Visit Aberdeenshire recently invited me to spend a weekend touring the region. My aim? To share with you something I’ve know for a long time – Aberdeenshire is awesome. It’s scenic, vibrant, steeped in history, a foodie’s paradise and with miles of hiking trails, fifty-five golf courses and five ski centres it’s a fabulous outdoor playground too.
Our trip would take us north up a 34 mile stretch of Aberdeenshire’s coast (the region has 165 miles of coastline) from St Cyrus to Aberdeen, then west into the heart of Royal Deeside.
St Cyrus to Aberdeen
St Cyrus National Nature Reserve
The first stop on our tour was St Cyrus National Nature Reserve. The reserve is confined by cliffs to the west and a long, dune backed beach to the east. It’s a haven for flora and fauna. Humpback whales have been known to visit – just not while we’re there.
We fell in love with the reserve after spending a sunny November weekend there in 2017. Our home was a converted ice house (a relic from the days when salmon fishing thrived in the area).
The sun didn’t shine this time (it rained heavily), but we still enjoyed a walk on the beach.
Despite the rain there were no long faces at St Cyrus.
Well, nearly no long faces.
After leaving the beach we continued north to our next destination – the iconic Dunnottar Castle. On a dry day we’d have combined our visit with a scenic walk along the clifftops from the castle to Stonehaven.
On this rainy afternoon we bought hotdogs from the castle’s food van instead.
Aberdeenshire has been home to 263 castles – many still stand. Dunnottar is one of the region’s most popular strongholds. Even on a dreich day a steady stream of people arrived to visit the castle.
Stonehaven beach and harbour
Stonehaven (birthplace of the deep fried Mars Bar) was our final stop before heading to Aberdeen for the night.
The seaside town is home to one of only a handful of outdoor swimming pools left in Scotland (we’re a hardy lot us Scots). It also boasts a nice harbour and a beach with intricate, metal sculptures.
A number of years ago the sculptures began appearing on Stonehaven Beach. The identity of Aberdeenshire’s answer to Banksy was a mystery, until local sculptor Jim Malcolm came forward this year and admitted he was the artist.
Stonehaven is worth visiting for the sculptures alone. They’re delightful.
It was summertime in Scotland, so rain wasn’t going to put me off eating ice cream by the sea. Mr G thought I was joking when I asked if he’d like a cone from the cafe by the harbour. I never joke when it comes to mint chocolate chip ice cream.
After a wander round the harbour it was time to make tracks to Aberdeen.
There’s more to Aberdeen than Granite
Our home for the night was a well-equipped, one bedroom apartment at Skene House Hotel & Apartments (Rosemount). We settled in and chilled for a while but we didn’t have long to linger.
We had a 7:00pm dinner reservation at BrewDog (Castlegate), a fifteen minute walk from our accommodation. The walk would give us a chance to check out some of the street art that’s added artistic flair to Aberdeen’s streets since the Nuart Festival came to town in 2017. Nuart is one of ten key festivals that take place in Aberdeenshire each year.
Eat – BrewDog, Castlegate
In 2007 BrewDog was founded in Fraserburgh by two men and a dog. Their mission was to make people passionate about great craft beers. A decade later and the two man, one dog operation is a household name with 50 bars worldwide.
BrewDog describe their menu as “farm to table junk food”. It’s been designed to pair perfectly with their beer.
We ordered small plates of macaroni and chips. Mr G made short work of a pint of BrewDog Kingpin lager, while little old wine drinker me had a nice glass of Picpoul de Pinet. The boy stuck with his usual tipple – water.
After dinner we were joined by Mr G’s bestie JC, who lives in Aberdeen. It’s been a while since the Nairn laddies caught up, so it was nice that our paths crossed on this trip.
A couple of years ago we introduced JC to the delights of Scottish gin, so we had to try BrewDog’s LoneWolf gin. It got a big thumbs up from our wee Scottish gin appreciation society.
After breakfast the next morning we spent some time exploring Aberdeen on foot.
Aberdeen is often described as grey due to a predominance of granite buildings. Grey conjures up a depressing image, but that couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to Aberdeen. The city has lots of grand architecture, lovely green spaces and a nice sandy beach.
