Inside Balmoral Castle, the Royal Family’s Scottish Retreat

Last September, Queen Elizabeth II took her last breath at her beloved Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands with her son King Charles III, grandson Prince William, and other family members by her side. The 96-year-old British monarch had spent the end of the summer there for decades, and after her death, many wondered if King Charles would do the same. But royal traditions are not easily broken, and Charles and his wife, Queen Camilla, did in fact make the journey to Balmoral in late August of this year for the customary summer visit to the property. Since their arrival, the pair have watched on in the audience of the storied Highland games and have met up with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a church service, so it’s already been a relatively eventful holiday. According to a palace spokesperson, no official public event commemorating the one year anniversary of the monarch’s death is scheduled, so the king and company may very well just be spending a quiet day of reflection at the Scottish retreat.

Long said to have been Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, the castle, located in Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, is known as the site of the Ghillies Ball, an end-of-summer fête where the royals don tartan and celebrate with their staff, though more intimate family affairs are also held at the estate. The late monarch reportedly enjoyed hosting slumber parties at the castle with a number of her great-grandchildren in her twilight years. In a 2016 ITV documentary on her life, the queen’s granddaughter Princess Eugenie shared that the Scottish getaway held a special place in the queen’s heart: “I think Granny is the most happy there. I think she really, really loves the Highlands.”

The 2023 reception of King Charles III at Balmoral on August 21, 2023, his first summer holiday at the estate after Queen Elizabeth’s 2022 death.

Photo: Jane Barlow – Pool/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II did a good job of keeping the extravagant dwelling relatively private, but there are a few interesting design details that have slipped out over the years. It also served as the setting of an especially memorable episode in Season 4 of The Crown, aptly titled “The Balmoral Test,” which detailed the painstaking gauntlet of unspoken trials that served as a crucial assessment for outsiders, despite their social rankings as prominent political figures or otherwise esteemed guests of the family. (Princess Diana, reportedly, passed the test with ease, while Margaret Thatcher was said to have fared worse.) Below, we break down what exactly a design buff needs to know about the vacation palace, from its history and architecture to its opulent interiors and the surrounding property.

Where exactly is it?

The estate is located on the right bank of the River Dee in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, near the town of Ballater and not far from the Lochnagar Mountain, a popular hiking destination. Balmoral Castle is roughly 500 miles from Buckingham Palace, a nine-hour drive.

Who owns it?

Though official royal residences like Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace are owned by the Crown Estate, which is funded by British taxpayers, Balmoral is the personal property of King Charles III, as is Sandringham, located in Norfolk, England. King Charles inherited both of them upon the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. Forbes reports that Balmoral is currently valued at a whopping $118 million. The King is not subject to paying any inheritance tax on the property due to a 1993 agreement with the government.

The Queen playing with her children Prince Charles and Princess Anne at Balmoral in 1952.

Photo: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II helps her son Prince Charles to take a picture of his sister, Princess Anne, at Balmoral, Scotland, 1952.

Photo: Lisa Sheridan/Studio Lisa/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

How long has the British royal family had it?

It was first rented in 1848 and was then bought in 1852. It was purchased by Prince Albert for himself and his wife, Queen Victoria, reportedly paying £32,000 to acquire the estate. He bought Balmoral six years after the couple first visited Scotland and it’s been passed down through the royal family ever since.

Balmoral has technically been around since the 15th century, but several additions and renovations over the years have transformed the home into something far different from the original version.

What’s important to know about its architecture?

Its style is considered to be Scottish baronial and Gothic revival. When Prince Albert purchased Balmoral, it was decided that it was too small for the royal family. The prince, Queen Victoria, and their children lived in the castle while a new one was being built. After the project was completed in 1856, the original castle was demolished. The replacement was built by father and son architects John and William Smith, who were both Scots. It was constructed from local granite and organized into two sections, each of which revolves around a courtyard space. A turreted clocktower remains an eye-catching feature to this day.

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