Aberdeenshire is set between the mountains and the sea. You can roam for miles across great estates, expanses of moorland, ancient Caledonian forests, rolling farmland, vast dunes, wide sandy beaches and expansive coastlines.
It’s a place of big skies and wide horizons, loved for its fresh clear air and the quality of its light. In summer, days are near endless, sunsets stretch out and darkness is brief. In winter, nights are deep, long and starry – and on occasion spectacularly lit by the Northern Lights. Here, mainland Scotland sees its first light of each new day. Trillions of tiny crystals glint in granite walls. And ninety-nine stone circles are aligned to the standstill moon. You could call this True North.
Deep in an ancient pine forest, beside a fast flowing river, on a high snow bound mountain pass, among rich rolling farmland, and perched on cliffs some 50 feet above the sea. These are some of the spectacular settings for Aberdeenshire’s 300 castles: there are more here per acre than anywhere else in the British Isles. Most you can see, many you can visit – and some you can even stay in. This corner of Scotland had strategic importance across centuries of turbulent history – invasions and war, rebellion and uprising, independence and occupation were all played out here. Of course Aberdeenshire’s most famous castle is Balmoral – the summer residence of the Royal Family since the 19th century, described by Queen Victoria as “my dear paradise in the Highlands”.
The Scotsman (one of Scotland’s national newspapers) calls its city of Aberdeen – where ships dock right up against the city-centre streets and dolphins leap in the busy North Sea harbour – “one of the most architecturally distinctive in Europe”.
In Aberdeenshire, you can still hear words from an original Scots dialect – Doric – and feel its distinctive culture alive in its genial people and its traditions – not least the fiddle-playing, the bothy ballads and the highland gatherings. Doric is in the warp and weave of this self reliant place … a place that’s used to being off the tourism track, known rather as a seat of learning and for its natural resources – its granite, its oil, its fish, its beef, and its whisky. You could call this True Scotland.
This is a city with not one but two Old Towns: Old Aberdeen, with its cobbled streets, mature trees and 15th century fortified cathedral – where Aberdeen’s first University was founded in 1495.
And then there’s Footdee – known locally as Fittie – a quirky fishing quarter at the water’s edge, with squares of tiny cottages, flower-filled gardens and brightly painted outhouses, their eccentric decorations drawing on the city’s seafaring soul.
Aberdeen is a cosmopolitan and connected place – with people working and studying here from across the world, their accents mixing with the sound of local Doric, an original Scots dialect.
If successive Royals get to be themselves here – imagine how you will feel. It feels like a deep dive into the glens and ancient forests where Aberdeenshire meets the Cairngorms National Park, and where the snow-fed River Dee starts its journey from the mountains to the sea.
You can roam for miles across grand highland estates – beneath wind washed cathedral pines, by still, dark lochs, along crystal-clear rivers where salmon come to spawn. Encircled by mountains or out among the heather and whin of open moorland, the flora is lush and the fauna is plentiful. Tread carefully to spot the rare protected capercaillie, pine marten, and red squirrel, and herds of red deer. Scan the skyline and you may see a golden eagle.
But it’s more than simply a dive into nature. Traditions – and roots – run deep here. Communities are strong. Doric – the language, poetry and especially the music – is alive. Along the valley, every village has its Highland Games. The clans that gathered here centuries ago still gather today. Granite walls, legendary castles and mysterious standing stones tell a long history of settlement. This is a landscape shaped and stewarded by hundreds of generations of hunters, farmers, foresters.
This heritage, this depth, these lovely landscapes and these long traditions – all combine to create a place that feels like an embrace.