The very best way to experience Royal Deeside is on foot, just as the Queen herself does. There are lots of magisterial walking routes to choose from. This one leads by the extensive grounds of the white granite-façaded Balmoral Castle and on through part of the surrounding 20,200-hectare estate.
Made up of farmland, lochs, grouse moors and mountains, the purchase of Balmoral by Queen Victoria helped her shape an image of the royal couple as country gentry rather than remote royalty.
Queen Elizabeth II traditionally spends her summers here in this private residence. As a lover of country life, she can often be seen walking the estate grounds clad in a tweed skirt, a practical weather-proof jacket and her trademark headscarf.
The Queen finds Balmoral a haven away from her busy working life down south. It is a place where the Queen’s family and friends can be entertained in peace and privacy.
3.5 miles/5.6km | 1.5 hours | moderate
1. River and pine
Start from the Crathie car park (charge in summer season) to cross the mighty River Dee and carry on uphill to take the first right, signed Royal Lochnagar Distillery. This leads to the village of Easter Balmoral. Turn right, then first left to head south-west on an arcing route through dense pine woods. Look for roe deer bounding through the trees.
2. Purple hills
After a mile, take the track on the left, which, in a few hundred metres, leads out of the woods and into a remote-feeling heather-clad landscape with views towards the Munro of Lochnagar. Red deer may be seen on the hillsides and, from June, the purple hues of heather add a romantic touch to the dramatic scenery.
The well-engineered landrover track allows for steady progress up Glen Gelder by Creag nan Gall (which means ‘rock of the foreigners’) on your left, and soon you can enjoy a view over the woodland that, cloak-like, covers the knolled land by the River Dee.
We have Queen Victoria to thank for safeguarding this forest, as it was she who, in 1878, bought Ballochbuie from Colonel Farquharson of Invercauld Estate to thwart the sale of the old Caledonian pine wood to an Aberdeen timber merchant. Successive generations of the royal family have looked after the forest since then – the Prince of Wales can often be spotted hereabouts. It is one of the largest remnants of the ancient Caledonian forest in the UK, with many trees more than 400 years old.
There are some 3,000 hectares of woodland on Balmoral Estate, of which more than 400 hectares of ancient Caledonian forest is protected from deer. Under the canopy there is a rich mix of heather, blaeberry and native saplings. The Balmoral woodlands provide an important habitat for a population of capercaillie, the world’s largest species of grouse. The Scottish crossbill is also found here.
3. Bothy and castle
Further on, a track to the right leads to the Gelder Shiel Bothy, which is worth a look for its atmospheric situation by the bubbling Gelder Burn. This is also a lovely spot to stop for a picnic.
Built in 1865, the bothy was originally a stable and later a stalking refuge. It sits behind the main building, an attractive granite cottage used by the royal family. The 3.5-mile return leads back the same way, towards the castle.
It’s recommended to pre-book your visit to the castle. The grounds, gardens, exhibitions, gift shops and coffee shop will be open to the public daily from 1 April to 2 August this year.