Aberdeenshire and Moray cover a large chunk of northern Scotland – some 3500 square miles, much of it open and varied country dotted with historic and archeological sights, from neat NTS properties and eerie prehistoric standing stones to quiet kirkyards and a rash of dramatic castles. Geographically, the counties break down into two distinct areas: the hinterland, once barren and now a patchwork of fertile farms, rising towards high mountains, sparkling rivers and gentle valleys; and the coast, a classic stretch of rocky cliffs, remote fishing villages and long, sandy beaches.
For visitors, the large city of Aberdeen is the obvious focal point of the region, and while it’s not a place to keep you engrossed for long, it does have some intriguing architecture, attractive museums and a lively social scene. From here, it’s a short hop west to Deeside, visited annually by the Royal Family, where the trim villages of Ballater and Braemar act as a gateway to the spectacular Cairngorms National Park, which covers much of the upland areas in the west of this region. Further north, the “Malt Whisky Country” of Speyside has less impressive scenery but numerous whisky distilleries, while the coast beyond features dramatic cliffs and long beaches punctuated by picturesque fishing villages.Read More
Aberdeen and around
Aberdeen and around
The third-largest city in Scotland, ABERDEEN, commonly known as the “Granite City”, lies 120 miles northeast of Edinburgh on the banks of the rivers Dee and Don, smack in the middle of the northeast coast. Based around a working harbour, it’s a place that people either love or hate. Certainly, while some extol the many tones and colours of Aberdeen’s granite buildings, others see only uniform grey and find the city grim and cold. The weather doesn’t help: Aberdeen lies on a latitude north of Moscow and the cutting wind and driving rain (even if it does transform the buildings into sparkling silver) can be tiresome.
In the twelfth century, Alexander I noted “Aberdon” as one of his principal towns, and by the thirteenth century it had become a centre for trade and fishing. A century or so later Bishop Elphinstone founded the Catholic university in the area north of town known today as Old Aberdeen, while the rest of the city developed as a mercantile centre and important port. By the mid-twentieth century, Aberdeen’s traditional industries were in decline, but the discovery of oil in the North Sea transformed the place from a depressed port into a boom town. Since the 1970s, oil has made Aberdeen a hugely wealthy and self-confident place. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, it can sometimes feel like a soulless city, existing mainly as a departure point for the transient population who live on the oil platforms out to sea.
South of Aberdeen, the A92 and the main train line follow the coast to the pretty harbour town of STONEHAVEN. Two miles south, the stunningly capricious Dunnottar Castle is one of Scotland’s finest castles, a huge ninth-century fortress set on a three-sided sheer cliff jutting into the sea – a setting stricking enough to be chosen as the abckdrop for Zeffirelli’s movie version of Hamlet. Once the principal fortress of the northeast, the ruins are worth a good root around, and there are many dramatic views out to the crashing sea. Bloodstained drama splatters the castle’s past – not least in 1297, when the entire English Plantaganet garrison was burnt alive here by William Wallace.
More commonly known as Royal Deeside, the land stretching west from Aberdeen along the River Dee revels in its connections with the Royal Family, who have regularly holidayed here, at Balmoral, since Queen Victoria bought the estate. Eighty thousand Scots turned out to welcome her on her first visit in 1848, but some weren’t so charmed: one local journalist remarked that the area was about to be “desolated by cockneys and other horrible reptiles”. Today, most locals are fiercely protective of the royal connection.
Deeside is undoubtedly handsome in a fierce, craggy way, and the royal presence has helped keep a lid on unattractive mass development. The villages strung along the A93, the main route through the area, are well-heeled, with an old-fashioned air, and visitor facilities are first-class. It’s an excellent area for outdoor activities, too, with hiking routes into the Grampian and Cairngorm mountains, good mountain biking, horseriding and skiing.
Originally a sixteenth-century tower house built for the powerful Gordon family, Balmoral Castle has been a royal residence since 1852. The Royal Family traditionally spend their summer holidays here each August, but despite its fame it can be something of a disappointment even for a dedicated royalist – only the ballroom, an exhibition room and the grounds are open to the public.
The Moray coast
The Moray coast
The coast of northeast Scotland from Aberdeen to Inverness has a rugged, sometimes bleak fringe with pleasant if undramatic farmland rolling inland. Still, if the weather is good, it’s well worth spending a couple of days meandering through the various little fishing villages and along the miles of deserted, unspoilt beaches.
The largest coastal towns are Peterhead and Fraserburgh, both dominated by sizeable fishing fleets; the latter’s Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is one of the most attractive small museums in Scotland. Most visitors, however, are more drawn to the quieter spots along the Moray coast, including the charming villages of Pennan, Gardenstown, Portsoy and nearby Cullen. The other main attractions are Duff House in Banff, a branch of the National Gallery of Scotland; the working abbey at Pluscarden by Elgin; and the Findhorn Foundation, near Forres.
Museum of Scottish Lighthouses
Large and severe-looking FRASERBURGH is home to the excellent Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. Here you can see a collection of huge lenses and prisms gathered from decommissioned lighthouses, and a display on various members of the famous “Lighthouse” Stevenson family (including the father and grandfather of author Robert Louis Stevenson), who designed many of them. The highlight is the tour of Kinnaird Head lighthouse itself, preserved as it was when the last keeper left in 1991, with its century-old equipment still in perfect working order.
The Findhorn Foundation
The Findhorn Foundation
In 1962, with little money and no employment, Eileen and Peter Caddy, their three children and friend Dorothy Maclean, settled on a caravan site at Findhorn. Dorothy believed she had a special relationship with what she called the “devas … the archetypal formative forces of light or energy that underlie all forms in nature – plants, trees, rivers”, and from the uncompromising sandy soil they built a remarkable garden filled with plants and vegetables, far larger than had ever been seen in the area. A few of those who came to see the phenomenon stayed to help out and tune into the spiritual aspect of the daily life of the nascent community. With its emphasis on inner discovery and development, but unattached to any particular doctrine or creed, the Findhorn Foundation has blossomed into a permanent community of a couple of hundred people, with a well-developed series of courses and retreats drawing another eight thousand or so visitors each year. The original caravan still stands, surrounded by other caravans, a host of newer timber buildings and a group of round houses made from huge reclaimed whisky distillery barrels; all employ green initiatives including solar power and earth roofs. Elsewhere you can see an ecological sewage treatment centre, a huge wind generator and various community businesses including a café, pottery and weaving studio.
The foundation is not without controversy: a community leader once declared that “behind the front lies a hard core of New Agers experimenting with hallucinatory techniques marketed as spirituality”. Whether that is true or not Findhorn can certainly be accused of being overly well-heeled, as betrayed by a glance into the shop or a tally of the smart cars parked outside the well-appointed eco-houses. However, there’s little doubt that the community continues to prosper, and its worldwide reputation attracts visitors both sympathetic and sceptical.
Visitors are generally free to stroll around, but the guided tour is worthwhile; you can also guide yourself via a booklet (£3) available from the shop or visitor centre, which also has information on staying within the community.