BALMORAL, LOVE IT OR LOATHE IT, IS A cradle of Scottish civilisation. The founding of the Royal retreat by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, it is said, locked down the Victorian reinvention of Scotland.
Balmoral is seen as a high temple of "Highlandism", wrapped up in the sentimentalised 19th Century embrace of Highland life: tartan, kilts, clans, scenery, soldiering and shortbread. From the 1780s, when tartan and kilts were still banned as the insignia of outlaws, the family home bought by Prince Albert in 1852 completed a process whereby the traditional lowland antipathy to Highland culture was turned on its head, according to the historian Tom Devine.
The shift famously began with the visit of George IV in 1822, orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott, the first by an English monarch in 150 years. But the mix of Queen Victoria’s popularity, her fascination with Scottish life, and the building of Balmoral, put tartan and all that went with it at the centre of how the world, and Scots themselves, saw Scotland.
"From that point it became armour plated, there was no way the momentum could be stopped," Devine said. It even coined an off-shoot of Highlandism: Balmoralism, or Balmorality, defined on one website, unfairly or not, as "superficial enthusiasm for Scottish culture".
An Aberdeen architect’s plans for Balmoral, long buried in the basement cellar of an office in Edinburgh’s West End, will go on show to the public next week for what is thought to be the first time. Two of the drawings are part of Our Highland Home: Victoria and Albert in Scotland, an exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
When Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles head to Balmoral for their honeymoon in April, staying at the Queen Mother’s former home at Birkhall, they will continue a history of Royal tourism pioneered by Victoria and Albert.
Edinburgh, meanwhile, is revelling in its Royal connections. Next month the Royal Scottish Academy building stages an exhibition of the Highland paintings of Sir Edwin Landseer, tied to the Portrait Gallery’s show. The Palace of Holyroodhouse is about to open an exhibition of watercolours and drawings from the Queen Mother’s collection. Hopefully Prince Charles and Camilla will stop off on their route north; but the whole affair is in sharp contrast to Glasgow, which this spring showcases both its comedy festival and an entirely new event dedicated to cutting edge, contemporary art.
Victoria and Albert found the original house at Balmoral too small, and, soon after buying the estate, Prince Albert set about building a new residence 100 yards north, to get better views up the Dee.
In the plans, the castle takes shape over 22 pages of finely crafted drawings, with detailed floor plans and vertical elevations. Each page is neatly signed by the architect William Smith, and dated 1853. Someone - a Royal client, perhaps? - has scribbled changes on a few of them, raising the height of windows, adding extra arrow slits, fiddling about with the clock tower.
The drawings were tracked down by the portrait gallery’s senior curator, Susanna Kerr, at the offices of Rowand Anderson Architectural Services, through records in the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
Just how the drawings turned up in Edinburgh is a mystery. Sir Robert Rowand Anderson was rated Scotland’s leading architect at the end of the 19th Century, but he has no known connection with the building of Balmoral, according to Richard Ewing, who now works from the firm’s basement offices in Rutland Square.
"I had forgotten they were there," he says. "I had never taken them out. I think they were probably just rolled up in a tube."
Kerr organised the Balmoral exhibition; it is curated by Dr Jeanne Cannizzo, an anthropologist at the University of Edinburgh, who has also written an accompanying book. It explores how Victoria and Albert fell in love with Scotland, and fitted it to the romantic ideas they brought with them; and how Prince Albert found constant echoes in the Glens and Bens of his German homeland.
It plays with the theme that the Royal couple set out to forge the comforts of home in Balmoral that both had lacked from early childhood - Prince Albert through his parents’ divorce, and Queen Victoria through the death of her father. The estate - guarded, as one surprised visitor noted, by a single policeman - was a refuge for Britain’s ruling family, from politics at home and even the prospect of revolution in Europe in the mid-century.
The Balmoral plans look like finished drawings rather than working sketches. They show the clash of a romantic yearning for a family home in a Highland idyll and the business of running an empire.
William Smith designed Balmoral under the close eye of Prince Albert, it is assumed. Floor plans are marked with rooms for a stream of servants, from a roasting cook to a coffee room maid. There was a gun room, a piper’s room, a butler’s pantry, and rooms for the minister of state who would be constantly in attendance. An adjoining office shows cellar rooms for vegetables, lumber, beer, coffee and lamps.
