'Every year my heart becomes more fixed on this dear paradise.'
These words were written by Queen Victoria in her journals and reflect the strong attachment she made with Deeside, the area around the River Dee, stretching from Braemar in the west to Aberdeen in the east, Scotland.
Queen Victoria first came to Deeside with her husband, Prince Albert, in 1848 when she spent a holiday at the Balmoral Estate. It was love at first site, but it wasn’t until 1854 when they managed to negotiate the purchase of the estate. Since then, the areas natural beauty has been a magnet for visitors.
Through a number of day trips from our base in Aberdeen, we have set out to explore this stunning area of Scotland and will detail our travels through a series of Explore Royal Deeside blog posts.
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Our exploration starts at Braemar, at the far west of Royal Deeside. Braemar is situated close to Balmoral castle and is around 58 miles (93 km) west of Aberdeen. The area has been strategically important since very early times. Hill passes, from the north, south, east and west converge where the modern village now stands. Today this small village of only around 450 inhabitants, is the perfect base to delve into the stunning Cairngorms and its mountain scenery and wildlife. Indeed, over a quarter of Scotland’s Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet) are in this area and it is a mecca for walkers, climbers, artists and photographers alike.
Perhaps what Braemar is most associated with is its annual Gathering. It has become the premier Highland Games event in Scotland, probably in part through the patronage of the monarch. The first modern-day games took place in 1832, with Queen Victoria first attending in 1844. Nowadays the current Queen attends the Braemar Gathering annually and the event is always popular with visitors, not only eager to see the competitors, but to catch a glimpse of the Queen as well.
Take note though - Braemar is one of the coldest low-lying places in the UK, with an annual average temperature of 6.8 °C. Braemar has twice entered the UK Weather Records with the lowest ever UK temperature of -27.2 °C, on 11 February 1895, and 10 January 1982. So bring a sweater! On saying that, temperatures can get quite warm during the summer, so as with any trip around Scotland, prepare for four seasons in one day and you won’t go wrong.
Visitors to Braemar should not miss a trip to Braemar Castle, which is just under a mile from the village centre. The 17th century castle was built by the Earl of Mar in 1628 and over the years, it has been hunting lodge, fortress, garrison and family home. It’s castellated turrets and star shaped curtain wall catch the eye as soon as you approach. Luckily, we had our Royal Deeside PassporTour book hand and we gained 2 for 1 admittance – a great little saving!
The Royal Deeside PassporTour 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, and this guide is a must for anyone wanting to visit the area.
With ample parking and a short walk up to the battlements, Braemar Castle gives the visitor the opportunity to inspect the grand dining room, drawing room, and Victorian bathrooms, with a total of 12 rooms open to the public. Each room is furnished with the furniture, memorabilia and personal belongings of the chiefs of Clan Farquharson.
Also, make sure you check out the bottleneck dungeon into which prisoners were lowered or dropped. During the religious conflicts of the late 1600s it was temporary "home" to no fewer than 17 prisoners. It must have been very cramped in there!
Braemar Castle would not be a proper Scottish castle without a ghost or two, and Braemar delivers on this. It is said to be haunted by the spectre of a new bride, who thought - wrongly - that her husband repented of their marriage and had deserted her. She threw herself from the top of the castle in despair, and today her ghost is said to haunt the grounds.
The community of Braemar acquired the castle in 2007, and this volunteer group is carrying out an ambitious restoration programme, and we can confirm after our visit that they are doing a great job. We especially liked their small, but interesting display on the author Robert Louis Stevenson and his book Treasure Island, which he began writing while on holiday in Braemar in 1881. Who would have guessed that Scotland’s rainy days could inspire the creation of this children’s classic?
The Linn O'Dee
A scenic twenty-minute drive west of Braemar, through the Mar Lodge Estate, took us to our next stop - The Linn O’ Dee. It is here that the River Dee runs 300 metres through a narrow gorge and drops into rocky pools below which have been carved out over millennia. It is no wonder that this beauty spot was one of Queen Victoria’s favourites.
