Travelling through time.
Royal Deeside, in the North Eastern Highlands, is a remarkable region spanning only 50 miles or so from east to west along the banks of the mighty River Dee. The ‘Royal’ suffix came only after Queen Victoria set up home here in 1852, but it’s association with kings and powerful leaders is evident from many hundreds of years before that. The river’s name, the Dee means ‘Goddess’, and it’s clear that the river influences this area in far more varied ways than just lending it her name. Join us as we explore this fascinating corner of Scotland, in our latest Ginspired Day Trip to Royal Deeside. We’re calling this one ‘Travelling through Time’.
Getting here is easy especially if you’re in Aberdeen! The River Dee reaches the sea in the Granite City, so you could be said to be in Deeside without ever leaving the 30mph zone, but just a few miles west of this elegant cosmopolitan oil capital you reach the real Deeside. Soft green country, forests, farmland, castles, and of course the sinuous River Dee stitching it all together. Dundee and Perth are also within easy day tripping reach, and you can approach from the south on the Snow Road route of the A93 over Glenshee, which is a treat in itself. The railway line no longer reaches into Deeside, but there is a reasonable bus service running the length of the strath to assist travellers.
The land where time began
Whether you echo Mary Poppins or Lewis Carroll, every good story should start at the beginning, and there can be no better beginning than what may very well be the beginning of time. For that is what was recently uncovered in Royal Deeside.
An aerial survey showed signs of an early structure beneath a barley field close to Crathes Castle. Investigation began with the hope that the remains of a timber hall would be discovered, similar to one found at nearby Balbridie. This was thought to be around 1500 years old, and possibly built by travellers from Southern Europe who would have sailed to Scotland in boats made from wooden frames and animal skins. High hopes indeed, but the reality far exceeded the archaeologists’ expectations!
What they found was a series of pits and post holes, constructed in such a pattern that they can only have been used as an early solar or lunar calendar. The posts align with the midwinter sunrise and would have been a means for these hunter gatherers to track the changing seasons and measure the passing of time, rather than simply observe it. The markers even line up with a notch on the horizon between two hills, which would have allowed for the annual readjustment required between the lunar month and the solar year. Similar sites have been discovered in Mesopotamia (now largely Iraq), but the Warren Field site on the banks of the River Dee is far earlier, from around 9800 years ago.
As scientists from the University of Birmingham put it, ‘Could this be where ‘time’ began?’
The Royal Deeside ‘Time Machine’ from almost 10,000 years ago.
Our Solar Calendar pre-dates the Pictish past of Scotland by some 3000-6000 years, but here in Royal Deeside we have carved stones, standing stone circles and recumbent stone circles all giving clues to the culture and beliefs of our fishing and farming ancestors. Some appear to be ceremonial sites, others used for burials, and yet more for following the moon and stars. The circle at Tomnaverie near Tarland appears to pay reverence to the mountain of Lochnagar, which is clearly framed above its recumbent stone ‘altar’ and between the two uprights at either side. Perhaps moons and mountains were the celebrities of the Pictish age and Tomnaverie was an early equivalent of Instagram? 😊
Time to talk about the GIN!
There’s a wealth of Scottish Gin produced in Aberdeen and out into Deeside. Some offer visitor experiences, others are brands you should look out for. All are unique!
Please always check ahead if you’d like to arrange a visit. The details for each can be found through the links below each photograph.
The Tippling House, on Belmont Street in Aberdeen is the place to sample amazing gin cocktails. Look at the wonderful array here! Why not make it your late night favourite at the end of your Ginspired Day Trip to Royal Deeside. Also the home of Jindea Single Estate Tea Gin. Find out more by clicking here
Ancient & Modern
Take yourself to the beautiful memorial of nearby Migvie Kirk, on the Tillypronie Estate, lovingly restored by the Laird Philip Astor in honour of his late parents. A precarious Pictish Cross Slab is found in the kirkyard, with ornate carvings of a horse and rider. The deconsecrated kirk itself is deceptively simple from the outside, but once inside the carved oak doors replicating the design on the Pictish stone, a wondrously light space filled with artworks and artisan furniture, all by local creatives, is uncovered. There are no signs to guide you here, you have to find it yourself, that’s part of the charm. So it’s our secret, a gift from me to you!