One of my favourite parts of the city is Old Aberdeen. There you’ll find quiet cobbled streets, fairytale towers and the historic buildings of the city’s ancient university.
Old Aberdeen isn’t the city’s only old town. Tucked away in a corner by the harbour is Footdee (Fittie to locals).
Aberdeen’s fishing quarter, consists of squares of tightly packed fisherman’s cottages and quirkily decorated sheds.
Fittie is a delight to stroll round early in the morning, before tour parties arrive to snap photos of this unique urban village.
Nearby, Torry Battery is a good place to spot dolphins. That’s right, dolphins in Aberdeen. Who knew?
Aberdeen to Royal Deeside
After leaving Aberdeen we headed west towards Royal Deeside in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park.
We didn’t get far before elevenses were calling.
Castle Fraser Garden & Estate
You can always rely on the National Trust for Scotland when you fancy coffee and a slice of cake.
It was 1st June – recognised as World Outlander Day by fans, so Castle Fraser Garden & Estate seemed like the obvious choice for elevenses.
The castle which is thought to date to the mid-fifteenth-century, is one of Scotland’s largest and most impressive tower houses. It has a walled garden and sits in beautiful parkland, so it’s a nice place to stop even if you’re not on a cake and coffee hunt.
We arrived In Braemar too early for lunch, so we went for a walk in the grounds of Braemar Castle (built in 1628 as a hunting lodge for the Earl of Mar), then a wander round the village.
Eat – The Fife Arms Hotel, Braemar
When lunchtime arrived we headed to the Fife Arms Hotel. I’ve been desperate for a peek inside since it reopened in December 2018 after lengthy renovations.
Scotland’s hottest, new hotel completely took my breath away. The style is a blend of Victoriana and modern art. Think, Queen Victoria era Balmoral Castle decor, fused with exhibits from the Tate Modern. It’s a wacky, eclectic mix that works brilliantly.
The walls of the hotel are adorned with paintings, including original works by Picasso and Freud. In an interior courtyard stands one of French artist Louise Bourgeois’s iconic spiders.
It’s not every day the boy’s allowed near famous artworks, so he posed for a spider selfie before lunch.
We ate lunch in the hotel’s dog-friendly Flying Stag Bar.
I had a delicious, Scottish garden pea and lovage risotto with aged parmesan. The boy helped me with the peas, snatching each one greedily.
Mr G had castelluccio lentil and sorrel soup with wild garlic creme fraiche, plus house cured salmon, wild garlic crowdie, capers and toasted rye. He eats a lot of salmon on our travels, but this was the best salmon dish he’s ever tasted.
A Hike to Linn of Quoich
Lunch eaten, we left the Fife Arms and headed into the Mar Lodge Estate on the outskirts of the village.
Six miles down a single track road we passed the tumbling waters of the Linn of Dee. Many visitors to the estate stop as this point, but we had four more miles to navigate to reach our trail.
Parking at the end of the road, we followed a path uphill. We gained height quickly and were rewarded with an expansive view.
Reaching a fork in the path we turned right towards mature woodland. Entering the woods we started to descend, guided by the sound of rushing water.
We’d arrived in the stunning Linn of Quoich. We crossed a wooden bridge that spanned the River Quoich (a tributary of the Dee).
By the river bank, we stopped to watch water pouring through a hole in the rock known as the Earl of Mar’s Punchbowl. Mar was a die-hard Jacobite. It’s said he once filled the punchbowl with whisky and drank a toast to the 1715 Jacobite rising. His involvement in the rising would cost him his estate. He lived the rest of his days exiled in France.
Near the Earl of Mar’s Punchbowl a little stone cottage stands close to the water’s edge. The cottage is known as the Princess’s Tea Room. It was a favourite spot of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, who married the Earl of Fife (owner of the Mar Lodge Estate).
After a wander by the river we turned to retrace our steps back to the car.
We didn’t meet another soul in this enchanting spot, which made it all the more magical.
A Hike to Balmoral Cairns
Many of the tourists who visit Aberdeenshire stop at Balmoral Castle – a favourite royal residence since the reign of Queen Victoria. Few venture deeper into the Balmoral Estate.
