If I asked you to think of Scotland what would you think of? The historic streets of Edinburgh? The Highland mountains? The Isle of Skye? What if I told you to think of Aberdeen, then what? A lot of people don’t know what this northeastern county has to offer, so below I hope to offer you an insight into how I spent a very full three days here.
Aberdeenshire has become most well known throughout the last 40 years as being the hub of the oil industry in Europe, causing a population boom from 1975 onwards. However, this corner of the UK is so much more than this. It was settled thousands of year ago by Bronze Age people so is home to a large number of fascinating archaeological sites. In Medieval times the area saw many important battles between clans, most famously Clan MacBeth and the Clan Canmore, and yes, that is the MacBeth that Shakespeare made oh so famous!
For those living in the UK, getting to the area is particularly straight forward, it is served by Aberdeen International Airport which takes regular flights from major cities across the UK including London, Manchester and Birmingham. I took the 8am flight from London with British Airways which took just over an hour. Aberdeen Airport is fairly small and as if you are arriving on a domestic flight there is no need to deal with passport control, you can walk straight through. The whole process took me around 10 minutes, including picking up my baggage. I then picked up my hire car from Sixt and I was off out the airport completely, all within half an hour.
It’s not just the UK that sees flights up to Aberdeen, there are many European cities you can get here from easily, Copenhagen, Bergan, Corfu, Geneva and Paris are just but a few.
You can also get the train into Aberdeen, however, it will take you around 7 hours from London. Direct trains from Aberdeen serve Glasgow, Perth and Edinburgh, so for me, unless you live in Scotland already I would suggest travelling by plane.
The first spot on my itinerary was Peterhead Prison Museum, a 40-minute drive from Aberdeen itself. For me, this was a great place to see, I absolutely lovely true crime and the more grizzly, the better (seriously, what does that say about me?). The museum is housed in the old prison, and you pretty much have free reign to walk around and have a snoop at home convicts once lived. Visitors are offered a guide and audio commentary so you can understand exactly what you are looking at and what went on here. The whole tour takes around 1 and a half hours and offers a great insight into the living conditions and dramas that occurred within Scotland’s first convict prison.
Next was Pennan, a sleepy fishing village set along a beautiful stretch of coastline. It wasn’t just the village that pulled me in, it was the drive to get there. Aberdeenshire is home to a stunning coastal trail that spans 165 miles, taking you past dramatic clifftops, picturesque fishing villages, coves and beaches, it really is a sight to behold. Of course, this will be at its finest during summer, but even in February, I was blessed with blue skies and sunshine.
Pennan itself is hidden in a cove, a short drive off the coastal trail. It is thought the fishing village came about in the 1800s in which most families had small boats for their own personal use. Back then, the men would head out to sea and catch the fish, whilst the women and children would then go out and sell it. Throughout the last 50 years, the population of the village went into decline, and many of these houses are now holiday homes, a perfect place to spend by the sea.
In the village, you will stumble across a red telephone box, made famous as being one of the main filming locations in the movie ‘Local Hero’. This telephone box was removed after filming, but uproar meant it was returned and became a listed (protected) building since 1989.
A short drive from Pennan is a second fishing village, Crovie, possibly even more charming than the first. The houses in Crovie are set amongst a piece of land so narrow that cars cannot drive through. Villagers must park their cars in the car park and walk to their homes, not ideal if you are laden with groceries, but it’s just a small price to pay to be in this wonderful place.
As I was visiting in low season, I had the whole village to myself, bar one other couple. I spent a good hour wandering through the houses and watching the sun start to dim behind the surrounding hills. Like Pennan, Crovie is popular with holidaymakers rather than many full-time residents, but there are still plenty of locals around.
The village was originally inhabited by crofters that had to move off the land to make room for the landowner’s sheep. A harsh storm in 1953 is what sadly drove away many residents.
The Knowes Hotel
That night I stayed at Knowes House Hotel in the town of Macduff, just 15 minutes from Crovie.
The Knowes Hotel offers incredible views over the town of Macduff and the North Sea beyond, I was lucky enough to be staying on the top floor so watched the sky change from blue into hues or pink and orange, all from the comfort of my own bedroom.
This is the kind of place you receive service with a smile, there is no stuffy business, no ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’, just friendly and genuine service that makes you feel right at home.
Prices start at £80 per nights and can be booked here.
It was an early start on day 2 as I was heading off to the Cairngorms so I chomped down poached eggs on toast, (I thought I saw Idris Elba having his own hotel breakfast (to my disappointment, it was not him), said my goodbyes and left.
Deans of Huntly
On my way into the Cairngorms, I stopped off at Deans of Huntly, an excellent place to visit if you are partial to a bit of shortbread. Dean’s was started by Helen and her husband Bill, Helen baked the delicious shortbread and her husband would sell it to raise money for the local pipe band. The touring meant the word of the shortbread spread far and wide to the point Helen had to start her own bakery to keep up with the demand. One thing led to another and Dean’s is now one of the leading Scottish shortbread providers and remains a family run business.
