The Coyles of Muick, around ten miles by road from Balmoral Castle, are the most peaceful of hills. They gleam gold in the sunshine, and purple when the heather blooms.
It was here, on a summer’s day back in 2003, that the Countess of Wessex took a picture of the Queen and Prince Philip as they really were. Carefree, dressed down, enjoying the scenery and each other’s company in this most serene of beauty spots.
Balmoral, and the land which surrounds it, is perhaps where the monarch and her late husband were at their happiest.
Tucked away in this secluded corner of Royal Deeside and surrounded by the wild countryside they both loved, it was where they could escape the rigours of court life in London and at Windsor, spend treasured time with family and to some extent (as far as these things are ever possible among royalty’s highest echelons) let their hair down.
So it should come as little surprise that, following the Queen’s state opening of parliament, she is to travel to Balmoral ‘out of season’ this month to privately grieve for her beloved husband.
At Balmoral Castle, on a summer’s day back in 2003, the Countess of Wessex took a picture (above) of the Queen and Prince Philip enjoying the scenery and each other’s company
It will be a low-key visit, unlike the trips she often made en famille during the Royals’ usual August to October Scottish break.
There will be no days out to the Highland Games at Braemar, nor visits from heads of state.
The Queen will not stay in the castle itself but at the more informal seven-bedroom Craigowan Lodge on the Balmoral Estate, far from the prying eyes of visiting tourists and a stone’s throw from where, seven decades ago, the couple spent part of their honeymoon.
She will take with her a small staff, while her niece, Lady Sarah Chatto, daughter of Princess Margaret and a much-favoured family member, may join her for some of the time.
But in this solitary, sad pilgrimage to a place with so many treasured memories, the Queen will be following in the footsteps of those who went before her.
Almost 160 years ago, Queen Victoria, racked with grief over the death of Prince Albert, made the same journey to Balmoral to rage over the untimely demise of her beloved husband.
Her love affair with Scotland had started back in 1842, when she first visited after the birth of her second child Albert, and was suffering post-natal depression.
Desperate to get away from the pressures of London and family life, Prince Albert spirited her off to the Highlands.
Victoria was swiftly entranced by the people and the landscape, conjuring for herself a romantic vision of a place filled with tartan-clad men and women wielding bowlfuls of steaming porridge, where stags roamed the hills, golden eagles soared overhead and one was never more than five minutes away from a piper playing a Highland lament.
It should come as little surprise that, following the Queen’s state opening of parliament, she is to travel to Balmoral (pictured) ‘out of season’ this month to privately grieve for her husband
It was, perhaps, a vision of Scotland many Scots themselves would have failed to recognise with the industrial age in full swing, but it nevertheless had a deep impact on Victoria, so much so that in 1848 the couple purchased Balmoral – sight unseen – as their permanent Scottish retreat.
She later described it as a ‘paradise in the Highlands’, writing in her diary that ‘all seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils’.
Like the Queen and Prince Philip more than a century later, Victoria and Albert spent many happy summers at Balmoral, riding in the glens, hosting lavish balls, spending time with their ever-expanding family and exploring the same, captivating mountain ranges.
Those halcyon days were to leave such an imprint that when Victoria arrived at Balmoral in 1862 following her husband’s death, she found herself so deeply immersed in memories that the experience was torturous.
Writing to her eldest daughter Victoria, the Crown Princess of Russia, she said: ‘Oh! Darling child… the stag’s heads – the rooms – blessed, darling Papa’s room – then his coats – his caps – kilts – all, all convulsed my poor shattered frame!’
Shunning family and dressed in the widow’s weeds she would wear for the rest of her life, Victoria shut herself away in the castle, passing the time by learning to spin wool.
She also made pilgrimages to places of particular significance to the couple, including a solitary visit to a cairn they had built together at the summit of Craig Gowan, the mountain for which the house on the estate is named, and to a spot near Lochnagar where Prince Albert had shot his last stag.
In 1863 there was also a fall from a horse after a day’s riding.
It was to become a pivotal moment in Victoria’s grieving process. She wrote in her diary afterwards that she had just a moment to think ‘whether we should be killed or not’, but decided ‘there were still things I had not settled and wanted to’.
It is likely that our own Queen, practical, pragmatic, with ten decades of wisdom behind her and an unerring sense of duty, will be less fanciful in her mourning than her great great-grandmother.
The time at Balmoral will be a period of quiet reflection, punctuated by the same sense of faithful routine she has kept to for almost a century.
