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Issue 35 - Aberdeen & Grampian – wild country

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 35
November 2007


This article is 10 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Aberdeen & Grampian – wild country

Few areas offer as much variety to the rambler as Aberdeen and the Grampians. Whether it is history, scenery or even whisky, the region is unparalleled. Dominic Roskrow reports

The region stretching from Aberdeen on Scotland’s east coast and up to the north was recently described by British television personality Griff Rhys-Jones as among the most remote rural and mountainous regions of Britain. Add to this that it retains a direct link to its varied and evocative past, and the fact that it is a contradictory melting pot of warm and accommodating people and harsh and unforgiving terrain, and it makes for a very special region.

And if you are drawn to the great outdoors, well they do not get much greater than the Grampians and their immediate environs. For the walker it is a veritable paradise, a tangled fisherman’s net of paths criss-crossing each other and flipping back on themselves like the great salmon that populate the nearby River Spey. Indeed, the biggest problem that visitors face is deciding what to leave out and making sure that they manage to get to all the places they have highlighted. For this reason, it pays to spend a considerable period of time planning your journey. For while some other places have trails that logically go from A to B in a few miles, this region is a complicated dyslexic alphabet stretching from A to Z and passing every letter in between in no particular order.

But some semblance of discipline can be imposed by dividing the trails into broad categories. Let’s start with Scotch whisky. The region between Aberdeen and Inverness, and bordering the River Spey is known as Speyside, and it is the region where the fruitiest, most honeyed and sweetest whisky comes from, a product of the soft water that flows from the mountains. In all, more than half of all of Scotland’s malt distilleries are in this region, and from a visiting viewpoint they vary from the modern and interactive facilities designed for the novice at Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet to the superb new information warehouse at The Macallan, and to the advanced VIP tour on offer at Aberlour.

There are two more disciplined ways of getting a feel for this wonderful whisky region. The first is the Spey Way, which stretches from Buckie on the north coast down to Aviemore, passing several distilleries on the way. The other is by the Speyside whisky trail, which includes working distilleries such as Benromach and Glen Moray, the pretty gardens of Glen Grant, the home of Johnnie Walker at Cardhu, and the distilleries of Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet. There is the distillery museum at Dallas Dhu, too, and, for variety, the Speyside Cooperage, where you can see barrels being made and learn the skills of the cooper.

If malt is not for you, then perhaps you might prefer to follow the trail of Queen Victoria. This does not come whisky free, however, taking in the distilleries of Fettercairn and Royal Lochnagar, both strongly associated with the great queen. A large archway in the town of Fettercairn marks a visit paid by Victoria and Albert shortly before Albert’s death in September 1861. It is said that the couple travelled by trail on ponies and stayed anonymously in the region.

At Braemar the world-famous games are still held, and they are still often attended by celebrities and royalty. Queen Victoria attended games here as early as the 1850s and there are records of her visits fuelled by her obvious love of the place at the village’s heritage centre.

At Craithie is the church which Queen Victoria opened in 1895 and which still welcomes the Royal Family through its doors when they stay at Balmoral Castle. There are further links with Victoria at Cambus O May, Aboyne, scenic Lumphanan and Banchory, where Drum Castle lies. Its oldest parts were built in the 13th century, it has links to Robert the Bruce and was extended in Victorian times. For scenery travel to Loch Muick, with its pretty waterfall and remote hideaway lodge built by Queen Victoria and still in use at nearby Glas-allt-Shiel.

Castles play a huge part in the history of this troubled region, and few areas boast more of them.

Or indeed, offer more variety. They vary from the fairytale magic of properties such as Craigevar to the rugged splendour of Kildrummy Castle, and include stately homes and the most derelict of ruins.

Thirteen of the region’s castles have been brought together to form the castle trail. Some of the highlights include: Corgarff Castle, which dates from 1537, played a prominent role in the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745 and was converted in to the barracks of the Hanoveran troops in 1748. It also housed English redcoats when they were trying to stop whisky smuggling.

Open to the public. More details www.historicscotland., tel: +44 (0)1975 651 460.

Kildrummy Castle: ruins of a 13th century castle dismantled after the Jacobite Uprisings, but you can see where the hall, kitchen and chapel once were.

