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Issue 49 - Aberdeen & Grampian – the land of castles

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 49
February 2010


This article is 8 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 – the land of castles

We take a trip through this north east corner of Scotland.

The substantial local government area of Grampian Region was created in 1975 and takes in the districts of Moray, Banff and Buchan, Gordon, Kincardine and Deeside, and the City of Aberdeen. Approached by road from the south, either on the A92 hugging the coast, or the A93 through the glens of Angus and up into Deeside the scenery is wildly varied and dramatic, the climate less humid than in central Scotland.

Grampian is the land of castles – Aboyne, Drum, Crathes, Craigievar, Castle Fraser, Fyvie, Haddo. Ballindalloch, Braemar, Invercauld and Balmoral, to name but 11 of them. Each is a symbol of the achievements of the prominent families of the region – the Irvines, Burnetts, Forbes, Setons, Sempills, Gordons , Grants and Farquharsons.

Generally better preserved than their southern counterparts, these keeps, fortresses, tower houses and mansions survive as a reminder not simply of the wealth and privileges of their owners, but of a time when survival depended upon force of arms.

On the coast at Stonehaven, for example, stand the conspicuous ruins of Dunottar, once a stronghold of Clan Keith. A Pictish fort stood here in the Dark Ages, and during the English invasion of the seventeenth century, the Scottish Regalia was brought here for safekeeping (see feature on Edinburgh Castle). In 1715, George Keith, tenth Earl Marischal backed the losing side in the Jacobite Rising. The castle was seized by the Government, its contents removed, and thereafter it was allowed to fall into disrepair.

Grampian Region forms Scotland’s eastern shoulder, jutting boldly out into the North Sea at Fraserburgh, a town created in 1576 by the wealthy Sir Alexander Fraser of Philorth. Fraserburgh was intended as a university town until the funding collapse of its sponsor. Today it operates as the largest shellfish port in Europe.

Travelling west along the southern coast of the Moray Firth towards Inverness, you come across a necklace of small coastal fishing villages – Portnockie, Cullen, Portsoy, Banff and Buckie, some of which in medieval times were trading burghs belonging to the Hanseatic League. Flax and cloth, granite and timber were exchanged for furs, resin, honey, wheat, and rye.

South of Portnockie and Cullen lie the distilleries of Knockando and Glenglassaugh. The village of Portsoy is famed for providing the marble used in the Palace of Versailles in France, and boasts the oldest harbour on the Moray Firth. On a grassy cliff are the ruins of Findlater Castle built in 1455 by Sir Walter Ogilvie of Deskford, a wealthy landowner whose family became earls of Findlater and Seafield and went on to build their infinitely grander seat of Cullen House (now divided into residential apartments).

Further to the south, the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly owns the estate of Candancraig near Aboyne on Donside and annually invites his Hollywood friends to stay for the Lonach Highland Games on the fourth Saturday in August. It is a tradition for the Lonach Highlanders, a volunteer regiment of local men, to stage a parade and to visit the surrounding large houses for a dram before marching onto the games field.

In the adjacent county of Banffshire is Ballindalloch Castle, the ancestral home of the Macpherson-Grant family. Another great Scottish dynasty to stamp its identity on the district was the Duffs of Duff House. When the wealthy politician William Duff was created Earl of Fife in 1739, he set out to build himself a status symbol of spectacular beauty. William Adam was his chosen architect and the house he created was indeed a masterpiece, although the acrimonious quarrel that ensued over the escalating costs is said to have precipitated Adam’s demise..

Duff House remained in the Duff family’s ownership until 1906 when the first Earl of Fife’s great-great-grandson , the first Duke of Fife, husband of HRH Princess Louise, daughter of King Edward VII, gifted the building to the adjacent burghs of Banff and Macduff. Today, it houses a fine collection of paintings and serves as an out-reach gallery for the National Galleries of Scotland.

