I started working for the royal family in a temporary role at Balmoral Castle, Her Majesty the Queen’s residence in the Highlands, 10 years ago. I spotted an advert on my university careers website and thought it might be a good summer stop-gap job until I found something more permanent. I must have made a good impression as, three months later, I found myself one of a few staff members returning to London on the royal flight with HM and her troop of corgis. Buckingham Palace was then my ‘home’ for the next four years.
I remember my first morning there — the changing of the guard was taking place in the forecourt, and they were playing a Beatles medley, the 1960s sounds reverberating up to my tiny bedroom at the top of the palace. It was a novelty to start with, having this live band outside my window every other day (every day in the summer). A less welcome noise came from the rehearsals for occasions such as Trooping the Color or the state opening of parliament, which would take place in the early hours of the morning when the streets were empty; the sound of the horses and carriages rippling down the Mall at 4 a.m. would always wake me.
The Ghillies Ball was a highlight of the social calendar for staff whenever we returned to Balmoral. It was a chance for us to let our hair down and have the opportunity to dance with the royal family. The Pipe Major held ceilidh classes once a week for us so that we could brush up on our Gay Gordons and Dashing White Sergeant. The royals were enthusiastic Scottish dancing pros, so we wanted to feel confident in their company, should we find ourselves Stripping the Willow with them.
There was one dance that filled me with fear — the Paul Jones. In this one, all the ladies circle around the room in a ring, and all the men circle around them in the opposite direction. When the music stops, you dance the next dance with whoever is opposite you. It took me three years to pluck up the courage to do the Paul Jones as I was scared of being suddenly paired with a royal and not knowing the next dance that was called.
In my final year, I had a lot more confidence (and a couple of gin and tonics in me), so I had the Dutch courage to join in. When the music stopped, I found myself faced with the Duke of Edinburgh. Thankfully the band called a slow waltz (I was dreading a quickstep). The Duke hadn’t heard what dance was called and asked me what it was. ‘It’s a slow waltz, your royal highness,’ I replied.
He was a charming dance partner, light on his feet for a then 89-year-old. He asked me if I liked Balmoral and how many times I’d been there. He certainly made me feel more relaxed, given how nervous I was.
At the end of the waltz, I managed a deep curtsy (there’s something about wearing a ball gown that makes you want to do a really deep curtsy). I was wearing a long red dress that I had learned from previous years to get shortened to a decent dancing length. In my first year, I got my heel caught in the hem of my dress in the middle of an Eightsome Reel. I ripped off an inch of material right there and then so that I could carry on dancing. The year I danced with Prince Philip, I was wearing open-toed sandals and someone accidentally stomped on my toes with their stiletto — there was quite literally blood on the dancefloor.
Beyond Balmoral, I encountered the Duke of Edinburgh several times in the course of my duties at Buckingham Palace and when traveling to Sandringham and Windsor. He always had a smile on his face and a jokey word to say that brightened our (sometimes) dull duties. He seemed to delight in catching the staff off guard. One housemaid told me she thought that we were meant to keep out of sight, so on seeing the Duke approaching, she jumped into a pantry. He spotted her disappearing act, opened the door and told her: ‘You don’t need to hide!’
Despite the Duke’s reputation for gaffes in public, I think this was his way of trying to lighten the mood and make people smile or feel at ease; humor defuses tension and nerves, sparks conversation. It also takes thought and effort to crack a joke and to speak to staff; we were never invisible to him. When you have worked for, or among, many VIPs, you learn this is not always the case at all, so it stands out. I never heard another staff member say a bad word against him. He had two long-standing and loyal valets and pages, which is testament to how well he treated his personal staff.
I only intended to work for the royal family for a year but I ended up staying for more than four. I liked the security of the royal household bubble and the way that the royal year ticks by with reassuring certainty. The routine and repetition of the calendar gives a sense of stability, a quality that the monarchy exudes.
I feel honored to have been a member of the royal household during the reign of our longest serving monarch, Queen Elizabeth, and her loyal consort Prince Philip. I have happy memories of working for the Queen and will always remember fondly the day I danced with the Duke.