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Every summer, Queen Elizabeth travels to Balmoral Castle in Scotland for her summer holiday. "I think Granny is the most happy there. I think she really, really loves the Highlands," her granddaughter Princess Eugenie shared in the documentary Our Queen At Ninety.
While at Balmoral, the Queen carries on a tradition started by her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria: the Ghillies Ball. Here's everything you need to know about the annual dance.
The history of Ghillies Ball
After Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, purchased Balmoral in 1852, they threw a dance in September to thank their staff and servants. This dance would soon become known as the Ghillies Ball. The term "ghillie" is Gaelic for gamekeeper, and Ghillies are also specifically designed shoes, commonly worn in Scottish country dance.
In Twilight of Splendor: The Court of Queen Victoria During Her Diamond Jubilee Year, Greg King writes, "Despite her age and infirmity, Victoria still occasionally joined in the intricate jigs and reels, a sash of Balmoral tartan slung across the bodice of her black satin gown as the pipers played." According to one contemporary observer, Queen Victoria had "light airy steps in the old courtly fashion; no limp or stick, but every figure carefully and prettily danced."
The Ghillies Ball was also held under the subsequent reigns of Queen Elizabeth's grandfather King George V and father King George VI.
Frederick Corbett, the Deputy Comptroller of Supply at Buckingham Palace, shared his memories of the Ghillies Ball during George V's reign. "Queen Mary was an amazingly energetic figure at these dances," Corbett wrote in his memoirs. "She loved all Highland dances and many of the old English country dances, which she always had included in the program. She would take part in every one throughout the first half of the dance. But King George V was no great dancer. He would go and sit on the Royal dais at the end of the room and watch the dancers with a keen eye, occasionally turning to one of his staff with a shrewd comment."
At age 12, Elizabeth, then Princess Elizabeth was first allowed to attend the annual ball.
What happens at the Ghillies Ball?
As royal family chef Darren McGrady recounts in Eating Royalty, "The ball was a Scottish dance party held as a thank you to the staff for all their hard work, and every member of the royal family in residence and their guests would attend." The first dance, McGrady shares, was typically the "Dashing White Sergeant"—a Scottish country dance where two women dance with one man.
Under George V, Corbett recalled, "Dancing starts at nine-thirty and goes on until about eleven-thirty, when usually the Royal Family leave the ballroom with their guests to take refreshments from a buffet set up in the Castle dining room." You can see a menu for the 1912 Ghillies Ball here.
What do attendees wear to the Ghillies Ball?
Queen Elizabeth's biographer Sally Bedell Smith writes in Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch that at the ball, men wear black tie and kilts, and the women wear tiaras, long gowns, and tartan sashes with diamond brooches.
The event is private, so no photographs or video are typically released. However, in 1971, the ball was documented in a series of photographs taken in honor of the Silver Wedding Celebrations of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Twenty years later, the ball was filmed for the documentary Elizabeth R: A Year in the Life of the Queen. In the documentary, you can see an Eightsome Reel, a Scottish country dance, danced by the royal family, including Princess Diana, Princess Anne, and, of course, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
In the video, Queen Elizabeth looks extremely happy. She wears the traditional tartan sash, and the Girls of Great Britain & Ireland Tiara. Watch the clip here:
"The Queen has done a lot of Scottish dancing over her 70 years as monarch," Dame Darcy Bussell, a former ballerina, shared in Royal Road Trip. "The Ghillies Ball is a very important part of that." Bussell said, "apparently she did every dance and she’d stay up late into the night and be there to just enjoy it."
When does the Ghillies Ball take place?
Typically, the ball occurs toward the end of the royal family's summer break every year, so in late August or in early September. It is held in the grand ballroom of Balmoral Castle.
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