Rolling countryside, picturesque harbours, sandy beaches, rocky mountains, bustling city centres and bundles of royal heritage. There aren’t many places which can boast all of these – and more besides – but Scotland’s stunning Aberdeenshire offers them all in abundance.
Nestled along the north-east coast and stretching west into the Cairngorms National Park, Aberdeenshire is the perfect location for an outdoors, back-to-nature break. And while the weather is likely to be more ski jacket than swimwear, there’s an inherent beauty about the place that cannot be missed.
Alongside the natural scenery on display is also a plethora of history, culture and tradition, not least with Aberdeenshire’s royal connections. For any royalty reveller, there are so many key places to visit, from Balmoral Castle to Royal Deeside Railway, and this article will provide the lowdown on the key locations.
The Scottish home of Queen Elizabeth II and holiday destination for the Royal Family for more than 100 years, there’s nowhere better to begin a regal tour of Aberdeenshire. Located in Royal Deeside within Cairngorms National Park, the estate has been in the Royal Family since 1852, when it was purchased by Prince Albert as a gift for Queen Victoria.
Now, the castle is a category A listed building, as classified by Historic Environment Scotland and its gardens, grounds, exhibitions in the stable area, ballroom within the castle itself, café and gift shop are open to the public from April until early August, before the Queen takes her annual holiday.
There are also special events including safari tours, Rangers walks every Wednesday, garden tours every Thursday and seasonal events including Easter egg hunts, Run Balmoral and an outdoor cinema to enjoy. Visitors can even treat themselves to a stay in the grounds by booking one of Balmoral’s beautiful self-catering holiday cottages.
ROYAL LOCHNAGAR DISTILLERY
Experience the process of maturation of Scottish Whisky along with samples straight from the cask at The Royal Lochnagar Distillery. Just one mile from Balmoral Castle, this 19th Century building sits at the base of the Cairngorm mountains, surrounded by the crystal-clear water of the Scarnock springs.
Taking its name from nearby munro, Lochnagar, the Royal name was bestowed upon the distillery following a visit by Queen Victoria herself on the 12th September 1848. At the end of the first ever distillery tour, Queen Victoria enjoyed a dram of mature Lochnagar highland single malt scotch whisky.
Most of us have heard about Balmoral Castle and know that the Royal Family own it and visit it regularly for holidays. What’s not so well known is that there is a really interesting woodland trail round the grounds of the Estate.
This walk takes you past most of the impressive cairns that Queen Victoria had erected in honour of her family as well as a pyramid in honour of Albert who died at the age of 42. The views along the way over Deeside and the Castle are outstanding.
You are free to take this trail any time that the royals are not in residence so avoid Christmas, Easter, August and September. Note also that the trail is not signposted so check it out beforehand to ensure you know where you are going as there are lots of paths in different directions. If you intend to visit the castle also why not take one the guided tours on offer each Wednesday afternoon during April, May, June and July.
Part of the Balmoral Estate, Loch Muick is a truly breath-taking freshwater loch located at the foot of Lochnagar, perfect for those searching for stunning walking routes. It’s also not unusual to spot wildlife including red deer and grouse wandering across the landscape, so a camera is a must.
On the western side of the Loch, our royal tour takes in Glas-allt-Shiel, the former retreat of Queen Victoria.
Built by Queen Victoria in 1868, the lodge became her Scottish retreat following the death of Prince Albert and is widely referred to as the ‘Widow’s House’. Queen Elizabeth II is now in personal possession of the house, which is now a category B listed building.
BRAEMAR HIGHLAND GAMES CENTRE
Just west of Balmoral, the Braemar Highland Games Centre is the next stop on our royal tour of Aberdeenshire. Opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 2018, the centre’s exhibitions detail the fascinating traditions of the Highland games, in particular, the Braemar Gathering and its long-standing royal association.
