Aberdeen, Scotland’s third most populous city is well known for its glistening granite buildings. The Marischal College located on Broad Street is in fact said to be the second largest granite building in the world. These mighty grey buildings are a stark contrast to the Aberdeen beach and promenade. You can go from wandering along the city streets to enjoying an ice cream by the sea in only a matter of minutes.
The further you venture out from the city the more gems that await your discovery. Whether you head in the direction of the coast or drive inland, it won’t take you long before you will find yourself encompassed by the beauty of the vast landscapes or standing just feet away from the crashing waves against the craggy rocks.
The hundreds of ruined castles that are tucked away within the shire, tell of a blood-stained history; charming fishing villages evoke images of trawlers arriving at dawn with the day’s catch; and prehistoric forts and stone circles remind us that early man’s fingerprint has never truly left the county. All, of course, infused with centuries of proud Scottish traditions, heritage, and customs.
Aberdeenshire is also home to a wealth of wildlife, from the puffins and kittiwakes that cluster on the craggy cliffs in the east, to the rarely seen red squirrels and deer that inhabit the Caledonian pine forests in the west. The area is also one of the best places in the country to witness marine life at play, with dolphins, seals, and the occasional minke whale, freely inhabiting the waters along the Banffshire coast.
So let’s explore just some of the gems that Aberdeenshire has to offer, where hopefully you will enjoy discovering these atmospheric locations for yourself or decide to revisit again.
In the rugged north of Aberdeenshire, the charming fishing village of Pennan is located along the Banffshire Coast, with its gable-ended white-harled cottages that perch at the foot of dramatic cliffs on the edge of the sea. Despite its natural beauty, Pennan’s most famous sight is, in fact, a discreet phone box, immortalised in the cult British film, Local Hero. A delightful pebble beach makes for a relaxing summer’s afternoon, from where dolphins and seals may be spotted, while the raging waves in winter invoke the wildness for which the Aberdeenshire coastline is known.
There are countless villages in Britain where it’s difficult to manoeuvre a car, but only one where it’s simply impossible. Crovie, arguably the most well-preserved fishing village in Europe, is a genial car- free destination, a narrow shelf all that separates the row of idyllic stone cottages, set at the bottom of 300-foot cliffs, from the torrent of the sea. Fortunately, you can leave your car at the viewpoint above the village, before descending for a leisurely amble along the water’s edge, through a village that is as enchanting as it is isolated, timeless as it is bleak.
Nestled on the steep south-eastern side of Gamrie Bay, Gardenstown features terraces of pretty hillside cottages that, amphitheatre-like, peer down on a large, attractive harbour with its rows of colourful creel boats. Unlike Crovie, with its single time-forgotten street, Gardenstown is a thriving waterside community, with a flourishing pub and convenient bus services to neighbouring towns. From the summit of the village, wonderful panoramas expose this distinctive Scottish fishing settlement while, nearby, the ruins of the Old Kirk of St John delve into a bloody history on the site of an 11 th -century battle with the Danes.
The dramatic cliffs at RSPB Troup Head offer a unique chance to witness Scotland’s largest mainland gannet colony, in a spectacular coastal setting with superb seascape views. The nature reserve bursts to life in early spring, as thousands of guillemots, kittiwakes, and razorbills return for the breeding season, while the clifftop wildflowers explode in a riot of colour. By summer, Troup Head is home to fulmars, gannets, and herring gulls, while you may also spot seals, minke whales and bottle- nosed dolphins offshore.
Scotland’s history has often been bloody and, in Aberdeenshire, you’re surrounded by evidence of the country’s past skirmishes. At Cullykhan Fort, uncovering the past is made even more fascinating by the layers of history that you can explore, from the Iron Age promontory fort, to the small keep of a medieval castle, and a 17 th century battery. Rarely in the UK can you explore relics of warfare spanning so many centuries in one place. Nearby, the small, secluded cover of Cullykhan offers a private, sheltered beach that’s accessed via a steep path from the clifftop, with superb coastal view to admire.
