How Balmoral created a wild, tartan-covered Scotland of travel brochures

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh with their two young children, Princess Anne and Prince Charles outside Ballymore Castle, 1952

For the first time ever, the public will be allowed to enter Morristown with a series of special summer tours (now sold out). This Aberdeenshire estate reflects the Royal Family’s special relationship with Scotland, but Balmoral means more than that: it embodies a romantic image of Scotland known around the world, one in which the Royal Family played an integral part create.

This ‘Balmoralisation’ is a vital part of the Scottish story. It is a story of how English and Scottish Unionists fostered a new idea of ​​Scotland that brought these two great enemies together. Today, when foreign tourists think of Scotland, they tend to think of wild moors, rugged castles, bagpipes and, above all, tartan. These elements have always been part of Scottish culture, but their ubiquity was due to a shrewd rebranding exercise in which royalty played a dominant role.

This royal restoration began 200 years ago, in 1822, when King George IV visited Edinburgh. This was the first visit to Scotland by a British monarch since the 17th century. There was a good reason for this long absence. During the 1700s there were three Scottish rebellions against the English, three bids to overthrow Britain’s Hanoverian monarchy and restore the Stuart throne.

The Stuarts were Scottish, and Prince Bonnie Charlie was the last of these Scottish pretenders. Tartan was the uniform of his Gaelic soldiers, so after his rebellion, tartan was banned. It was the genius of the British monarchy to transform this rebellious garment into the uniform of a United Scotland – a badge of loyalty to the crown, rather than a sign of rebellion.

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Ballymore Castle has been the residence of the British Royal Family since 1852 – Getty

Ironically, it was the Hanoverian King George IV who confirmed the Unitarian establishment of this Gaelic dress, with the help of Scotland’s best novelist, Sir Walter Scott. Scott’s historical novels were popular – most notably Waverley, his dramatic yarn about Prince Charlie’s rebellion – and when he was hired to stage-manage George IV’s Scottish tour, he transformed Edinburgh into a sea of ​​tartan.

Scott organized a series of banquets and cavalcades to commemorate this royal visit, and he urged his bourgeois guests in the Lowlands to wear traditional Irish dress. Many of these urban Highlanders were alarmed. Her ancestors fought alongside the English against Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Gaelic rebels. Edinburgh was the capital of the Scottish Enlightenment, a city of doctors, lawyers and academics, not country gentry and Highland chiefs. But after King George painted his portrait in full Gaelic dress, they obediently continued their costume, and the tartan was the house style of those festivals.

Following the example of George IV, tartan became mainstream in Scottish society, as Scott’s novels fostered a growing desire for an idealized version of Scotland’s past. I don’t mind that, before the Clearances, the Outback was much more densely populated. Never mind that the Lowlands were now the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. Readers didn’t want horror stories about industrialization. They preferred to read nostalgic fantasies about a nameless desert, inhabited by fierce warriors and fiery dawns.

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Portrait of King George IV, 1830 – Getty

George IV’s niece, Queen Victoria, was one of Walter Scott’s many admirers. In 1842 she traveled to Scotland with her husband, Prince Albert, to visit the locations in Scott’s novels. In 1847 they went on holiday in Adverikie, near Inverness, and in 1848, they found Ballymoreil. It was the start of a royal love affair with Aberdeenshire that has lasted to this day.

The most remarkable thing about Ballymoreil was that it was a modern creation, despite its ancient aesthetic. There was already a house on the estate, but Victoria and Albert wanted something bigger and more comfortable, so they built next door. The architectural style was Scottish barony: faux medieval on the outside, all mod cons inside, a fitting metaphor for their honest but sentimental relationship with Scotland.

Victoria’s family tree was mostly German, but she had some Scottish blood, so to celebrate her (reasonable) Scottish ancestry, she planted a tartan at Balmoral: Hunting Stewart green; Stewart’s white dress and Stewart’s Royal red. She dressed her servants in felts and purses. One of her chief ministers, Lord Rosebery, called her tartan drawing room the ugliest room in the world.

Rosebery had a point – Victoria’s dressing was rather naff – but some things are more important than good taste. This ersatz Caledonian décor had a higher function. As the Scottish historian Michael Lynch noted in his insightful book, ‘Scotland – A New History,’ ‘Balmoral’s very Scottishness helped give the monarchy a truly British dimension for the first time.’ And despite a few recent setbacks, it’s a feature that has endured.

