William S. Thomson was a Scottish photographer who roamed his beloved country during the 1950s. Based in Corpach, Fort William, he produced about 20 smaller booklets, focused on different regions, in the Let's See Scotland series. His books The Highland in Colour, published by Oliver & Boyd in 1954, and Colourful Scotland, from the same publisher in 1956, can be seen as overviews. For Travel in Time I rediscover the Highlands and wonder in Thomson's footsteps.

At the end of the summer of 1842, two and a half years after her marriage to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria paid a visit to Perthshire, Scotland. It was love at first site and they were determined to go back as much as possible. So, almost every year they returned. In February 1848 Prince Albert bought Balmoral, although he had never seen it. That same year he was delighted to show his purchase. In her journal (Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands, London: Smith, Elder and Co, 1868) Queen Victoria wrote about her first impression of Balmoral: “Friday, September 8, 1848. We arrived at Balmoral at a quarter to three. It is a pretty little castle in the old Scottish style. There is a picturesque tower and garden in front, with a high wooded hill; at the back there is wood down to the Dee; and the hills rise all around.”

Staying at Balmoral every summer, a few years later they decided to rebuild the castle as the building was no longer adequate for their needs. William Smith, City Architect of Aberdeen, was selected. On a site 100 yards to the north west the new castle would arise. Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone on September 28, 1853. Two years later, on September 7, 1855, the castle now in full construction, she wrote: “The new house looks beautiful. The tower and the rooms in the connecting part are however, only half finished, and the offices are still unbuilt…”

The next summer the old castle was gone. “On Arriving at Balmoral at seven o’clock in the evening, we found the tower finished as well as the offices, and the poor old house gone! The effect of the whole is very fine”, noted the Queen in her diary on August 30, 1856. Leaving for London, on October 13, Queen Victoria claimed her love for Balmoral: “Every year my heart becomes fixed in this dear Paradise, and so much more so now, that all has become my dearest Albert’s own creation, own work, own building, own laying out…”

When Queen Victoria died in 1901 Balmoral Estates passed, under the terms of her will, to King Edward VII, and from him to each of his successors.

In the 1950s W.S. Thomson pictured Balmoral Castle from the Military Road (Tomintoul Road), connecting Braemar and Tomintoul.

Balmoral Castle from the Tomintoul Road – 1950s

Thomson’s picture gives no clue on the state of the road, but revisiting the place, this part of the Military Road (on the OS Explorer map indicated as Old Military Road) was in disuse and degraded to a farmers track. Retracing the spot was not so hard. Unfortunately some matured trees blocked most of the view. Pine trees covered the hill at the back of the castle.

Balmoral Castle from the Old Military Road – July 2019
2019 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
2019 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
2019 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
1950's - William S. Thomson
1950's - William S. Thomson
Balmoral Castle near Ballater

Thomson canvased another view on Balmoral Estate, centred Crathie Church (Crathie Kirk), the place of worship for the royal family when residing at Balmoral, a bit further the meandering River Dee, in a straight line up hill the memorial cairn for Prince Albert, a massive light grey pyramid on top of Craig Lurachain (Creag an Lurachain), and as a final backdrop Lochnagar (Beinn Chiochan) on the left, partly hidden in clouds. Balmoral Castle lies on the right, out of scope of this picture.

Autumn at Crathie Church. Lochnagar in the distance.

Walking up the Creag na Gaoithe hill through a birch woodland covered with brackens, fallen trees and rocks, I found Thomson’s camera position. Luckily rocks don’t move so quickly. The autumnal coloured birch trees got significantly taller and hindered most of the original view.

View on Balmoral Estate – July 2019
2019 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
2019 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
2019 - Estelle Slegers Helsen
1950's - William S. Thomson
1950's - William S. Thomson
The pictures then and now in The Highland in Colour series can be found on the map Travel in Time. Click on the link, select at the filter for Landscapes and resize the map looking for Scotland. There you will find the green binocular icons. Please keep in mind the series is a work in progress.