My pilgrimage to an unlikely royal pyramid – hidden in the Aberdeen countryside

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Janice Hopper
·4 min read
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Janice with the Albert Cairn - Janice Hopper
Janice with the Albert Cairn - Janice Hopper

The Royal Family doesn't usually wear its heart on its sleeve, but venture to Royal Deeside in Scotland, the corner of the UK where they shrug off the responsibility and weight of the crown, and you’ll discover notably loving commemorations that reveal the lives, loves and losses of monarchs, consorts, princes and princesses.

One cold crisp morning I set off to research the Balmoral Cairns, a series of monuments erected by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert within their ‘dear paradise in the Highlands’. The most famous of which is the Prince Albert Cairn, a striking granite pyramid commemorating the prince after his death of 1861. Measuring 41x41 feet at its base, this grand pyramid is a curiosity you’d never expect to stumble upon in rural Aberdeenshire.

Setting off on this six mile hike I kept my camera, notepad and directions close by. Whilst accessible to the public, these cairns are tucked away on discreet hillsides and unsignposted woodland paths, so visitors need to know what they’re looking for and follow a clear route.

balmoral estate
balmoral estate

Having passed Crathie Kirk where Queen Victoria’s loyal servant John Brown is buried, navigated a shaky suspension bridge over a fast flowing river, and followed various paths through the trees, the first granite cairns I hit upon honoured the marriages of two of Queen Victoria’s daughters: Princess Helena to Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein in 1866; and the betrothal of Princess Louise to the Marquis of Lorne in 1871. So far so interesting, but the third monument packed more of a punch.

The Purchase Cairn commemorates the moment Victoria and Albert bought Balmoral estate, and as I drank in the stunning views over the Deeside countryside I could understand how they fell so quickly and deeply for this wild landscape. Whilst the Royals were no giddy couple saving up for a deposit on their first home, Balmoral was a personal passion project. They didn’t merely inherit it but actively bought the estate privately and rebuilt the castle to suit their own desires and wishes. Here, in a place they’d discovered and created for themselves, they threw off the shackles and pomp of royalty and were simply a couple in love, picnicking, hiking, pony-trekking, hunting, painting and relaxing with their children.

view from purchase cairn - Janice Hopper
view from purchase cairn - Janice Hopper

The Queen and Prince Philip are said to have felt the same strong link, joy and sense of freedom in Aberdeenshire, happily swapping diamonds, medals and tiaras for wellingtons, headscarves and kilts. They chose to spend time here, a lot of time, holidaying every August at Balmoral, being in each other’s company, often joined by family and friends, and occasionally putting Prime Minsters through their paces on country pursuits. Not to mention Prince Philip’s skill and enthusiasm when it came to manning the family barbecue.

Naturally I was mulling over the Royal’s connection with Deeside as I approached Prince Leopold’s cairn, which occupies a prime position overlooking Balmoral Castle itself. As I took a breather and inhaled the biting country air I spotted the flag flying at half-mast over the castle spires. At first I didn’t fully register what it meant. With limited mobile reception it took several minutes to confirm the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh. Undoubtedly it made a far greater impression, standing in the landscape that made the Prince Philip and the Queen so happy, researching their family tree, and enjoying the scenery that they had shaped together and savoured over the years.

Balmoral Castle - Getty
Balmoral Castle - Getty

As I approached Prince Albert’s cairn it was painfully apparent that this bold pyramid was built by one monarch to lament the loss of the love of her life. The poignancy and emotion of this tribute was heightened by the loss inevitably felt by our current Queen, echoed through the centuries back to Queen Victoria. In this intimate and wild setting it was instinctive to feel the loss of a husband and father first and foremost.

This strong pyramid is an unusual, powerful and proud commemoration of love, enhanced with a simple but emotive engraving, “To the beloved memory of Albert the great and good Prince Consort. Erected by his broken-hearted widow Victoria R. 21st August 1862.’ Reading the words ‘broken-hearted’ naturally stripped away formality, revealing powerful monarchs as people coping with bereavement in their own way.

Balmoral ultimately provided a retreat and a safe space for Queen Victoria in her grief. After the countless memories the Queen and Prince Philip created in Deeside, perhaps a cairn for her 'strength and stay' may be a possibility, when the time is right.

Essentials

Much of the walk outlined above is only advisable when the Royal Family is not in residence. For updates and further information visit balmoralcastle.com.

For clear route directions visit WalkHighlands - walkhighlands.co.uk/cairngorms/balmoral-cairns.shtml