‘Here she could be one with nature’

Balmoral Castle, in northern Scotland, was one of Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite places. She died at the castle on Thursday. Since then, many hundreds of people a day have come to pay their last respects at the entrance gate. “Her love for Scotland makes me proud.”

Niels Posthumus

Stella and Rob Hockey queue to cross Scotland’s River Dee. Across the water is Balmoral Castle, the castle where Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II died on Thursday. The line is long, but moves on quite quickly.

It is a beautiful day. The water under the bridge shimmers in the sunlight. The new King Charles has fished diligently for salmon in the river during his 73 years as a prince, as have many other members of the British royal family.

The hockey players had to drive an hour or two to get close to Balmoral Castle. They live in the Scottish city of Dundee, further south.

“Even if the Queen hadn’t died in this castle, we would have come here to pay her our last respects,” Stella says. “Because it is well known that she loved this place very much. I think a lot of people, like us, are happy that she died so peacefully in this very place that meant so much to her.”

Image ANP / EPA

Scottish Highlands

Balmoral Castle is located in the Scottish Highlands, on a 20,000 acre estate between the villages of Braemar and Ballaster. So far from London. Well, really far away from everything.

It is a beautiful setting: wooded hills with rolling meadows in between, stone houses that almost blend into the landscape. It is such a romantic place where everything is covered with moss.

It is true that the Queen loved it there. “I think grandma is happiest there,” granddaughter Princess Eugenie said in 2016. “I think she loves the Highlands a lot.”

For most of her life, the Queen spent her summer holidays at Balmoral. She admitted in 1992 that she looked forward to it every time. It was a resting point in her hectic life.

In the BBC documentary Elizabeth R she said: “Being able to sleep in the same bed for six weeks is a nice change.”

‘A real outdoorsman’

Stella and Rob Hockey have already crossed the river after about five minutes. Forty meters further on, the road turns to the left. The entrance gate to the estate is on the right side of the bend. They know that; the two have been to the castle more than once.

During the months when the royal family is not staying there, the gardens and ballroom are open to the public. The colorful carpet of flowers can be seen from a distance. Stella has a bunch of sunflowers in her hands.

“It’s unbelievable too,” she sighs. “seventy years on the throne. It will never happen again.” She and her husband are in their sixties, but had never seen another British head of state until Thursday.

The Queen loved Balmoral so much because she was a real outdoors person, according to the originally South African hockey players. “People say that if she hadn’t become queen, she would probably have spent her whole life in the country,” says Stella.

“Of all her houses and palaces, this place seemed to suit her best. Because the scenery here is so incredibly beautiful.”

“She loved her horses and her dogs,” adds Rob. His mother attended the Queen’s 21st birthday in Cape Town in 1947. “And she loved to hunt.” There are all possibilities at Balmoral.

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Picture Reuters

Paddington Bear

Furthermore, the Queen undoubtedly felt more relaxed there, the Hockeys believe. Less constantly monitored. “Here she didn’t have to dress up all the time,” jokes Rob, just before he and his wife arrive at the front door. They put their sunflowers there and take a picture as a souvenir.

Among the bouquets, they also see many cards, a single British flag and a teddy bear from Paddington Bear. A balloon is tied to one of the flower bundles with the image of a crown and the text ‘Queen Elizabeth II, 1926-2022’.

A little further on, Sally Wood and her husband are already walking back to the river. The two are happy to pay their last respects to the Queen. The middle-aged couple came all the way from Preston in England: 450 kilometers away.

“We have a family day tomorrow on the England-Scotland border,” Wood said. “We had already gone down there yesterday and said to each other: we are now only two hours from Balmoral, we have to get there.”

They have never been around the castle before. “It’s beautiful here,” says Wood. “And when you drive here, you immediately understand the second reason why the queen loved being here. Her privacy.

“This is a perfect place to get away from it all. Here you don’t have to worry about someone with a camera waiting for you when you come out for a walk. Or a terrorist. I fully understand that this was her favorite place to spend her free time.”

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Picture Reuters

Unwelcome guests

Malcolm Ross, former chief of staff to Prince Charles, seemed to confirm this suspicion when he told the BBC about Balmoral Castle a few years before his death in 2019: “The weather is not perfect. But it’s the environment, the place, the atmosphere, the feeling. It’s the wide, open space. No distractions. No airplanes. No noise. No traffic.”

