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Issue 99 - All about Aberdeenshire

Scotland Magazine Issue 99
June 2018


Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

All about Aberdeenshire

Charles Douglas explores Royal Deeside, Donside and the City of Aberdeen

Having climbed the nearest hill above the site of the original Balmoral Castle that existed in 1849, Queen Victoria noted in her diary: ‘All seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils.’

She continued: ‘The view from here looking down upon the house is charming. To the left you look towards the beautiful hills surrounding Loch-na-gar, and to the right, towards Ballater, to the glen (or valley) along which the Dee winds, with beautiful wooded hills, which remind us very much of Thuringerwald.’

Her Majesty was smitten. Using a small independent bequest from an admirer, she and her consort Prince Albert purchased a Highland holiday escape in her northern realm of Scotland. They found just what they wanted in the sheltered mountainous landscape and moderate climate of southern Aberdeenshire. With annual attendance at the Braemar Highland Games and Gathering, and worshiping at the small church of Crathie, at Ballater, a British Royal Family tradition was launched. With this Royal seal of approval, Braemar and the wider Grampian region became a cherished destination for tourists.

Not that the area had ever been anything other than that for the Scots. Taking in what was once known as Kincardineshire to the south and part of Banffshire to the north, Aberdeenshire can boast of a rich heritage stretching back to prehistoric times. There are traces of Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements, hill forts from the Iron Age, and Pictish and Roman remains. Christianity arrived at the Celtic monasteries of Old Deer and Monymusk in the 6th Century.

In 1057, the Scottish King MacBeth died at the Battle of Lumphanan, 10 miles from Banchory. From the reign of David I in the 12th Century, Norman families began to arrive - Balliols, Comyns and Bruces - and, in his attempt to subjugate Scotland in its entirety, the English King Edward I crossed the area in 1296 and 1303. With the triumph of Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, many acres of land were gifted to his supporters, the Gordons and the Forbeses. Today, their descendants are still to be found occupying those same lands.

Loosely speaking, Aberdeenshire, with its City of Aberdeen on the North Sea coast, is divided into two sections: Royal Deeside and Donside. The former is characterised by a string of historic castles and the Cairngorm National Park, while the latter, much wilder and more remote, is sourced in the Grampian Mountains, and passes through Alford, Kenmay, Inverurie, Kintore and Dyce.

To begin with, Royal Deeside follows the course of the River Dee into the heart of the Grampian Mountains, a blend of moody mountain vistas, tumbling rivers, heather carpeted moors and deep, dark forests.

A useful tip: the recently created North East 250 is an official ‘road trip’ route that is supported by a regularly updated online guide ( The route embarks upon a visitor route from Ballindalloch, on Speyside, over a 250-mile circular route that takes in some of the country’s best locations for whisky, golf, mountains, nature, historic castles and heritage.

Aberdeenshire is famously punctuated with castles and ancient fortifications, over 300 in total, so there are lots of architectural treasures to be found. Approaching on the southern coastal route through the Mearns, the magnificent clifftop ruins of Dunnottar become visible, standing 160 feet above the North Sea. Home to the Clan Keith earls Marischal, it was besieged by Oliver Cromwell for 8 months and it was from here that the Honours of Scotland - the Imperial Crown, the Sword of State and Sceptre - were taken for safe keeping before being smuggled out and hidden in a nearby church by a servant girl under the watch of Cromwell's army.

Some of the most notable castles in the region are the grand Castles of Mar, all of which are open to the public and under the care of The National Trust for Scotland (NTS). These include: Castle Fraser at Sauchen (See: Scotland Magazine #37); Fyvie at Turriff (See: Scotland Magazine #51); Leith Hall at Huntly; Crathes, east of Banchory (See: Scotland Magazine #37); Drum Castle, ancestral home of the Irvine family (See: Scotland Magazine #42); Craigievar Castle, south of Alford, ancestral home of the Sempill family (See: Scotland Magazine #52 ); and Haddo House, 20 miles north of Aberdeen, ancestral home of the Gordon family, the earls and marquises of Aberdeen (See: Scotland Magazine #14).

