Things to do in Royal Deeside
Capturing the hearts of royalty for centuries, the Royal Deeside is nestled between the grand city of Aberdeen and the rolling wilderness of the Highlands. From the fast-flowing waters of the River Dee to the mountainous Craigs of the Cairngorms, it is a truly varied space that defies classification. Of course, there is more to the Royal Deeside than just scenery – throughout the area, towns such as Ballater and Braemar are thriving hubs of culture and hospitality. For what is just one small corner of Scotland, it is brimming with hidden gems to uncover and unseen lands to explore, of which this article can only highlight some. For those looking to choose their next adventure, the Royal Deeside awaits.
The Scarnock springs take shape deep within the rolling Cairngorms, flowing down the mountains to eventually feed the historic Royal Lochnagar Distillery. For almost two hundred years, the company has continued to experiment and improve their celebrated whisky recipe, all while remaining authentic to the values James Robertson founded it upon. Tours of the distillery run daily, covering every stage of the production process, and culminating in a delicious five-dram whisky tasting session.
Placed across the Balmoral grounds with precise care, the eleven cairns each commemorate a separate event in recent royal history. Queen Victoria built eight to honour her children’s marriages, although the largest of the set remains the immense pyramid-shaped memorial to her husband, Prince Albert. All of the cairns are spottable by walkers traversing the scenic Balmoral estate and make for good checkpoints for your route, but only at times when the Royal Family themselves are not in residence.
Lying fifty miles to the west of Aberdeen, the royal holiday residence is one of the most famous locations in Scotland. Despite its vast historical importance, Balmoral as we know it only finished construction in 1856 when the previous castle on the grounds was deemed too small. The estate continues to be added to by successive royals, and the lands now open to explore cover around 50,000 acres. Guided tours are only available at very select times of the year, so make sure you’re prepared when booking your Royal Deeside trip!
Were the scenic landscapes that surround Braemar its only feature, the village would still be deserving of a visit. However, the thriving community within works incredibly hard to create a vibrant, bustling town brimming with activities and attractions. Various music venues are run throughout Braemar, with gigs and ceilidhs hosted by some of Scotland’s best up-and-coming talent. In the neighbouring glens and forest, visitors can also spot some beautiful examples of Scottish wildlife, from scampering red squirrels to the incredibly shy river otters.
A short drive from her Scottish residence, the Linn of Dee was a frequent haunt of Queen Victoria, who treasured the land’s tranquil scenery for her picnicking. Gazing around at the flowing stretches of the River Dee and the shadowed summit of Glen Lui, it’s easy to see why Victoria spent so much time by the Linn. In modern times, volunteers have created an orienteering course for visitors to test themselves against. There is both a 1.5Km and a 5Km route on offer, or you can bypass the course entirely and simply take in the surroundings.
There is an undeniably heady atmosphere swirling through the ruins of Kindrochit Castle. The lands, and the structures formerly atop them, have passed through the hands of several prominent figures in Scottish history. Frequented by King Robert II for its hunting prospects, he eventually granted the lands to a Malcom Drummond, before collapsing into ruin sometime prior to 1618. Only remnants of the once mighty fortress, excavated during the 1920s, now remain for historical visitors.
The sprawling Glen Tanar estate is the epitome of landscaped luxury. Developed by the current owners as cottage accommodation, the land itself has remained untouched, allowing visitors to explore the natural beauty authentically. With 25,000 acres in total, the variety of walking routes on offer is astounding – from gentle pebbled beaches to challenging hilltop roams, Glen Tanar is microcosmic of the unpredictable Scottish landscape.
Ballater is unique among villages not just for its gorgeous Victorian architecture, but also for being situated wholly within the Cairngorms National Park, combining both natural and designed beauty. Built right in the heart of Royal Deeside, the village is one of the most thriving centres in the Aberdeenshire area where visitors can enjoy anything from historical tours to the countless outdoor sport options available. Those looking to take in the beautiful Cairngorm surroundings can do so on one of several walking routes, or by the beautiful golf course that surrounds Ballater.
To the north of Braemar itself, the impressive Braemar Castle stands tall in its 17th century stylishness. The ancestral seat of Clan Farquharson, the castle is leased into public ownership, allowing the local charity to open its amazing rooms for visitors to explore. Inside, the team work hard to balance out historical information with a local flair. Many of the interior rooms, unchanged from their original decorations, are used to host community events, establishing incredible links with both the past and future of Braemar.
