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The Scottish holiday retreat of the Royal Family

The Cairngorms include most of Scotland's tallest mountains. 19 of them are over 3000 feet! Cutting their way between these peaks are the rivers, which ferry the rainfall back out to sea. One of the most important waterways is the River Dee. It starts in the shadow of Ben Macdui, the tallest mountain in the Cairngorms. From here it flows 135 kilometres east, towards Aberdeen. For centuries, it has provided a key transport route through the Highlands.
The Scottish knew that whoever controlled the river would be in a strong position. It should therefore come as no surprise to see plenty of forts and castles within a stone's throw of the water. Many of these are open to the public, such as the 17th century stronghold at Braemar. It's supposedly haunted by a motley crew of ghouls and spectres, including murdered babies and bereaved newly-weds. Further downriver you can see the ancient tower at Drum Castle, and the vast walled gardens at Crathes.
These sights pale in comparison to the River Dee's most elegant structure: Balmoral Castle. There has been a house here since way back in the 1400s, but this was relatively small. The estate's recent history begins in the 1800s, when it was put up for sale. It soon caught the eye of Her Royal Highness, Queen Victoria. She was such a huge fan of the Scottish Highlands that she signed a long-term lease for Balmoral without even laying eyes on it. When she arrived, she loved the gardens and the surrounding mountains. However, the house wasn't big enough. Work soon started on a new structure, with the Queen herself laying the foundation stone. By 1856, Balmoral was finished. Ever since then, it has been the favoured summer holiday destination of the Royal Family. They come up ever year, to escape the claustrophobic capital.
The castle's grounds and gardens are open to the public, so you're free to wander past the flowers, water features and Victorian glasshouses. You can even go inside Balmoral itself and see the Ballroom. This is the largest space in the building. It's still used by the Queen every summer, for two lavish parties.
Even after you leave, you can carry on following in the Royal Family's footsteps. The
Victorian Heritage Trail uses a series of distinctive brown signs to point you in the direction of all Queen Victoria's favourite places. It takes you across bridges, past castles, through distilleries and into the towns of Deeside.
The nearby settlements are all small in size, but big in charm. The village of Braemar, near the start of the Dee, makes up for its exceptionally cold temperatures by hosting the Highland Games, every September. The event is well attended by both celebrities and Royalty.
Further down the river are quaint little villages like Aboyne and Strathdon. Beyond here is the town of Banchory, just half an hour's drive from Aberdeen. Its pubs and parks draw in plenty of fugitives from the bustling city. Out here, the mountains have largely settled into colourful farmland, bringing a bit of diversity to the Deeside landscape. Despite its recent increase in popularity, this is still a peaceful part of the country. Queen Victoria described it as a place to "forget the world and all its sad turmoils".
Visitor Information
Balmoral Castle is open daily from April to July from 10am to 5pm. Entry costs around £9 for adults, £5 for children. The Estates Office, Balmoral Estates, Ballater, Scotland, AB35 5TB. Tel: 01339 742 534

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