The first floor shows the royal apartments. Prince Albert has a dressing room, Queen Victoria an ample sitting room, there is a single bedroom. The style, if it has a style, embodies or even founded Scottish Baronial, with the hint of an old Scots tower house and a strong Germanic influence.
There are corner towers with conical roofs, crow-step gables, crucifix arrow slits, a romantic facade. "It’s a handsome building, it’s a hodgepodge, really," says Ewing. "It wasn’t a fortified castle in any sense, it was far too late for that, it was very much visual embellishment."
The exhibition includes models of the steam yachts that brought Victoria and Albert to Scotland. Other exhibits range from the dolls Victoria played with as a child to the bronze figures of Highlanders in the games commissioned from a Viennese sculptor. It includes JMW Turner’s picture of Schloss Rosenau, Albert’s childhood home near Coburg, among the places which could have influenced Balmoral’s design, though it also shares several features with the Schloss Reinhardsbrunn in Germany, used as a hunting lodge by Albert’s father.
Among the paintings of Royal life at Balmoral is Queen Victoria’s own watercolour of Archie and Annie MacDonald, the children of Albert’s Gillie.
Victoria and Albert made their first visit to Scotland in 1842. Dr Cannizzo notes how Victoria was well-versed in the romances of Sir Walter Scott; she spent the night before her wedding reading his biography. They were also caught up in the popular ethnography of the day, exploring the romantic ideal of peasant life, dress and behaviour across Europe, even as it crumbled in the face of the industrial revolution. Victoria had also sketched French villagers, women in starched white caps and aprons; as a teenager she had drawn gypsies at the English home of her uncle.
When they stayed with the Duke of Buccleugh on that first visit, she tasted porridge and Finnan haddies for the first time, while Albert pronounced Dalkeith and its people "very German". He was sold on Highland hunting after a successful outing for stags.
They made a return visit to Scotland in 1847, staying at the Marquess of Abercorn’s shooting lodge at Loch Laggan. The spectacular scenery again reminded Albert of his homeland in Thuringia.
In 1848 the Royal couple leased the Balmoral estate, and Albert bought it four years later, before embarking on the new building. His personal coat of arms and the crests of Sax-Coburg-Gotha were sculpted on the walls. The exhibition includes miniatures of some of the couple’s nine children, in Scotland, dressed as Thuringian peasants.
Balmoral was dressed in tartan from floor to ceiling. Victoria and Albert introduced new weaves, Victoria the "Dress" Stewart tartan and Albert the Balmoral tartan, for exclusive use of the royal household. Dr Cannizzo, whose anthropological studies have ranged from Africa to Canada, notes how images of the Royal Family be-decked in Highland dress popularised the kilt for middle-class boys.
Victoria and Albert even scaled three Munros on Upper Deeside: Lochnagar, Ben MacDhui and Beinn a’ Bhuird. They would have been transported part of the way by carriage or pony, but the walks were still very energetic.
The historian Michael Lynch, among others, notes how the summer stays of the Royal Family in Scotland really fashioned a British, rather than an English, monarchy, even as it popularised a new Scottish identity.
But Balmoral also fitted a trend, of new shooting estates established by English land-owners in the Highlands. Twenty-eight new deer forests were formed by 1839, and another 26 on top by 1859. Meanwhile, package tours of Scotland by Thomas Cook, from Highland properties to Iona and Fingal’s Cave, were well under way by the 1850s.
"It depends on your political persuasions today," says Dr Cannizzo. "We are all looking back. Some people have suggested on a positive note that Balmoral and the Queen and her family’s presence there was a statement about the inclusiveness of the crown.
"I suppose Balmoral, the name and the estate, is very recognisable abroad as a symbol of Scotland; of tartans and Highland estates. For people that don’t like that as an image of Scotland, Balmoral was one of the progenitors of tartan kitsch, which some people feel didn’t fit Scotland at all."
Sir Hugh Roberts, director of the Royal Collection, which is lending several items to the exhibition, says: "The fact that the Royal Family chose to settle on Deeside for their holidays really set a fashion for people holidaying in Scotland, and building themselves suitable sporting lodges and all that kind of thing.
"It rather gave a heavy kick-start to the Scottish tourist industry, even if they didn’t think of it in those terms. It became a very fashionable thing. Everybody went to Scotland when the Royal Family were there, in August and September. It can’t have done too much harm, I think."
Our Highland Home: Victoria and Albert in Scotland is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 18 March until 5 June. Monarch of the Glen: Landseer in the Highlands is at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, 14 April until 10 July