Some of the region’s other fortresses have been somewhat knocked about over the years and are today cared for by Historic Environment Scotland. Between Pitmedden and Aberdeen are the ruins of Tolquhoun Castle, expanded in the 1580s for Sir William Forbes. Ten miles southwest of Alford is Kildrummy Castle, either built for or adapted by Edward I of England during his foray into Scotland in 1296. It was from here that John Erskine, Earl of Mar, launched the Jacobite Rising of 1715. Not far away, Huntly Castle, which was originally named Strathbogie, dates from the 12th Century and is the ancestral seat of the Chief of Clan Gordon. To the north, the ruins of Pitsligo Castle at Roseharty, Fraserburgh, reflect the consequences of being on the wrong side during the Jacobite Risings of the 18th Century.

On the northern coast at Banff is Duff House (See: Scotland Magazine #41), an elegant masterpiece designed by the architect William Adam and built for the Duke of Fife, husband of Princess Louise, daughter of King Edward VII. This magnificent building is now held in an imaginative partnership between Historic Environment Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland and is home to a superb gallery. To the east, on a clifftop next to Cruden Bay, are the dramatic ruins of Slains Castle, which was built for the Hay earls of Erroll in 1597 but sadly allowed to fall into disrepair over the 20th Century. Nearby, to the south, is the Trump International Golf Club with its championship links golf course. Just two miles to the north is the championship Newburgh-on-Ythan Golf Club, overlooking the Sands of Forvie Nature Reserve. On the same coastline is Cruden Bay Golf Club, which was nominated 54th in the world by the US publication Links magazine.

To the southwest, below Aberdeen and a short distance from Balmoral Castle, is Braemar Castle, the 17th-Century stronghold of the earls of Mar and more recently the seat of Clan Farquharson (See: Scotland Magazine #68). At Fettercairn, on the approach roads from the southern mountain pass of Cairn O' Mount, is Fasque Castle, which was once the family home of the four-times Victorian prime minister William Ewart Gladstone (See: Scotland Magazine #61). This breathtaking castle is now transformed into an events and exclusive-use wedding venue.

Aberdeenshire also has more than its fair share of Scotch whisky distilleries, among them the Macduff Distillery (John Dewar & Sons) on the River Deveron, which was built in 1962; Glen Garioch at Old Meldrum (BeamSuntory), which is one of the oldest operating distilleries in Scotland; Royal Lochnagar (Diageo), which was visited by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1845; Fettercairn (Whyte & Mackay), which was founded in 1824 and is notable for its water-cooled stills; GlenDronach (Brown Forman) at Forgue, near Huntly; Ardmore (BeamSuntory) at Kennethmont; Knockdhu (Inver House) at Knock, which produces the single malt known as anCnoc; and Glenglassaugh (Brown Forman) on the north coast at Portsoy.

The City of Aberdeen, which dominates the northeast coast of this region, is the third largest metropolis in Scotland. It boasts an independently minded population and, up until the recent industry crash, had a thriving economy fuelled by the discovery in the 1970s of large deposits of offshore oil in the North Sea. It is, nevertheless, still well buoyed by its harbour, student population, and tourism. There are two universities: The University of Aberdeen and The Robert Gordon University.

The former was founded in 1495 and is thus one of the oldest in the world, while the latter was awarded its status in 1992. The city’s seaport is the largest on Scotland's east coast and the Aberdeen Heliport and Aberdeen Airport at Dyce claims to be the busiest terminal of its kind in the world.

Aberdeen is known as the ‘Granite City’, on account of the grey stone used to construct most of its historic buildings. Indeed, it was this locally quarried granite that made Aberdeen one of the wealthiest powerhouses in Scotland from the mid-18th to the mid-20th century. Oil simply supplemented this success. However, Aberdeen had enjoyed its Royal Burgh status from as early as the 12th Century.

Over the millennium, shipbuilding developed alongside an important fishing industry and the city became famous around the world for its sharp-bowed ‘clipper ships’, designed for sailing the China Seas and also for the dubious on honour of transporting emigrants to Australia.

The site of Aberdeen Castle, which was surrendered to the English in 1296, is now occupied by apartment buildings on Castle Hill. Tradition has it that the city's motto ‘Bon Accord’ was taken from a password used to launch Robert the Bruce's final push against the enemy before his men dismantled the castle in 1308.

Also worth exploring is the Aberdeen Art Gallery, which houses an impressive collection of French Impressionist paintings, alongside Victorian Scottish and 20th Century British pictures and a fine collection of silver and glass. Other attractions include: The Aberdeen Maritime Museum at Shiprow, which reveals the city's links to the sea; Provost Ross's House, which dates from 1593; The Gordon Highlanders' Museum; The King's Museum, at the university; and The Marischal Museum, which displays anthropological artefacts from all around the world.

