Royal approval is seldom as effusive as Queen Victoria’s appreciation for Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands, a place she called her “dear Paradise”. So it should be no surprise that property valuations in surrounding districts, an area of the Cairngorm Mountains known as Royal Deeside, have benefited from a royal association that Victoria’s descendants have perpetuated since her death in 1901.
“There is a cachet to Royal Deeside,” says Rod Christie of property company CKD Galbraith. Victoria’s connection to the area prompted a flurry of development in villages such as Braemar to the west along the course of the river Dee and Ballater to the east – settlements with a legacy of sturdy Victorian homes and public buildings.
According to Savills, the average Royal Deeside property price of £270,000 is considerably above the Scottish average of £157,500. In the year up to March 2014, sales worth more than £400,000 reached their highest level yet, although the limited number of properties in the £1m-plus bracket means that hopeful buyers will probably have to wait for the chance, Savills says.
That is particularly true for buyers hoping to take on an estate that also offers hunting and fishing. “Opportunities will not come up all that regularly – and there will be considerable interest from the market when they do,” Christie says.
Ruaraidh Ogilvie of Savills says that the scenery remains a primary draw to the area, as it was for Queen Victoria, who travelled widely in Scotland before settling in Balmoral. Victoria said the landscape was among the most beautiful she had ever seen, calling it “wild and solitary, and yet cheerful and beautifully wooded”. Ogilvie notes other points of appeal. For all its wild prospects, Deeside is more accessible than many other parts of the Highlands. The branch line to Ballater that used to bring Victoria’s royal train, packed with ladies in waiting, servants and assorted hangers-on, has long since closed. Yet the centre of Aberdeen is a 90-minute drive from Balmoral and half that from the eastern Deeside village of Banchory.
In the other direction is Glenshee, the largest ski resort in the UK. “You can be skiing at Glenshee and yet be taking your kids to a concert in Aberdeen in the evening,” Ogilvie says.
As well as hunting and fishing, there are fine hills to be climbed and there are as many castles per sq mile as anywhere in Scotland. Added to that, a whisky distillery just around the corner from Balmoral has enjoyed a royal warrant since 1848.
Of course, the Highlands are not everyone’s idea of paradise. Even Queen Victoria was tormented by midges, the biting insects that can, at times, make being outside unbearable.
The weather can also be challenging. It is often wet and chilly, even in summer, and it can be an expensive and difficult task to heat traditional stone properties, even when they are smaller than Balmoral.
Victoria was apparently inured to the chill, but her Highland sojourns were often less popular with her entourage and some distinguished visitors. Lord Clarendon, a British foreign secretary, complained that Balmoral was so cold that his toes were frostbitten at the dinner table. Tsar Nicholas II, who visited in 1896, reportedly commented that Balmoral was colder than the Siberian wastes.
More contemporary downsides include the large number of properties used as second homes or holiday lets, which means the population of local villages plummets out of season. There is also a relative preponderance of older residents since young people tend to move away. “For the young people of the villages, property is probably not affordable – but then there’s no work for them here either,” says one Braemar resident.
Lesley Davidson, solicitor at Fraser and Mulligan in Ballater village, says many people choose to retire to the area and that the recovery in property prices seems to be driven by the UK’s general economic recovery with added help from the oil boom in Aberdeen.
In Royal Deeside, prices start below £100,000 for an estate cottage in need of renovation and run to more than £500,000 for handsome manses or modern villas. Offers begin at £900,000 through Strutt & Parker for Greystones, a grand late-Victorian house built of local granite with six bedrooms. As well as 1.4 acres of land, the property includes a croquet lawn, woodland and vegetable patch.
It will be more difficult to buy any of the area’s more extravagant properties – or indeed to acquire the land and planning permissions needed to emulate Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in constructing your own Caledonian fantasy. Most of Royal Deeside lies within the Cairngorms National Park and is subject to strict rules on development.
Buyers looking for a flavour of the Highland high-life would be wise to be flexible about location. Candacraig House in Strathdon to the north gives an idea of the possibilities. Sold recently by the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly and his wife Pamela Stephenson, the 12-bedroom mansion features a turreted Baronial façade, tartan wallpaper and 14 acres of woodland. Local media say it was bought for £3m.
Christie of CKD Galbraith says Royal Deeside may have the royal lustre but there are other good options nearby. “It’s a short trip up the road to Strathdon, where there is better value for money, it’s equally easy to get to Aberdeen and I think the scenery is just as beautiful,” he says.
Mure Dickie is the FT’s Scotland correspondent
● Most buyers are from Scotland, but many come from elsewhere, particularly England, the United Arab Emirates and the US
● The small area means a very limited supply of high-end properties
What you can buy for …
£350,000 A period three-bedroom granite house in a Deeside village
£600,000 A modern six-bedroom home with a landscaped garden
£1m A detached nine-bedroom listed property within a conservation area