From our base in Aberdeen, Scotland we have set out to explore the stunning area of Royal Deeside in a series of day trips. This, our second Explore Royal Deeside blog post, covers our trip to the small village of Ballater and the nearby area around Dinnet.
Only 43 miles west of Aberdeen, Ballater is a picturesque Victorian village in the heart of Royal Deeside located in the Cairngorm National Park, with a population of around 1,500. It is also only 8 miles from the Queen’s summer home of Balmoral Castle, which we covered in our previous blog post.
Ballater had an uneventful history until the nearby Pannanich Mineral Well (which was thought to cure scrofula) was developed as a spa resort around 1770. Before this, the area had been part of the estates belonging to the Knights of St John during medieval times, although I am unaware of any Da Vinci Code like conspiracies involving Ballater!
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The growth of the village received a boost when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert bought Balmoral Castle in 1854. This then led to the arrival of the railway to Ballater in 1866, opening the way for tourists to explore the area.
We started our Ballater trip by taking a stroll around the village. The Glenmuick Parish Church rests majestically in the centre of the settlement and is surrounded by a number of fascinating speciality shops and friendly hotels and guest houses. Equally endearing, and indicative of the continuing Royal presence in the area at Balmoral, are the collections of "By Appointment" signs adorning many of the businesses in Ballater (Royal Warrants of Appointment are a mark of recognition to those who supply goods or services to the Households of The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh or The Prince of Wales).
The Clachan Grill
For lunch, we consulted our Royal Deeside PassporTour book. This is a 128-page pocket sized Visitor Guide, with a Map, Insert & vouchers offering discounts, £200 + of potential savings & offers from local businesses in Braemar all the way down to Drumoak through Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire Scotland. The guide is a must for anyone wanting to visit the area. The restaurant we ended up choosing was the Clachan Grill and we duly received 10% off our meal thanks to the PassporTour book.
The Clachan Grill occupies a converted steading in the centre of Ballater right along the River Dee. The Grill serves delicious locally and sustainably sourced produce. We both enjoyed the cauliflower soup to start (no joke, cauliflower has never tasted so good!), then Pamela had the smoked haddock fishcakes and I demolished the beef and black pudding sausages. Ythan had to settle for his bottle of milk! The meal was marvellous, and we would highly recommend a visit to the Clachan Grill if visiting Ballater.
The desserts sounded equally good at the Grill, but we decided to go for a treat at Shorty’s Ice Cream Parlour instead, which is just on the Square.
We then took the 30-minute drive out to Loch Muick which is part of the Balmoral Estate. Loch Muick is found at the foot of Lochnagar, one of Scotland’s finest mountains, made famous by Lord Byron and Prince Charles who wrote a children’s book about ‘The Old Man of Lochnagar’.
The area has many walking routes and a variety of wildlife including grouse and deer. We were lucky enough to spot this herd of deer which must have been 50 strong.
Facilities at the loch include a small, but informative visitor centre, as well as a car park (please note that you have to pay to park). There's a good circular track around the loch which takes you to Glas-allt Shiel house, a former country retreat of Queen Victoria completed in 1868. You can then take a diversion from the path and climb up to see the Glas Allt Shiel waterfalls. You continue round the loch, crossing pretty burns and passing through old birch woodland as you go.
Unfortunately, we only had time to check out the visitor centre and to view the loch from the start of the trail. We knew that we had a busy afternoon, with a trip to another loch – Loch Kinnord – at the Muir of Dinnet.
The Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve
The Muir of Dinnet is one of 8 National Nature Reserves in the Cairngorms National Park. It includes Loch Kinord and Loch Davan as well as the famous Burn o’ Vat (also known as MacGregor’s Cave). The reserve extends 1163 hectares, from the River Dee to Culbean hill, and encompasses a wide range of habitats. The reserve is only a ten-minute drive east of Ballater, and just five minutes from the small village of Dinnet.
Firstly, we checked out the visitor centre, which is open daily, and found it very useful in understanding the geography of the reserve and how is was formed. The centre also explains the network of four paths with which to explore the reserve.
The Burn o’ Vat
The Burn o’ Vat is a pothole measuring 18 metres across and 13 metres high and the walk to it took only about 10-minutes from the visitor centre and car park. Initially we were surprised, because we couldn’t see what we were looking for – the magic of this geological marvel is that it is hidden behind a wall of large boulders, with only a small opening (note that waterproof boots would be advantageous when venturing in).
Around 16,000 years ago, the area surrounding Burn o’ Vat was covered by a glacial ice sheet. As the area warmed around 14,000 years ago, the ice sheet began to melt, resulting in a torrent of meltwater that carried with it debris previously caught up in the glacial ice. It is thought that a rock became lodged in a small hollow on the river bed, causing the meltwater to flow around it in a spiraling motion. This spiraling motion caused the bed underneath the rock to erode over a long period of time. Approximately 12,000 years ago, the entrance to the vat was exposed when the rock in front of it was undercut by the same stream that formed the vat, albeit in the form of a waterfall.
From the Burn o’ Vat, we then took one of the trails around Loch Kinnord. The loch is a fresh water lake approximately 1 mi (1.6 km) in length and was formed from a glacial kettle hole. The walk around the loch is quite easy and mostly on the level, and took around two hours to complete, although this did include some stops for milk feeding!
An interesting feature of the loch is its iron age crannog. It simply looks like a tiny island in the loch, but a crannog is a man-made island, built probably for defensive purposes. Oak tree trunks were driven into the loch bed and stones built up around them. A hut was then built on top of the structure.
Another fascinating feature on the walk was the 9th-century, cross slab Pictish stone which stands on the north shore of Loch Kinnord. It is carved with intricate knot work and indicates that there may have been a small monastery or chapel located nearby. At some point in history, the cross was lost and buried however it was dug up again 1820’s and erected at Aboyne Castle. In 1959 it was returned to its current location.
After carrying 20 pounds of baby around Loch Kinnord in the beautiful summer sun, it was time to head home and have a well deserved rest and plan our next day trip!