It was at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight 100 years ago today that Queen Victoria died after the longest reign in British history, but it was on Royal Deeside her heart lay. Balmoral Castle and her secret retreats around it were where she enjoyed some of the happiest, and some of the saddest, days of her life.

Her public image is of a large, solemn, and unsmiling woman, usually seen sitting glumly on a chair, or perhaps side-saddle on a pony, who said little other than: ''We are not amused.'' But she was much more energetic and adventurous than is generally recognised and being almost obsessed with privacy, something handed down through generations of later royals, perhaps she was happy with the impression she portrayed.

At Balmoral she could be herself. She had numerous retreats to which she could escape for peace and many destinations to which she could travel unrecognised.

She wanted to see all the wild spots of the Highlands and after many short journeys into the Cairngorms went on several ''great expeditions'' lasting many days and travelling in open four-wheeled carriages. Deep in the hills they rode on the backs of Highland ponies. The royal party rode through remote villages, often travelling incognito, passing themselves off as a wedding party and staying in far from regal style at inns. The ''dour'' Victoria revealed her lighter side in an entry in her diaries about one inn which said ''no pudding and no fun''.

She loved the ''utter solitude'' which some of her journeys afforded her, but even a short distance from Balmoral she could escape.

Queen Victoria's remotest lodge, Ruidh na Bhan Righ, is in Glen Gelder and contains only two small rooms and a kitchen, and it is where she entertained Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, to tea and trout cooked in oatmeal by John Brown. The lodge remains a royal favourite and in the popular book Mountain Days and Bothy Nichts Dave Brown and Ian Mitchell describe in amusing detail what happened when a party of climbers, using Gelder as their base, spotted a convoy of Land Rovers approaching. They saw corgi dogs and ''a wee loon later to be famed as Randy Andy'' and were told by a man in a trenchcoat, the detective, that her majesty wanted to have a picnic and would be happy if they left. They retorted that they were just leaving anyway and offered him their leftover soup for her majesty's picnic.

The favourite shieling to which Victoria frequently went with Prince Albert was at Alt-na-guibhsaich and was known as ''The Hut''. They used it as a base for exploring the countryside, but when Albert died she could not face returning to it alone. She went instead to Glas-allt Shiel which became known as Widow's Hut.

From the lodges scattered around the estate they would explore the countryside she loved and she enjoyed Munro-bagging even before 3000ft-plus mountains had acquired that title - although she did often have the help of a pony. In his book A Queen's Country, author and historian Robert Smith reveals how if you follow one of Victoria's favourite walks along the track to Loch Muick from Easter Balmoral you will see a house, half hidden in woods, called Genechal. From the distance it looks like any other but closer examination of the now derelict building reveals it has two front doors - one of them for Queen Victoria.

One of the two rooms in the house was set aside for her as a retreat when royal shooting parties were out on the moors and, when the weather was poor, royal hunters would also picnic there.

Tenancy was given to a crofter on condition that this front room was always available for use by the Queen who entered it by the front door which the tenant did not use. The two sides of the house were linked by a door which was locked when Victoria was there and which the tenants were under strict instructions not to open. It was one of a number of hideaways she had, including one at Clachanturn House which was occupied by a lady-in-waiting, and another at Rhebreck, occupied by John Grant, the head forester - but the Genechal was the only one with an extra front door.

One of her retreats was the Garden Cottage on the Balmoral lawn and, although just 200 yards from the castle, it gave her the privacy she wanted and she sometimes took breakfast, and often took tea there, and worked on her despatch boxes.

It was the ''blue skies and fine weather'' which first attracted Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to Deeside, having been told about them by Sir James Clark, the Queen's physician, whose son was convalescing at Balmoral. Shortly afterwards Sir Robert Gordon, who held the lease, died after choking on a fish bone and Prince Albert acquired it.

However, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert found the castle too small for their needs

and, once the estate had been bought outright in 1853, built a new castle, the

present one, which was completed in 1856. It was nicknamed ''The Miser's Palace'' because the rebuilding was funded by #250,000 bequeathed to the Queen by John Camden Neild, who lived in squalor rather than spend a penny on himself and believed the legacy would give him a place in history. From the day they bought the estate it became clear that it was very special to them.

One of their first acts was to erect the ''Purchase Cairn'' on Craig Gowan to mark taking possession. The Queen placed the first stone watched by all her family and staff who had climbed the hill and one by one they took it in turn to step forward and place a stone on the growing mound.

After an hour Albert took his turn to climb up to place the last stone to the cheers of the crowd, who then toasted the event in whisky supplied by Victoria. Indeed, she frequently provided the whisky for a celebration and was known to turn a blind eye when staff over-imbibed.

Once, when her loyal and special servant John Brown keeled over in an alcoholic stupor, she offered the excuse that she had felt a slight earth tremor. There are other cairns around the estate commemorating the marriages of Victoria's children. In the Garmaddie Woods, where Victoria liked to walk, is the cairn to Victoria, ''Vicky'' the princess royal, who married Kaiser Frederick III in 1858.

The cairn to Princess Alice, who married Prince Louis of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1852, is on Creag 'Ghobhainne (the rocky hill of the smith), so named because a blacksmith's croft once stood at the foot of the hill.

There is a cairn to commemorate the marriage of Princess Helena to Prince Christian of Schlewig-

Holstein in 1866 and Princess Louise's cairn commemorates her marriage in 1871 to Lord Lorne, the son of the Duke of Argyll. Nearby is the cairn to Prince Leopold, Victoria's ''child of anxiety'', who was born in 1853. Two years after he married Princess Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont, he injured a knee in an accident in Cannes and within 24 hours he died aged just 32.

Princess Beatrice - said by Victoria to be ''the comfort and blessing of my declining years'' - had her cairn built near Albert's pyramid on Creag an Lurachain.There are granite seats in memory of Princess Alice and of Prince Leopold, a Celtic cross to Prince Henry who died at sea in 1896 when, against the Queen's wishes, he took part in a military expedition to end the slave trade in Ashanti.

In Victoria's day there was wildlife on the lawn, an eagle in the rose garden, stags in the grounds, dogs in the bushes, and even a wild boar, but none posed a danger. The deer were ornamental and the eagle which sat on top of a fountain was a gift from the King of Prussia and was replaced by a sculpted chamois during the First World War to avoid anti-German feeling. For the same reason Danzig Shiel on the estate was renamed the Garrawalt Shiel.

Today the deer and eagle have gone but the wild boar remains as does the statue to her collie, Noble, who was her faithful companion, for 15 years. It stands on the route of the river walk they often enjoyed. Such was her desire for privacy that when she went on such walks within the Balmoral grounds the staff had to pretend not to see her. It is 100 years since Victoria died, 101 since she last visited Balmoral, but her presence on Royal Deeside is as strong as ever.