The high-pitched piping of oystercatchers swooping downstream over the River Dee was my morning alarm. Unlike many other forays into what’s undoubtedly my favourite part of the world, this was to be a sojourn into Royal Deeside with a difference. In years past, I had spent much time in these hills in sun, wind, cold and often wet conditions. Today, I had returned to this wild (and rather snowy) landscape for an intrepid exploration for wildlife on the Balmoral Estate.
There were two very good reasons why I wanted to go on a Land Rover safari. One, my passion for the unique wildlife of the Aberdeenshire and Cairngorm montane areas and, two, as I now sport a wheelchair and find mountain climbing a tad challenging, hopping into a Land Rover to traverse the 50,000 acre estate was definitely appealing. Added to this, the grounds of the castle offer glorious meanders on perfectly smooth pathways to experience what the Royal Family savour as their private Highland retreat every year.
Balmoral has been a special part of Royal Family life since Queen Victoria purchased it in 1848. Writing in her personal journals, she described Balmoral as “My dear paradise in the Highlands”. Passing through the majestic metal gates, you enter a real working Highland estate. The impeccable gardens and grounds are sensitively maintained by a loyal Balmoral community.
Head ranger, Glyn Jones, a man with a wealth of experience of wildlife and conservation, was to be my driver. But, even across 50,000 acres of estate, wildlife can be elusive, as Glyn was quick to point out. “From our last deer count,” he said, “We have some 2,200 on the estate and 150 can usually be seen around the lower lying areas. But there’s no guarantee that we’ll see them.”
Piling into the Land Rover, we headed off, soon passing the Balmoral fold (herd) of Highland cattle. These beasts may look wild, but they’ve a very calm nature and are always a great attraction. “On one safari last year,” said Glyn, “we witnessed the birth of a calf – perfect timing.” We drove past the field of Highland garrons, or ponies, which are still working beasts today. “In the stalking season, these affable ponies bring the deer off the hill before the carcasses are brought to the deer-larder.”
Into the forest
On we drove through the dramatic remnants of the ancient Caledonian Forest. The tracks at this level were smooth enough for a wheelchair, but on passing the Garbh Allt Falls, they started to reflect the wild surroundings – heading in the direction of Lochnagar. It’s little wonder that Prince Charles was so inspired to write his children’s book, The Old Man of Lochnagar – all your senses are teased and stimulated in these hills.
Having just bought a new pair of binoculars, I was determined to capture some memorable images. I was not disappointed. I heard the call of red grouse and saw them fly across the hill. Glyn has one of those jobs that all countryside lovers would revel in. “Black grouse, red deer, capercaillie, pine martin, Scottish crossbill – they’re all regular sightings,” he said. “And it’s a great joy to share the experience with those on the safaris. It’s just a shame we haven’t seen deer today.”
The comfort of the Land Rover was a distinct pleasure, but if you open the windows and get the wind on your face, the Balmoral experience becomes unsurpassable. With new generations of the Royal Family continuing to enjoy Queen Victoria’s legacy, the estate is in safe hands and the wildlife is guaranteed its freedom to roam – if not always being seen!
How to get there
From the south, take A93 from Perth, over Glen Shee, past Braemar, on to Crathie, turn right on B976, following signs for Balmoral. From Aberdeen, travel west along A93 to Crathie.
Find out more
Land Rover Safari
Ballater AB35 5TB
Balmoral Castle tearoom
Enjoy local produce, from haggis, neeps and tatties, to venison burgers.
Glen Lui Hotel
Invercauld Road, Ballater
Crathie Opportunity Holidays
For disabled visitors, I’d recommend these self-catering cottages, that are just three minutes drive from Balmoral. There are four wheelchair accessible holiday lets.