“They seemed to be breathing freedom and peace, and to have forgotten the world and its sorrowful turmoil,” wrote Queen Victoria, poetically, from Balmoral, and it was clear that her great-granddaughter was on the way down to earth herself. , Queen Elizabeth II, felt much the same. A frequent visitor throughout her childhood, with her father, King George VI, and her grandfather, King George V, during his 70-year reign she spent most of her summers here.

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Queen Victoria on horseback with her Gillie John Brown at Ballymore – Getty

With so many homes to choose from, what attracted Elizabeth to Ballymore? The late Sir Malcolm Ross, Rector of the Royal Household, called it the best. “It’s the setting, it’s the place, it’s the atmosphere,” he explained. “It’s the wide open spaces. No distractions, no planes, no noise, no traffic – just this beautiful estate where she can roam free everywhere.” The estate comprises 50,000 acres of pine forest, farmland and moorland, home to red deer, grouse and Highland Cattle. Elizabeth loved to walk her dogs and ride and picnic here.

Elizabeth remained true to Victoria’s Caledonian house style: the Piper Queen used to play the pipes every day at 9am (a tradition Victoria started); the upholstery bore heather and thistle motifs; the walls were hung with pictures of the Scottish landscape, and the stag’s antlers were shot on the estate. But her lifestyle here was more informal than in London, and that was part of the appeal. Visiting Prime Ministers were amazed to see Her Majesty cleaning up after meals, stacking dishes and washing dishes.

Balmoral was also a refuge for the Duke of Edinburgh. Elizabeth’s devoted husband manned the grill at many Balmoral barbecues. He also helped care for these gardens, adding herbaceous borders and water features. During the pandemic, the devoted couple spent in lockdown in Morristown, celebrating their 73rd (and last) wedding anniversary here.

Both were closely associated with Scotland, although for different reasons. Prince Philip’s affection for Scotland dates back to his school days at Gordonstoun. Queen Elizabeth was actually half Scottish – her mother was from an ancient Scottish clan and was raised in Glamis Castle, one of Scotland’s most historic stately homes, the setting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Elizabeth’s love for Scotland extended far beyond Balmoral, encompassing the entire nation. At the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 2021, she spoke of her “deep and abiding affection for this great country”, a country whose public image her family had done so much for.

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Princess Elizabeth with her children Prince Charles and Princess Anne at Balmoral – Getty

Does it matter if that public image is partly a fantasy? Is it important that Scotland is not games of grouse and deer and Gaelic? Not really. Part of all travel, all tourism, is an act of imagination. We see what we want to see – we get what we want to get. Of course, there is more to Scotland than Balmoral, but it is still part of Scotland, and the things that she represents, the things that Elizabeth put, are true.

The King’s Scottish roots run as deep as those of his late mother. He was educated at Gordonstoun, like his father, and his love of Balmoral is reflected in his wonderful children’s story, The Old Man of Lochnagar, named after the highest hill on the estate, one of the seven Munros (over 3,000 feet) within its boundaries.

Like his late mother, Charles’ love of Scotland is not limited to Ballymore. There are many examples of his philanthropy, but Dumfries House is a very good example. Built by John and Robert Adam, and furnished by Thomas Chippendale, Dumfries House is one of the best-preserved Palladian houses in Britain, and when it came up for sale in 2007 it looked like it could be a treasured collection. lost forever, to Charles. headed a consortium that bought it for the nation.

Thanks to Charles’ charitable trust, Dumfries House is still open to the public, and its valuable contents are still in situ, but it’s not just a dusty old museum. The home also provides work and training for many local young people, in an area suffering from high unemployment. Dumfries House shows that ‘Balmoralisation’, at its best, is more than nostalgia. As Charles has shown, it can also be a progressive force.

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Dumfries House – Getty

The Balmoralisation of Scotland was a clever and clever affair, designed to integrate a troubled nation into the UK, but like all the best PR campaigns, it was employed to sell a great product. The tartan cliches may sound corny, but they are rooted in reality. Much of Scotland is still wilderness and its cultural heritage remains unique.

Queen Elizabeth was right about Scotland, as she was right about so many things. “The people make a place,” she said, “and there are few places where that is truer than in Scotland.” How fitting that she should die at her delightful home of Ballymoreil.

This article was first published in September 2022 and has been revised and updated.

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