Stonehaven is a beautiful Scottish coastal town, just fifteen miles south of Aberdeen. Easily accessible by road or rail, Stonehaven has much for the traveller to see and do. Dunnottar Castle may be its most recognisable attraction, however, the town has much more to offer. We found that all ten attractions and activities can easily be done in one action packed day.
Stonehaven’s history stretches back to the Iron Age, when a fishing village was established on Stonehaven Bay. Fishing proved to be the main occupation of the town, peaking in 1894 when the herring catch reached 15 million fish that year. However, overfishing became a massive problem and the industry subsequently collapsed.
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The settlement, however, continued to expand inland from the seaside. The town, which was originally known as Stonehive, now has a population of over 11,000. In 2010, Stonehaven was even voted the best seaside town in Scotland in a survey carried out by the Bank of Scotland.
Besides its castle and coastal scenery, Stonehaven is perhaps most famous for its fireball ceremony on New Year’s Eve. The ceremony consists of a team of locals swinging blazing balls of fire over their heads, in an effort to ward off evil spirits. The procession ends at the harbour, when the balls are thrown into the water.
Stonehaven is also very proud of its famous sons. Robert William Thomson, inventor of the pneumatic tyre and the fountain pen, was born here, as well as the journalist James Murdoch, Lord Reith of Stonehaven, who was the first Director-General of the BBC.
Stonehaven Beach is approximately 1.1 km in length, bound by the River Carron and the harbour jetty to the south, and rocky outcrops at the northern end. A wooden promenade has been constructed along the edge of the beach, making a picturesque short walk. There are interesting metal sculptures along the path ready to grab the attention of the walkers. Handily, there is ample parking at either end of the walk at the harbour and at Cowie.
Stonehaven Open Air Pool
Advertised as the UK’s only art deco, heated Olympic sized, fully filtrated sea water, open air swimming pool, this pool has been a landmark of Stonehaven since it was built in 1934 for a princely sum of £9,529. Initially, feedback from swimmers wasn’t totally positive, so in by 1935 the sea water was circulated, filtered and disinfected, and crucially for this far north, it was also heated! Thankfully the sea water is maintained at a comfortable 29˚C / 84˚F.
Stonehaven’s Market Square may now find more use as a carpark, but this vibrant town centre has many independent shops to attract the visitor’s attention.
Stonehaven Harbour must be one of the prettiest in Britain. Throughout the Dark Ages and into the mediaeval period, Stonehaven harbour became an important trading port. Later, the town became notorious as a haven for pirates. The glory days came with the herring boom of the 19th Century. The harbour was dramatically reconstructed during the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th Century, with the South Pier being constructed by Robert Stevenson, the celebrated engineer and grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson. The original breakwater that was replaced had been built in the 1500s. Today, the harbour is a very popular attraction for visitors and locals alike, with a small beach area, surrounded by the quaint harbour buildings.
The oldest surviving structure in Stonehaven is the Stonehaven Tolbooth at the harbour. It is thought the original purpose of the building was to act as a storehouse during the building of Dunnottar Castle. However, in 1600, an Act of Parliament provided that the building become a tolbooth. After 1624, the town business functions were conducted on the upper level of the Stonehaven Tolbooth, with the ground floor being used as the prison. The courthouse and prison were relocated in 1767 and the building became a storehouse once more. The building was renovated in the 1960’s and re-opened by Her Majesty the Queen Mother. Today, the Tolbooth Museum occupies the ground floor and displays the history of Stonehaven.
The Bay Fish and Chips / Aunty Betty’s
The two shops are found side by side on the beach front and give the perfect meal combination of fish and chips, followed by an ice-cream dessert. The Bay was voted the Scotland’s Best Independent Takeaway at the National Fish and Chip Awards in 2012 and 2013, serving locally-sourced, sustainable fish and chips. Aunty Bettys and their range of ice-cream has become an institution in Stonehaven. Still can’t decide which is better – the Oreo or the Irn-Bru flavour ice-cream - all available with free toppings!