The town of Macduff, where the River Deveron enters the sea, owes its early prosperity to the second Earl of Fife who set in motion a programme of renewals which included the harbour. The Macduff Distillery built in 1962, is located across the river from Duff House. The Macduff Marine Aquarium has the deepest open-air tank in Scotland.

Visitors can view diving and feeding displays by fish and invertebrates.

Next to the neighbouring region of Speyside, this is indeed distillery country. To the south, at Oldmeldrum, on the Banff to Aberdeen Road, is the Glen Garoich Distillery which dates from 1798. To the west is the Ardmore Distillery at Kennethmont.

Over to the east, south of Peterhead, sit the Bullers of Buchan, a stunning natural phenomenon which, in the eighteenth century, enthralled Dr Samuel Johnson and his side-kick James Boswell. Known locally as “The Pot” this is a monstrous rock cauldron into which the sea water pours through a narrow archway. Bullers means “boilers” and this boiling effect is produced by the waves of the incoming tide as water surges into the chasm.

On the coastline, further to the south, beside Cruden Bay and overlooking St Catherine’s Bay, are the ruins of two cliff top castles – Old Slains and New Slains, ancestral homes of the earls of Erroll, chiefs of Clan Hay. Old Slains was blown up on the orders of James VI in 1594 as a punishment for supporting a Catholic revolt. New Slains, badly damaged by a fire in the 1920s, is said to have been the inspiration for Dracula’s Castle, conceived when the author Bram Stoker was staying at Cruden Bay in 1895. In such a dramatic location, it comes as no surprise to learn that the clifftop ruins are currently being restored and renovated into apartments.

At Tarves, to the north east of Oldmeldrum, is Haddo House, yet another of those magnificent mansions designed by the architect William Adam. The family seat of the earls and marquesses of Aberdeen, it is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. The fourth Earl of Aberdeen served as Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister, and the fifth Earl, a liberal politician and Governor General of Canada, was created Marquess of Aberdeen in 1916.

The first mention of the City of Aberdeen is to be found in early Norse chronicles.

Snorro’s Icelandic Heimskrigla of the year 1153 records how Eysteinn, a Norwegian prince, was sent off to forage for food and, having stopped off on Orkney, found himself sailing south to the town of Apardian, where he “killed many people and wasted the city”.

Aberdeen’s first Charters were granted by Willian the Lyon in 1179, but two centuries later the town was virtually destroyed by English invaders. Doggedly, a new town rapidly arose from the devastation and before long was established as the northern gateway to foreign trade. At first, exports consisted mainly of wool cloth, Dee salmon and trout, and most probably whisky.

Merchants rapidly established their own staple, or fixed market, at Bruges , where they enjoyed customs concessions and traded with the Low Countries, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany.

And by the end of the fifteenth century, Aberdeen had also become a seat of learning.

In 1494, King’s College, named after James IV, was founded by Bishop Elphinstone in Old Aberdeen, eighty four years after the creation of St Andrews University.

From the mid-eighteenth century, however, granite became Aberdeen’s leading export, and, as the harbour grew, shipbuilding prospered with the port becoming famous for its “clipper” ships designed specifically for the China Seas and for the transportation of emigrants to Australia.

A century later, it was the wealth generated by the discovery of large offshore oil fields lying under the deep waters of the North Sea that regenerated the city. Now a thriving cosmopolitan centre, Aberdeen is today a magnet for international commerce.

The city now has a second university – the Robert Gordon University – and, since the 1960s, has hosted the Aberdeen International Youth Festival. It speaks volumes about the pride of the Aberdonian that the city has won the Britain in Bloom competition a record breaking ten times. Just to the north, at Menie, the American property tycoon has ambition plans to build a £1 billion golf resort, hotel, five hundred houses and nine hundred and fifty holiday homes.

