The Balmoral estate has been passed down the generations and has gradually expanded to more than 260 square kilometres (65,000 acres). Today it is a working estate, employing 50 full time staff and 50 to 100 part time.
The Balmoral Estate began as a home built by Sir William Drummond in 1390. The estate was formerly owned by King Robert II (1316–1390), who had a hunting lodge in the area. After Drummond, the estate was sold to Alexander Gordon, the 3rd Earl of Huntly, in the 15th century. The estate remained in the family's hands until it was sold in 1662 to the Farquharsons of Invery, who sold the estate in 1798 to the 2nd Earl of Fife. The estate formed part of the coronation activities of King George IV in 1822.
Balmoral is today best known as a royal residence, the summer retreat of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. Its history as a royal residence dates back to 1848, when the house was rented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by the trustees of Sir Robert Gordon (who had obtained a long-term lease of the castle in 1830 and died in 1847). They very much enjoyed their stay in the house, and they paid just over £30,000 for full ownership in 1852. Prince Albert immediately started making plans with William Smith to extend the existing 15th century castle, and make a "new" and bigger castle fit for the royal family. The new building Prince Albert ordered to be built within a hundred yards of the old castle was planned and designed partly by himself and completed in 1856.
The foundation stone for Balmoral Castle was laid by Queen Victoria on 28th September 1853 and can be found at the foot of the wall, adjacent to the West face of the entrance porch. Before the foundation stone was placed in position Queen Victoria signed a parchment recording the date. This parchment, together with an example of each of the current coins of the realm, were placed in a bottle, which was inserted into a cavity below the site prepared for the stone.
Along with Sandringham House, Balmoral is the private property of the British royal family and not part of the royal estate. Their succession became an issue in 1936, when Edward VIII abdicated as king. The estates were legacies Edward had inherited from his father, George V, and did not automatically pass to his younger brother George VI on abdication. George had to explicitly purchase Balmoral and Sandringham from Edward so that they could remain private retreats for the monarch's family.
One of the estate's most ecologically important areas is the roughly 1,000 hectare (2,500 acre) Ballochbuie Forest. Bought in 1878 by Queen Victoria to save it from a timber merchant, Ballochbuie now contains one of the largest remnants of native Caledonian Pine forest left in the country.
Thirty years ago, a small area of the forest known as 'the tennis court' was enclosed in a regeneration trial suggested by the Duke of Edinburgh. In 1979, when the success of the experiment was clear, a further block of about 20 hectares (50 acres) was enclosed. This in turn showed such encouraging signs of regeneration that the enclosed area was expanded to about 300 hectares (750 acres) in 1992. The enclosed area is thoroughly monitored by the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology (ITE).
In addition to Ballochbuie, a further 2,000 hectares of the estate (nearly 5,000 acres) are planted with trees, which also provide shelter for Red Deer. More than 20 Highland, Fell and Haflinger ponies are kept for trekking and deer retrieval during the stalking season.
The Queen founded the Balmoral fold of Highland Cattle in 1953 and it now has 29 cows.
The Balmoral Estate also contributes to the local tourism industry. About 4,000 people are employed in the tourist industry on Deeside and the surrounding area and Balmoral is one of the major attractions for visitors.
Some 85,000 people visit the castle and gardens each year, and many others walk amidst the spectacular scenery which forms part of the estate.
In 1974 the estate designated the area around Loch Muick and Lochnagar as a wildlife reserve under the management of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, and built and equipped a visitors' centre to host the increasing numbers of people coming to enjoy the natural beauty of the area.
The East Grampians and Lochnagar Visitor Survey, carried out for Scottish National Heritage by Aberdeen University in 1995, showed that up to 180,000 hill walkers and other visitors use the open countryside and hills on and adjoining Balmoral Estate each year.
The estate maintains and restores eroded footpaths with grant assistance from Scottish National Heritage. Around £250,000 has been invested in footpath repairs over the last seven years. The estate also supports Scotland's concordat on access and freedom of access for responsible walking and climbing.
A full-time ranger service has been provided for nearly 30 years and the four rangers conduct public walks during the summer to sites of interest on the estate. Rangers also guided visitors on special routes during the 1998 and 1999 Ballater Walking Weeks.
The estate maintains climbing bothies for use by a wide range of clubs and associations. Mountain rescue teams also train regularly on the estate, and in April 1998 and 1999 road running races for international athletes were held on estate roads. World record times were set each year.
More than 40,000 vehicles a year use the single-track access road which leads to the visitors' centre at the Spittal of Muick. Public access must therefore be balanced against protection of the environment, particularly the habitats for which the estate is well known (for instance an area of Lochnagar is the second most important Dotterel breeding ground in the United Kingdom).
To this end, in September 1996 the consultancy firm Environmental Resources Management (ERM) was engaged by the Lochnagar Adviser Committee - an oversight body formed by Balmoral Estate and comprising representatives of government bodies, the local community and recreational interests to address current and future visitor management issues - to undertake a visitor strategy for the Glen Muick, Lochnagar and Ballater area.
The Upper Deeside Access Trust was subsequently established to implement the visitor strategy. The trust assists with the conservation, management and upkeep of the countryside and footpaths in the whole of Upper Deeside.
The designation in 1998 by the Secretary of State for Scotland of the areas of Lochnagar and Ballochbuie as 'Special Protection Areas' under the European Birds Directive, and his recommendation to the European Union that Ballochbuie should be designated a 'Special Area of Conservation' under the European Habitats Directive, are testimony to the Royal family's excellent long-term conservation and environmental husbandry record.
The estate is also a founder member of the East Grampian Deer Management Group and has taken a lead in establishing a deer population model, which is at the forefront of the Deer Management Commission for Scotland's programme to manage the deer population and restore heather habitat.
About 3,300 red deer were counted on the estate in spring 1998. The intention is to maintain a population of about 2,700. In May 1999, only 1,650 red deer were counted, illustrating the difficulties of managing such a mobile population.
In 1997 the estate made a provisional application to the Forestry Authority to plant about 200 hectares (500 acres) of new woodland (rowan, birch, willow, scrub oak and Scots Pine) on an area of open heath hillside at Glen Gelder.
This is currently the subject of an environmental impact assessment by the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology. The extension of native woodland is a government policy and the application has been made for environmental, not commercial, reasons. The annual expenditure of the estate amounting to over 3 million is completely spent locally. There has been some speculation that Balmoral Castle may have been earmarked as a royal refuge in the event of nuclear war. In the 1960s, war plans apparently envisaged evacuating the Sovereign to the Royal Yacht Britannia, but this might not have been practical, and a land-based refuge would have been desirable. It would appear that, contrary to persistent rumour, there were no plans for the Sovereign to join the Prime Minister at the Corsham bunker complex known variously as Hawthorn, Subterfuge, Site 3, Burlington, or Turnstile. Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle would both have been too vulnerable, the former as being in the heart of London — a major target in its own right — and Windsor because of its proximity to Heathrow Airport.