We decided to forego the hustle and bustle of the castle for another peaceful hike. Heading over the Brunel bridge onto the estate, we followed a road leading to the Royal Lochnagar Distillery (one of eight to be found in Aberdeenshire). We parked near the distillery and wandered up a path into dense woodland.
Eleven stone cairns are located at Balmoral. The first, ‘the purchase cairn’ was erected by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1852 to celebrate the purchase of the estate. Others followed to commemorate the marriages of the royal children.
Finding them is like a treasure hunt. There are no sign posts or information boards, just paths leading off into the trees.
The most impressive of the cairns is a huge pyramid built in memory of Prince Albert who died aged forty-two.
Prince Albert’s Cairn is reached via a stiff, uphill hike, but it’s worth the effort to reach. It stands in a clearing on top of a rocky, tree covered hill. It’s a peaceful spot with a fabulous view.
The widowed Queen formed a strong bond with her ghillie John Brown. She had a cairn erected for him too after he died. Edward VII destroyed it when he became king, as he disapproved of his mother’s relationship with Brown.
Sleep – No 45 Guest house, Ballater
We arrived at No 45 Guest House in Ballater, tired after our long day out.
Our accommodation for the night was a large Victorian villa. It was home to an adorable cockapoo called Teddy who was a sucker for tummy tickles.
Our room was large and comfortable. Which was just as well, as we planned to spend a lazy night in after two busy days on the road.
We all slept like logs, and woke refreshed and raring to go the next day.
Breakfast was a veritable feast of lovingly prepared, homemade goodies. We couldn’t resist the freshly baked scones and banana bread. They were warm from the oven and absolutely delicious.
The cooked breakfast items from the local butcher were quite literally fit for a queen. Ballater is known as the royal warrant town as many of the shops have royal warrants. The butcher has two, one from the Queen and another from Prince Charles.
The coffee was local too – roasted in Ballater by Roaring Stag Coffee. It was smooth and aromatic.
Before we left, the boy and Teddy became firm friends. A bout of wrestling, some mutual sniffing and a race downstairs cemented their friendship.
A short walk – Cambus o’May
Leaving Ballater we headed east to Cambus o’May. We planned to ease ourselves into the day with a loop round the Lochside Trail. There are three woodland trails at Cambus o’May. The shortest (lochside) is half a mile long and the longest, just under three miles. It’s a good place to stop for a walk if you have limited time.
We were in the habitat of the black grouse, capercaillie and red squirrel. We didn’t spot any, but we did see some cute ducklings out swimming with mummy duck.
The woods were alive with the sound of birdsong, rustling leaves and a babbling brook. So despite the absence of wildlife it was a worthwhile stop.
A hike up Scolty Hill
We had time for one last walk before saying goodbye to Aberdeenshire. Scolty Hill is located on the outskirts of the town of Banchory.
Several trails branch off from a car park in the woods. Keen to get our hearts pumping, we followed the Scolty Hill Trail. It’s the steepest and most direct route to the summit of Scolty Hill (299 metres).
After following the trail through the woods, we emerged on open hillside. The path uphill was narrow and rocky, but fairy easy going. We reached the summit quickly and were rewarded with a 360 degree view of Aberdeenshire.
Scolty Tower stands on top of the hill. It’s a monument to General William Burnett who fought with the Duke of Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars.
Mr G climbed the tower first and gave his customary wave from the top. I climbed after him and clung on for dear life as I checked out the view, before racing back down to terra firma.
The boy enjoyed the view from the summit cairn, then a spot of fast running. As if climbing a steep hill wasn’t exercise enough.
Hill bagged, it was time to head home, but not before visiting one last beauty spot.
The Falls of Feugh are located a short distance from Scolty Hill. They’re a good place to watch salmon leaping up stream. It wasn’t salmon leaping season, but the falls were spectacular just the same.
We watched them from a footbridge, mesmerised by the thundering water.
As we turned to leave we noticed a red squirrel had joined us on the bridge.
It was the perfect end to an incredible trip.
The cost of our accommodation and meals were covered by Visit Aberdeenshire, however all opinions are my own.
Until next time ……….