Welcome to Ballater
"Nae ither spot in braid Scotland
Can Deeside's charms excel,
Nor count amang its local 'lairds'
Oor gracious Queen hersel'"
- The Season at Ballater, Charles Davidson (local poet)
If you were to follow the River Dee inland from Aberdeen, as it meanders through Aberdeenshire hills, past Banchory and Birsemore, until the peaks of Morven appear in the north and the magnificent mountains of the Cairngorms National Park begin to loom in the west, you would come across a delightful little Victorian village called Ballater. 8 miles farther upstream lies Balmoral Castle, residence of the Royal Family in Scotland. The connection with royalty has put Ballater and the surrounding area, ‘Royal Deeside’, on the map.
That is not to say that nothing was here before the Royal Family took an interest in the area in the 19th century. Just to the east of today’s Ballater lies the tiny village of Tullich, which originally marked the crossroads in the old Braemar-Aberdeen, Glen Muik-Don Valley roads. In Tullich churchyard lie intricately carved stones, evidence that the site has been settled for well in excess of 1000 years. The church is dedicated to St Nathalan, Deeside’s most important saint credited with establishing Christianity in the area.
The origins of the village of Ballater can be dated back to as early as the 14th century when it was part of St. John’s estate. The ‘miraculous’ qualities of the waters of the nearby spa at Pannanich drew visitors here to ‘purify’ themselves. In the early 18th century a woman called Elspet Michie claimed that the waters had cured her of scrofula. This led to greater interest in the spa and the village at Ballater began to expand to accommodate the growing number of visitors.
Nonetheless, when Queen Victoria first came to area, in the first half of the 19th century, Ballater remained an insignificant little village with a population of well under 300. The Queen and her husband Prince Albert quickly fell in love with the area and decided to buy Balmoral Estate in 1852. It has been the summer retreat of the Royal Family ever since. In 1866 the railway arrived in Ballater. Originally the plan was to take the line all the way through to Braemar but the Queen vetoed the plan fearful of too much traffic passing so close to her home. In this way Ballater became the railhead for Balmoral Castle. From this time on Ballater has been visited by not just members of the British Royal Family but by their guests, which have included many important politicians, diplomats, and virtually all of Europe’s 19th century monarchs.
In 1896 one such guest was Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Charles Davidson, a local poet and musician, was working as a signalman at this time when he was given the duty of unpacking the Czar and his entourage’s luggage during a downpour. Refusing to hear the shouts of a Cossack directing the operation, Davidson decided that during the storm he would only load the baggage which he had prioritised onto a small cart. In a rage the Cossack came at Davidson with a stick. The local townspeople sprang to the poet’s defence before the situation was diffused by a ’Christian Scotch’ speaking Russian detective. Such a chaotic scene would not have been unique considering the number of demanding guests who arrived here after long journeys. While the rail line was cut in 1966 the attractive Railway Station remains as the tourist information office and a museum dedicated to the village’s Victorian heritage.
Perhaps Ballater’s most significant claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), biologist and social scientist. Geddes’ importance should not be underestimated: his genius has been compared to that of Aristotle, Da Vinci, Leibnitz and Darwin; his ideas have been admired by those from as varied backgrounds as Darwin, Einstein, MacDairmid, Tagore and Ghandi. Despite lacking the advantages afforded to Victorians from wealthy or prestigious families, by the age of 25 Geddes had been recognised as a biologist of enormous ability: he had had papers published by the Royal Society, was in charge of a zoological station in Stonehaven and had been selected to lead a research mission to Mexico. Alas, in Mexico he contracted an illness which temporarily blinded him and permanently damaged his sight. Unable to continue his previous biological research, which depended on the use of a microscope, Geddes turned his attention to social sciences. His background in biology convinced him that any social project must be undertaken with the purpose of providing maximum stimulus for both mind and body. He developed theories of education, housing renovation, and housing development which have been highly influential; he is often regarded as the ‘father of town planning’. Geddes was knighted in 1932 in recognition of his many achievements, which are too numerous to list here.
Today’s Ballater is a small and pretty Victorian village with a grand setting. The connection with royalty is impossible to avoid, with many local businesses adorned by the Royal Coat of Arms, proudly displaying the fact that they are purveyors of something or other to the Queen and her kin. To a republican all of this would seem a bit absurd. Ballater’s tourist industry is more centred on the Royal Family than the reason why they or anyone one else, might come here: this is an astonishingly beautiful area.