Today's Aberdeen has a busy social calendar and hosts a series of annual festivals including the Aberdeen Yarn Festival and the Aberdeen Jazz Festival, both taking place in May; the Visual Art and Design Festival; The Enjoy Music Festival, and the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, held in June; TechFest in August, and DanceLive and Sound in October.

This city of Aberdeen is a truly vibrant, bustling place set amongst the grandeur of fine granite buildings that reflect a rich, dynamic and affluent past alongside an equally affluent present. Yet, within minutes of the city’s boundary, you can be driving along country roads flanked by hills and without human presence in sight. Wide expanses of river water, impenetrable woodland, and isolated moorland abound - all before you reach the North Sea coastline.

Some years ago now, the writer of this feature was called upon to go to the Broch and a three-mile stretch of golden sand at Fraserburgh in order to interview a team of young surfing enthusiasts who came from far and wide. It was chilly and the sky was overcast, as you might suspect in April, but I arrived to find an excited, enthusiastic crowd of youngsters numbering around 30.

All were clad in the clinging wet suits you might have expected to see in one of those rocking Australian or California surfing films of the 1970s. In spite of the icy waters, all were obviously enjoying themselves enormously.

I am regrettably informed that the surfing fad in recent years has somewhat declined off the Aberdeenshire coast, but I shall never forget the laughter and energy of those young men and women who were so obviously having the time of their lives. So there you have it: Aberdeenshire has it all.


Where to Visit

1. Balmoral Castle Gardens Ballater, AB35 5TB Scottish summer residence of the Royal Family since Queen Victoria. Gardens open April-July. +44 (0) 1339 742 534

2. Fyvie Castle Turriff, AB53 8JS A 14th-Century castle managed by the National Trust for Scotland. Former seat of Setons, Gordons and Forbes Leith families. +44 (0) 1651 891 266

3. Aberdeen Maritime Museum Aberdeen, AB11 5EE Award-winning museum that tells the story of Aberdeen's long relationship with the North Sea. +44 (0) 1224 337 700

4. Castle Fraser Sauchen, AB51 7LD An impressive Z-plan castle built for 6th Fraser laird in 1636. One of the 'Castles of Mar', it is managed by NTS and open to the public. +44 (0) 1330 833 463

5. Haddo House Methlick, AB41 7EQ The outstandingly beautiful ancestral home of the earls and marquises of Aberdeen, managed by the NTS and open to the public. +44 (0) 1651 851 440,uk

6. Craigievar Castle Alford, AB33 8JF The ancestral home of Clan Sempill and the Forbes family, this pinkharled castle is today NTS and open to the public. +44 (0) 1339 883 635 nts

7. Gordon Highlanders Museum Aberdeen, AB15 7XH A superb museum focussing on the long history of one of Scotland's most iconic regiments. +44 (0) 1224 311 200

8. Fraserburgh Heritage Centre Fraserburgh, AB43 9DT A community museum at the heart of this fishing town that showcases 400 years of north-east coast history. +44 (0) 1346 513 888

9. The Glen Garioch Distillery Oldmeldrum, AB51 0ES One of Scotland’s oldest operating distilleries, with a visitor centre offering a variety of tour and tasting options. +44 (0) 1651 873 450

10. Crathes Castle Banchory, AB31 5QJ A 16th Century harled castle with turrets, painted ceilings and ancient great yew hedges. Ancestral home of the Burnetts of Leys. +44 (0) 1330 844 525

11. Drum Castle & Gardens Banchory, AB31 5EY Seat of the Chief of Clan Irvine, the Royal Forest and Tower of Drum were given to the Irvine family by Robert Bruce in 1323. +44(0)1330 700 334

12. The GlenDronach Distillery Forgue, AB54 6DB Named for its water source and famous for producing a sherry-cask matured style. The visitor centre is open all year. +44 (0) 1314 562 672

Where to Stay

13. Douneside House Tarland, AB34 4UL 

Superb country house hotel owned by the charitable MacRobert Trust. SHA Fine Dining Hotel of the Year 2018 (National) +44(0)1339 881 230

14. Holiday Inn Aberdeen West, Aberdeen, AB32 6TT 

Modern, stylish and wellappointed hotel with great city location. SHA Breakfast of the Year 2018 (North East). +44 (0) 1224 270 300

15. Kildrummy Inn Alford AB33 8QS 

Cosy coaching inn with charming rooms and superb food prepared by a Masterchef of Great Britain. SHA Inn of the Year 2018.  +44(0) 1975 571 227