The Braemar Highland Games Centre is a testament to the deep-rooted Scottish tradition of the Highland games. Although the 2021 Braemar Gathering will unfortunately be cancelled, visitors to the Centre can explore the wonderful history of the games, each wall (and ceiling) telling a different story. Exhibiting historical artefacts dating from the group’s origins in 1815, this space is a loving testimonial to the Highland games’ importance for Scottish life.
Just a stone’s throw from Balmoral itself, the royal family share their preferred place of worship with a parish scattered across 180 acres of the Northeast. The land Crathie Kirk stands on has been home to many religious buildings over the centuries, with evidence of worship dating back all the way to the 6th century. Hundreds of years later, it became the favourite church of Queen Victoria, with her loyal servant John Brown even being buried in its graveyard. Today, Crathie Kirk is a testament to Deeside’s connections to royalty, both historically and contemporarily, as well as being simply a stunning location to visit.
One of Scotland’s most fascinating aspects is the sheer range of historical eras that have left their mark on the landscape. Dating to around 4,500 years ago, the Tomnaverie Stone Circle is an enigmatic arrangement of carved stones presumed to be a Neolithic burial ritual. This structure – two vertical stones on either side of a recumbent one – is seen repeated throughout the Northeast and remains a truly enigmatic symbol of our ancestry.
Nestled within a former quarry, the landscape that surrounds Tarmachan Café has been replanted to bring nature back to where it once was. The café itself is run by partners Tom and Caitlin, who specialise in front-of-house coffee making and back-of-house cookery respectively. Together, they have created a gorgeous space to showcase their skills, offering a range of artisanal bakes and beverages beneath a canopy of treetops.
Rothesay Rooms’ frontman, head chef Ross Cochrane, unapologetically embraces Scottish cuisine in every dish the kitchen prepares. The restaurant offers diners a transient menu that adapts to local seasonality, but never strays from Cochrane’s vision of innovative Scottish food cooked to perfection. Although the Rothesay Rooms will soon be moving to the Old Royal Station, this change of locale promises not to alter the restaurant’s core commitment to high quality.
Sitting comfortably between sizeable restaurant and sprawling estate, the Braemar Lodge prides itself on being a characterful hotel. The in-house restaurant attests this, offering a range of home-cooked classics that excel partly due to their simplicity. With a history dating back to 1870, the building itself is unsurprisingly beautiful, situated proudly in its own corner of the Highlands.
Much like the restaurant within it, every aspect of the Fife Arms is crafted to provide absolute luxury. There are a variety of suites and normal rooms on offer, each celebrating different aspects of Scottish culture. Every room is decorated with handmade, often antique, furniture that matches the hotel’s multi-century history. Even the surrounding garden is pristine, having been designed by Chelsea Flower Show medallist Jinny Bloom. Nothing in the Fife Arms has been overlooked, and it has absolutely earned the five stars it proudly displays.
Appropriately sat on the banks of the River Dee, each room inside The Boat Inn guarantees its occupants a fantastic window view. The inn has served as a favourite stayover for locals and visitors to Royal Deeside alike since it first opened its doors back in 1720! While many things inside may have changed over the centuries, their dedication to a welcoming village-pub atmosphere has never waned. The Boat Inn’s guests are guaranteed comfortable rooms, warm welcomes, and authentic pub food all for a reasonable price.
For those looking for accommodation rather more remote than usual, look no further than Howe of Torbeg, the premiere glamp-site in the northeast. Nestled in just one acre of land, the cosy patch has four beautiful wooden glamping pods perched atop Glen Gairn, allowing guests to truly relax amidst the wonderful Scottish nature. The campsite is situated five miles from Ballater – far enough to distance yourself from the hustle and bustle, but close enough to restock on the essentials if needed!
If you are looking for truly idyllic remoteness, then look no further. Gairnshiel Lodge has had many owners since its inception in 1720, when it was established as a hunting lodge and quickly became a favourite of both the landed gentry and visiting royalty. Each room is designed to accommodate luxury but maintain an atmosphere of purity. The monochromatic decorations are entirely unique in the colourful Highlands, although the curated feeling of welcomeness is absolutely Scottish.
The Glen Tanar estate covers vast swathes of the countryside, offering various forms of accommodation depending on your needs. One particularly romantic option is also their newest. The bucolic Tower O’Ess stands tall over the River Tanar – a magnificent gatehouse that dates back to the early Victorian era. Although it has been almost completely renovated, there are still plenty of historical features and secrets waiting to be uncovered, making the Tower O’Ess one of the most unique accommodation options across the whole of Scotland.