It’s a sunny September morning in Aberdeenshire, Scotland—one for the history books, but not just because the sun’s out—and my guide Gary Flynn treads confidently onto the Royal family’s Balmoral estate like he belongs there. I certainly do not belong, or so I thought until this moment. Thanks to Scotland’s “right to roam” law, walking trails skirting—and crossing—the boundary of this 50,000-acre property are open to the public. No imposing walls, no “keep out” signs: just a few reminders that the British royals have frolicked here for centuries. To wit: We’ve happened upon a waterfall and brisk swimming hole (only my hand takes a dip) beneath a cast-iron “Bridge to Nowhere,” built in 1878 for Queen Victoria to admire Garbh Allt Falls. It’s good to be queen.
Along our six-mile hike—an invigorating 14,000 steps over Highlands hill and dale—we experience the picturesque reasons the royal family sought refuge here from city life. Queen Victoria was an early admirer of this stretch of Deeside, so named because it follows the River Dee from Aberdeen in the east to Ballater, where we are now. Drawn to the ancient Caledonian forests, rich elk hunting, and salmon-filled streams within what is now Cairngorms National Park—the U.K.’s largest national park—Prince Albert bought Queen Vic the Balmoral estate in 1852 and established one of the modern royal family’s favorite escapes.
It’s quickly becoming one of my favorite escapes, too. I would happily get lost in this ancient Ballochbuie forest, where the pine trees aren’t quite as old as the monarchy, yet still regal unto themselves. Some are 400 years young, some 75 feet tall. One is so dogged, it’s twisted and bent in half, like a dancer in a backbend. A bed of thistle and heather could break its fall should it ever grow weary of dipping.
Flynn and I amble up and down through the gently sloping woods, swapping life stories while stooping to examine toadstools—some as perky and red-capped as in a Smurf cartoon—and pinch the mossy carpet, aka nature’s sponge. September is bramble (blackberry)-picking time, and October is red-deer rutting season, though it appears we’re in shoulder season, not seeing much of either. The heather, however, grows knee high in these parts, adding hints of lavender to the autumnal shades across the Cairngorm mountain range. Our elevation tops out around 1,000 feet around Balmoral, but a two-day hike west would lead us to Ben Nevis, the highest point in the U.K.. At 4,413 feet, it serves as a final punctuation to the West Highland Way, Scotland’s most famous trail.
After 30 years as a ghillie—a Gaelic term for a guide to hunting, fishing, and hiking—Flynn is getting ready to scale back. He’s about to turn 60, he says, and his employer was recently laid to rest. Flynn served as the royal family’s personal ghillie for the last 15 years; he took the late Queen Elizabeth II, who famously loved this part of Scotland, out walking and stalking often over the years. Now, he tries to book three hikes a week, rarely repeating a route or trail if he can manage, rather than the near-daily pace he used to keep.
We pause for lunch at Honka Hut, or the Queen’s Picnic Hut, which was a gift to HRM and Prince Philip from Finland for the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary—just a simple log cabin with a sitting room, kitchen, bathroom, and a now-infamous porch bench set on a pond. Inside is a long wooden table that could seat the entire immediate family, and a couch for lounging (and a corgi pillow). Flynn is happy to talk about his experiences in such rarefied company, though jokingly says, “You won’t hear anything that you can’t find out with a quick Google.” In summers, the royal family would go fly fishing for salmon or trout on the Dee river, or stalk red deer and grouse among the moorlands and forest of Ballochbuie. The Queen was “just lovely”; Harry (“we called him H”) was always good for a laugh; and Princess Anne was Flynn’s favorite (“just hard-working and down to earth”).
Nowadays, Flynn works as a ghillie for hire, partnering with three area hotels—including The Fife Arms, which arranged my walk—to take visitors and locals alike into the national park. His skills are in demand (though we only see two other souls on our entire walk.) It’s often said that Scotland is underpopulated, under-served. It has the second-biggest land mass of the United Kingdom but only 5.5 million people, with 3 million of them in the “Central Belt”: Glasgow, Edinburgh, and the towns in between. By comparison, England is 1.66 times bigger with a population of 67 million—12 times the number of residents.
That means a lot of Scotland feels untouched. If not untouched—because look, there’s a farmhouse on that hill over there!—then home to some of the greatest stretches of wilderness in the U.K. There’s an ongoing debate over whether all these heathered hills, glens, and moorlands should be private (run as estates) or public. National parks are a relatively new concept in Scotland, only established in 1999 courtesy of the Scottish Parliament, and as such, there are only two: Loch Lomond (whose “bonnie banks” have been immortalized in song) and the Trossachs National Park was established in 2002 north of Glasgow, and in 2003 Cairngorms National Park was created in the Highlands.
Scotland’s “right to roam” permits access to most grounds across the country, save for pitching a tent in someone’s front yard or trying to get too close to the windows at the royal family’s castle. Good, polite behavior is rewarded—though navigating this seemingly endless bounty of beautiful terrain was much more rewarding with Flynn at my side. Otherwise, I might have missed all the detail right in front of me—the osprey nest high up in the tree, or the subtle stone “B” sign marking the edge of Balmoral estate. Or perhaps I would have lost my way on a Bridge to Nowhere.
Scottish glossary: Loch = lake; glen = valley; ben = mountain.