I’VE HAD the pleasure of visiting most major cities and regions north of the border, but only now have I made it to the ‘granite city’ of Aberdeen and its surrounding county, which since medieval times has been the richest and most fertile region of the Highlands.
One notable feature of Aberdeenshire for the visitor is that it has more castles per acre than anywhere else in the UK. Which leads me nicely to my first stop.
The very first thing that hits you about this striking building is that it’s pink! Built in the Scottish Baronial style in the early 1600s, and set in beautiful wooded grounds in the county’s rolling hills, it is truly a fairytale castle – said to be the inspiration for the Disney Castle itself in Florida, as well as the Disney motif.
Not just striking on the outside, it retains an historic character within with a well preserved period interior, flaunting Jacobean woodwork in the Great Hall and an impressive array of old armour.
If the weather’s clement, a stroll around the parkland grounds surrounding the castle is equally beguiling.
Aberdeenshire Highland Beef
Keeping with the Scottish countryside theme, my next stop is a farm on the hills of the Cairn O’ Mount, where I meet a herd of pedigree Highland Cattle – one of Scotland’s most iconic native breeds.
Their owner, Grace Noble, welcomes visitors for weekly tours of her beef farm, introducing you to the noble cows (there’s more than 100 of them, sourced from all over the country, including a few from the Queen’s Balmoral Estate) before allowing you to sample some of the high-quality meat the farm produces. The cows are more than happy to pose to photos.
Speaking of the Queen, one Aberdeenshire village with longstanding royal connections is Ballater, located in the heart of ‘Royal Deeside’ in Cairngorms National Park. It’s the nearest town to Balmoral (only seven miles away) which explains the many ‘By Royal Appointment’ signs on shops and businesses around town.
Dating back to the 1800s, the village was a favourite of Queen Victoria herself, and today remains one of the region’s top tourist spots.
Undoubtedly Ballater’s centrepiece, amid all its speciality shops and guesthouses, is the prominent wooden building that was formerly the Royal Railway Station where the Deeside railway line once terminated (the final stop for the Royal Fam when heading to Balmoral). Destroyed by fire in 2015, the station has recently re-opened following a £3 million restoration, in which its historical character has been devotedly retained, using old plans and photographs as guides.
If visiting Ballater station, make sure to duck in to Dee Valley Confectioners next door, where in the back room you can observe the mesmerising process of boiled sugar being stretched and fashioned into the twists of candy that will be sold on the shop’s shelves and beyond.
Hotel: Douneside House
For my first night’s stay I check in to an AA Hotel of the Year, set within 17 acres of beautiful grounds on the edge of Cairngorms National Park, with views over the Howe of Cromar. There’s a classic baronial family home vibe here, with painted portraits on panelled walls, comfy armchairs by a grand piano and a library with an open fire.
The restaurant has a three AA rosette rating for its contemporary Scottish cuisine, making the most of the fresh herbs and vegetables grown in the adjacent kitchen garden, around which I have a late afternoon tour with the head gardener before dinner. There’s also a well-equipped health club here, with swimming pool, fitness suite, sauna and jacuzzi, which I regrettably don’t have time to make us of on this occasion, although walking the grounds itself more than makes up for it.
The next day it’s time to explore the Granite City itself. It’s the third largest in Scotland, where a large number of its old buildings are constructed from the sparkling silvery-grey rock, making it unique among British cities.
I start in Old Aberdeen, with 700 years of history on display in the form of St Machar’s Cathedral and King’s College, the forerunner to today’s Aberdeen University, encircled by a network of cobbled roads. Further into the city lies the 16th-century Marischal College, which is actually the second largest granite building in the world (the largest being Spain’s Escorial) – one of the more photogenic edifices I’ve seen in the UK.
Having built up an appetite and thirst exploring these historical quarters, I duck into the city’s nationally famous ice cream HQ – Mackie’s 19.2 – so called because it’s exactly 19.2 miles from their farm at where 300+ cows produce more than 10m litres of ice cream a year. There’s over 20 different flavours on offer in the parlour, including some special handmade varieties only available in store like seasonal mince pie or toffee popcorn. Chocoholics will love the two chocolate taps on the counter streaming an endless flow of melted chocolate to top your ice cream. It would certainly be perilous for the waistline living or working near this place.
