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.
Refreshed by what we hope was an undisturbed night’s sleep, it’s time to return to the coast – and there are two fascinating historic options further north. The first is the more off-the-wall choice. Fraserburgh’s Kinnaird Head Castle is a hotchpotch structure that incredibly morphed into a lighthouse when it was sold to the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1787. After beginning its new role rather crudely with a giant lamp on the castle roof, the hybrid form was later crafted by renowned lighthouse engineer Robert Stevenson. He fixed the original lighthouse’s architectural problems by piercing a more traditional lighthouse structure through the centre of the castle, while still preserving many of its original features. With the lighthouse deactivated in 1991, Kinnaird Head is now home to the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses.
The other coastal option is a little more conventional but requires a drive over the county border into Moray. It’s well worth it, though. Spynie Palace is just two miles north of Elgin, a former Royal Burgh and home to historic knitwear specialists, Johnstons of Elgin. You can pick up a fine cashmere jumper en route to the castle from The Elgin Mill Shop.
Spynie Palace itself may be in ruins today but its soaring tower house is a testament to the power of the medieval bishops of Moray who resided here for five centuries; the diocese of Moray was one of the most important of all the Roman Catholic Church’s medieval dioceses. It originally had the honour of an on-site cathedral, but its location was soon judged too remote and a replacement built at Elgin. Elgin Cathedral is now also in ruins yet spectacular in its own right.
In fact, sometimes it is the crumbling walls and craggy towers that are the most awe-inspiring, forcing us to reflect frankly on the majesty and age of these unruly relics. Kildrummy Castle, on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park that sprawls across the heart of Aberdeenshire, is a case in point. Once deemed the “noblest of the northern castles”, today its ragged fortifications belie that this heyday was several hundred years ago. It was the mighty Earls of Mar who chose the spot at the crest of a steep scarp to build their stronghold and guard the main routes from the south of Scotland into the historic districts of Moray and Buchan.
Edward I of England is known to have visited Kildrummy twice during the Wars of Scottish Independence, which ran from 1296 to 1357. On his second visit, the King even brought Master James of St George, his favourite builder, along, who it is believed was responsible for creating Kildrummy’s twin-towered gatehouse. Sadly its days as a noble residence were extinguished with the hopes of the Old Pretender in 1715. After James Stuart failed to claim the British crown during that year’s Jacobite rising, the castle was soon abandoned by the Clan Erskine. Indeed, while the gatehouse no longer exists, one can still explore the remains of the stone curtain wall and the gable end of
the castle’s chapel. The latter even retains three of its original windows, making it one of the most complete examples of a 13th century castle in eastern Scotland.
If you head further south through the Cairngorm mountains, you’ll soon reach Balmoral Castle, Her Majesty’s Scottish summer residence, purchased for the Royal Family by Prince Albert in 1852 as a gift for Queen Victoria. And what a gift it was. Though the castle remains a private family home, the wider Balmoral estate is open to visitors when the Royals are not around – most often in spring and the early summer months. Highlights include the formal and vegetable gardens, the stables and the grand ballroom – open to the public on rare occasions. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll be greeted by an extensive collection of artworks, china and silver, or the occasional exhibition.
So nearby that it would be rude not to visit is Braemar Castle. This embattled tower house, set within a star-shaped curtain wall, was built as a summer hunting lodge for the Earl of Mar in 1628. Its fortifications were originally intended to keep the threat of their neighbours, Clan Farquharson, at bay, but after Braemar was burnt down in the Jacobite rebellion of 1689, it was the Chiefs of Clan Farquharson who later moved in and made it their home.
In 2007 the castle was leased by the Farquharsons to the community of Braemar for 50 years, and they’ve been gradually raising money and restoring it for visitors to enjoy ever since. There are now 12 rooms open to the public, filled with artefacts of its feud-filled four centuries, including a timber fragment dating from 1689 when Braemar was set alight by the infamous “Black Colonel”, John Farquharson, a violent outlaw who wanted to prevent the castle falling into the hands of the government. From here it’s an 80-minute drive directly back to the airport at Aberdeen, though we’d recommend a detour to the aesthetically-pleasing Craigievar Castle, which is thought to have inspired Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle. It dates back to the late 16th century and the lack of artificial lighting indoors makes for rather authentic-feeling tours of the vast collections of art, armour and antiques. Even by completing your journey here, you’d still only be skimming the surface of Scotland’s Castle Trail. In the vicinity there’s also Drum Castle, which harbours one of the finest libraries, and Crathes Castle, which is reputedly haunted by the Green Lady and another option for crenellated accommodation (if you don’t mind the odd ghost).
Of course, though nowadays these castles offer a welcome escape from the real world, their sheer density in this part of the country is a reminder of its harsher past reality. Aberdeenshire encompasses a part of Scotland that once had great strategic importance, which in turn made it the bloody stage for many pivotal historic events. Whether defending the Scottish Crown Jewels during the English Interregnum, or freedom fighting in the Wars of Independence, the highlights of Scotland’s Castle Trail floods the darkest, most dramatic roads of Scotland’s past with bright, revelatory light.
Explore Scotland’s Castle Trail in full at ebooks.visitscotland.com/scotlands-castle-trail