I HAVE been observing the royal summer at Balmoral in its second dismal week. Since almost the beginning of Victoria's reign, the 50,000 acres of Scottish Highland forest, water and greensward, have offered a retreat from maddening repetitions of the National Anthem; a place where members of the Royal Family might climb crags, kill wild animals and play golf, deaf alike to the prayers of friends and the menaces of foes. But last week, as low clouds emptied, the royal lair presented a picture of lassitude.
None of the reporters and cameramen largely responsible for this mood clustered around the castle's main gate or skulked among the conifers, as they did the previous week, seeking glimpses of those who have become their licensed jesters. Most neighbours, in the villages of Ballater to the east and Braemar to the west, made their eternal obeisance by staying mute, after the departure of the Duchess of York. But from Balmoral's private, nine-hole golf course on the south bank of the Dee her husband was heard cackling loudly over the noise of the river.
Balmoral is (and is probably meant to be) a baffling place, full of Gaelic place-names nobody can translate with unanimous agreement. Its most famous feature, the Lochnagar massif, rising 3,786 ft above a small loch of that name, enraptured Byron (I sigh for the valley of dark Lochnagar) as it did the Prince of Wales (The Old Man of Lochnagar). Yet my inquiries revealed a great assortment of meanings, among them 'loch of the goats' and 'little loch of the noisy sound'.
Lochnagar Distillery, the Queen's nearest Balmoral neighbour, situated in a compound a few hundred yards from the castle entrance, also has its mysteries. It was founded in 1824 (13 years before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert first laid eyes on Balmoral) by John Begg, a former whisky smuggler who 'went legitimate'. In 1848 the Queen and her Consort visited his works and sampled his spirits approvingly. The little distillery received the royal warrant, establishing Royal Lochnagar as one of the most sought- after whiskies in the empire. On my own visit, an employee told me this strange story:
At a Scottish Whisky Association dinner in the 1970s, the Duke of Edinburgh made a speech in the course of which he complained about his local distillery pumping effluent into the River Dee. The company chairman immediately flew up from London in great agitation and invited an inspection by the local water authority. The investigation showed that the pollution was not the fault of the distillery at all, but of the occupants of Balmoral Castle, whose septic tank was overflowing into the river.
The chairman was so annoyed at being wrongly blamed that he withdrew the word 'Royal' from the product. 'It cost us a fortune, changing labels and packaging.' So for several years their whisky was called simply 'Lochnagar'. Then, about six years ago, by which time the company had been taken over by Guinness, it was decided that the former chairman had over-reacted. 'The 'Royal' was restored. But I don't think anyone had the courage to tell the Duke of Edinburgh of his mistake, because he had another go at one of our directors a year ago.'
Might not there be a parable here? If you find disagreeable things in your water - or on your doorstep - look at yourself before you blame others. If 'the Family' fails to grasp an obvious point, nobody within miles of Balmoral Castle is anxious to make it for them. 'Balmoral is full of fawning flunkeys, and many of the estate's workforce are drawn from the local community,' said one local boy from the safety of anonymity.
This part of Scotland, within 50 miles of Aberdeen, has always abounded with tuft-hunters and collectors of royal cherry-stones. In Edward VII's day, for example, one visitor solemnly secreted a wine-glass touched by the royal lips into the tail pocket of his coat (inadvertently sitting on it later). Today, though the people of Deeside are less overawed by their royal summer neighbours than they used to be, there remains a protective attitude. Lulu Gillis expressed it like this: 'Why don't people just leave them alone to enjoy their holiday]'
Miss Gillis is co-curator of a small exhibition in Ballater's tourist office. It contains Balmoral's Victorian memorabilia, including photographs of Victoria herself and John Brown, the local 'friend more than servant' who, so some stories say, had been the widowed Queen's lover. (Edward VII had a statue of Brown, erected by his mother, moved to a less prominent spot.) Miss Gillis said she neither sees nor wants to see the journalists who besieged the nearby castle two weeks ago for news of the Duchess of York and the Princess of Wales. But she has witnessed disturbing local changes: 'incomers', or 'white settlers', from England retiring to Deeside, 'new money' from oil- rich Aberdeen, the disappearance of youth.