Deep Fried Mars Bar
Stonehaven has a great reputation for its Fish and Chips shops, but it also has the dubious distinction of being the home of the Deep-fried Mars Bar. This local delicacy, which has become synonymous with Scotland’s poor dietary reputation, was first created at the Haven Fish Bar. It was at this ‘chipper’ in 1992, now called The Carron Fish Bar, where three youngsters challenged each other to have the most outlandish deep-fried food. As the legend goes, one of the boys, John Twaddle, ordered a Mars Bar to be deep-fried, and was eaten by his mate, Brian McDonald, with the honour of cooking the confectionary given to fryer Evelyn Balgowan. Following a taste test, it can be confirmed that a Deep-fried Mars Bar is surprisingly yummy, if not a little sickly sweet! Today, the shop sells between 100 and 150 bars per week.
Dunnottar Castle is a romantic and stunning castle perched on a cliff top projecting into the North-Sea. It is easy to see why it was used as the setting for Mel Gibson’s film, Hamlet. It was a virtually impregnable fortress with a deep and exciting history. The castle was the home of the Earls Marischal, once one of the most powerful families in the land. William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, the Marquis of Montrose and the future King Charles II have graced the Castle with their presence.
In 1296, King Edward I of England took the castle only for William Wallace to reclaim it in 1297, burning down the church in the process with the entire English garrison still in it.
In 1650, Oliver Cromwell sacked the castle to find the Crown Jewels following an eight-month siege (having previously destroyed the English Crown Jewels). However, just before the castle fell, the Crown Jewels were smuggled out by some ladies who took them by boat to a small church just down the coast in the village of Kinneff, where they remained undetected for eleven years.
The notorious Whig Vault gained its reputation in 1685 when 167 Covenanters were imprisoned here in this small room. These people refused to swear allegiance to Charles II, and many died in this prison or were tortured when attempting to escape.
The castle can either be accessed on foot by taking the coastal path up from Stonehaven harbour (a half hour walk, which can take twice as long because of all the photo opportunities on offer!), or by car, with there being ample car parking inland. The steps going down to the foot of the castle mean that you need a certain amount of fitness to access the fortress. If like us you have a young child, there is no access for buggies, and you would require some sort of baby carrier.
Stonehaven’s War Memorial is a particularly noticeable monument, standing on top of the Black Hill just south of the town. It is often thought of as being in a poor state of repair, but this is the way it was designed to look – as unfinished or ruined as the lives of those it commemorates. It was designed by John Ellis an architect from Aberdeen who designed quite a few notable houses in the Northeast as well as some other war memorials. The main bulk of the memorial is sandstone and it was quarried locally, more or less immediately below where the memorial sits. Around the outside of the lintels are the names of some of the outstanding battles of the First World War; Mons, Jutland, Gallipoli, Zeebrugge, Marne, Somme, Vimy and Ypres. On the inside of the lintels is cut the quotation from Sankey’s ‘Student in Arms’ – “One by one death challenged them, they smiled in his grim visage and refused to be dismayed”. The memorial was unveiled in 1923.
The memorial can either be accessed by car from the Coastal Tourist Route road, with a short walk up to the monument, or you can walk the coastal path which starts at Stonehaven harbour. The path has an initial steep section, but once you have climbed up above the harbour, the path becomes a much gentler hike. The views over Stonehaven, the coast and Dunnottar Castle are spectacular, and the path carries on connecting the town with the castle. It should be noted that the middle part of the path is not suitable for children’s buggies.
Drinks at the harbour
After hiking up to the castle and filling up on fish and chips, what better way to wind down the day by having a well-deserved drink at the harbour? The harbour has two excellent bars (which are also restaurants with a great reputation). The Ship Inn was built overlooking the harbour in 1771, while The Marine Hotel was a relative latecomer, in 1884. Our choice to end the day was The Marine Hotel, which won the best Real Ale Bar in Scotland in 2008 and in Aberdeenshire from 2008 to the present day. It really is a haven for beer drinkers – there are six real ales and twelve craft beers on tap, including a range of their very own beer, owning the 6˚ North brewery. This is topped off by a choice of over 150 bottle-conditioned Belgian beers!
Join us next time when our family adventures take us back to Royal Deeside.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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