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.
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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.
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 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.
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 Malt Whisky Trail
There are eight distilleries on the official Malt Whisky Trail, a clearly signposted seventy-mile meander around Speyside. All offer a guided tour (some are free, others charge but then give you a voucher that is redeemable against a bottle of whisky from the distillery shop), with a tasting to round it off; if you’re driving you’ll often be offered a miniature to take away. You could cycle or walk parts of the route, using the Speyside Way. The following are selected highlights.
B9102 at Knockando. Established more than a century ago, when the founder’s wife would raise a red flag to warn crofters if the authorities were on the lookout for their illegal stills. With attractive, pagoda-topped buildings, it sells rich, full-bodied whisky with distinctive peaty flavours.
Rothes. Well-known, floral whisky aggressively marketed to the younger customer. The highlight here is the attractive Victorian garden, with well-tended lawns, mixed, mature trees, a tumbling waterfall and a hidden whisky safe.
A941 just north of Dufftown. The biggest and slickest of all the Speyside distilleries, still owned by the same family who founded it in 1887. It’s a light, sweet whisky packaged in triangular bottles – unusually, the bottling is still done on the premises and can be seen as part of the tours.
B9008. A famous name in a lonely hillside setting; the Glenlivet twelve-year-old malt is a floral, fragrant, medium-bodied whisky. This was the first licensed distillery in the Highlands, and the Speyside Way passes through the grounds.
Craigellachie. An unusual alternative to a distillery tour, but part of the official trail, demonstrating the ancient and skilled art of cooperage.
Keith. A small, old-fashioned distillery claiming to be Scotland’s oldest (1786); it’s certainly one of the most attractive, with pagoda-shaped buildings and the River Isla rushing by. The malt itself has a rich, almost fruity taste and is pretty rare, but is used as the heart of the better-known Chivas Regal blend. You can get here on the restored Keith & Dufftown Railway.