After a historic 70-year reign, Queen Elizabeth II passed away on September 8, 2022, at Balmoral Castle, a place dear to her heart. She held her last official engagement at the castle two days before her death when she welcomed the then-new UK Prime Minister Liz Truss, who wound up resigning after just six weeks in office.
It’s fitting that the queen lived her final days at Balmoral; spending time at the grand Scottish estate was a beloved tradition for her and her family. She was one of several British monarchs to leave a mark there. Here are 10 fascinating facts about Balmoral Castle, the royal family’s much-talked about holiday home.
1. Balmoral Castle is set on a massive 50,000-acre property.
Balmoral Castle is located in Cairngorms National Park in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, 500 miles (about a 9-hour drive) north of London.
The land surrounding the estate is so extensive, it practically forms an ecosystem of its own. It’s mostly made up of moorland and rocky alpine-like landscapes; there are mountains, river valleys, lochs, grouse moors, and gardens throughout. Balmoral is also a fully functional working estate that’s active in farming and wood production—3000 acres of land is dedicated to forestry, yielding 10,000 tons of wood every year.
The grounds are also home to an abundance of wildlife [PDF]. Some of the species that have been spotted on the estate are deer, grouse, red squirrels, Scottish wildcats, ptarmigans, ospreys, and golden eagles.
2. Balmoral Castle has a long royal history.
Today, Balmoral is closely associated with the British royal family. But it was a part of the lives of many Scottish elites long before that.
King of the Scots, King Robert II, owned a hunting cottage in the area in the late 14th century. Sir William Drummond built the first castle on the grounds in 1390. The estate was then passed down to many prominent members of Scottish aristocracy, including the son of the 1st Earl of Huntly, Alexander Gordon; the legendary Jacobite Farquharson clan; James Duff, 2nd Earl Fife; and Sir Robert Gordon.
Balmoral entered the British royal family in 1852, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert purchased the estate. The two had spent years renting the castle and fell in love with the landscape. With the expertise of Scottish architect William Smith, they had an entirely new castle constructed to accommodate their needs, their staff, and their nine children. They built the current Balmoral Castle, and the old 14th-century fortress was destroyed.
3. Balmoral is one of two privately owned royal residences.
Most of the royal residences are owned by the Crown Estate, which is funded by British taxpayers, with the exception of two—Sandringham in Norfolk, England, and Balmoral Castle.
After Queen Victoria died in 1901, Balmoral Castle was passed down to her firstborn son, King Edward the VII, and then to his son, King George V. The property then went to his heir, King Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson. His brother, George VI, then became king and passed ownership of Balmoral to his daughter and heir, Queen Elizabeth II. Though she never lived at Balmoral permanently, it was one of her main residences; she spent at least three months of the year there, typically beginning in August. It now belongs to King Charles III.
The grand castle includes 52 bedrooms, a number of reception halls, and a swimming pool. But there’s much more than just the main castle. The estate features 150 other buildings and homes, including Birkhall, the summer residence of King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla, as well as Craigowan Lodge and other cottages, some of which are open for the public to rent.
The grand estate has never been cheap. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert paid £32,000 for Balmoral in 1842 (which would be about £4.9 million, or more than $5.5 million, in today’s currency). The property’s value continues to increase: It was estimated to be worth USD $140 million at the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s death.
4. Balmoral is a luxurious (and private) summer camp for royals.
The estate at Balmoral is a holiday destination for the royal family, a place where they can relax and enjoy the fresh air and beautiful countryside. It’s a retreat away from their official duties and the prying eyes of the public and media.
Queen Elizabeth II would picnic on the grounds, ride her beloved horses, or explore the terrain in her trusty Range Rover. It offered her a “normal” life, a place where she could take some time to enjoy the outdoor activities she loved so much.
When at Balmoral, the royal family typically enjoys long walks and hikes around the extensive estate. They spend time riding horses, cycling, stalking deer, and grouse shooting. The queen’s late husband, Prince Philip, supposedly loved to grill on a specially made barbecue, and they would lunch outdoors whenever the weather permitted.
Balmoral was also the honeymoon destination for King Charles III (then the Prince of Wales) and his first wife, Princess Diana.
5. The “Test of Royal Protocol” is administered to newcomers at Balmoral.
According to Andrew Morton, author of Princess Diana: Her Story in Her Own Words, time spent at Balmoral as an outsider is a “social minefield.” Those who pass the strict protocols and requirements of Balmoral come into favor with the royal family. As royal biographer Omid Scobie once said, “they call it the queen’s Balmoral Test, but I would call it more of a royal initiation.”
Princess Diana passed the test beautifully due to her aristocratic upbringing. Others didn’t have as much luck.
Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK from 1979–1990 notoriously called Balmoral “purgatory” and “a different world.” Another ex-Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said that his visits to Balmoral were “a vivid combination of the intriguing, the surreal, and the utterly freaky.” He also said he downed drinks with the strength of “true rocket fuel.”
6. Balmoral Castle’s architecture is the Scottish baronial style.
The current castle was completed in 1856, built entirely from local granite that was quarried on the estate’s land. The building was constructed in two sections that each revolved around a separate courtyard. The southwestern block is the location for the main rooms, while the northeastern block contains the service quarters. One standout feature of the castle is an 80-foot-tall turreted clocktower.
7. Little is known about the interior of the Balmoral Castle.
Balmoral Castle is a private place for the royal family, which explains why only a few details have been shared about its interior. There have, however, been some released photos that give us a glimpse of the castle’s aesthetic. The rooms seem to take the style of a traditional Scottish estate, boasting marble fireplaces topped by gilded mirrors, upholstery with nature motifs, fine wooden furniture, and shelves full of leather-bound books. Green hues, tartan patterns, and hunting motifs also feature predominantly.
One room that we do know a lot about is the ballroom, which is the only room open to public visits. This grand ballroom features Scottish Highlands-inspired details, with dark wood beams on the ceiling, intricate woodwork on the walls, large chandeliers and candelabras.
8. Balmoral’s expansive gardens are a must-see.
Balmoral Castle’s formal gardens cover three acres of estate land and include a variety of gardens, greenhouses, and a conservatory. They’ve changed quite a bit throughout the years.
When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert purchased the estate, they planted formal gardens and rows of trees on the castle’s west side. Queen Mary, wife of King George V, created a flower garden on the south side of the castle, which includes a sunken garden and a fountain with a capstan at the center of it.
Prince Philip also made many additions to the famous gardens. He added the large “Kitchen Garden,” which provides fruits, vegetables, and herbs, as well as additional walking paths and a water garden.
9. It takes a lot of people to keep Balmoral running.
Balmoral Castle and its expansive estate need many employees to keep it functional and well-maintained. The estate employs 45 full-time staff members and 150 seasonal staffers. Part of the estate’s mission includes staying closely integrated with the land and with the local community [PDF]; this provides many jobs for people who live in the region and places a priority on maintaining and sustaining the beautiful lands of Cairngorms National Park.
10. Balmoral is open to the public (sometimes).
Balmoral Castle is typically open to the public from April to July. It’s also possible to arrange a group visit outside of those months—providing the royal family is not in residence. When Balmoral opens its doors to the public, people have access to the castle ground, garden, special exhibits, gift shop, and coffee shop. The only interior room the public can view is the ballroom.
During those months, Balmoral’s park rangers also offer two-hour guided tours around the estate. There are several hikes that can be done year-round, depending on the weather, in the nearby Cairngorm National Park.
In 2022, members of the public are permitted to visit the grounds of Balmoral to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth II during the months of October, November, and December free of charge. The castle, however, is closed.