From 1848 when the Monarch and wider members of the Royal Family began attending the Gathering to the present day where royalty still regularly attend, the event’s royal connection has been deep-rooted. In fact Queen Victoria insisted in 1866 that the term ‘Royal’ be included in the organiser’s name and it became, and still is, the Braemar Royal Highland Society.
The centre is closed throughout winter but re-opens at the end of March.
BURN O’ VAT
Also within Royal Deeside, on the eastern edge of the Cairngorms National Park Burn O’Vat, near the village of Dinnet, is an impressive geological feature known as a pothole. Essentially a giant bowl created by glacial melt, the Vat provides stunning walking routes where visitors can take in a waterfall, caves and other natural wonders.
It was in the Burn O’ Vat cave where Queen Victoria would often escape her royal duties, which is why it’s often referred to as’the Queen’s Well’.
ROYAL DEESIDE RAILWAY
Up until its closure in 1966, the railway line was regularly used by the Royal Family when travelling to Balmoral Castle. Fortunately, thanks to the work of the Royal Deeside Railway Preservation Society, part of the line has been restored and visitors can hop aboard at Milton of Crathes and enjoy the mile-long journey, which takes around 15 to 20 minutes.
The award-winning Victorian station is well worth a trip for the stunning views alone, but visitors can also treat themselves to a cream tea or even drive a steam locomotive.
ABERDEEN ART GALLERY
Located on Schoolhill, in the heart of Aberdeen city centre, you will find the engrossing Aberdeen Art Gallery.
Originally built in 1884 with a Neoclassical design by Alexander Marshall, it’s home to one of the finest collections of art in the United Kingdom.
It was closed in 2015 when a £34.6million transformation started and reopened in 2019 with the number of galleries increasing from 11 to 19 and the number of permanent collections increasing from 370 to 1080.
Discover a space dedicated entirely to the ‘Balmoral Phenomenon’, which explores Aberdeenshire’s connection with the British monarchy from different eras.
There is also a cafe and shop on the ground floor and a new rooftop café and terrace, where you can expect some amazing views over the cities Schoolhill and Belmont Street.
THE QUEENS VIEW
The magnificent viewpoint of Dee Valley, gained its name from Queen Victoria, who fell in love with admiring the panoramic views of the rolling, rich countryside. It was here where she would frequently stop during her stays in Deeside so she could look out towards her beloved Balmoral and the peak of Lochnagar.
Still a popular spot today visitors can take in the beauty of Royal Deeside like Queen Victoria did over 150 years ago.
Beautiful and imposing, the core of Castle Fraser was built in the 1450s and is still one the largest tower houses in Scotland. There are all kinds of quirks and details waiting for you to discover, including a chamber hidden in the Great Hall.
There are treasures and paintings to be admired, momentos to be found in the ‘big house’, as well as a delightful walled garden, restored to its 18th-century splendour.
Castle Fraser does not have any current royal connections, but it was used as a backdrop for some of the scenes in ‘The Queen’ (2006), where Dame Helen Mirren, played Queen Elizabeth II.
It is not uncommon for many of Scotland’s Castles to appear on screen, and to stand in for other well known Scottish Castles. Slains Castle, situated on the coast of Cruden Bay was used in some scenes of season 1 of ‘The Crown’ to portray Castle Mey when the Queen Mother visits Scotland.
Also known as New Slains Castle to distinguish it from the old, it overlooks the North Sea, but it is not hard to imagine from the ruins what a fantastic stately home this would once have been. Built in the 16th Century, it too is a typical example of a Scottish tower house and was the seat of the 9th Earl of Erroll. It has been re-built a number of times, the most recent of which was in 1837. It once had magnificent gardens too.
There is something mystical, almost unbelievable about the ruined cliff top fortress that is Dunnottar Castle. But there it is, perched on the edge of a cliff, open to the elements of the sea.
Once the home of the earls Marischal, it is stunningly beautiful but haunting. It was a fortress that was almost impenetrable and worth a visit if only to take a cursory glance into its rich past. Open from 10 am during the spring and summer months, a must-visit when in Stonehaven.