North and south of the region, the rivers Don and Dee define the landscape, the latter originating in the Grampian mountains and forest of Balmoral, where Her Majesty the Queen retains the private Scottish estate purchased by her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, in 1848. Richly forested, this awe inspiring countryside enchanted the impressionable Victoria and her adored German husband, and it has since been a tradition for the British Royal Family to spend time there every Autumn, attending the Braemar Highland Games and worshiping at the local church at Crathie. The history of the Braemar Gathering is documented in the Braemar Highland Heritage Centre in Mar Road.

On the Balmoral estate is the mountain of Lochnagar, named after a small lochan in the Grampian range, and which, in the Gaelic language, means the ‘little loch of the noisy sound.” In 1980, it was the inspiration for The Old Man of Lochnagar, a children’s story written by the Prince of Wales. The Royal Lochnagar Distillery was founded in 1826 and awarded its “Royal” prefix 20 years later.

popular with hillwalkers and rock climbers.

Nearby is Braemar Castle, seat of Clan Farquharson. Once the stronghold of the Erskine earls of Mar, it dates from 1628 and is filled with the furnishings and personal memorabilia of the Farquharsons who supplanted them when their lands were confiscated after the 1715 Jacobite Rising.

A glorious region of high mountains, fast rivers and rich forest, it is no wonder that the romantically inclined Prince Albert was reminded of his native Rhineland. Writing in England before his death in 1861, he observed,” The country is full of beauty, of a severe and grand character, perfect for the sport of all kings, and the air remarkably pure and light in comparison with what we have here. The people are more natural, and are marked by that honesty and sympathy which always distinguishes the inhabitants of mountainous regions.” His sentiments are as sound today as they were a century and a half ago.


Aberdeen Art Gallery
Schoolhill, Aberdeen
This splendid gallery houses an important fine art collection, a rich and diverse applied art collection, an exciting programme of special exhibitions, a gallery shop and café.
Tel: +44 (0)1224 523 700

Archaeolink Prehistory Park
Award-winning living history museum, focussed on participation & fun. Travel 10,000 years of Scottish history in one day from the Mesolithic to a Roman Marching Camp.
Tel: +44 (0)1464 851 500

Castle Trail
A marked tourist trail around the region, taking in an impressive 13 of Scotland’s most unique castles, including Huntly, Balmoral, Fraser, Drum, Fyvie Castle and many more.

Coastal Trail A 165 mile sign-posted trail journey through cliff tops and coves, beaches and bays, and towns and villages. There’s a wide range of visitor attractions, nature reserves and other places of natural interest along the way.

Duff House
Home to the National Galleries of Scotland’s ‘permanent collection’.
furniture, including chairs by Chippendale, tapestries, and old masters by artists such as Gainsborough and Sir Henry Raeburn.
Tel: +44 (0)1261 818 181

Fraserburgh Heritage Centre Quarry Road, Fraserburgh Originally a barrel factory, now a modern heritage attraction which illustrates the history of Fraserburgh and its people.
Tel: +44 (0)1346 512 888

Gemini Explorer
Spot whales and dolphins, with the stunning backdrop of the Moray Firth from the beautiful ex Clyde class lifeboat The Gemini Explorer.
Tel: +44 (0)7747 626 280

Glenfiddich Distillery
Visits to this working distillery are free, but a connoisseur’s tour round this distillery is highly recommended.
Tel: +44 (0)1340 820 373

Glenshee Ski Centre
The UK’s largest ski lift system, with 20 lifts and 36 runs. Equipment hire, snow sports school, shop and mountain cafes and chairlift on site.
Tel: +44 (0)1339 741 320

Glenlivet Wildlife
Tomnavoulin, Glenlivet
Take an off-road safari and get introduced to the wild Cairngorms.
Tel: +44 (0)1807 590 241

The Gordon Highlanders Museum
Viewfield Road, Aberdeen
Discover the compelling and dramatic story of one of the British Army’s most famous regiments.
Tel: +44 (0)1224 311 200