Distinctive for its wild and secluded location, Rattray Head’s unspoilt coastline has changed little over the centuries; only the offshore lighthouse, accessible via a causeway at low tide, reveals the touch of humankind in a place that is shaped eternally by the elements. The sand dunes, sculpted by coastal winds, often reach heights up to 75 feet, an image more reminiscent of Saharan Africa. At shallower depths, marram grass penetrates the surface, creating a picture-postcard scene that’s as idyllic in high summer as it is ghostly amid the autumn mists. Despite the serene panorama, the relics of numerous shipwrecks scattered across the beach serve as a timely reminder of the hidden dangers posed by the Aberdeenshire coastline.
Aberdeenshire is famous for its wildlife and, only a few miles north of Aberdeen, a unique – and sometimes comical – sight awaits, where the mouth of the Ythan River spills into the sand dunes at Newburgh Beach. Here, hundreds of seals gather in a year-round colony, a remarkable part of nature that has earned the location the nickname ‘Seal Beach’. From a safe distance that avoids causing unnecessary distress, watching the seals is a rewarding pastime for the whole family, while photographers – armed with a long-distance lens – will delight in capturing some memorable shots.
Bullers of Buchan
Coastal scenery doesn’t come much more impressive that the Bullers of Buchan, a remarkable collapsed sea cave that showcases nature in all its power. From the top of ‘The Pot’, the 30m deep chasm into which the ocean surges through a natural arch, the sound and smell of the sea is almost overwhelming, while puffins, guillemots, and kittiwakes gather in the warmer seasons as the clifftop bursts into a show of wildflowers. This is Aberdeenshire’s coastline at its finest, which is why the Bullers of Buchan is a popular destination on a longer coastal walk.
Perched on the craggy clifftop above Cruden Bay, Slains Castle – the inspiration for the Gothic horror Dracula – is a surprisingly complete ruin, a network of dark corridors and hidden corners in which it’s easy to let the imagine run riot. A strangely desolate place, in which the colossal fortress has virtually succumbed to nature, Slains Castle retains the mystery that inspired Bram Stoker, but it’s an intriguing experience to wander through the ruins imagining the castle in its forgotten glory, which once boasted marble staircases, extravagant reception rooms, and croquet and tennis lawns.
At 14 miles, the award-winning Balmedie Beach is one of the longest beaches in Scotland, renowned for its outstanding views, beautiful sand, and rich diversity of wildlife. The extensive sand dunes that fringe the beach, through which two water courses flow, are home to over 225 species of birds, which are drawn to the wetlands that have been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Over 2km of boardwalk have been laid in the sand dunes so you can explore them at your leisure, while the flat sandy beach is as suited to castle building as it is for lengthy walks along the coastline.
For thousands of years, Bennachie has drawn people to its summit, a place for shelter and food for prehistoric communities, who told stories about the giants who cast huge boulders in anger down the mountainside. Today, it’s one of the most loved sights in Aberdeenshire, the soaring slopes cloaked in dense forests that are home to some of the nation’s favourite wildlife, including red squirrels, roe deer, and pine martens. For walkers, there are numerous trails to suit every age and ability, including an exhilarating climb to the summit, while the Visitor Centre offers an educational insight into the communities and wildlife that have, for centuries, called Bennachie home.
East Aquhorthies Stone Circle
Recumbent stone circles – where a monolith is laid centrally to a circle of standing stones – are a window into prehistoric history that are peculiar to Scotland, with Aberdeenshire boasting 90 sites alone. East Aquhorthies is one of the oldest, some 4,000 years in the making, an attractive mixture of grey and red granite sourced from nearby Bennachie. Wandering amid these immense stones is a calming and spiritual experience as you wonder at the sheer magnitude of the site and ponder the reasons why late-neolithic man created such an immense configuration.
With its dusky pink harled exterior, Disneyesque turrets, and sprawling manicured gardens, Crathes Castle is the classic Scottish tower house, and one of the most impressive and complete of its kind in the country. Whatever your age, there’s endless distractions to enjoy, from an extravagant interior furnished with impressive painted ceilings and fine antique furniture, to beautifully maintained gardens that feature immense yew hedges, sculpted topiary, and exotic flowers. Younger visitors will delight in the adventure playground, while relaxed walks along the waymarked trails around the estate offer the chance to glimpse red squirrels, heron, and woodpeckers in their natural habitat.