'There are always strangers about. I don't know half the people in Ballater,' she said. 'A lot of old trees have been cut down to make room for council houses and an expensive estate. The village originally grew up when people came for the water of the Pannanich well, which was said to cure scrofula. A company has started selling the water in (half-pint) bottles for 97p, but I don't see anybody buying it. Who's got scrofula nowadays?'
SHE SHOWED me an old photograph of the 'wee Masons', Ballater boys who, in due course, would roll up their trouser-legs and don aprons. 'They were unique to Ballater, the junior Masons. They used to march up to the laird's house for cups of tea and sweets and pennies. Then they would be taken to the Masonic Hall in the evening for entertainment and link up with their little girlfriends. But they hardly exist now, and there's just a disco.'
This part of the Highlands, dominated by kirk and castle, does not easily abandon itself to raucous amusement or helpless laughter (unless at golf). In my hotel, after two dozen elderly tourists stopped singing 'Daisy, Daisy' promptly at 11 o'clock and went to bed, the village was silenced to all but rain and river. But I could see why Queen Victoria was intrigued by Balmoral, and why her cult of Highland romanticism was dubbed 'Balmorality'.
However, Victoria's admiration of the desolate scenery did not prevent her altering it: she had cairns built all over, to commemorate people in and out of her life, and knocked down the original 'pretty little castle in the old Scottish style', replacing it with a bigger one. After her husband bought the estate for pounds 31,500, adjacent estates were purchased over the years.
Victoria's sojourns at 'the house of a thousand draughts' (she liked to be cool) grew longer and longer until snow fell. Had Albert not died from typhoid, caused by the poor sewerage system at Windsor, he might have succumbed to the cruelties of Balmoral's climate, if not its overflowing cesspit.
Count Helmuth von Moltke, aide- de-camp to the visiting Prince Frederick William of Prussia, wrote to his wife: 'It is very astonishing that the Royal Power of England should reside amid this lonesome, desolate, cold mountain-scenery.' The wimpish Tsar Nicholas II wailed to his mother: 'The weather is awful, rain and wind every day and on top of it no luck at all - I haven't killed a stag yet.'
A solitary, plain-clothes detective stood outside the gate as I arrived. I could not get in (the public is admitted only during May, June and July), but if I had I expect I should have been lost. Two internal doors lead from a large ballroom: one to the kitchen, pantry and scullery and into a yard surrounded by servants' quarters; the other, through a passageway, into the royal quarters - dining-room, billiard room, drawing-room, library, visitors' rooms and 'Rooms for the Suite'. There are galleries, and corridors, a butler's pantry, huntsman's room and gun-room and, near the back entrance of the Great Tower, the wine cellar and pages' rooms. Houses for important guests dot the domain (the Queen Mother and the Waleses alternate in occupying one of them, Birkhall House).
There are sunken gardens and glasshouses where leeks are grown out of season for the Queen, who loves them. Queen Victoria's romantic attachment to Balmoral - especially after Albert died - meant lots of tartan furnishings, but these later gave way to pastel shades under the timber ceilings and Gothic chandeliers.
The people of the surrounding villages do not see much of the royal holidaymakers. Miss Gillis met the Queen in 1986, when the monarch's Balmoral doctor persuaded her to declare open the Ballater exhibition. At one time local children would have lined the road, waving flags, at the hint of a royal appearance, but so few children remain that the school at Crathie, across the bridge from Balmoral's entrance, has just declared one of its two teachers redundant. There has been little to wave at this summer as the Royals dodge into the heather for picnics or (I imagine) huddle at home round the decanters.
Deesiders feel sorry for them. But, since they read the newspapers and watch television, they also feel a bit disenchanted. A Ballater shopkeeper told me that after the railway line (built for Queen Victoria) closed in 1966, the Royals had somehow become less visible, while recent capers by young Royals had diminished respect. 'Maybe they don't deserve us - but you won't be using my name, will you?'
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