The Macallan Distillery
Take an official tour of the famous Macallan Distillery.
Tel: +44 (0)1340 872 280
Museum of Scottish Lighthouses Kinnaird Head, Fraserburgh Created within the first lighthouse built on mainland Scotland, this important museum houses comprehensive displays and the story of the Lighthouse Stevensons. Visit includes guided tour of Kinnaird Head castle and lighthouse.
Tel: +44 (0)1346 511 022

Victorian Trail
Queen Victoria’s distinctive profile on brown-coloured tourist signs points you along the Victorian Heritage Trail, leading you to some of the spots she herself enjoyed during visits to the area.

WDCS Wildlife Centre
Tugnet, Spey Bay
Spot dolphins on the Moray Firth with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
Tel: +44 (0)1343 820 339


The Auld Kirk
Former church tastefully converted into one of Grampian’s finest restaurant-with-rooms.
Tel: +44 (0)1339 755 762

The Boat Inn
Traditional riverside inn offering light bar snacks as well as full three-course meals.
New ensuite rooms.
Tel: +44 (0)1339 886 137

The Cock & Bull
A culinary must-visit. Choose from casual dining in the cosy lounge, or fine-dining in the restaurant. Excellent food and atmosphere.
Tel: +44 (0)1358 742 466

The Fjord Inn
Highly rated restaurant using the best of local ingredients.
Tel: +44 (0)1464 841 232

Gordon’s Restaurant
Traditional home cooking is served in this cosy and friendly tea room in the centre of Braemar. Also offers accommodation.
Tel: +44 (0)1339 741 247

Haddo House Tearoom
Excellent coffee shop attached to one of Scotland’s grandrest stately homes.
Tel: +44 (0)844 493 2179

The Milton Deeside
High quality service and delicious award winning cuisine – The Milton holds an AA rosette award for quality.
Tel: +44 (0)1330 844 566

The New Mains of Scotstown
Bridge of Don Award winning restaurant and bar
Tel: +44 (0)1224 825 222

Raemoir House Hotel
Banchory Four star country house hotel set in 3500 acres of beautiful grounds.
Tel: +44 (0)1330 824 884


Ardoe House Hotel
South Deeside Road, Aberdeen Turreted mansion house with more than 100 ensuite rooms and four star service.
Tel: +44 (0)1224 867 355

Atholl Hotel
Kings Gate, Aberdeen
Comfortable four star hotel in Aberdeen’s West End, just minutes from the City Centre.
Tel: +44 (0)1224 323 505

Boath House Auldearn Beautiful country house hotel with an emphasis on quality, fine-dining and a homefrom- home experience. Eight bedrooms and a coveted Michelin star in the restaurant.
Tel: +44 (0)1667 454 896

Deeside Hotel
Small, friendly family-run hotel with 9 en-suite bedrooms and a reputation for service.
Tel: +44 (0)1339 755 420

Granny Curly’s Cottage
Self catering accommodation in a traditional detached fisherman’s cottage, in a beautiful seaside village.
Tel: +44 (0)1771 637 367

Green Brae Farm
Longside, Peterhead
B&B accommodation in a picturesque farmhouse. Excellent home cooking.
Tel: +44 (0)1779 821 051

Loch Kinord Hotel Dinnet,
Nr Ballater
Three star village hotel with good food.
Tel: +44 (0)1339 885 229

Kildrummy Castle Hotel
Four star stunning castle accommodation.
Tel: +44 (0)1975 571 288

The Marcliffe at Pitfodels
Deeside Road, Aberdeen
Elegant five-star country house hotel and spa.
Tel: +44 (0)1224 861 000

St Andrews Cottage
A delightful Grade-B listed self-catering holiday home with two double bedrooms.
Tel: +44 (0)1467 628 950

Udny Arms Hotel Newburgh Modern, comfortable three star hotel offering 28 rooms and creative Scottish cooking.
Tel: +44 (0)1358 789 444