Jenny Rowe reveals the highlights of Scotland’s Castle Trail, a 19-venue route that sweeps across Aberdeenshire and takes in clan history, royal homes and jewel heists
Like Munro bagging – the competitive activity of climbing peaks above 3,000 feet – castle bagging comes into its own in Scotland. Less strenuous than the former, but far more scholastic, clan rivalries add a further layer of intrigue to many of the country’s already fascinating heritage buildings and landmarks. In particular, its centuries-old cornucopia of castles are tapestries of time, which when unpicked, unravel the secrets and stories of kings and queens, war and peace, and reconciliation and revenge. Be warned: castle bagging can be addictive, especially in Aberdeenshire in the northeast. Here, there are more than 260 castles, stately homes and ruins – more per acre than anywhere else in the UK – earning the area the moniker “Scotland’s Castle Country”.
VisitScotland has now established Scotland’s Castle Trail with its very own online guidebook. This epic journey is the only one of its castellated kind, stopping off at 19 of the county’s most atmospheric clifftop towers, romantic windswept ruins and fortified mansion homes. We begin our own tour of this castle-pocked landscape in Aberdeen itself – a practical starting point, but a spectacular one too.
Dunnottar Castle is located a mere 25-minute drive south from Aberdeen International Airport. Dunnottar is an iconic coastal castle, as superficially beautiful as it is politically crucial. Perched upon a cube of rock forced to the surface 440 million years ago just south of Stonehaven, this castle’s prominent position has attracted its fair share of attention. Take the year 1651, for example, when, following the coronation of Charles II at Scone, the Honours of Scotland, also known as the “Scottish Crown Jewels”, were sent to Dunnottar for safe keeping. Shortly afterwards the castle and its small garrison were besieged by English general Oliver Cromwell’s army. Dunnottar put up a strong fight, only surrendering in May 1652 after eight months of heavy canon-fire. But not before six plucky women successfully smuggled the jewels out of the castle in bags of wool, carrying them right under the noses of the Cromwellian forces and to refuge at Kinneff Church. This was just one brief period in the history of the 14th-century castle, which was saved from ruin in 1925 and cuts a romantic figure on the headland today.
Heading inland, yet still in easy reach of Aberdeen, Castle Fraser by contrast boasts a vastly different silhouette. The core section of Castle Fraser’s five-storey, Z-plan structure (consisting of a central rectangular tower with smaller towers attached at diagonally opposite corners) was built from local granite in 1575 for the powerful Fraser family. As their fortunes and needs grew, so did the castle. The present fortification is a testament to their ingenuity as well as their wealth. Several stages of evolution can be identified from the outside, while inside you are treated to a similar patchwork of clues. Much of the family’s décor and possessions, including family portraits, have been preserved, and a tour will take you from the 16th-century Great Hall to an array of opulent Victorian bedrooms. In fact, stepping inside Castle Fraser is like being welcomed into a 400-year-old family home, with all the quirks that might come with it. There are secret staircases, a spy hole and even a wooden leg in the library, once belonging to Colonel Charles Fraser who sustained an injury in 1812 during the Peninsular War. When the castle reopens, be sure to seek out the Laird’s Lug, which is a small concealed room above the Great Hall where the laird (the owner of the estate) could earwig on his guests’ conversations unseen. Meanwhile you can enjoy the restored 18th-century gardens courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland, and then fill up at the on-site tearoom, located in the castle kitchen.
Once you’re back on the road, it’s a 45-minute drive parallel to the east coast until you happen across the fairytale Fyvie Castle, which is pink-hued, turreted and picture perfect. If you’ve time, stop off at Tolquhon Castle and Haddo Hall, both near the town of Ellon. The latter is set in a sprawling country park – a nice diversion if you like to stretch your legs while surrounded by stately grandeur.
Exploring Fyvie takes priority, though, for its 800-year history, Edwardian interiors, walled garden and loch. In contrast to Castle Fraser, which was home to one family for four hundred years, Fyvie has housed five different bloodlines, who each marked their ownership with an additional tower. This chopping and changing may have been no coincidence. The ominous tale goes that on a dark, stormy night Thomas the Rhymer, a Scottish laird and reputed prophet, was once refused hospitality at Fyvie. In anger he cursed the castle, wishing that it would never pass between the same family for more than two generations. Don’t let this spooky tale (and those of Fyvie’s two ghosts) put you off staying the night here, though. With eight bedrooms, a party of up to 16 people can stay in the Preston Tower Apartment and experience life as a laird in years gone by.