According to him, the queen felt that she could walk freely on the estate. She could relax there, with her dogs. “Just doing what she thought normal people used to do. And what normal people actually do.”

It’s quite a drive from Preston, which is just above Manchester. But especially the last part of it is beautiful. The landscape becomes more rugged as you approach the highlands. The forests give way to barren, only low-vegetated hills that really want to be mountains.

From a distance, even these hills look mossy, brown-green, with gray stones shining through them. No house anywhere. Just some goats. As if a strip of uninhabitable territory has been created between the rest of the world and the suddenly tree-filled oasis around Balmoral to keep invaders out.

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Statue of Bart Friso

Paradise in the highlands

Thirty kilometers before the village of Braemar, a row of ski lifts is a reminder of how cold it can get here in winter. Sometimes a group of motorcyclists whiz past. For them, the roads through the valleys are fantastic routes for touring.

In Braemer, anyone going to Balmoral Castle must park in a grassy area along the road. Every ten minutes a bus picks up the visitors there and takes them to the castle in a quarter of an hour. This prevents overloading.

Balmoral Castle was bought by Elizabeth’s great-great-grandfather in 1852. Or rather, the castle that once stood there, which he had rented to his family during the summer for a few years running. He had this old castle torn down because it was too small.

He then ordered the construction of the romantic-looking castle that stands today: built in Scottish baronial style with gray granite from nearby quarries and an abundance of round towers.

Prince Albert presented it to his wife, Queen Victoria, and it stayed in the family. Queen Victoria, like Elizabeth II later, loved the place. She called Balmoral “my beloved paradise in the Highlands.”

Scottish blood

These kinds of statements make Melanie McDonald (45) and Amanda Nicolson (44) shine. The two Scottish women are from the area. In relative terms, it’s still an hour’s drive from their hometown of Aberdeen on the east coast.

Like Sally and John Wood, they go back to the bus. He will take them to Ballater, where a temporary car park has been set up, just like in Braemar.

“Obviously, logistically, it would have been more convenient if Queen Elizabeth had died in London,” says McDonald. “But I have the feeling that she very deliberately chose to die right here. She loved this place so much.”

It may also be because Elizabeth’s mother, who died in 2002 at the age of 101, was descended from a Scottish noble family. So the Queen herself also had some Scottish blood coursing through her veins. “There has always been a clear connection between her and Balmoral,” says Nicolson. “Here she could better be herself.”

McDonald nods in agreement. “She could be more at one with nature here: go outside, just put on her boots and climb the hills.”

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Picture Reuters

The world’s attention

The women felt that as children of the region they had a duty to come and express their admiration for the Queen at Balmoral Castle. McDonald: “The Queen loved Scotland. This was our chance to return our love to her.”

It is also very special for McDonald and Nicolson that they do not have to travel across town and country to be a full part of the national mourning process. “The north-east of Scotland is so far away,” says McDonald. “It makes us feel a bit isolated sometimes in these kinds of events. We usually only see it on TV.”

So it’s different now. Balmoral is at the center of the world’s attention. On their way back to the bus, McDonald and Nicolson pass an endless line of television cameras. The sun disappeared above them behind the gathering clouds, and with it the River Dee lost its silvery sheen.

Despite the increasing crowds, there is a strange kind of calm around the bridge. The mood is not so much emotional, but instead full of respect and awe. McDonald and Nicolson enter. They take a last look at the landscape, which the Queen saw in her life as the very last, but also the very dearest.

Chest of the Queen via Edinburgh to London

The coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, who died on Thursday, remained at Balmoral Castle until Sunday morning. That day, around 10 o’clock, her body was taken to the official royal residence in Scotland: Holyroodhouse in the capital Edinburgh. Several villages were visited on the route, as well as the cities of Aberdeen and Dundee. The coffin arrived in Edinburgh at about

On Tuesday afternoon, the coffin will be flown to London and then transported by car to Buckingham Palace.

A day later, King Charles will lead a procession that will take his mother’s coffin to Westminster Hall. The Queen will remain there, in the Houses of Parliament, until her funeral on September 19. People can come and say goodbye to her.

Crowds wait along the road for the car taking Queen Elizabeth to Edinburgh.  Picture AP

Crowds wait along the road for the car taking Queen Elizabeth to Edinburgh.Picture AP

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