Its white towers rise in the glen above Dee's " rushing tide," against a background of bold mountain scenery. Hill beyond hill towers to the sky, dwarfing the picturesque castle standing serenely below on its sylvan plateau. Some of the hills are thickly wooded to the summit, others are wild and bare, and above them all, on the farthest horizon, stretches the long line of "dark Lochnagar " - dark save where, even at midsummer, the snow reposes in white patches upon its mighty flanks. As one gazes the words of Byron come forcibly to the mind :
England! thy beauties are tame and domestic To one who has roved o'er the mountains afar: Oh, for the crags that are wild and majestic ! The steep, frowning glories of dark Lochnagar.
Romantic deeds and romantic legends seem to breathe in the very air of the place. How often in the days of yore have these hills resounded to the pibroch's shrill note, while in the valley mustered the Gordons, the Farquharsons, and those who served that Thane who " called was Macduff." But now those turbulent fighting days are over, and the descendant of the once hated House of Hanover sojourns each autumn peacefully in the valley.
But still bagpipes summon the gathering of the clans when the purple heather clothes the hills and the russet of the bracken and the scarlet of the rowan berries lend glowing colour to the scene. King George is for the nonce a Highland chieftain, and, dressed in kilt and Glengarry cap, heads the Royal clan at the time-honoured sports, while the Duke of Fife brings the men of Duff from Mar Lodge, and Mr. Farquharson marshals the men of Invercauld.
The Queen and her children are there, and many Royal and distinguished visitors to Deeside applaud the feats of strength and skill of the stalwart men in kilts, and their vigorous, picturesque dancing. The gathering of the clans amongst the hills no longer portends vengeance on the southern foe, or the brewing of internal feuds and raids. All is peaceful sport and merriment. The war hatchet has been buried, never again to be disinterred.
Balmoral Castle is the outward and visible sign of the establishment of the reigning dynasty in the hearts of the Scottish people. There are no ramparts, fortress towers, or guns, scarcely even a soldier to be seen at Balmoral. The clerk of the council to Lord John Russell, who accompanied his chief to the Castle during Queen Victoria's first sojourn there, wrote home in consternation : There are no soldiers, and the whole guard of the Sovereign and the Royal Family is a single policeman !' He added : ' The Queen is to be seen running in and out of the house all day long and visiting the old women in the cottages unattended."
The Queen and the Prince Consort first leased old Balmoral Castle in 1848 - the present structure was built later - as a shooting-box for the Prince and an autumnal residence. Some tours which they had made in the Scottish Highlands appear to have roused the Stuart blood in the queenly daughter of the House of Hanover.
It was a romantic fancy with Queen Victoria to become a Highland chieftainess.
She came to her northern kingdom, not as the Queen of the South, but as one proud of her Stuart lineage. She found the little old baronial castle beside the Dee exactly suited to her fancy. It had originally been a farmhouse, an appendage, probably, to Abergeldie, the castle of the "Gay Gordons," two miles distant, and at the time of the Royal occupation was little more than a gentleman's modest private residence, castle though it was called. It was surrounded by primitive huts, with the smoke from the peat fires on their earthen floors issuing from holes in the roof, and so perfect was the solitude that at nightfall the deer from the hills came stealthily about the house.
A succession of unique and romantic incidents in the history of Royal palaces is connected with the settlement of Queen 'victoria in her Highland home, and the building of the new Balmoral Castle.
First came the making of the Queen's cairn on the top of Craigowan. In the centuries long past there had been built near the old Balmoral Castle an ancient cairn of remembrance, the ' Cairn-a-quheen," named after the battle cry of the Farquharsons. When an expedition set out on foot, each member of the clan who came to the muster brought a stone and laid it on the heap being formed. When the battle was over the survivors returned, and each took a stone away. Thus the stones which remained denoted the slain, and became a cairn of remembrance.
On a glorious autumn day in 1852 Queen Victoria raised her peaceful cairn as chief-tainess of Balmoral. Up the mountain sides of Craigowan filed the procession - the Queen and Prince Consort and their elder children on their ponies, followed by the ladies and gentlemen of the household and the servants, cottagers, and tenantry of the Royal estate. The scene was picturesque beyond expression, with the kilted Highlanders, the shepherds in their plaids, the old women in their white mutches, the lads and lassies keen for the dancing, and the sedate figure of " Monk," the faithful dog of Sir Robert Gordon.
When the top of Craigowan was reached, the Queen laid a stone upon a given spot, her husband and children deposited their stones, and each of the company as they passed added to the heap until it had risen to some eight feet high, and the Prince Consort then laid the final stone, while the jubilant note of the pipes and the cheers of the people resounded round the lonely hillside.