Charms & Legends
Back to the River, our Goddess. A 2000 year old tradition has it that we should cast silver or song into the water for good luck. In my case I’d better save up, as my singing voice is unlikely to summon anything positive. This may be an antidote to another legend, not unique in these parts, that of the water sprite or Kelpie. Now recognisable from the glorious sculptures at The Helix near Falkirk, Kelpies were thought to be shapeshifters, sometimes appearing as men, other times as writhing, twisting horses. They could be kind and generous for needy folk, but they could also turn wicked and vengeful, luring the unwary to their watery lairs and inevitable doom (think Private Fraser from Dad’s Army – dooooom!). There are many tales of Kelpies in this area, and parents have long used the stories as a way of making their children fearful of getting too close to the waters edge. No bad thing indeed. However, these tales can make a lasting impression, as an old lady, interviewed just before her ninetieth year recalled how her father (a farmer) always kept a halter on a hook beside the back door, ‘just in case the Kelpie came’, in the hope he might be able to control it. She was a firm believer, as clearly her father had also been!
What a Racket!
Another unique watery feature of Royal Deeside is the impressive Burn O’Vat. It’s a natural pot hole carved out of rock by stones grinding together underneath a retreating ice shelf, some 14,000 years ago. These days, easily found near to Loch Kinord, it’s a lovely excuse for a walk amid birch trees and bird song to the narrow entrance, and then into the Vat itself. It is said that legendary cattle thief Rob Roy McGregor hid his stolen animals here, as the noise of the rushing water muffled their moos to passers-by! Above the waterfall is a stone where Jacobite survivors are said to have met after Culloden to plan their next, but ultimately futile, move.
Ballater is well known for its plethora of Royal Warrants above shop doorways. The Royal Warrant is granted from a member of the Royal Household to a business which supplies it with goods or services, to a very high standard. The nearby Highland home of the British Royal Family at Balmoral Castle, means that many local businesses from the town have achieved this accolade over the years.
At present, Royal Warrants can only be granted by HM Queen Elizabeth II, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh or HRH The Prince of Wales, Duke of Rothesay. To belong to the Royal Warrants Association is a highly cherished honour. Warrant holders must follow strict rules regarding the use of the warrant or risk losing it, as happened to Rigby & Peller in 2018. Apparently, they disclosed too much detail in an account of their role as purveyors of undergarments to HM Queen Elizabeth. A storm in a D cup perhaps? You decide.
Balmoral Castle itself is just a few miles west of Ballater, and available to visit when the family are not in residence. It isn’t possible to see inside the Castle itself but there is a good visitor centre, exhibition spaces and you do get to meet the Queen’s own ponies, which are well kept and very polite!
Above Balmoral rises the majestic mountain of Lochnagar, and amidst its foothills are a number of stone cairns, built on the instruction of Queen Victoria mainly to commemorate the marriages of her children. The largest however was built in honour of her beloved Albert, after his death in 1861. There are various walks to take in the cairns and the viewpoints each affords. Visit www.walkhighlands.com for a detailed route plan. The climb up Lochnagar is well worth it, especially on a clear day. The route along the shores of Loch Muick (pronounced mick), is a joy. Be careful if the cloud is low however as there are some steep and dangerous drops, so plan ahead please.
A quiet life
The Royal family have always enjoyed their time spent at Balmoral and seen it as a relaxing place, where they could move around freely and without scrutiny. In Queen Victoria’s time, it’s said that staff and estate workers were instructed to ignore her if they saw her out walking or riding. They were simply to pretend they hadn’t seen her at all! Preference was given to estate tenants who agreed to make their front room (the best room in the house) over to the Queen should she be passing and have need of it. Any members of the family in residence should retreat to the remainder of the house and lock the adjoining door. One cottage had two front doors especially to allow access to Her Majesty, and she was known to call in for refreshments on a whim, which must have been rather alarming for the inhabitants as she wasn’t known for her tolerance or good humour.