Closer to Aberdeen itself, Drum Castle is the final stop on our royal tour of Aberdeenshire. With more than 700 years of history in its walls, the castle was originally owned by King Robert the Bruce, before he handed it over to the Irvine family as a gift in 1323. Now owned by the National Trust of Scotland, the tower house, Old Wood of Drum, chapel and gorgeous Garden of Historic Roses, are all open to visitors.
Royal history and heritage can be found in abundance across beautiful Aberdeenshire and is a fantastic accompaniment to the plethora of picture-perfect scenery and other attractions the area has to offer. It’s the ideal short or long break – after all, with the Royal seal of approval, what more could you ask for?
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK IN ABERDEENSHIRE
The Rothesay Rooms is an award winning community inspired restaurant fit for a prince, based in the heart of Ballater. Taking pride in championing the very best in high quality organic, locally sourced produce. With an award winning head chef at the helm, whose focus is to execute Scottish dishes immaculately, embracing a field to fork cooking philosophy.
The restaurant was set in 2015 by Prince Charles (the Duke of Rothesay) as an initiative to revive the community and drive local business after Storm Frank destroyed the local area. Since then it has gained entry into the Michelin Guide and become a popular choice for locals and tourists looking to experience a top class dining experience.
You will be greeted with a warm welcome from its friendly, knowledgeable staff and feel comfortable in its cosy, candlelit setting. The interior is dressed in traditional Highland furnishings, which is complimented with a collection of antiques.
THE BOAT INN
The Boat Inn, offers a stylish traditional pub based in Aboyne which overlooks the River Dee, and has been there since 1720. Feel like one of the locals at this friendly watering hole that proudly welcomes everyone; “Kids, dogs & muddy boots too”, making it a complete haven after a full day of walking and discovering the area.
After working up an appetite, you will be delighted to read that the menu offers freshly prepared and locally sourced food, with plenty of hearty choices. You can choose to enjoy your meal while warming those toes next to the log fire or if its a sunny day outside on the terrace.
If you are looking for a place to stay in the area they also have rooms for the night, 16 to be exact so booking ahead is recommended.
WHERE TO STAY IN ABERDEENSHIRE
HOWE OF TORBEG
The Howe of Torbeg is just a short drive from the village of Ballater but makes you feel like you are a million miles away, allowing you to enjoy the peace and tranquility that surrounds you by immersing yourself in the beauty of Royal Deeside and the Cairngorms.
This family run business provides high quality glamping accommodation as your base with the choice between 3 glamping pods, 1 luxe glamping pod or a beautifully converted Shepherds Hut. All of which share the stunning picturesque views of Glen Cairn.
It is the perfect place to enjoy a back to nature approach to travel with the comforts of their stylish finishing touches and amenities.
In the evening after a day of exploring, you can start a fire and toast marshmallows while watching the stars above you.
Sweetheart Cottage is set within the magical surroundings of Strathdon and spending time there is a breath of fresh air. Welcomed with open arms by their friendly hosts, you will soon appreciate the personality that continues within the walls of each lodge that neighbours the cottage itself.
With carefully thought out details that have been handcrafted by their hosts, you will quickly fall in love with the thought that has gone into your stay. It is perfect for romantic getaways and they even welcome dogs too, so know one gets left behind.
It is also just a stones throw away from the 300 year old Poldullie Bridge, which was used in scenes for the new Mary Queen of Scots film (2019). You may recognise the bridge and surrounding area when watching the film that stars Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan.
Glen Dye is a private estate of around 30,000 acres of wilderness forest and moorland set in ‘bonnie’ Kincardineshire, 25 miles South-West of Aberdeen. Surrounded by magnificent hills and forest, you will find ‘The Sawmill’ which is described as “a private outdoors paradise” – and we couldn’t agree more! The Sawmill is just one of three choices of accommodation that Glen Dye Cabins & Cottages offer, alongside the ‘North Lodge & River Cabin’ and ‘No 4 Steading Cottage’.