As King Charles enjoys the Braemar Gathering, a quiet revolution is unfolding at Balmoral with plans underway for a new gallery and visitor centre at the historic but modest Scottish royal home
The last time someone tried to modernise Balmoral, it didn’t end well.
When Edward VIII visited with Wallis Simpson during his brief reign, the couple introduced film nights (fortified with triple-decker sandwiches) with friends rather than following protocol and inviting important dignitaries.
Such breaking of conventions caused widespread consternation.
With this memory in mind, there was trepidation among the estate’s ghillies (the Gaelic word for groundskeepers) that King Charles might want to shake things up.
Would he be happy to stay overnight in the draughty castle with its ancient plumbing and clanking pipes? Or would he retreat to the comfort of his long-time bolthole in nearby Birkhall?
How would Camilla fare as the new chatelaine? She is known to hate Balmoral’s flummery and stuffiness – and is assumed to prefer watching TV at home in Wiltshire with a glass of wine rather than doing a Highland Fling.
To some long-standing Balmoral aides, the prospect of Charles taking over was unsettling, especially with news of staff cuts swirling.
A source said: ‘There was a lot of concern about what the first royal summer without the late Queen would look like – whether His Majesty would end the Ghillies’ Balls and how long he would stay up here. Some were saying the King would opt for a “Balmoral-lite” break.’
Certainly, there is change afoot.
Having modernised Sandringham – including transforming his late father’s farm on the Norfolk estate into an organic enterprise – Charles is now working on Balmoral.
His charitable foundation has ploughed money into the area, with a new gallery and visitor centre at the historic but modest site of the Braemar Gathering highland games, which the King and Queen attended yesterday.
Using the same tasteful shade of green chosen for the interiors at Dumfries House, which Charles restored, the new building has brought a touch of professionalism to the traditional caber-tossing and hammer-throwing.
The 500 inhabitants of Braemar, the nearest town to Balmoral, often see the King walking around and stopping for a chat.
His attention to detail extends even to the colour of paint used on Braemar Castle. As for Balmoral itself, there will be fewer staff over the coming years – but those who remain are expected to see their pay rise. King Charles has made it clear that he prefers fewer staff on better salaries to an army of poorly paid servants.
The biggest fear is that with the changing of the royal guard, the importance of the family’s annual summer break in Scotland might be diluted.
But the King will, indeed, host a ball this week – though there is likely to be just one rather than the traditional two held by his mother.
Also, Charles will continue his late mother’s habit of staying in Scotland until mid-October – albeit with a short break to make his postponed visit to France.
Not only is the King honouring his mother’s summer tradition, he is investing more time and energy into the area.
He has taken an interest in the renovation of Braemar Castle, with his primary concern about the Lottery-funded project being the colour of the walls.
Simon Blackett, of Yellow Welly Tours, said: ‘The King wanted to know what colour we were going to paint Braemar Castle.
‘When I said white, he wasn’t sure how bright the white would be. But I assured him that it would be an off-white.’
The King also offered the services of an architect from his foundation to help on the project.
Elsewhere, much sprucing up is under way.
Described by locals as ‘the most famous village in the world’, Braemar is increasingly living up to its name. Rich tourists are being lured to experience the Highlands and enjoy fine dining.
The Swiss owners of the Fife Arms have transformed a once-run-down hotel into a five-star destination with artworks by Picasso and an original drawing by Queen Victoria.
Queen Camilla has also helped to boost the area’s profile. Last year she created a new literary festival at Braemar and the annual event will be repeated later this month with lectures by best-selling authors and champagne receptions.
Though not overly fond of Balmoral, palace sources say that the Queen recognises the importance of staying there overnight.
However, she does return every so often to her private study at Birkhall to see to her correspondence and enjoy a good book.
For the King and Queen are said to be conscious that they must preserve tradition.
When it comes to official guests, Charles will ensure a vital sense of continuity.
He has honoured his late mother’s guest list, inviting Lady Susan Hussey, her former lady-in-waiting.
Meanwhile, there are signs within the family that the King has used the summer to set family matters in order.
Putting his brother Andrew in the car with Prince William on the way to church last weekend was a clear signal to the world that the Royal Family is still just that – a family.
A source said: ‘The King is modernising Balmoral but he’s not ripping up the rulebook. In some ways he is taking it back to the true tradition of the royal summer break.
‘He has invited official guests, and Prince Andrew is there in a private family capacity.
‘It does not mean that he will ever return to public life but Charles is keeping his family close and is keen to separate the public and private elements of how the family is run.’
That said, The Mail on Sunday understands that no invitation was extended to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and palace sources say there is no separate plan for Charles to see his younger son when Harry visits Britain next week.
One source said: ‘As far as I’m aware the lines of communication – even between the Palace staff and Harry’s team – are almost completely frayed and have been for months.’
The secluded Scottish location has allowed important family talks about the future of the family to take place – meetings dubbed the ‘Balmoral Summit’ by some royal watchers.
One issue being discussed is how the late Queen might be remembered, with the task of deciding how best to commemorate her being overseen by Lord Janvrin, her former Private Secretary.
He will chair the Queen Elizabeth Memorial Committee which will consider and recommend proposals for both a permanent memorial, and a ‘national legacy programme’ akin to the late Prince Philip’s hugely successful Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.
The aim will be to devise something distinct from the parks, gardens and transport links that have already been named in the Queen’s honour.
Lord Janvrin said: ‘It will be a unique challenge to try to capture for future generations Her Late Majesty’s extraordinary contribution to our national life throughout her very long reign.’
Of course, for years, Balmoral is no stranger to changing family dynamics. First bought by Queen Victoria, it has been a treasured spot for the Royal Family.
There, the late Queen could enjoy ‘normal’ life – hiking with her cousin Margaret Rhodes and having lunch at her log cabin in Glen Beg.
Since his mother died at Balmoral (the first monarch to do so), the estate has a new poignancy for the King. It seems right and symbolic that the quiet revolution at Balmoral is the first clear sign of how the reign of Charles III will work.
The King’s family will be kept close, but kept in check. Loyal staff will be retained, but the flummery will be cut back.
And for traditionalists, protocols will be maintained.
Up in Aberdeenshire, there is a renewed sense of excitement – and more than a little relief.
For after a period of great sadness and fears of change, there will be dancing again.