After a quite stressful first half term back at school, made worse by the fact that I had to live out of a suitcase in my very kind sister in law’s spare room for several weeks due to delays in the building work on my new flat, I was very ready for a holiday. I had flirted with the idea of San Francisco, but then I saw a photo of a Scottish castle surrounded by autumnal foliage in a magazine and thought that actually, I had much more beautiful – and cheaper! – scenery on my own doorstep. So, a week in Aberdeenshire was duly booked, as it was a part of Northern Scotland I hadn’t yet explored, and the promise of more castles per square mile than any other part of the UK and the unspoiled beauty of the Cairngorms National Park were temptations too good to miss. I was taking rather a risk to visit at the end of October – people made all sorts of faces when I said where I was going, suggesting I was slightly insane to possibly submit myself to a week of driving rain and stubborn cloud – but my head was too full of visions of nature in a blaze of autumnal glory to worry about getting drenched. And as it happens, we were extraordinarily lucky with the weather. The days were crisp, with the most glorious soft golden light that gave the landscape a beautiful sepia hue. It was a delicious week.
We decided to fly in order to make the most of our time; from London, the train to Aberdeen is over seven hours, which is far too long to be sitting down, in my opinion. Though I missed getting to see the subtle changes in the topography of the UK as the train steams up from the gentle slopes of the South to the craggy coast line of the North, it was a treat to arrive in Scotland within an hour of leaving London. As soon as we picked up our hire car, we were off to visit castle number 1: Drum. Drum Castle is everything you’d expect of a Scottish castle; turrets, towers and plenty of myths and legends! We loved exploring the castle itself, but the surrounding woodland was also breathtaking, with the trees burnished with gold and the waning sunlight casting a golden glow on the surrounding landscape as we climbed up higher and higher to see the Dee valley spread before us. It was a magical first day, and we drove back to our Airbnb cottage filled with excitement for the days ahead.
Over the next few days we visited all of the other castles in the surrounding area that were open: Crathes Castle, Castle Fraser and Fyvie Castle, as well as two William Adam designed Georgian houses, Duff House and Haddo House. I could bore you with descriptions of all of these, as they were all glorious, but I’ll just tell you about my favourite: Fyvie Castle. Extensively renovated during the Victorian period by a Scottish steel magnate who went to America to make his fortune and brought back a dynamic and very wealthy American wife to the castle that had belonged to his ancestors 500 years previously, it is a magnificent example of how a traditional tower house can be made into a sumptuous home, and we adored it. It helped that we had a brilliant tour guide, but the Victorian interiors were absolute heaven for me! We also very much enjoyed Haddo House, which is well worth a visit for its beautiful grounds alone, where you can see red squirrels!
In addition to castles, we enjoyed exploring the magnificent countryside and coastline of the region. The beautiful Cairngorms National Park takes up a huge swathe of the north of Scotland, and we drove through it, along the Royal Deeside route, as far as the pretty little town of Ballater. Surrounded by gently rolling hills, lochs and woodland, the Royal Deeside area is so called because of the River Dee that runs through it, but also because of its connection to Queen Victoria, for this is where Balmoral is situated, the Queen’s Highland home. All of the towns in the region benefited enormously from Queen Victoria’s decision to build her castle here in the mid nineteenth century, bringing a railway line with her, alongside a huge number of tourists and wealthy Victorian businessmen and industrialists who were keen to build their own Scottish retreats. The towns along the road to Balmoral received railway stations, neat new rows of houses, and an array of shops to serve the needs of their highbrow customers. Now much of this bustle has gone, in part due to the closure of the railway line in the 1960s, but Ballater retains its quaint Victorian charm and is still the place where the Royal household does its shopping when at Balmoral today. I was delighted to find the wooden station building built for Queen Victoria still standing, and inside it has been marvellously repurposed as a visitor centre, local library and restaurant, with one of Queen Victoria’s railway carriages to look at, a reconstructed royal waiting room, and a fascinating exhibition about the history of the railway line and its connection to the royal family. It is definitely worth stopping off to visit, especially as there’s a very nice second hand book shop to look in, too!
The coastline of Northern Scotland is wild and rugged, and though there was no chance of any sea bathing at this time of year, we still wanted the opportunity to see the sea while we had the chance! There are plenty of lovely places to visit along the coast; we stopped off first of all at the pretty town of Elgin, where there is a spectacular ruined cathedral to explore as well as a magnificent little museum, the oldest in Scotland, full of a fascinating, quirky collection of all sorts of objects, including a world-famous early Victorian fossil collection – just my cup of tea! From Elgin we went on to Cullen, a charming village that hugs the coastline, has an amazing railway viaduct, and is the birthplace of the famous Scottish soup, ‘cullen skink’, which is made from smoked fish and potatoes. We pottered about in the antique shops before heading off to Banff, which is a beautiful Georgian coastal town that is also the home of Duff House, whose Georgian splendour was almost eclipsed by the excellence of the coffee and cake we had in the tea room! As the sun began to set, we drove back along the coast to Portsoy, and watched the sun go down over the horizon, before returning to Cullen for the best fish and chips I’ve ever had at Linda’s – definitely a must visit!
We had a marvellous time taking in the delights of the area, all against the backdrop of an ever changing pallet of glorious golds and ochres that were a feast for the eyes. One final recommendation I must make is to visit the most wonderful independent bookshop I’ve ever been to, in Grantown-on-Spey in the heart of the Cairngorms: The Bookmark. Filled to the brim with an amazing selection of books, including Persephones, we had a marvellous time exploring, and the owner was lovely, knowledgable and full of recommendations. She is passionate about getting people reading in the local area, running all sorts of groups and events, and I was amazed by her energy and enthusiasm. Please do go and support her if you can!