The picturesque view is only made better by the lovely Gothic-style bridge which spans the gorge. The bridge was built by the 5th Earl of Mar and officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1857.
As well as the spectacular channel, there are walking trails through the woods and picnic spots beside the falls.
We then headed back in the direction of Aberdeen, arriving at Balmoral Castle estate after a 35-minute drive. It is easy to see why Queen Victoria fell in love with this area on the banks of the River Dee and why she spent as much time as she could at Balmoral.
The castle itself rivals the beauty of the countryside and is an example of Scots Baronial architecture. Only one room of the castle, however, can be accessed by the public, with the rest of the castle strictly used by the royal family only. The room available to visitors is the Ballroom, which is actually the largest room in the Castle. Many fine works are on display, notably by Landseer and Carl Haag, as well as Minton China and artefacts from within the Castle. Our visit coincided with the exhibition "Crystals of Balmoral" which explores how gems hidden in the Cairngorm Mountains were discovered and used during Queen Victoria's reign. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos within the Ballroom, so I am afraid that we cannot show you these crystals, which included the 50 lb smoky quartz crystal found by James Grant in 1851 and presented to Queen Victoria.
The Ballroom is still much used by the Royal Family today and is the venue for two big dances during Her Majesty’s stay at Balmoral. These dances are known as the Ghillies Ball and have taken place every year since Queen Victoria’s reign.
The grounds of Balmoral Castle are great to walk around, and the formal and vegetable gardens can also be accessed. We can also confirm that the café is excellent, with a good range of hot and cold meals. There are also further displays in the Carriage Courtyard buildings, which included the "Land Rover - 70 Years in the Making" exhibition (Land Rover holds a Royal Warrant as supplier to the Royal Household, a relationship that dates back to 1948 when King George VI viewed the original vehicle).
Before leaving the Balmoral car park, visitors should make the two-minute walk across the main road to Crathie Church. The foundation stone of this small, quaint church was laid by Queen Victoria in 1893 and the new church was completed and dedicated in 1895. The church may be relatively new, but centres of worship have been established on this site since the 6th Century when St Colm first came to the area. Many of the local people who served Queen Victoria are buried here, including her personal attendant, John Brown. On a number of headstones are personal epitaphs from Queen Victoria. When in residence at Balmoral, the Royal Family will attend Sunday worship here.
Royal Lochnagar Distillery
Most areas of Scotland have their own distillery or two, and Deeside is no exception. Indeed, back in the early 1800’s, there were several distilleries around the Balmoral area alone. However, all but one was burned down by moonshiners eager to protect their illicit trade. The distillery that escaped was the Royal Lochnagar Distillery, which is only a 5-minute drive from Balmoral Castle.
Since we were in the area, it seemed a good idea to check out this small, exclusive distillery. As with many Scottish distilleries, tours are conducted which demonstrate the whisky making process. We chose to do the basic Royal Lochnagar Distillery Tour, which cost £8.50, and ended with a dram of their 12 year old malt – kindly poured into a sealed tub so that we could enjoy once we had driven home. It is worth noting that if you are a connoisseur of whisky, there are other more advanced tours available. Remember and check the tour times on their website so that you can time arrival accordingly.
The Royal Lochnagar Distillery has an interesting early history, for when John Begg founded his distillery in 1845, he invited his new neighbours - Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – to experience his new business. Not only was this the first recorded tour of a distillery, but he impressed the royals so much with his drink that a Royal Warrant was issued to the distillery. It seems that Queen Victoria was partial to a dram of whisky mixed with claret!
Deeside Inn, Ballater
After an enjoyable, but hard days travelling, the decision was made to head to the little town of Ballater for dinner. Again, the Royal Deeside PassporTour book came into play, as it includes a voucher for a free desert with a main meal at the Deeside Inn. Never one to pass up a free desert, we decided to have our well-deserved meal and rest at this traditional Scottish inn. We certainly felt well at home here, with its comfy seats, open fireplace and Victorian era decor, not to mention its excellent homemade meals. Just for the record, our desert choices were the chocolate brownie and the sticky toffee pudding – absolutely yummy!