Andy Mossack lifts the lid on Aberdeenshire, a stunning Scottish county that seems to revel on the road less travelled.
Aberdeenshire in northeast Scotland may not have the swagger and cachet of some of the country’s more popular tourist hot spots but perhaps that’s because those in the know might just prefer it that way. For there is much to admire; from miles of dramatic coastline and huge sandy beaches to her countless castles and heritage-rich towns and cities. And by the way, let’s not forget about the 50 plus world-class golf courses right on the doorstep. So, before you dismiss Aberdeenshire from your Scottish touring itinerary, hold your horses, and let me explain why it should most definitely be on it.
Aberdeen might be labelled the Granite City, but that’s not because it’s hard and unyielding. The name is taken from the granite stone that was quarried locally and used to construct most of its buildings. Not any old granite mind. Aberdeen granite is liberally dotted with mica crystals, a natural mineral that reflects the sun’s rays so effectively, the city’s buildings actually sparkle at you. Fancy stone aside, let’s also not forget Aberdeen has had Royal Burgh status since the 1100’s so it’s been a city associated with wealth long before it became the offshore oil capital of Europe in 1969. The University of Aberdeen (Kings College) was founded in 1495. A majestic and noble institution, you’ll find its three colleges sitting like ancient silent sentinels tucked away in Old Aberdeen, a city neighbourhood where time has literally stood still.
Cobbled leafy streets abound and a profound quietness prevails up here, a world away from the city centre. Here you’ll find the quite beautiful 12th century St. Machar’s Cathedral, with its world-famous heraldic ceiling and stained glass, there’s the Cruickshank Botanic Garden, and don’t forget Seaton Park, one of the city’s biggest green spaces right by the River Don. Whilst we’re on the subject of quaint, make a point of also going to see the tiny historic village of Footdee, known locally as Fittie, down at the east end of the harbour mouth. Tiny cottages and painted outhouses with their backs to the sea wind are the remnants of Aberdeen’s ancient fishing community
These days the harbour is a major hub for commercial fishing and oil, and there’s a new cruise ship port being built to handle the biggest liners in the world. Downtown there’s plenty of life going on either side of Union Street, the major artery running through the city centre they fondly call the granite mile. Artisan foodie shops and hipster bars holding hands with major retailers.
With a staggering 263 castles, Aberdeenshire has no shortage of Game of Thrones potential. However, just down the road from glorious Cruden Bay Golf Club, Slains Castle might be one of the strangest. While Yorkshire’s Whitby squeezes every drop it can from its Dracula connection, the Slains Castle ruin might just prove to be the real inspiration for Bram Stoker’s masterpiece.
Built by the Earl of Erroll in the 16th century, it is dramatically perched right on the clifftop overlooking the North Sea. In 1837 it was converted into a Scots Baronial mansion by the then Earl who used it for entertaining celebrity guests including one Bram Stoker who was a frequent visitor. We know this because back in Cruden Bay at the Kilmarnock Hotel, (named after one of the Earls and not the city) which itself has a history dating back over 100 years, there lies an original guest register signed by Stoker who stayed there with his family while writing the first few chapters of his new novel, Dracula.
The castle was featured in numerous Stoker books, and one room in the castle, the Octagonal Room, featured in Dracula. Standing there amid the waves crashing against the rocks far below, there was no doubt in my mind this was an ideal home for the Prince of Darkness. I rest my case.
Another not-to-be-missed castle is Dunnottar, a ruined fortress dramatically perched on rugged headland some above 50 metres above Stonehaven’s pretty harbour. It is a jaw-dropping Kodak moment that probably encapsulates Aberdeenshire’s unforgettable scenery in one fell swoop. The former home of the Earls Marischal, once one of the most powerful families in Scotland is the polar opposite to Slains. This is a real slice of Scottish royal history involving Mary Queen of Scots, the Scottish crown jewels, William Braveheart Wallace and Oliver Cromwell just for starters. The castle is joined to the mainland by a narrow strip of land where single stone steps lead you up to the gatehouse.