The Balmoral Estate is not huge by local standards, so often walks or rides would take the royal parties onto neighbouring properties. One such route carried Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth onto the nearby Invercauld Estate where a hillside bothy took her fancy. When her courtiers wrote to the estate owner telling him of her desire to visit regularly, the bothy was very discreetly made over, simply furnished, and supplied with a small stove and the facilities to make a hot drink.
I recall the story of a local man who lived on the estate and who was a reserve firefighter. One day having received a ‘shout,’ he headed at speed along the estate road to get to the fire station and out to the emergency. Hurtling around a corner he almost collided head on with a Landrover driven by a lady in a floral headscarf, who glowered at him in annoyance. He waved, drove on, and then realised who he’d nearly mown down! The next day he wrote a letter of humble apology explaining his mission and his ‘need for speed’, only to receive a very gracious handwritten reply completely exonerating him of his misdemeanour, and which is no doubt a family heirloom by now!
Bridging the gap
Heading further west the road crosses the beautiful Invercauld Bridge. Built in 1859 and paid for by Prince Albert, the Bridge of Dee, connected the military road network with the route north to Ruthven Barracks and Corgarff Castle. All part of General Wade and Major Caulfeild’s plan to subdue the Highlanders by making travel around Scotland easier for government troops. Many of these routes form the basis of our modern road network today.
Of the thirteen bridges which span the Dee, five are suspension bridges. The Crathie Bridge was built in 1834 to take carriages to and from Balmoral Castle. When Queen Victoria purchased Balmoral in 1852 however, she felt a more substantial structure was required, and so Prince Albert commissioned the doyen of Victorian Engineering, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to design The Balmoral Bridge. This was completed in 1857, just two years before Brunel died. That bridge is still very much in use today, and if you choose to visit Balmoral during your Ginspired Day Trip, you’ll walk right over it, just like Victoria!
Soldiers and squirrels
Continue towards Braemar where Braemar Castle is perfectly located on a bend of the road and the glen itself, affording views in all directions. It was built in 1628 as a Hunting Lodge but used as a garrison for Hanoverian Soldiers after Culloden. The Castle itself won’t reopen this season, but the grounds and squirrel hides are still available, so make it a stop on your trip this year, and part of your plan for next year.
If Stags could fly
Reaching Braemar itself there are a variety of independent businesses to explore, coffee shops and gift shops to enjoy, and now the splendidly refurbished Fife Arms Hotel. Always a grand structure, it had rather passed its sell-by date, but has seen huge investment, great creative flair, and a real desire to bring global travellers to this part of the Highlands. Well worth a visit. Check out ‘The Flying Stag’ Bar. I’ll not spoil the surprises here, but there’s a wide-ranging menu and live music on Friday evenings if you can stay around. If your pockets are deep enough, an overnight stay here will match any well known, luxury establishment, but it does come at a price. They excel on a huge whisky collection, and thankfully the list of Scottish Gin is catching up fast!
Where to eat, drink, shop and even stay a while….
Foos yer doos?
Royal Deeside sits in the north east of Scotland, partly within the Cairngorm National Park, and completely within the region of the Doric language. Doric is thought to come from the Greek for local or rustic, and like most dialects, its origins go way back into the farming and fishing heritage of Scotland’s north east corner. It’s still widely spoken, so a few words might be useful whilst you’re visiting! Here’s some to play with:
The ‘F’ word
Far Where – as in where are you going
Fit What – as in what are you going there for?
Fan When – as in when are you going
Foo How – as in how are you getting there
Fa Who – as in who are you going with
Fit wye Why – as in why are you going there
And lesson twa’ (two)
Far ye gaan? Where are you going?
Fit’s at? What’s that?
Fan ye aff? When are you going?
Foo mony? How many?
Fa’s at? Who is that?
Fit wye nae? Why not?
Far div ye bide? Where do you stay?
Fit like? How are you?
Fan div ye yoke? When do you start work?
Foo’s yer doos? (How are your doves/pigeons?) How are you?
Fit wye’s at noo? Why is that now?
And, saving the most important to the last:
Fa’s roond is it? Whose turn is it to buy the Scottish Gin?
So that’s it. You’re now ready and prepared for a fully Ginspired Day Trip to Royal Deeside! Enjoy.