For a beverage I swing by the nearby Orchid Bar off Union Street: winner of Scotland’s Best Cocktail Bar 2017, and housing downstairs one of the country’s most innovative micro-distilleries, where I check out the venue’s own ‘Porter’s Gin’ distilled onsite. Three young entrepreneurs from Aberdeen have spent as many years experimenting with imported botanicals to create what has now joined an increased market as the tipple enjoys a renaissance, with 70% of all gin produced in Britain now coming from north of the border. One day we may see Porter’s rubbing shoulders on bar shelves with the other Scottish heavyweights Tanqueray, Gordons and Hendricks.
Next it’s off to see the sea – the city’s coastline occupying a small stretch of Aberdeenshire’s rugged coast, which is dotted along its expanse with craggy cliffs, sandy bays and pretty seaside towns.
One such community is a quirky old coastal settlement at the east end of Aberdeen’s harbour, called Footdee – or ‘Fittie’ as it’s locally known. This charming erstwhile fishing village was designed by Balmoral Castle architect John Smith, with its cute little granite cottages all facing inwards with their backs to the sea to protect from the fierce coastal storms which rage to this day. It really feels like stepping back in time as you wander its streets, with the smell and sound of the sea in the air and seabirds swooping above you.
The Aberdeenshire coast is actually one of the best places in Scotland to spot dolphins, and I’m fortunate enough to have a panoramic view of the harbour and some of them playing within it over lunch in the former customs house on the seafront, now called ‘The Silver Darling’ restaurant. You won’t find many better places for fresh fish in Aberdeen, prepared under the plaudit of an AA Rosette for 2017-18. I opt for the Silver Darling Platter which incorporates grilled langoustines, smoked Loch Fyne salmon, mussels mariniere and a pair of oysters – say no more if you’re a fan of seafood.
Hotel: Meldrum House
For my final night I’m staying in the 4-star Meldrum House: a 13th-century baronial estate nestled in 240 acres of Aberdeenshire countryside about 20 miles north of Aberdeen.
The hotel, which has won many awards over the years (most notably AA Scottish Hotel of the Year), benefited from a £4.5 million development in 2016, adding 28 new bedrooms with floor to ceiling views across their impressive golf course. Meanwhile whisky aficionados have more than 120 malts and blends to choose from in the 800-year-old Cave Bar, so if you’re a lover of both history and a wee dram of the best, you’ve got it made here.
Brewdog and Glen Garioch
My final day in Aberdeenshire is all about the best of local Scottish food and drink, with more of an emphasis on the latter. First up is the global beer sensation Brewdog, which is showing no signs of slowing in snaking its way into bars and bellies all over the world from its brewery HQ (in Ellon on the River Ythan).
Quite partial to a blue-labelled Punk IPA, I enjoy a comprehensive ‘DogWalk’ tour of the premises in a hard hat and high-vis vest, and particularly the concluding tasting session in the house bar, sampling most of its current range of hoppy brews (‘Elvis Juice’ my new fave!).
But for the more refined whisky drinker, a visit to the iconic Oldmeldrum distillery of Glen Garioch (pronounced Geery in the ancient Doric dialect still spoken in these parts) will be even more up your street, especially if you’re a history buff also, because it’s one of the oldest operating distilleries in Scotland, dating back to the late 1700s.
Its whisky, produced only in small, precious batches, is a rare find for those partial to a hearty Highland malt with a honeyed sweetness. It’s made the same way today as it’s always been, so it’s fascinating to observe on a guided tour the time-honoured skills and apparatus involved in its making, with the final tasting in the distillery shop a satisfying reward. It’s definitely true what they say: you can’t quite fully enjoy a dram until you’ve seen how and where it’s made.
Eat on the Green
A day immersed in beer and wine sets one up nicely for a fitting final meal, with this venue in the quaint village of Udny Green, not far from Ellon. The ‘Kilted Chef’ Craig Wilson opened Eat on the Green in 2004, transforming what was once the village post office into a fine-dining restaurant now celebrated as one of the best in the county, welcoming a stream of high-profile dignitaries and celebrities, not least Sirs Sean Connery and Alex Ferguson.
I’m honoured to be able to sample the menu’s highlights while sat with Wilson himself narrating the journey, culminating in a superlative sticky toffee pudding which was apparently invented right here in Aberdeenshire!
And so ends my odyssey through this underrated region of Scotland, where it’s safe to say I’ve tasted the best of the county’s food and drink, and seen some of the more captivating snapshots of its rich history.
It’s no surprise that its epic landscapes and architecture have compelled the Royal Family to plant and maintain such deep roots here, but it really is for everyone to visit, if only they’re willing to come up and give it a go.
For more info on visiting Aberdeenshire go to www.visitabdn.com