Janice Hopper explores Royal Deeside

Royal Deeside is renowned for its regal associations, the holiday retreat of Queen Victoria who built Balmoral Castle, near Braemar, as a treasured, country retreat. But what people tend not to emphasise is the fact that Queen Victoria, and our current Queen Elizabeth II, tended to whisk their entire family away to Deeside to escape the pressures of London.

This region of beautiful countryside in the North East of Scotland has always been a family destination, so we set off to discover what today’s Royal Deeside offers travellers with youngsters in tow.

Our first stop was the acclaimed Royal Deeside Railway near Banchory. When the railroads revolutionised transport in the Victorian era Her Majesty would catch her own private train from Aberdeen out to Ballater. The line was only shut in 1966 during the notorious Beeching cuts.

Today a mile long section of the track has been restored by volunteers. The kids’ anticipation rose as the clock ticked in the traditional waiting room, and soon we were aboard, chugging along through the Grampian countryside in regal style.

The Victorian railway is naturally a hit for steam and diesel enthusiasts, and mini train spotters too, but with its regular events (from Cream Tea Specials, to Mother’s and Father’s Day celebrations, and Santa Specials in December) there’s often a colourful reason to let the train take the strain.

It’s said that Queen Victoria’s retinue would stop in Aboyne to rest and refuel. We naturally followed suit. After an informal lunch at the colourful and family friendly ‘Spider on a Bicycle’ we drove 17 miles inland to Crathie. The road hugs the northern bank of the River Dee, so it’s a scenic drive for much of the journey. At Crathie, visitors find the small picturesque Crathie Kirk that Queen Victoria attended and where the current Royal Family still attend services. A short walk from the kirk is the cemetery where the remains of Queen Victoria’s loyal companion, John Brown, were laid to rest. Admittedly, our preschoolers weren’t remotely interested in the local history, but were happy to stretch their legs. 

The final stop of day one was the Royal Lochnagar Distillery, which received its royal warrant after the owner, John Begg, quite cannily penned a letter to the Queen’s Private Secretary inviting the Royals to visit. His shock upon receiving Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their three eldest children the following afternoon can only be imagined.

Today, to partake in a distillery tour, guests need to be at least eight-years--old, but in a comfortable waiting area a stack of Scottish children’s books, including Prince Charles’ ‘The Old Man of Lochnagar’. As I went on a swift one hour tour of the distillery, complete with tasting, my husband and children evaded the rain, curling up with some books, completely free of charge. The youngsters were made extremely welcome, despite being only three and four-years-old.

In terms of accommodation many families understandably opt for the flexibility of self-catering apartments. In Royal Deeside this can be experienced with a regal twist thrown in for good measure at the stunning Mar Lodge.

This elegant hunting lodge, located just west of Braemar, was the home of Queen Victoria’s grand-daughter, Princess Louise, and her husband Alexander Duff, 1st Duke of Fife. The Queen laid Mar Lodge’s foundation stone in October 1895. Not only was this a home, but a site of parties and revelry. The Queen attended balls here, piped into the ballroom by torchlight. The celebrations took place within the jaw-dropping Stag Ballroom, decorated with around 2500 antlers. It’s a sight to behold, though we did have to assure our four year old that Rudolph wasn’t amongst them. 

The property is now under the stewardship of the National Trust for Scotland and offers elegant self-catering accommodation. The apartments are vast, comfortable and homely, yet stylish, traditional and luxurious. Period features such as fireplaces, roll top baths and rich, dark wooden furniture reflect the history and heritage of the area. To be able to stay in a property with such royal connections added great value to the overall experience. 

As a new, bright day dawned over Mar Lodge we decided to embrace Queen Victoria’s love of the countryside. She regularly took Prince Albert and the children on hikes, adventures and expeditions. One of the activities Victoria used to enjoy was picnicking in a selection of Deeside beauty spots.

Near Mar Lodge is the sublime Linn of Dee. It’s a handsome, rugged place, and its main attraction is a deep gully with powerful waters surging through it. After a walk through the forest, along the river, past the gully and over the wee bridge, carefully clutching the children as we passed natural hazards, we sat down to attempt an impromptu North East picnic.

Queen Victoria opened the ‘new’ bridge back in 1857 with a dram of whisky. We whipped out flasks of coffee, cartons of apple juice, and broke out the biscuits, for an informal family gathering.

The jewel in the crown is inevitably Balmoral Castle itself. Today, when the Royal Family isn’t in residence, the public can visit the grounds, gardens, Carriage Hall Courtyard and Castle Ballroom. Displays and films discuss the history of the castle and its estate, highlight the local wildlife, and explain how the land has been run and managed over the years.

The Ballroom is home to artworks by Landseer and Carl Haag, as well as silver statues by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm. The remainder of the castle is closed to the public as Balmoral is still the private holiday residence of the Royal Family.

Another nearby castle with royal connections is Braemar Castle. It was one of the original Victorian hosts of the famous Braemar Gathering, of which Queen Victoria was a patron. Since 1848, the Braemar Gathering has been attended regularly by the reigning Monarch and members of the Royal Family. 

Today it’s held on the first Saturday in September in the Princess Royal and Duke of Fife Memorial Park in Braemar, and it’s an energetic event for all ages, featuring traditional caber tossing, throwing the hammer, tug of war and vibrant Highland Dancing.

If this isn’t enough to entertain the kids then amuse them with treats in Braemar's quaintest newsagent and bookshop, ‘A B Yule’, which stocks an excellent range of children’s toys and magazines. And don’t miss the wee sweetshop ‘Dee Valley Confectioners’. Kylie Minogue was recently spotted picking up some sweet treats here, so if it’s good enough for the Queen of Aussie Pop then it should makes your little ones smile too.


Spider on a Bicycle - spideronabicycle.com

Royal Deeside Railway - deeside-railway.co.uk

Royal Lochnagar Distillery - malts.com/en-gb/distilleries/royal-lochnagar?type=redirect

Mar Lodge - nts.org.uk/holidays

Balmoral Castle - balmoralcastle.com

Braemar Castle - braemarcastle.co.uk

Braemar Gathering - braemargathering.org

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