Still a keen rider at 95, she will likely take out some of the many ponies kept at Balmoral for gentle trots. Lady Chatto, viewed as one of the Queen’s closest confidantes within the family, as well as a trusted friend, will provide company as and when it is needed.
A devoted animal lover, the Queen will also walk her two new puppies, a dorgi and a corgi gifted to her by Prince Andrew while the Duke of Edinburgh was in hospital, just weeks before his death.
That she chose to name the corgi Muick, after the loch and hills so beloved of the couple, will no doubt seem more poignant to her now than ever, as she returns to gaze upon the landscape once more, this time without Philip by her side.
Almost 160 years ago, Queen Victoria (pictured at Balmoral in 1867), racked with grief over the death of Prince Albert, made the same journey to Balmoral
If she chooses to stay at Balmoral throughout the summer break, it is likely that the Queen will be joined by other family members including the Cambridges, the Wessexes, and Prince Charles and the Duchess of Rothesay, who often stay at Birkhall, the Prince’s residence on the estate and a place they too have grown inordinately fond of, choosing to spend their honeymoon there in 2005.
For much of the family, there will remain the memory of a previous, grief-stricken time at Balmoral.
It was here, early one August morning in 1997, that the young princes William and Harry, then just 15 and 12 years old, were told that their mother, Princess Diana, had been killed in Paris in a car crash – and it was where their grandparents chose to keep them, out of view and in the face of harsh public opinion, in the days that followed.
But there are many happy memories, too, stretching back through time – ones likely to be at the forefront of the Queen’s mind as she settles into the modest accommodation at Craigowan Lodge with her puppies beside her.
In 1947, following their wedding, the then Princess Elizabeth and her husband Philip travelled to Balmoral for their honeymoon.
Here, for the first time since their wedding, the couple had time alone – or as alone as a Royal couple can possibly be – away from the prying eyes of the court.
During that first trip they stayed at Birkhall and in the ensuing years returned as often as possible to Balmoral, bringing their own young family for carefree holidays in the Scottish sunshine, unaware that the duties of the monarchy would be thrust upon them so soon into their marriage.
When the Queen did ascend the throne, however, there were long, languid summers at Balmoral, as they took over the main castle and the Queen Mother chose to return to Birkhall, where she herself had holidayed with her husband as a young bride.
It is here that the Duke of Edinburgh is said to have really let his hair down. A keen hunter, he was regularly to be found stalking stag or out on the grouse moor, or spending time on one of the estate’s salmon beats.
He was also extremely handy on the barbecue – one he had built himself – often taking control during family picnics to cook sausages and burgers for his children, made from meat he had shot himself.
The Queen would do the washing-up.
The time at Balmoral was for the Royals, and remains, extremely private.
While never truly off duty it was the closest that the Queen and Prince Philip would come to a proper holiday. There would be raucous drink-fuelled evenings and jovial house parties, and quiet days with old-fashioned parlour games by the fire while the rain hammered down outside.
Then there was the famous ghillies’ ball which took place each October, with invites extended to house and estate staff as well as neighbours and friends.
A true ‘upstairs downstairs’ event, it was never complete without Scottish country dancing and one could, if lucky enough to receive an invitation, quite easily find oneself being whirled around the dancefloor by the Prince himself, resplendent in a kilt and smiling.
Balmoral was, for the Royals, extremely private. While never off duty it was the closest the Queen and Prince Philip (pictured at Balmoral in 1972) would come to a proper holiday
A keen landscaper, Philip also took on the extensive job of redesigning the gardens at Balmoral, creating a water garden which he dug out himself with a bulldozer.
There were public occasions, too. The Sunday trips to Crathie Kirk for church services among the locals, and the excitement of the Braemar Gathering on the first Saturday in September, where the Royals would attend en masse to watch the Games unfold, staying cosy under tartan rugs.
That even last summer the couple made the effort to travel to Balmoral for six weeks despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the Prince’s ailing health, demonstrates just how much they remained devoted to the place, even in their twilight years.
It was to be their final visit together.
Last month, the Queen released a picture of herself and Philip ahead of his funeral.
It was not a formal portrait, nor a wedding picture, or even a depiction of one of their many trips abroad over the years.
Instead, she chose the image of the couple carefree and smiling on a picnic blanket on the Coyles of Muick all those years ago, the wind blowing their hair back, resolutely being themselves.
So soon after his death it may have been painful to look at.
But perhaps now, as she returns to the place where it was taken, she will find solace in the steadfastness of the land itself, ever-shifting yet permanent, where the hillsides gleam gold and the memories, bright as the summer’s day they were made, remain.