Highland Fling

updated 09/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

DURING HER 10-DAY VISIT TO CANADA last month, Windsor-watchers noted that Queen Elizabeth looked distracted. Even before the 68-year-old monarch received death threats (an occupational hazard) in Yellowknife, N.W.T, observers reported that she just wasn't herself. "She seemed on the verge of disdain and boredom," one British expatriate told a London paper. "It makes you wonder what on earth she had on her mind."

Given the fact that the expedition had claimed part of her summer holiday, it's a safe bet that she was thinking at least part of the time about Balmoral—the bucolic Scottish hideaway where she retreats in August. Bought by Prince Albert in 1852 and cherished by Kings George V and George VI (her own father), it is one of the few places where the Queen seems to relax. As it happened, she and Prince Philip returned from Canada on Aug. 23, and her weary expression vanished as soon as she spotted her beloved corgies waiting for her on the tarmac at Heathrow. Boarding a Queen's Flight aircraft bound for Scotland, she looked as happy as a pensioner on her way to Disney World.

Not that Balmoral offers much in the way of thrills. Situated in a rocky valley 50 miles southwest of Aberdeen, the estate is dominated by a drafty 30-room baronial castle where Elizabeth does jigsaws, the Queen Mum plays bridge and Princess Margaret bangs out show tunes on the piano until 3 a.m. Swathed in tartans, the interior has changed little since 1855, when Queen Victoria (who had fallen in love with the Highlands on a visit in 1842) took possession of the new home built to replace a smaller castle that had served as her retreat since 1848. These days, dinner table conversation often revolves around how many grouse one bagged during the day's sodden shoot (as it did in Victoria's time), and charades are the most sophisticated form of entertainment. For the Princess of Wales, the place was a prison. "It's as deadly as a graveyard," she told a friend who tattled to biographer Lady Colin Campbell. "You have no idea how the country bores me."

For the rest of the royals, however, the 50,000-acre estate is Eden: The climate is bracing (65 degrees in August), the locals are protective and the landscape—with its brooding peaks and rushing rivers—ruggedly appealing. Aside from fresh air and fine views, the-annual holiday offers the Windsors a chance to catch up on family gossip. According to Ann Morrow, a biographer of the Queen Mum, "More talking is done there than at any other time of the year."

This year, the Queen will linger at the castle until October. Margaret reportedly was on hand in August, as were Charles and Princes William and Harry; the Queen Mum is at Birkhall, her 12-bedroom house just 10 miles away. And, of course, Fleet Street is on hand to document every public outing; the nearby village of Ballater (with its stone cottages and brilliant flowerbeds) is mobbed by the press. When Charles, 45, fishes for salmon in the frigid River Dee, paparazzi with lethal-looking lenses are stationed on the banks. At a meeting of the local fishing improvement association on Aug. 24, the prince complained that he "doesn't do much fishing now because...of press photographers peering at him all the time," as a neighbor told the London Times. Other family members face the same scrutiny: When William, 12, went with minder Tiggy Legge-Bourke to the sweetshop on Aug. 27, reporters were lying in wait.

Still, the Windsors regard Balmoral (which, like Sandringham in Norfolk, is the Queen's private property) as a haven where they can live like country folk; instead of cutting ribbons, they can concentrate on bagging the occasional stag. During their sojourn, they are surrounded by the accoutrements of upscale farm life: Mercedes-Benz tractors, red Highland cattle and hothouses full of black grapes and ripe tomatoes. Like Marie Antoinette, who had her Petit Trianon, Charles adores the log cabin where he can picnic and play at being a simple woodsman. "He loves the drama of the Highlands," a friend told Campbell. "He needs their peacefulness." After arriving at Balmoral on Aug. 16, the prince reportedly enjoyed hour-long phone chats with best friend Camilla Parker Bowles. "He feels good at Balmoral, and when he is happy, Charles talks to Camilla a lot," an aide told The Sun.