16. Maryculter House Hotel Maryculter, AB12 5GB 

Riverside country house hotel with medieval hall. SHA Country Sports Hotel of the Year 2018 (North East). +44 (0) 1224 732 124

17. Newburgh Inn Newburgh, AB41 6BP 

Charming town hotel with great causual dining and atmosphere. SHA Bar Dining, Bar, and Town Hotel of the Year 2018 (North East). +44 (0) 1358 578 888

18. Meldrum House Country Hotel & Golf Old Meldrum, AB51 OAE 

Historic country house offering luxury accommodation across historic and contemporary rooms. +44 (0) 1651 872 294

19. Thainstone House Inverurie, AB51 5NT 

Quaint and charming 18th-Century mansion set in the heart of 44 acres of wood and park land offering charming accommodation. +44 (0) 1467 621 643

20. Banchory Lodge Banchory, AB31 5HS 

Undoubtedly one of the area’s finest hideaways, recently refurbished and stylish rooms. Situated in 12 acres on the banks of the River Dee. +44 (0) 1330 822 625

21. Macdonald Pittodrie Hotel Inverurie, AB51 5HS 

A fine four-star hotel set in 2400 acres of scenic estate land that’s a perfect base for exploring Aberdeenshire. +44 (0) 1467 622 437

22. The Chester Hotel Aberdeen, AB15 4YP 

A 19th Century, granite listed building that’s been transformed into a contemporary hotel with an award-winning restaurant. +44 (0) 1224 327 777

23. Jurys Inn Aberdeen, AB11 5RG 

A large city hotel with 203 comfortable and spacious rooms. Offers great service, convenient location and very, very good breakfasts. +44 (0) 1224 381 200

24. The Marcliffe Hotel & Spa Aberdeen, AB15 9YA 

Something of an Aberdeenshire institution. Expect elegant rooms and superlative dining. +44 (0) 1224 861 000

Where to Eat

25. The Bothy Ballater Ballater, AB35 5QD 

This popular coffee shop offers excellent home-made produce in one of Aberdeenshire's most charming locations. Great for lunch. +44 (0) 1339 755 191

26. The Lighthouse Tearoom Fraserburgh, AB43 9DU 

A well-known restaurant with sea views at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, loved by locals and tourists alike. +44 (0) 1346 511 022

27. The Kilted Frog Delicatessen Inverurie, AB51 3SA 

Charming and relaxed coffee shop and familyrun delicatessen offering a superb range that will suit a range of tastes. +44 (0) 1467 670 066

28. Clatterin Brig Restaurant Fettercairn, AB30 1HB 

Excellent food and pretty garden in rural location. Well known for its tasty lunch menu and superb desserts. +44 (0) 1561 340 279

29. Fennel Restaurant Inverurie, AB51 4UZ 

Excellent modern dining prepared by a talented and passionate kitchen team, led by Head Chef Gordon Reynolds, using the freshest ingredients. +44 (0) 1467 670 065

30. Kildrummy Inn Alford, AB33 8QS 

Superlative cuisine prepared by a Masterchef of Great Britain. SHA Fine Dining Hotel of the Year 2018 (North East). +44 (0) 1975 571 227

31. Birdhouse Café Banchory, AB31 5SS 

Great spot for lunch in one of Aberdeenshire's most popular villages. Offers sandwiches, salads, soups, hot drinks and home baking. +44 (0) 1330 822 072

32. Eat on the Green Ellon, AB41 7RS 

Stylish fine-dining restaurant housed in former post office. Meals prepared by Craig Wilson, aka. The Kilted Chef. +44 (0) 1651 842 337

33. The Tolbooth Seafood Restaurant Stonehaven, AB39 2JU 

Relaxed bistro with maritime décor offering superb seafood sourced from the adjacent harbour. +44 (0) 1569 762 287

34. Rothesay Rooms Ballater, AB35 5QE 

Seasonally inspired and locally sourced Scottish cuisine of the highest quality, served in a traditional and luxurious Highland setting. +44 (0) 1339 753 816

35. Wild Ginger Restaurant Aberdeen, AB11 6BT 

A popular restaurant with a passionate local following. Offers Indian and Asian cuisine in a city-centre location. +44 (0) 1224 581 000

36. Cool Gourmet Stonehaven, AB38 2JP 

A popular tearoom and shop owned by Isla Duncan that offers treats of the highest quality. A great find in this lovely harbour town. +44 (0) 1569 767 679


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