Aberdeenshire Holidays: Wildlife, Castles & Whisky
On a trip to Scotland’s northerly region Robert Spellman discovers in Aberdeenshire holidays the most wonderful wildlife, great castles and whisky galore.
In 2017, an eminent travel publication conducted a poll which voted Scotland as the most beautiful country in the world. The second I clapped eyes on Aberdeenshire I understood why. Its sepia hillscapes and deserted beaches instil a calm in one that penetrates deep. At 9am I was battling the sturm and drang of a London rush hour, by 11 I was disembarking at Dyce airport and very soon the Forvie Sands opened before me, where I noted more seals than people, as they bobbed and snorted in the fingers of the Ythan Estuary.
For a city sort like me in need of some instant solitude, Forvie was perfect. These are mudflats with some of the biggest dunes in Britain. Wildlife not being a strong point, I learnt that Forvie was home to eider ducks, the UK’s fastest and heaviest duck, whose feathers fill our pillows and quilts, and that the seals reside here all year long. Stroll along this peaceful stretch, before visiting some of the region’s other cultural delights.
On the trail of Dracula
A few miles due east of Forvie perched above Cruden Bay sit the remains of Slains Castle (see cover photo). The site of the castle dates back to 1597 under the Hay clan and has been rebuilt many times, but its most famous guest was perhaps Dracula author Bram Stoker who holidayed at Cruden Bay.
Stoker visited Slains at the request of the 18th Earl of Erroll in the 1890s and the blackened skies and torch-lit corridors are rumoured to have inspired Stoker’s novel. Weirdly, the earl eventually removed the roof as a tax-dodging scheme and the castle fell in to ruin. You can wander the windy grounds and peer fearfully at the jagged rocks and crashing North Sea below. The following day I visited Balmoral Castle, with its royal cast and filing tourists, but I preferred Slains – rather sad and strange but so alive with atmosphere.
Staying on the Stoker trail, vampire fans should investigate Cruden Bay’s Kilmarnock Arms where the writer stayed on his Scotland hols; the receptionists will even show you Bram’s signature in the guest book. While at the hotel try the area’s “cullen skink” soup (essentially haddock, potato and onion). There is even a cullen skink world championship, and fittingly, the nearby Cullen Bay Hotel is the current title holder.
If your thirst for blood is still unslaked, then a trip to Peterhead Prison museum about 10 miles up the coast might be the answer.
The jail closed in 2013 after 125 years, but Peterhead was once dubbed “Scotland’s toughest jail” because of the notoriety of inmates from Glaswegian gangsters to assorted psychopaths sent here and jaw-dropping stories of carnage and violence abound on the guided tour. You can even meet 88-year-old ex-prison officer Jackie Stuart who was taken hostage during the headline-grabbing siege of 1987 when around 50 prisoners revolted and took Jackie onto the roof with noose around his neck. The SAS eventually stopped the siege and after six weeks’ recuperation the tough wee man was back to work.
When I met Jackie I suggested that these those five days must’ve been the longest of his life. “Achh no!” he protested. “That’ll be my marriage.”
To the Lighthouse
Gentler amusements are at hand, however. The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh, about 10 miles north at the point where the coastline begins to move horizontally west, boasts the singular oddity of a lighthouse built within the 16th-century Kinnaird Head Castle. Inside the museum you’ll learn about the Stevenson family, who constructed 93 lighthouses in 150 years, and marvel at the beautifully crafted lenses that look like giant art deco mouldings.
Continuing west along Moray First coast you’ll find two of the most picturesque fishing villages on these isles – Gardenstown and Crovie. Built into the red sandstone cliffs they appear to be tumbling into the sea. Crovie has no shops, no roads and no mobile phone signal and villagers transport their shopping in wheelbarrows, I’m told.
As a fish lover, I was still awaiting my moment and it came at the Banff Springs Hotel that night in the form of their North Atlantic shrimp cocktail. Yes, a mere prawn cocktail, but of a freshness hitherto untasted by me. After a pan-fried seabass and a drop of the local Balvenie single malt before a purple streaked horizon over Boyndie Bay, I turned in that night a relatively happy soul.
While you’re in the neighbourhood, a visit to Duff House is well worth your while. Built in 1735 by William Adam for First Earl of Fife, William Duff, this country home is magnificent and will inspire and delight you, especially if Georgian architecture in baroque style is your thing. Inside, the rich and complex history is reflected in furniture belonging to Napoleon and artworks by Gainsborough, Raeburn and there’s even an El Greco.
An historic attraction of a different kind be found further along the coast at Portsoy, a 17th-century harbour village that is strikingly quaint and austere at once. The little town was the setting for the 2016 remake of 1949 film Whisky Galore, the true story of S/S Politician that sank in the Outer Hebrides while en route to Jamaica. Locals hurried to stash the 250,000 bottles of whisky on board before the authorities intervened. If ice cream is your poison, a visit to Portsoy’s award-winning ice cream shop is where you’ll find 100 or so flavours including ‘coconut charcoal’ and ‘bacon and maple syrup’.
One place you’ll find no ice cream and plenty of whisky is the Glenglassaugh Distillery, founded in 1875, also in Portsoy. The place might look like a PoW camp, but the very finest whisky is produced here, and by hand, which is rare these days.
On the various tours you can see the antiquated copper stills and washbacks at work and sample the goods such as the ‘Revival’, ‘Evolution’ and ‘Manager’s Cask’ malts. I knocked back a shot of 70 per cent proof ‘moonshine’ – once given to workers three times a day as a ‘pick-me-up’, and wished a similar practice was introduced at my workplace. Meanwhile in the shop cabinets, the high-end stuff is a big catch for collectors, especially the Japanese, who’ll happily cough up £3,300 for a bottle of 1968 Rare Cask Release.
And finally to bed at the Maryculter House Hotel, just below Cruden Bay where the trip started. Impossibly cosy and welcoming, the hotel dates back to the order of the Knights of Templar in 1227. The history is tangled, but the place fell into the hands of one Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, one of the few male survivors of the Titanic, who sold it in 1935 and it became a full-time hotel. If you do visit, do try their breakfast kipper. It is out of this world.
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