Sunday, May 28, 2017

Balmoral, Hon!

We could have been Sunday drivers, yeah [click for previous blog post], but we were on a bit of a tight schedule. According to My Amazing In-Laws’ Scotland guidebook, Sunday service at Craithie Kirk started at 11am. Given my cautious driving, however, we didn’t pull into the parking lot until ten minutes after the hour. Happily, the stated time on the posted blue sign was 11:30AM. We had time to scarf a granola bar each and run to the public toilets before walking up the tree-lined drive. At the end were two crowds of people. “The sheep and the goats?” asked DH. There were also police officers, one of whom directed us to queue on the left and warned me that my purse would be searched. “Do you suppose it’s because the Queen is here?” he asked me. I thought not—what would be the odds? I figured it was because of the bombing at  Manchester that places of worship were taking extra precautions.

When the allotted time came our bags were checked, and we filed into the church. It is not ornate but does have some plain if beautiful wooden ceiling panels, a fancy carved wooden rood at the altar, and a stone bust of a young Queen Victoria in a lighted niche. The service was nice, and the preacher good, although we were not impressed by either the organ or the organist. At the end of worship, while we were all standing, the minister came to the front of the chancel and announced, “God save the Queen!” And they all sang the anthem. I had seen it listed in the bulletin and figured it was in recognition of the massacre. It was a very moving display of national patriotism against the background of Scottish discontent about Brexit. Then there was a flurry of motion ahead on the right, in the cross arm of church. I briefly glimpsed a little figure in a bright red dress with a big hat. “Oh shoot!” I exclaimed. She was there after all! By the time we had filed out of church again, two official-looking SUVs with tinted windows were driving away.

DH had noticed some “open on bank holiday Monday” signs while out and about in Aberdeen, but we weren’t sure which Monday they meant. The UK observes Remembrance Day on November 11 not the last Monday in May as in the US. However, it turns out that the UK does have a “May Holiday” the last Monday of May. Thankfully none of our planned excursions was closed—which would be odd, because many Scots were traveling for the three-day weekend, including Her Majesty. That explained the queuing and the searching. Unfortunately, because of the precautions, I did not feel comfortable taking any pictures at the church, even with my camera (cell phones had to be off for worship). 

At this point we were ready for some lunch. Next on the agenda: walk over the River Dee (above) to Balmoral Castle. How kind of the Queen to invite us over after the service! We picked up our audio tour, ate large lunches at the café, and then proceeded to tour the estate. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had rented and then purchase the estate in the late 1840s. (The previous owner, a British diplomat to Vienna, had choked on a fish bone and expired.) Albert in particular had taken the lead on designing a newer, larger castle with a better view of the valley. Actually, Albert seems to have taken the lead in everything the couple did, which is why his death in 1861 was so devastating for Victoria. She spent large amounts of time there as a widow, and it is where her (in)famous servant John Brown entered her service. (I wrote a whole separate post on death and Victorian mourning, which you can read here.)

One of several large wooden Corgi dogs, DH and an
example of "Balmoral tweed," and some bagpiping kit.

Balmoral is a “working estate” whose income comes not just from tourism but also deer culling. Victoria bought a strand of trees to save it from being cut for timber, but the woods around are continually maintained, so they may make some money from selling trees that have to be removed. There is also cattle herding and a tenant farmer. The garden produces most of what the kitchen needs for when the Royal Family comes for summer holiday in August. They strive to be organic and sustainable--for instance, not using (non-renewable) peat for fertilizer. The gardeners have to contend with a short growing season, but it does help that the summer days are extra long.

Because the castle is inhabited, only one room is open to the public, the ballroom, which actually isn’t all that large. There’s an exhibit there about royal residences. We made the excellent decision to walk back to the car park by way of the River Dee, with its rapids roaring off to our left as we strolled. Loathe to give up the fresh air and sunshine, which had warmed up after a chilly spot in the early afternoon, we took a quick spin along the other bank of the river, before getting back in the car and heading north. We stopped for dinner in Tomintoul (pronounced “tom-in-towel”), the highest town in Scotland. Unfortunately, the Clock House Restaurant was all booked up for the holiday weekend, and the Richmond Hotel restaurant across the street was closed for a private function. So we settled on the hotel bar, which was not smoky, served us hot food all the same, and let me enjoy a glass of whiskey while we waited. Then we continued on to our AirBnB, no thanks to the flipping GPS system, and finally settled in for a quiet Sunday evening.

Flowers in the greenhouse.

The intrepid explorers before the the sunken garden.

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