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Issue 92 - Drifting down the Dee

Scotland Magazine Issue 92
April 2017


This article is 21 months 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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Drifting down the Dee

Keith Fergus discovers the delights of the River Dee

With the possible exception of the River Spey, the River Dee may well travel through the most diverse, iconic and scenic landscape in Britain. It is a landscape of extremes. Initially flanked by the enormous Cairngorm mountains, where the tops can be benign one minute then blasted by ferocious winds and snow the next, beyond the spectacular Linn of Dee the landscape softens, the gradient eases, and the River Dee decelerates. Now it flows through ancient woodland and historic settlements such as Braemar, Crathie, Ballater and Banchory.

The River Dee has the highest source of any river in the British Isles, beginning over 4000 feet above sea level at the Wells of Dee, on Braeriach’s colossal summit plateau. It is the 5th longest river in Scotland and the 14th longest in Britain. After 87 miles, its journey culminates at Aberdeen and the North Sea, where the cold wind returns. Aberdeen is a city that has been built from the landscape and has been crucial in shaping the environment, people, and economy of those living along the River Dee.

The Cairngorms have also played a significant role in moulding the River Dee. Over 10,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, glaciation scoured the glens and pushed the land above the 600 metre mark, forming an ecosystem that is called the ‘montane zone’. This provides a harsh but pivotal habitat for a unique collection of flora and fauna, as well as a snow reservoir that bestows an almost continuous source of fresh, clean water that allows trout and salmon to thrive. Indeed, the Dee is internationally famous for its fishing and the sport contributes several million pounds annually to the local economy.

Other wildlife that may be spotted in and around the River Dee includes otter, water vole, golden eagle, osprey, dotterel, ptarmigan, pine marten, red deer, dipper, red squirrel, and the Scottish crossbill — the only bird unique to Britain. Archaeological evidence suggests that people settled along the River Dee during the Neolithic and Iron Ages, but it was the Picts, with strongholds near Loch Kinord and Braemar, who really established roots in the area around 100BC. Over the next few centuries the likes of St Ternan, St Manire, and St Machar established churches along the length of the river.

The Picts, along with the Gaels, were the dominant race in the northeast and formed a formidable force that halted any real progress by the Romans. The Picts and the Gaels eventually merged in AD843 and, as a result, many of the hill and place names along the River Dee reflect both languages. Aber translates from Pictish as ‘mouth of the river’ and so Aberdeen, by far the biggest settlement along the River Dee, or Abergeldie (the Geldie Burn flows into the Dee) have their roots in the Pictish language. Gaelic is prominent in the likes of Ben Macdui, Clachnaben, Ballater, and Banchory.

The meaning behind the River Dee is a complex one. Its derivation from its Gaelic name, Dé, is god, while its Celtic origin of Deva, meaning female divinity, is a denotation shared with Aberdeenshire’s other great watercourse, the River Don.

The River Dee (and Deeside) was propelled into the public consciousness when Balmoral Castle became the Scottish residence of Queen Victoria and the Royal Family in the mid-19th Century and the region became the pre-eminent place for wealthy Victorians to spend their holidays. The arrival of the railways between 1853–1866 was also fundamental to the area’s popularity, as this new mode of transport not only allowed the well heeled to holiday, with family and servants, but also the less well off. The result: a tourist boom in the area that continues to this day.

Such was the area’s popularity that Ballater Railway Station had to be specially adapted to cope with longer trains. As Ballater was the line’s terminus (Queen Victoria did not want the railway to continue to Balmoral, as she felt it would run too close to her home), horse drawn carriages transported royal residents, and their guests the few miles to Balmoral.

Better roads and accessibility also allowed the Cairngorm plateau to be explored properly for the first time, with hillwalking and mountaineering becoming extremely popular from the Victorian era onwards. Tourism has certainly helped the people and places along the River Dee to prosper, but nothing had such a profound effect on the local economy as the discovery of North Sea oil in the early 1970s. Such was the effect of this natural boon that Aberdeen became known as the Oil Capital of Europe and, over the past 40 years, the population of Aberdeen City and Shire has grown exponentially from 55,000 to nearly 460,000. Yet it was granite quarrying that was Aberdeen’s first big industry and the stone has been used to striking effect in many of the city’s buildings. Both fishing and shipbuilding grew from the 15th Century and strong trade links were formed with Germany and the Baltic region, particularly through the export of wool. During the late 19th Century over 200 fishing boats were based in Aberdeen, while Aberdeen Harbour is regularly referred to as the oldest business in Britain and still accounts for 11,000 jobs today.

Aberdeen truly is a beautiful place to walk around. Its history and stunning architecture (particularly the breathtaking Marischal College) is on a par with any other historic city in Britain and it provides a fitting end to the magnificent journey of the River Dee. Both the urban and coastal setting of Aberdeen sit in sharp contrast to the mountainous and rural scenery along much of the river’s length, emphasising the incredible diversity of landscape it flows through.

Top Five Places to Visit

Balmoral Castle
Balmoral Castle is the Scottish home of the Royal Family and the grounds, exhibitions, gift shop and café are open daily from Saturday 1 April until Monday 31 July 2017.

Burn o' Vat Visitor Centre
The geological spectacle of the Vat, a huge pink granite bowl, was scoured from the landscape around 15,000 years ago by a river flowing underneath.

Crathes Castle
Crathes Castle and its magnificent walled gardens have been under the ownership of The National Trust since 1951. It is open daily between April and October, and at weekends between November and March.

Glen Tanar National Nature Reserve
This stunning landscape encompasses mountain, open moorland, forest and farmland and its wildlife includes golden eagle, Scottish crossbill and red squirrel.

Aberdeen Maritime Museum
A superb, award-winning museum that details much of Aberdeen's pronounced relationship with the North Sea. The museum is open daily.

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