Mar Lodge Estate
The largest and most important nature reserve in Britain, the Mar Lodge Estate boasts 29,000 hectares of spectacular landscapes in the heart of the Cairngorms, featuring sprawling Caledonian pine forests, wetland marshes, rugged moors, and craggy mountains. For walkers and hill climbers, the panoramas are a feast for the eyes – there are fifteen Munros on the estate alone – while gentler accessible trails through woodland and over heather-clad moors reveal iconic Scottish wildlife, including red squirrels, deer, and meadow pipits amongst the 5,000 other species known to reside here. Every day, every angle, every weather delivers a new visitor experience, making the Mar Lodge Estate a destination you can escape to time and time again.
Linn of Quoich
A favourite of Queen Victoria during her stays at the nearby Balmoral Estate, Linn of Quoich is a delightful and picturesque spot, a perfect opportunity to withdraw from the hustle and bustle of modern life. With paths that are predominantly level, walks through secluded woodland, along the water’s edge, and over the bridge that spans a narrow ravine, are suitable for all ages and abilities. The Punch Bowl, a strange hole in the rock midstream that was formed naturally by the swirling torrent below, is a fascinating sight – reputedly into which the Earl of Mar poured spirits to toast the Jacobite cause in 1715.
Tahuna Bothies provide exquisite self-catering accommodation for a couple seeking a romantic getaway, or a group of four seeking quality time together as friends or family, in high spec, cosy bothies that offer unrivalled views over the Aberdeenshire coast. Huge floor-to-ceiling windows frame the stunning sunrise, while you can watch the sun sink below the horizon over a glass of wine in the private outdoor dining area. Each of the three bothies is equipped to the highest standard, with a fully equipped kitchenette, super king-sized bed, and modern bathroom.
Boutique Farm Bothies
Secluded in rural Aberdeenshire, Boutique Farm Bothies offer delightful solitude in the tranquil Scottish countryside, a rare chance to step back from life and share quality time with a loved one. The two units – Barley Bothy and The Sheep Shed – feature charming shabby chic interiors, with all the home comforts you desire. After a relaxing soak in the rolltop bath, slip into the king-sized bed laid with elegant white cotton sheets; for cooler months, the cosy Baavet is perfect for snuggling, while the starlit heavens are revealed through the stargazing window. Subtle lighting and the woodburning cooker add to the sense of rustic comfort, a classically Scottish home away from home in rural Aberdeenshire.
The Flying Stag at The Fife Arms
For warm Scottish hospitality, you needn’t look further than The Flying Stag, the long-time social centre of the village of Braemar. Thronged with locals and visitors alike, the bar at The Fife Arms boutique hotel is a convivial, animated hub, where a tempting variety of traditional and contemporary dishes, using the best local produce, can also be enjoyed. The Flying Stag is rich on Scottish tradition, from the portraits of locals that grace the walls and the Victorian stuffed animals housed in wooden cabinets, to the winged flying stag itself, the hybrid creation of artist James Prosek, which soars over the bar.
Just a short walk or drive along from The Fife Arms is where you will find Braemar Castle, a 17th century castle built by the Earl of Mar in 1628. Over the years it has been a hunting lodge, a fortress, garrison and family home. Home to the chiefs of Clan Farquharson, it is furnished with furniture, memorabilia and personal belongings of the Farquharson family. Now the castle’s future rests with the small community of Braemar.
Even though the castle isn’t currently open for tours, the walk around the grounds will not disappoint. With a newly installed multi-coloured neon sign by artist Martin Creed that reads “Everything Is Going To Be Alright”. This was created to celebrate the reopening of The Fife Arms Hotel.
At Buchanan Bistro, sustainability is at the heart of its service, with food ethically sourced from local suppliers, not only to support the Aberdeenshire economy, but also to protect the local and global environment. Imaginative dishes that capture the unique flavours of Scottish cuisine, superlative service, and outstanding rural views from your table combine to deliver a memorable dining experience, whether you pop by for a refreshing coffee and cake or enjoy a three-course meal. Committed to providing only honest, thoughtful food, Buchanan Bistro promises a memorable dining experience that cares as much as the planet as it does about you.
Perfectly situated between Braemar and Ballater, opposite the gates for the Balmoral Estate, the Tarmachan Café is an ideal mid or end of hike stop, enjoying a wonderful rural location in a delightful part of Aberdeenshire. Home baked savoury and sweet snacks, pastries, and breads are a speciality, complemented with fine coffees, teas, and cold drinks. Gluten-free diets are well-catered for, and there’s ample parking if you’re planning to drop in when driving past.