The Queen Mum, who spent childhood summers at Glamis Castle near Dundee, thrives in Scotland as well. Like the castle proper, her Queen Anne house is done up in cozy tartans. The entrance way is crowded with dogs' bowls and fishing rods, and a stack of Fawlty Towers videos is on hand. Although the weather is notoriously unreliable, she often picnics at her fishing hut; the table is set with silver, and lunch is preceded by a gin or two.

For the Queen, Balmoral offers a kind of privacy that she seldom enjoys in London. Although photographers snap the Windsors at the 11:30 service at tiny Craithie Church, they never make it past the iron gates of the estate itself. With no official duties, Elizabeth is free to play with her grandchildren or hike through the heather.

Not that life at Balmoral isn't structured: Each weekday, a bagpiper plays reveille under the Queen's window at 9 a.m. Although Philip leads male guests to the moor at precisely 8:45, the Queen breakfasts in bed; at 10 a.m. she goes riding, accompanied by bodyguards on mountain bikes. (She prefers the younger ponies and names them herself; her current favorite is a black filly called Madge.) At exactly 1 p.m. the Queen and her female guests join Philip's party for lunch in the shooting huts. Drinks are at 6 p.m. sharp, and dinner is at 8:15. Although tweeds will do for daytime, evening dress and serious jewels are required later. Guests must observe strict protocol: It is forbidden to leave the table until their hostess rises, or to sit before she is seated.

Although the routine can be a trial, an invitation to Balmoral is regarded as a coup: Prime Minister John Major and his wife stay for a weekend in September. VIPs are lodged in one of the five suites or in six-bedroom Craigowan Lodge, a stone house where the family stays offseason; others draw single rooms and must share a bathroom.

Over the years, Balmoral has been the scene of numerous family dramas. When the Waleses were courting, Diana convinced Charles that she was captivated by the place. By the time they were honeymooning there in the company of his relatives, she had dropped the charade—shouting at him when he joined the shoot and bingeing while he was gone. In August 1992, Balmoral was the setting for a crisis when The Sun ran photos of a topless Duchess of York cavorting on the Riviera days earlier with chum John Bryan. "The mood at the breakfast table was thunderous," according to the newspaper Today. Reportedly banished to a gamekeeper's cottage, Fergie left two days later.

All over the estate there are reminders of generations past: Atop a hill opposite the castle is a cairn, or obelisk, to Prince Albert erected in 1862, the inscription notes, "by his broken-hearted widow." (The two had been married for 21 years when Albert died at 42; the Queen spent the next 40 years in mourning.) Other cairns mark more recent events, including the birth of Prince William. Even royal dogs merit monuments; the estate contains 100 headstones with names of the dear departed.

Although the Queen seldom ventures into Ballater, William and Harry make occasional forays into town with their father. "They love to run around in here," reports the proprietor of Countrywear Clothing, who sells essentials including fishing tackle and oilcloth jackets. Gone are the days, though, when Di and Fergie made waves by escaping to the luxe Craigendarroch Hotel, where in 1987 they plunged into the heated pool and dawdled in the sauna. Once a regular at Goodbrand Knitwear (where she bought the famous red sweater adorned with a single black sheep), Diana hasn't been spotted in town since 1992.

These days tourists craving a glimpse of royal life can wait until May, June or July, pay $3 and stroll the exquisitely tended grounds of Balmoral itself. Though the castle proper is off-limits, guests may tramp through a museum in the ballroom, where one can inspect Victoria's desk (with buttons marked "page" and "dresser") and her necklace of stag teeth set in gold. Next door is a tearoom where venison burgers go for $2.25 and a shop where stout ladies with swollen ankles buy tea towels emblazoned with corgies.

Those who are hardy enough can opt for a two-hour pony trek led by the Queen's own grooms. For $18 one may select a velvet-covered helmet from the Queen's tack room, mount one of the Queen's own Fell ponies and follow Princess Anne's favorite trail—past the granite castle and the splendid gardens, up a wooded hillside to the peak where Victoria placed her husband's cairn. Perfectly silent, except for the distant rush of the Dee, it is a spot where one can meditate about the pleasures of the simple life—and, perhaps, revel in a borrowed sense of noblesse oblige.

with ELIZABETH TERRY in London

From Our Partners