in love, where she had had wonderful times with her parents and her sister, who she was so incredibly close to. It’s really a lovely private look into somebody who gave her life to the public eye, even though inside I think she would have much rather have been a simple country horse woman. 


Interview with Hadley Meares produced by Yamri Taddese. Q&A edited for length and clarity.



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