As well as defences against hostile forces, Scottish castles were also built to provide accommodation for the aristocracy. One of the best examples of castle accommodation in Scotland comes in Balmoral, renowned the world over as the Queen’s holiday home. Sitting in acres of those landscapes Scotland does so well, Balmoral Castle ranks among the most famous in Europe. 

A brief history

The site of Balmoral Castle goes back to the 14th century when King Robert II built a hunting lodge on the estate. By the 15th century, it had evolved to a square tower with battlements, but it wasn’t until 400 hundred years later that Balmoral began to resemble a real residence. In 1830, a Scottish courtier demolished the original tower and built a smaller castle, which would probably still be standing today if it hadn’t rained so much in the west Highlands.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made a visit to Balmoral Castle in search of some drier weather after a lot of rain at Ardverikie in summer 1847. Both the royals reportedly fell in love with the site and after a brief lease, bought the castle and estate for £30,000 in 1852.

Far too small for their extensive family and servants, Balmoral was demolished for second time and a completely new castle built in the Baronial style. The architect William Smith, responsible for Trinity Hall in Aberdeen, designed the new Balmoral, built in local granite and housing no fewer than 52 bedrooms. Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone in 1853 and by 1859, the Royal holiday home was complete.

Balmoral in the 20th and 21st centuries

Prince Albert’s untimely death meant that he hardly spent any time at Balmoral, although Queen Victoria and her family enjoyed the estate and castle until her death. Balmoral then passed to the heir of the throne, but it wasn’t until King George V and Queen Mary inherited the estate that royal interest was rekindled.

Queen Mary was largely responsible for the gardens. She designed the three acres of formal parterres, complete with Victorian glasshouses and a water garden. The royal love affair with Balmoral has continued ever since and Queen Elizabeth II spends every summer there. Prince Philip has carried on Queen Mary’s work, designing the large vegetable garden and planting the oak forest.

Balmoral Castle fast fact:

On her first visit to Balmoral, Queen Victoria reportedly said that “all seemed to breathe freedom and space, making one forget the world and its sad turmoil.” It became her favourite home and is said to be that of Queen Elizabeth II too.

Highlights at Balmoral Castle

The Royal residence certainly packs in the must-sees. While you’re there, don’t miss: 

  • The setting – Balmoral runs to a total of 50,000 acres and has some showstopping scenery. Located within the Cairngorms National Park, it includes the River Dee, seven Munros (Scottish mountains higher than 3,000ft (910m)), grouse moors, farmland for livestock and 8,000 acres of trees. 
  • The outlook – one of the finest ways to appreciate the fine Baronial architecture is to stand on the lawn and look towards the castle.
  • The gardens – both the formal and vegetable gardens impress, both in their size and grandeur.
  • The dog – Queen Victoria’s collie, Noble, has his own statue in pride of place in the grounds. 
  • The other buildings – the Balmoral estate is home to 150 buildings besides the castle itself. Queen Victoria commissioned several cottages including Garden Cottage where she would occasionally take breakfast, Baile-na-Coille for her servant and Karim Cottage for her Indian secretary.
  • The Royal touches – the exhibition in the Stables contains lots of information about royal Scottish castle stays and of course, there’s something rather special about visiting a regal residence for real. 

Balmoral Castle fast fact:

Balmoral Castle and Sandringham House are the only two private residences that belong to the Royal family personally. All the others belong to the Crown. Discover more about royal castles and palaces.

Why visit Balmoral Castle

Balmoral Castle is a must-visit if you appreciate fine architecture. The long façade of turrets and battlements in smooth local granite counts as one of the finest among Scottish castles. The 7-storey tower echoes the square tower so characteristic of castles in Scotland and the “pepper pot” turrets give a nod to grandiose French châteaux.

The grounds themselves make another compelling reason to visit Balmoral Castle. Few castles in the world boast such fine surroundings nor offer such a stage for stunning scenery. The estate runs trips taking in the best views and sights, although you get a very good idea of the layout and just how beautiful it all is in a regular visit.

And lastly, Balmoral Castle makes essential viewing for any fan of the Royal Family. Although you can’t see most of the castle itself, you can walk the gardens and grounds as they do and get a feeling for why this place is somewhere to “breathe freedom and peace”.

Balmoral Castle fast fact:

The Queen stays at Balmoral every summer during July and August, and most of her family visit while she’s there. While you can’t actually stay in the castle itself, you can holiday at some of the cottages on the estate or at one of these best Scottish castles to rent.

Visitor information

As one of the Queen’s castles to stay in Scotland, Balmoral allows very limited visiting. In fact, you can only see the Ballroom inside the castle itself since all the other rooms are private and closed to the public. You can, however, see the gardens, the Stables, Game Larder and Ice House and peer into some of the other buildings.

Visiting hours are also limited and Balmoral Castle opens for just a few days a week on certain months of the year, generally early April to late July and mid-October to mid-December. Visits are by guided tour only and best booked in advance. For full information, see the Balmoral Castle website.

Balmoral Castle fast fact:

The estate boasts long list of resident wildlife including red deer, red squirrels, black grouse and snow bunting. Balmoral holds Wildlife Estates Scotland accreditation in recognition for its land management. 

Stay in a castle near Balmoral

Just down the road from Balmoral, this original holiday home will provide elegant accommodation fit for a king, queen and 10 other members of your royal family. It might have 46 fewer bedrooms than the Queen’s residence, but your castle is modelled on the original in true Baronial style.

Draw up outside your own granite battlements and quaint turret before you make a grand entrance into oak-panelled rooms complete with roaring open fires and tartan details. Modern comforts include TVs in all six bedrooms (plus one of the bathrooms), kingsize beds for everyone and a Jacuzzi. Enjoy your own regal experience and book your stay in a Scottish castle now.

Read more in our Scottish Castles series:
1. Dunnottar Castle
2. Stirling Castle
3. Eilean Donan Castle
4. Urquhart Castle
5. Culzean Castle
6. Glamis Castle
7. Crathes Castle
8. Floors Castle
9. Dunrobin Castle
10. Midhope Castle
11. 7 reasons to visit Stirling
12. Castles in Scotland – all you need to know
13. 14 Scottish castles with Royal connections
14. Fascinating facts about royal castles

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Sitting in
acres of those landscapes Scotland does so well, Balmoral Castle ranks among the most famous in the world.