Visitors to Huntlys can buy their own shortbread and other baked goods, have a peek through the window into where the shortbread is made, or enjoy coffee and cake in the bistro.
This one wasn’t on my itinerary but I knew it wasn’t too much of a detour and that I simply could not miss it! Craigevar Castle was supposedly the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle.
The castle is closed from October to April so I couldn’t look around it, but just from the outside, it was an incredible sight to behold. Tours around the castle run from Spring through into Summer and are the only way of seeing what’s inside.
40 minutes from the fairytale castle of Craigevar is Balmoral, a real-life royal castle and one of the Queen’s favourites. Like Craigevar, Balmoral Castle was closed for winter, but luckily the tourist board was able to book me a private tour of the grounds.
I was shown around by Kathleen, an extremely knowledgable guide who has lived in the area all her life. Her father also worked at the castle and she is lucky enough to have met the Queen a number of times. The castle is located in the small village of Crathie between Braemar and Ballater in the eastern side of the Cairngorms National Park.
Balmoral Castle was purchased by Prince Albert for his wife, Queen Victoria in 1852, after leasing it since 1848. It was bought a few years after Victoria made her first visit to Scotland in 1842, they loved the country so much they made the decision to buy a property here. Whilst Victoria fell in love with the Highlands, the location was too damp, thus bad for her health, so they chose the ruggedly beautiful region of the Cairngorms instead.
Due to a large amount of staff, Victoria decided the property was too small and needed to be rebuilt, so the castle you see today has always been owned by the Royal Family. Visitors can see the foundation stone left by Queen Victoria, this sits above a time capsule also left behind by her.
Visitors are offered an audio commentary as they walk around. If you would like to visit, please check their website here for opening dates and tour times. Guests can also choose to stay within the grounds of the Balmoral Estate in the charming holiday cottages that have been built on site.
The Fife Arms
Seeing as I was in the area, I decided to visit The Fife Arms, Scotland’s most hotly anticipated hotel openings of 2018. My visit was on a bit of the whim, located in the nearby town of Braemar I contact them that morning asking if I could have a look around, they were more than accommodation.
Braemar is the birthplace of the Highland Games, one of Scotland’s most well-known traditions. It is also the birthplace of The Fife Arms, a property that reminded me somewhat of the exclusive Cotswold Properties in Oxfordshire, but without all the Londoners. The hotel is owned by Hauser & Wirth, Swiss gallery owners with all the connections of high society Europe.
Stepping into the hotel is like stepping into the mind of someone on the same level as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice and Wonderland, but it really works. I have never seen so much art, fabulous wallpaper, stag heads and tartan, all mixed together, yet looking so beautiful. I was shown round by events manager Louise, who was an asset to the team. Every member of staff I stumbled across had genuine smiles on their faces and seemed happy to be there, this came across in their 5* service which wasn’t stuffy, but friendly, like it should be in Scotland.
Midway between the Cairngorms and Aberdeen is Tor-Na-Coille Hotel, a country house hotel located in the sweet town of Banchory. The location is perfect for those limited on time but wanting to squeeze in the Cairngorms as well as the Aberdeenshire Coast, even I was surprised with how much I could squeeze in before the sun went down. It is important to note the hotel is located on the popular Castle Trail, similar to the Coastal Trail but this time for those who are more interested in a slice of Scottish history than seascapes.
The welcome at the hotel, like others, was very friendly, warm and familiar, making guests feel instantly at ease. My room was everything you could want from a country hotel, complete with rolltop bath, huge wooden bed, and perfectly heated for a chilly February night. The restaurant in itself has become a destination for visitors. Located next to one of the best salmon fishing rivers in the UK, the restaurant uses fresh, local produce to make delicious, seasonal dishes. Head Chef, Colin Lyall has even been a finalist in Scottish Chef of the Year.Rooms start from £79 per night, hotel bookings can be made here.
On Day 3 I headed to the city that gave Aberdeen its name. Aberdeen has been lovingly named ‘The Granite City’ due to its locally quarried granite stone, also used to build London’s Houses of Parliament and Waterloo Bridge. Because of all this granite, the city is somewhat grey, however, the city is home to some fantastic street art, located all around the city centre. The Nuart Festival is the only street art festival in Scotland and one of the UK’s best. Click here to see all the artwork on a map.
The city is the hub of the county and therefore offers the greatest amenities, transport links, shops and restaurants. Guests can expect to find well-known shops such as John Lewis, Debenhams, Marks and Spencers, Topshop, River Island and many more. The relatively concentrated city centre makes everything pretty walkable.