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Issue 60 - Aberdeen & The Grampians

Scotland Magazine Issue 60
December 2011

 

This article is 5 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 & The Grampians

The City of Aberdeen is mentioned in early Norse chronicles. Snorro’s Heimskringla, which was written around 1153, records how Eysteinn, a Norwegian prince, was driven towards the end of a brutal Scandinavian winter, when his girnels were almost empty, to set forth upon a freebooting voyage of looting and plunder. Having reached Orkney, the winds of early Spring found him “steering along the eastern shores of Scotland and brought his longboats to the town of Aparidan where he killed many people and wasted the city.” Is it any wonder that Aberdonians have a reputation for being tight fisted when welcoming strangers?

At the same time, however, they can also be overwhelmingly kind and very generous.

Aberdeen’s charters were granted by William the Lyon in 1179, and two centuries later the town was again virtually destroyed, this time by English invaders, but a new town rose from the devastation and Aberdeen soon thereafter gained its status as Scotland’s primary gateway for trade with mainland Europe.

To begin with, exports were mainly wool, cloth, Dee salmon and trout, and, in all probability, Scotch whisky. Aberdeen merchants prospered and before long they had established their own staple, or fixed market, at Bruges, where they enjoyed customs concessions. In the mid-15th century, the staple was transferred to the port of Veere on the Dutch island of Walcheren, serving the Low Countries, the Netherlands, Belgium, northern France and Germany.

By the end of the 16th century, Aberdeen had also flowered into a seat of learning. King’s College, named after James IV, had been founded much earlier in 1494 by Bishop Elphinstone in Old Aberdeen, 84 years after the creation of its older Scottish university counterpart St Andrews, in the Kingdom of Fife.

From the mid 18th century the mining of granite became Aberdeen’s leading industry, and this remarkable commodity was exported throughout the British Empire. Both London Bridge and Waterloo Bridge were fabricated from it. Meanwhile, Aberdeen shipyards became famous for their sharp bowed “clippers” designed specifically for the China Seas and for the transportation of emigrants to Australia.

In the following century, during the 1970s, the discovery of offshore oil-fields, deep in the cold, dark waters of the North Sea, was to transform the hinterland, bringing immense prosperity to the surrounding territory. With the second largest heliport in the world and an important service ship harbour and port serving the offshore oil rigs, however, Aberdeen still keeps an eye on future prospects by continuing to progress the transfer of petroleum energy into renewable sources.

And largely as a result of this increased affluence, Aberdeen ranks as third in Scotland’s top shopping locations with such famous promenades as Union Street and George Street having been supplemented by shopping centres.

The £190 million retail development Union Square was completed two years ago. Six years ago, the American entrepreneur Donald Trump launched his controversial bid to create the “world’s greatest golf resort” at Menie, on the outskirts of the city.

A few miles north of Menie is Cruden Bay which overlooks St Catherine’s Bay, where there are the remains of two dramatic cliff top castles: Old Slains and New Slains.

The former was blown up by James VI in 1594 as a punishment for the ninth Earl of Erroll’s support of a Catholic revolt. The latter, famously visited by Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in 1773 but destroyed by a fire, is said to have inspired the novelist Bram Stoker to write his masterpiece Dracula during a visit in 1895. Plans have recently been drawn up to restore this remarkable mansion and transform it into residential apartments.

North and South of Aberdeen, the wide-banked rivers, Don and Dee, define the landscape as they flow swiftly into the sea, the latter originating from the Grampian mountains and forests of Balmoral where her Majesty the Queen retains the private estate purchased by her great-great-grandmother.

The River Don, north of the city, also rises in the Grampians and travels through the small towns and villages of Alford, Kemnay, Inverurie, Kintore and Dyce, which is the location for Aberdeen Airport.

Fashionable Deeside folk, spurred on by their Royal association, used to have a tendency to look down their noses at the occupants of Donside, but the countryside that surrounds both districts is equally spectacular and happily the world has moved on from such affectations.

