Every summer, Queen Elizabeth travels to Balmoral Palace in Scotland for her summer vacation. “I think she’s the happiest mother there is,” Prince Eugenie said in a documentary about Our Queen IX.
At Balmoral, the Queen continued a tradition started by her mother, Queen Victoria: the Gillies Ball. Everything you need to know about the annual dance.
History of Gillies Ball
After Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert bought Balmore in 1852, they held a dance to thank their staff and workers in September. This dance would later become known as the Ghillies Ball. The term “Gillie” is Gaelic for players, and Ghillies are also shoes commonly used in Scottish country dances.
Twilight of Splendor: Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Court Greg King writes: “Despite her age and infirmity, Victoria sometimes joins in elaborate jigs and twirls, a piece of Balmoral tartan hangs over her body in a black satin dress while playing the pipes. According to one contemporary observer, Queen Victoria “has light air steps in the old yard, no mouth or staff, but each one dances carefully and gracefully”.
The Ghillies Ball was also held during the reign of Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, King George V, and later her father, George VI.
Frederick Corbett, Deputy Warrant Officer at Buckingham Palace, shared his memories of the Gillies Ball during the reign of George V. “Queen Mary was a remarkable figure at this dance,” Corbett wrote in his memoirs. “He loved all the Highland dances and old English country dances, which he always included in the program. He would join anyone in the first half of the dance. But King George V was not a great dancer. Go and sit in the King’s room at the end of the room and watch dancers with keen eyes, sometimes with witty comments. Please contact one of our staff.
At the age of 12, Elizabeth, then Princess Elizabeth, was allowed to attend the annual ball for the first time.
What happened at Gillies Ball?
As Darren McGrady, the royal family’s chef, says in Eating Royalty: “The ball was a Scottish dance party to thank the staff for all their hard work, and every member of the royal family and their guests attended.” The first dance McGrady shares are usually the White Sergeant Dashing, a Scottish country dance where two women dance with a man.
During the reign of George V, says Corbett, “The dance starts at nine-thirty and continues until about eleven thirty when the royal family usually retires from the hall to rest from the buffet set up in the castle dining room with guests”.
What do attendees wear to the Ghillies Ball?
Biographer Queen Elizabeth Sally Bedell Smith wrote in Queen Elizabeth: The Life of a Modern Monarch that at the ball, men wore black ties and kilts, while women wore tartan jackets with diamonds, long dresses, and diamonds.
This event is private, so no photos or videos will be released. However, in 1971, the ball was documented in several photographs taken in honour 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 the 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 is very happy. Traditional tartan dress is worn by girls of Great Britain and Ireland and Tiara. Watch the clip here:
Dame Darcy Bussell, a former ballerina on the Royal Road Tour, said: “The Queen has performed many Scottish dances in her 70 years as monarch.” Gillies Ball is an important part of that. “From the looks of it, he does every dance and sleeps late and is just there to have fun,” Bussell said.
When does the Gillies Ball take place?
Usually, the ball takes place every year at the end of the royal family’s summer vacation, so in late August or early September. It was held in the Great Hall of Balmoral Castle.