This castle is so authentic it’s a Hollywood staple for location shoots and I had no trouble in imagining what life was really like here, such is the detail that remains. It has been magnificently preserved and the experience here will live long in my memory.
You can leave the car at the harbour and take a 40-minute hike up to the castle. Your efforts can be rewarded when you return with a bite to eat at one of the lovely harbourside inns. I ate at the Marine Hotel which offered a very tasty menu for all tastes including daily fresh seafood.
Peterhead Convict Prison Museum
Another eerie piece of history lies in nearby Peterhead, where the enormous Victorian prison is now preserved as a museum since its closure in 2013. Known as Scotland’s toughest jail, Peterhead Prison’s place in history was assured when on October 3rd 1987 the SAS was brought in to end a five-day prison riot siege. The only time the regiment has been used to end a domestic siege in Britain. The self-guided audio tour takes you around the cells and describes prisoner conditions through the years. It is a chilling yet fascinating window into prison life, the stories all the more harrowing by being described by former prison officers.
Balmoral Castle and Gardens
The jewel in Aberdeenshire’s crown has to be Balmoral, the summer home of the royals since 1852. The journey to Balmoral is a scenic adventure in itself being the gateway to the highlands through Royal Deeside and the Cairngorms National Park. It’s hiking and biking heaven some 200 metres above sea level. The closest town to Balmoral is Ballater which is worth a stroll around mainly to see how many of its shops hold royal warrants to supply goods and services to Balmoral. You can see the warrants sitting proudly above the front doors.
Another historic nearby town is Braemar, home of course, to the world-famous Braemar Gathering or Highland Games as it’s better known. The story of the Games is displayed in the grounds pavilion where a number of extraordinary Clan outfits are on display.
The Fife Arms is another slice of history that must be seen to be believed. A once tired overnight coaching stop has been transformed into a luxury boutique hotel containing over 16,000 pieces of art. The brainchild of professional art dealers Iwan and Manuela Wirth, it’s a remarkable kaleidoscope of art from pieces literally worth millions to more affordable local etchings in both public and guest rooms.
Balmoral is quite simply unmissable. There is much to savour here. The manicured gardens, the castle, around the forested estate and even the golf course which is now open to the public to play on selected days.
The Ballroom is the only part of the castle interior currently open to the public, however, you can visit the stables where an exhibition of the royal carriages is on display.
I hope I’ve convinced you to put Aberdeenshire on your Scottish itinerary. You’ll be assured a very warm welcome there. It may be a tourist road far less travelled but I would suggest one that is perhaps much more memorable.
All pictures (c) Andy Mossack except The Fife Arms, Balmoral, Dunnotar and the cottages in Old Aberdeen.
Tell me more about Aberdeenshire
Visit Aberdeenshire has detailed itineraries of many of the destinations shown here and many more besides.
Admission Adults – £15.00 Children (5 to 16 years) – £6.00 includes access to the formal and vegetable gardens, the exhibitions in the stable area and largest room in the Castle, the Ballroom plus an audio guide.
Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven, AB39 2TL
T: +44 (0) 1569 766320
Please note that entry tickets/guidebooks cannot currently be bought on-site and must be purchased online. Admission: Adult – £8, Child (age 5 – 15) – £4, Concession (age 60+) – £7, Guide book – £5.
Peterhead Prison Museum, Admiralty Gateway, South Road, Peterhead AB42 2ZX T: +44 (0)1779 581060 Admission: Adults 16 – 64 is £9, Children 6 – 15 is £4.50 (0-5 free) Family ticket 2 Adults (aged 16+) & 2 Children (aged 5-15) is £20 under 5’s are free. Seniors/Concessions 65+ £6.50.
Kilmarnock Arms, Bridge Street, Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire, AB42 0HD. T: +44 01779 812 213 E: email@example.com
I’ve personally stayed in these three hotels and trust me, they are excellent examples of Aberdeenshire hospitality.