The present design of the policies at Balmoral has remained largely unchanged since the 1850s, as revealed by the 1st edition OS map of 1868. There are references to the landscape gardener James Beattie and the artist James Giles assisting Prince Albert with the design of the grounds. Plans for the parterres exist, drawn up by John & William Smith and by John Thomas. The layout of many of the estate paths was designed for Queen Victoria.
The name Balmoral is inextricably associated with Queen Victoria, and indeed the present Castle, gardens and much of the woodlands owe their development to Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort. However there was an earlier castle at Balmoral; records date from 1451 when it was known as 'Bouchmorale', and in 1484 Alexander Gordon, 2nd son of the 1st Earl of Huntly, was noted as being the tenant of the lands at an annual rent of £8.6s.8d. The Gordons built the first castle of Balmoral, thought to have been an early keep-tower. The Gordon family retained their interest in Balmoral until 1662 when they disposed of it to the neighbouring Farquharsons of Inverey. The Farquharson of the early 18th century was a staunch Jacobite, and Balmoral was forfeited after the 1745 rising. In 1798 it was sold to James Duff, 2nd Earl Fife and leased to a succession of tenants up until 1830 when it was leased to the Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Gordon, 5th son of the 3rd Earl of Aberdeen. Sir Robert extended the previous tower-house, and commissioned John Smith of Aberdeen to carry out some of the rebuilding for him.
In 1842, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made their first visit to Scotland, staying at Edinburgh and at Taymouth Castle, and they began a search for a suitable site for a Scottish home. After a very wet visit to the west of Scotland in 1847, the Queen's physician Sir James Clark, recommended the climate of Deeside, where his son had just stayed as a guest of Sir Robert Gordon. By this time the area was already recognised for its healthy climate and its mineral water at the nearby wells of Pannanich. In 1847 Sir Robert Gordon died suddenly, and the Queen negotiated with his brother Lord Aberdeen for the remainder of Sir Robert's lease on the property. Lord Aberdeen at this time commissioned his friend and protege, artist James Giles, to paint three watercolour views of the Castle in its setting to send to the Queen. In these watercolours, and in some drawings by Michel Bouquet in the 1840s, the Castle is shown as a two-storey small-windowed house with numerous square and turretted towers, and castellated additions to the south front put on in the 1830s.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made their first visit to Balmoral in 1848 and improvements to the estate buildings were set in motion ready for their next visit the year after. In the years 1849-52, negotiations began with the Trustees of the late Earl Fife to buy the Balmoral Estate and meantime further improvements were made to the estate woodlands, and the paths and gardens. James Giles, who had helped to design the gardens at Haddo House for Lord Aberdeen, is said to have helped the landscape gardener Beattie to lay out the new gardens at Balmoral (and later at Windsor). A prefabricated iron ballroom was also ordered by Prince Albert from Messrs. Bellhouse & Co.
The purchase of Balmoral was finally secured in 1852 for £32,000 when a cairn (the first of many) was built on Craig Gowan to celebrate the occasion. The neighbouring estate of Birkhill was bought also and that of Abergeldie leased from the Gordons. By this time it was clear that a larger building would be needed to accommodate the Royal Family and Ministers of State, and John 'Tudor Johnny' Smith and his son, William Smith, were commissioned to prepare drawings for a new castle. This was eventually designed by William Smith with the active collaboration of Prince Albert. The building was supervised by William Smith who chose a new site, some 100 yards north-west of the previous castle, to take advantage of the fine views to the west from there. On completion of the new castle in 1856, the former house was demolished.
New plantations were started on Craig Gowan in the early 1850s and many exotic conifer trees were planted by the Prince Consort along the drive. In the 1850s, Queen Victoria recorded in her diary that 'Albert is very busy supervising the plantations and laying out the grounds, which no one understands as well as he does'. Some of the site drawings and parterre designs submitted for his approval were by John and William Smith, and at least one, a revised design, was by John Thomas. In 1857 a new bridge over the River Dee was built to enable the old road south of the river to the Old Bridge of Dee at Invercauld to be closed, and to enable travellers to complete their journey westwards outwith the policies. In 1859 having completed extensive improvements to the grounds, the Prince Consort turned his attention to improvements to the farm buildings including, in 1861, plans for a model dairy. Prince Albert died suddenly of typhoid at Windsor in that year, but Queen Victoria continued with his planned improvements to Balmoral. The tenants subscribed for a monument to Prince Albert's memory, which was raised in the form of an obelisk.
Queen Victoria continued to visit Balmoral every year and gradually spent more time there, visiting for a month in May and for up to three months in the autumn. The gardens were kept to Prince Albert's approved plans, and few changes were made apart from the addition of the monuments and of staff cottages. Cottages were built in the policies for her Indian Secretary, Munshi Abdul Karim, on the drive to the offices and, near the east lodge, Baile-na-Coille cottage was built for John Brown. The Garden Cottage to the south of the Castle, where the Queen occasionally breakfasted, read her papers and wrote her diaries, was rebuilt in 1895 for the use of her grandchildren; one room being reserved specifically for the Queen's use.
Queen Victoria died in 1901, and successive generations of the Royal Family have continued to visit Balmoral each autumn. When George V succeeded in 1910, he and Queen Mary did much to enhance the estate and tenants' cottages. In 1923 Queen Mary also redesigned the formal garden to the south of the Castle, at some distance from it across the lawns. This rose garden has a semi- circular wall at its northern end with a fountain, and the gates were made by the local blacksmith in 1923. The gardens to the north of the Castle have been improved by the Duke of Edinburgh; the fine herbaceous borders to the west of the ballroom have been redesigned and a shrubbery has been planted near the river. A new water garden has been put in near the Garden Cottage by the Duke of Edinburgh.