I’ve never really had a lot of time for royalty. Perhaps it’s because the image of privilege (all at the taxpayers’ expense, of course) doesn’t go down so well with a commoner like me. But today something very strange has happened. I’ve had a revelation. Suddenly, I want to be Queen.
You don’t have to look far to see the reason for my constitutional about-turn. I’m standing somewhere up in the Scottish Highlands to the west of Lochnagar – I’m not sure exactly where because I was so busy looking out of the window that I lost track of where we were on the map – but I know we’re up high. I’m standing on the edge of a burn (the Scots word for a stream) as it tumbles off the moors and down towards the pine forests of Royal Deeside. I’m on the Queen’s Balmoral estate, in the middle of nowhere, and I’m lost for words.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You want to live like royalty…just for a couple of hours
- You’ll find yourself in some stunning scenery
- You never know what (or who) you’ll see
We booked the luxury land rover safari because…well, because it seemed like a good idea at the time. When we’d visited Balmoral Castle earlier in our holiday we fancied seeing a bit more and the trip seemed to fit the bill. I’d had an idea that we’d be bouncing along forest tracks and to that extent I was right. But I’d no idea just how far we’d travel across the 50,000 acres of the estate.
There are plenty of land rover tours available in the Highlands but this is different. Its emphasis is broader than most and our guide has lived and worked on the estate for years. He’s not just knowledgeable about the countryside but full of anecdotes about the famous residents and fascinating facts on estate management (those natural pine forests don’t just regenerate themselves, you know).
Taking the Balmoral Tour
We start off at the castle, see the tourist views. Then the gardens – flowers and vegetables, nothing special. But then we take off into the trees and everything becomes a bit different. Highland cattle and ponies pose obligingly for photos; deer amble across the hillside. Here’s a monument to some long-dead prince…oh, and there’s the bridge where Charles and Diana posed for photos on their ill-fated honeymoon.
The road gets rougher as we scale up through the trees, so we’re glad of the comfortable seats and the excellent suspension. “What’s that?” someone cries, pointing. Our guide slams on the brakes and there it is, sitting on a low branch – a black grouse, one of Scotland’s rarer birds. It takes one look at us and crashes off the branch and into the undergrowth.
As we emerge from the woods our guide points out the things we’ve seen before but yet somehow never understood. Here are the moors where grouse shooting takes place in season. There are two crows, hunting in a pair to chase the ground-nesting birds away so they can feast on the eggs. And here’s a perfect place to spot golden eagles above the crags – though, disappointingly, they aren’t out today.
We stop at a couple of huts where Her Majesty and family come for their picnics, then at a cottage built by Queen Victoria for the same purpose. And after that we bounce down through the trees past the picture-perfect estate cottages, any of which I’d live in, and along the banks of the River Dee.
Our tour was supposed to last three hours but it’s taken longer than that. It’s just as well we’ve visited the castle before, because there’s no time for anything more than a cup of tea in the café. The Queen isn’t there (though it’s reported that she will occasionally pop in when she fancies a cuppa, to the surprise and delight of her visitors).
It doesn’t really matter what your opinion is of the institution of monarchy. Balmoral isn’t about that, though of course you won’t hear a word said against it. But the trip gets you up into the hills where normally only the serious walkers get to. If you’re unlucky you’ll see less than we did: it you’re lucky you’ll see more. But perhaps you’ll come away with some idea of how a traditional Scottish estate works.
“You know,” says one of our party as we trek back the few hundred yards to the car park keeping our eyes open for red squirrels “I didn’t think I envied the royals anything. But now I think I envy them this.” And I think, as I see a squirrel leap from branch to branch above us and disappear, that I probably agree.
- Balmoral is a private estate and, given that it belongs to the UK’s head of state, it isn’t easy-come-easy-go – tours aren’t available when the royal family are in residence, which means a chunk of the holiday season. They run April-July and, weather permitting, they may be available towards the end of the year (October-December).
- Book ahead. The maximum party size is 6 (minimum 2) and the tours can fill up quickly at peak times. And at £60 (around $100) per person, it isn’t cheap.
- Take your midge repellent. You may be lucky and avoid the beasties – especially if it’s breezy – but if it’s a still, cloudy day they’ll eat you alive.