At Tarves, north west of Aberdeen is Haddo House, designed by the architect William Adam in the 1730s for William Gordon, second earl of Aberdeen and now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland Orphaned in 1778 at the tender age of 12, the grandson of the third Earl of Aberdeen found it necessary to turn to his godparents for help. He was fortunate in that they were William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, and Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, who through the political influence he had acquired was known as “The Uncrowned King of Scotland.” Both godparents took a keen interest in the fortunes of their young ward and saw to it that he moved ‘in the right circles’, so much so that he subsequently rose to become British Prime Minister himself, and the young Queen Victoria’s closest advisor.

Donside, also embraces the towns of Huntly, Keith and Rothiemay, the latter, originally known as Strathbogie and the ancestral seat of Clan Gordon. A popular attraction in August is the Lonach Highland Gathering and Games and the March of the Lonach Highlanders.

With a home belonging to the comedian Billy Connolly nearby, this colourful show of strength has taken on a certain celebrity status.

Not so long ago, all of this north eastern territory used to be referred to simply as Grampian Region, from where Scotland’s eastern shoulder juts boldly into the North Sea at Fraserburgh in the north before inclining gently down the coastline to Stonehaven and Kincardineshire.

Strictly speaking, Grampian Region does not exist any more, being transmogrified by our tourism promoters into “Aberdeen City and Shire.” But for those of us who have travelled its roads, fished its rivers and climbed its hills, Grampian, situated north of the Mearns (Kincardineshire), will always conjure up images of the Cairngorm mountains which extend south west to north east between the Highland Boundary Fault and the Great Glen.

The name, and not least the area it embodies, is deeply embedded in the Scottish psyche.

Travelling north by car on the A92 from Dundee, and officially entering Aberdeenshire above Montrose, the coastal road is profoundly dramatic.

At Stonehaven, the conspicuous ruins of Dunottar Castle, ancient stronghold of Clan Keith, hover dramatically over the North Sea. A Pictish fort stood here in the Dark Ages, and during the Civil War of the mid 17th century, the Scottish Victoria and her Consort Prince Albert, it was subsequently remodelled and continues to serve as an annual private retreat for Her Majesty the Queen and members of her family.

Situated within the Cairngorm National Park, is the Balmoral Estate, partly located within the Deeside and Designated Lochnagar National Scenic Area. This is a glorious area of dark wooded forests and inspirational mountain slopes which since 1998 has been designated a Special Protection Area Regalia – the Crown, Sceptre, Mace and Sword of State – was brought here for safekeeping before being repatriated to Edinburgh in 1660.

Aberdeenshire is a land of such castles – Drum, Crathes, Craigievar, Castle Fraser and Fyvie, to name only a few – each an enduring symbol of the families of the region, the Irvines, Burnetts, Forbes, Setons, Sempills, and, of course, the Gordons. Generally better preserved than their southern counterparts, these clan keeps, fortresses and tower houses survive not simply as a reminder of the wealth and privilege enjoyed by the landed lairds who built and occupied them, but of a time when survival depended upon force of arms.

No feature on Aberdeen “Shire” would be complete without a reference to Balmoral Castle, which to this day remains the holiday home of the British Royal Family. Purchased in 1852 by Queen (SPA) under the European Union Birds Directive.

The gardens of Balmoral were first opened to the general public in 1931, and are now open daily between April and the end of July, after which the Queen arrives for her annual holiday. The interiors are private and the ballroom is the only room in the castle which can be viewed by the public.

There are seven Munros (hills in Scotland higher than 3,000 feet (910 m)) on the estate, the highest being Lochnagar, the setting of a children’s story, The Old Man of Lochnagar, written by the Prince of Wales and published in 1980 with royalties accruing to The Prince’s Trust. Incidentally, the Lochnagar Distillery, which produces a particularly superb single malt, is located here.

Another popular feature to be enjoyed by visitors and locals alike is the annual Braemar Gathering, a traditional Highland games which takes place on the first Saturday in September.

Braemar Castle, which dates from 1628, is open to the public during the summer months, passed from the Erskine Earls of Mar to the Farquharsons of Invercauld. It is currently owned by the Braemar Community who acquired it in 2007.

To the west is small town of Ballater which being situated at a height of 123m (700 feet) has become a favourite centre for hikers and hill walkers. The estate of Birkhall, also owned by the Royal Family, is situated nearby.