She’s a Californian used to sunshine and luxury beachside holidays.
So Scotland in August could be a shock.
And, to add to the pressure on Meghan Markle, there’s the risk of making a vacation faux pas when she is whisked to the queen’s stunning, 50,000 acre Highland holiday estate, Balmoral, later this month by her new husband.
A trip to Balmoral, to where the queen retreats with her retinue for July and August, is a key part of the traditional new royal wife initiation ceremony, also endured by Kate (pass), Diana (fail) and Sarah Ferguson (double fail, but, with a raft of recent invites, a solid recovery).
Royal holidays at Balmoral have been memorable for good and bad. The British public are used to the annual sighting of the Royals at the ‘Braemar Gathering’ Highland Games.
More haunting: the images of Charles, William, and Harry emerging from Balmoral after the death of Diana, a moment of royal history brilliantly dramatized in the movie The Queen, featuring Helen Mirren as a steely HRH holed up with the rest of the family in Balmoral as the family and country absorb the seismic reverberations of Diana’s death. Who can forget Mirren’s memorable encounter with a stag in that film?
Days at Balmoral start with the queen’s Piper, Scott Methven of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, bedecked in full Royal Stewart tartan regalia standing beneath the queen’s window and playing the bagpipes, selecting his daily tune from a list of the monarch’s favorites.
The bagpipe custom dates from the time of Queen Victoria, who was an eternal fan of all things Scottish, and believed that every monarch should start her day to the sound of a piper.
The custom has been partially abandoned in London and Windsor now, but in Scotland, Victoria’s most beloved retreat, it lives on and is religiously observed.
Harry will no doubt let Meghan know that it is bad form to come downstairs before the piper starts playing at 8:00am unless you have sporting plans, such as angling for trout in the River Dee or stalking red deer (both activities risking the ever-present attention of voracious Scottish midges). Both necessitate an early start, but tea and toast can be sent to your room anytime after 7am.
Other than bloodsports, the only acceptable excuse to skip breakfast is in order to make the long trek back to London: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher hated being ‘invited’ to Balmoral and such was her eagerness to get away that she would leave before breakfast on her final day. Pleading exhaustion following sunrise yoga won’t cut it.
The queen herself appears at about 8:30, and breakfast – think kippers and porridge not smoothies and smashed avocado – is swept away by 9:30.
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It is best to avoid, if at all possible, being on the front pages of the newspaper when staying at Balmoral, as another royal wife, Fergie, found out: she was holidaying at Balmoral when the Sun published pictures of her having her toes sucked on the French Riviera by her American financial adviser.
Fergie recalled that, over breakfast at Balmoral the day the story hit the newsstands, the queen and her guests sat “eyes wide and mouths ajar.”
After breakfast, assuming there have been no front page royal exposés, the queen disappears to her office to keep up with her paperwork, and won’t usually be seen until the guests gather in the hall around noon to try on wellies and head off for a bracing walk and picnic.
The post-breakfast pre-lunch window is one of the few moments where guests at Balmoral can avoid being judged if they choose to return to their rooms for a spot of chilling, but Meghan is strongly advised to be present and correct for the lunch mission to avoid recalling unfortunate parallels with Princess Diana.
“So there we’d all be waiting in the hall,” a guest told Lacey, “making polite conversation – and no Diana. A footman would come back looking embarrassed, ‘Sorry ma’am, the Princess of Wales will not be joining the party for lunch.’ Elizabeth would go very silent. Friends saw the danger signs – the pursed lips, the extra quick blink of the eye. Staying in your room at lunchtime was something you only did if you were ill or rather odd.”
Meghan should remain poker faced if Her Majesty takes the wheel of her Land Rover for the lunchtime outing.
A trained mechanic who worked in the motor pool during World War II, the queen still enjoys taking a spin across the Highlands. In the words of her late cousin Margaret Rhodes, she usually drives “like a bat out of hell.” HM is the only person in Britain who does not require a driving license.
In the back of the car, expect to find the queen’s two surviving corgis—her dogs are an integral part of royal holidays, and are flown up to Balmoral every year. In 2016, they were photographed arriving at Aberdeen airport, and being carried down the steps of her private jet by a footman.
Multiple ponies and horses are also boxed north for the summer, as is the queen’s entire kennel of gundogs, temporarily relocating from their home at Sandringham. Staff are also relocated from Buckingham Palace, and housed in the Iron Huts, which were first built to accommodate the retinue of the last Czar of Russia when he visited in 1906.
Lunch is usually a picnic, and involves meeting up by a river or on a mountain with one of the sporting parties. Cold roast chicken and a gin and tonic are the order of the day.
The ultimate mark of respect and inclusion will be if the queen invites Meghan to a barbecue at Craigowan, a fishing lodge in the heart of the estate much beloved of her and Prince Philip, where her husband is famous for preparing extravagant barbecues. A question mark hangs over his participation this year as he struggles with old age.
The barbies often feature a singalong with guests being handed out song sheets with lyrics printed; number 38, according to Lacey, is ‘Cockles and Mussels’, while no 40 is ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner.’ All guests—especially those who went to stage school—are expected to join in.
But showing off is not cool.
The queen takes great pleasure in playing at domesticity at Craigowan: Tony Blair, recalling one of his “intriguing, surreal, and utterly freaky” weekends with the Royal Family at Balmoral remarked that after eating, “The queen asks if you’ve finished, she stacks the plates up and goes off to the sink.”
Another tip from the Blair years: don’t yawn if attending the Braemar Highland Games as Cherie Blair did which “showed a total lack of respect,” according to a friend of Her Majesty quoted by the Daily Telegraph.
Scottish traditions are taken seriously at Balmoral. If offered Scottish dancing lessons, for example, Meghan should accept, as it may be a precursor to an invite to the highlight of the season, the Ghillie’s Ball.
Meghan could also take tips from Kate Middleton, who threw herself into the outdoor pursuits so beloved of the Windsors at Balmoral—which Diana hated—and won the queen’s approval as a result.
Another tip Kate might pass on: don’t sit in Queen Victoria’s chair. This is a chair at the dinner table which has been kept vacant since the monarch’s death.
The writer Christopher Andersen in his book Game of Crowns wrote: “During pre-dinner drinks, Kate had begun to lower herself into the chair when William, Charles, and the other guests yelled for her to stop. ‘Every new person goes for it,’ said Jean Carnarvon, whose husband, the seventh Earl of Carnarvon, owned Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame, ‘and everyone screams.’”
Dinner itself is not a lavish affair; kicking off at 830pm, it is all done and dusted by 10pm—allowing for almost Californian early nights all round.