Strathbogie Castle, Huntly, sited on the bank of River Deveron. The original motte and bailey were built in the 12th century with an L-plan tower house and defence earth works in evidence too., tel: +44 (0)1466 739 191.

Duff House: Baroque mansion built by William Adam for the local Member of Parliament, William Duff. The house has undergone a major refurbishment. Set in parkland with woodland walks, the house has a large collection of paintings and works of art and serves as an ‘outreach gallery’ for the National Galleries of Scotland., tel: +44 (0) 1261 818 181.

Delgatie House has painted ceilings dating back to 1592 and 1597. Mary Queen of Scots stayed here in 1562, and the house has displays of fine paintings, armoury and Victorian clothes. Open daily., tel: +44 (0)1888 563 479.

Fyvie Castle: the five towers of Fyvie castle represent the five families that owned the castle over five centuries. The oldest parts of the building date from the 13th century and are probably Scotland’s finest example of Baronial architecture.

Lots of works of art and examples of exceptional tapestries. The property has a 10 pin bowling alley and racquets court., tel: +44 (0)1651 891 266.

Haddo House: former home of the 1st Marquess of Aberdeen, Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister, magnificent house in the grounds of an ancient castle, steeped in the history of the Gordon family.

Large but homely and surrounded by rose gardens, lawns and a country park. Also has a tea room, shop and children’s play area., tel: +44 (0)1651 851 440.

Crathes Castle was built in the second half of the 16th century. Some of the rooms retain their original painted ceilings and collections of family portraits.

There is a sizeable walled garden with many unusual plants. Also a visitor centre and restaurant.

Open all year, tel: +44 (0)1330 844 525.

Castle Fraser dates from 1575 and has a mass of historic furnishings, paintings and fine embroidery.

There is a walled garden and picnic area as well as children’s adventure playground and woodland area., tel: +44 (0)1330 833 463.

If you prefer your history somewhat older, then the region has a plethora of ancient ruins, stone circles and burial areas (cairns). The starting point for these trails has to be Archeolink at Oyne, which provides information on the cultures of the Picts, Romans and Mesolithic (stone age) peoples. You can look round an iron age farm and walk to the remains of an iron age enclosure and hut circle (

From here it is a matter of deciding what sort of archaeology you want to explore. From 1000BC to the first few centuries of the first millennium, the nature of archaeology changed from burial and ritual monuments, often associated with war and conflict, through to settlement sites with noticeable hierarchical structures, field systems and methods of agriculture.

The architecture is both mysterious and beautiful. Many of the sites are placed on high points or cliff edges, and such sites are a continuous source of wonder. How did people from hundreds of years ago move stone weighing so much, or provide sufficient heat to melt stone to build their fortifications?

Pictish sites are of particular interest, combining graphic animal art on their burial sites and standing sites while displaying strong war-like tendencies, a fascinating mix of beauty and brutishness.

The final group of trails is the coastal one. This region has some of the most stunning and breathtaking coastal scenery in Europe, and walking even part of the 160 mile stretch of coast from Findhorn in the north round to Aberdeen in the east is a great way to remind yourself how alive you can still feel.

There are wonderful beaches at Burghead, Lossiemouth, Cullen Bay and Cruden Bay, busy harbours at Buckie, Fraserburgh and Peterhead, the last of which has 400 boats and is the busiest fishing port in Europe.

Fraserburgh is home to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses which includes a lighthouse tour (tel: +44 (0)1346 511 022), a heritage centre which opened 10 years ago and tells the story of local fishing (tel: +44 (0)1346 512 888), and Pitsligo Castle, which is linked to the Jacobite Forbes family.

Other places worth visiting include: Macduff: a fishing port at the mouth of the River Deveron, boasting spectacular cliff walks, scenery and sunsets. The Macduff Marine Aquarium includes an open-topped tank and diving shows.

Tel: +44 (0)1261 833 369.

Pennan: an old smugglers’ village where the classic film Local Hero was set. The original red telephone box is now a listed historical building.

Nearby there are extensive sandy beaches, sea cave formations and a 10th century church associated with St Columbus.

Banff: Duff House is an 18th century building used an outstation by the National Galleries of Scotland, tel: +44 (0)1261 818 181.

It is hard to imagine a richer area for the keen rambler. And of course after all the exertion there are a large number of places to eat, drink and rest. It all makes for the perfect relaxing break – and one that will call you back again and again.