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 third "Explore Royal Deeside" blog post, covers our trip to Craigievar and its stunning castle, which is said to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle, as well as the area around Tarland and as far north as Alford and the River Don.
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Craigievar Castle is only thirty miles west of Aberdeen; however, this takes around an hour when driving through the scenic countryside of Royal Deeside. The drive is well worth it though, especially as soon as you see this beautiful pink castle, which was the seat of Clan Sempill.
It is the castle’s stunning colour which really grabs the visitor’s attention. This is thanks to the renovation and reharleding of the tower which occurred between 2008 and 2010, with the pink-washed walls bringing the building back to its original look.
The pink wash would have been applied around the time of the castle’s completion back in 1626, however, work on this fantastic example of Scottish Baronial style was probably started in 1576. The building was completed by the Aberdonian merchant William Forbes, whose nickname was Danzig Willy, a reference to his shrewd international trading success with the Baltic states. The castle was occupied by the Forbes-Sempill family for 350 years until 1963, when the property was given to the National Trust for Scotland.
The castle is set in beautiful countryside, with lovely wooded walks. The compact defensive tower and the remaining part of the courtyard wall is just a small part of the fortifications that would have surrounded the main tower. Originally, there would have been four of these quaint towers.
Inside the castle, the rooms are smaller compared to many Scottish castles, but this just adds to the homeliness of the tower. Then, once you get above the ground floor, there is no electricity in the castle, thus giving the visitor an idea of how dark the rooms would have been. There is enough light, however, to let the visitor see the extensive collection of historic artefacts and art – including Raeburn portraits, armour and weapons. Another of the glories of Craigievar Castle are the amazing moulded plaster ceilings. These date back to 1624 and were some of the first of their kind in Scotland.
The Grampian Transport Museum
Leaving the castle, our trip took us to the village of Alford - home of the world famous Aberdeen Angus cattle breed. Although not actually in Royal Deeside, but rather in the valley of the River Don, Alford is only ten minutes’ drive from the castle. Our reason for visiting was the interesting and informative Grampian Transport Museum. The museum boasts an impressive range of transport exhibits, from travelling chariots of the 1800's, to some of the fastest cars ever made. The museum is a living museum that probes the past, present and future. Many exhibits are climb aboard, hands on and even ride on. Ideal for kids, as well as big kids!
Welcoming us at the entrance to the museum was the Craigievar Express. Andrew Lawson, a postman at Craigievar, designed and built this remarkable steam tricycle between 1895 and 1897. Indeed, this unique vehicle has survived in working order to this day. Not sure that we would swap our car for it though!
Like any other self-respecting transport museum, the obligatory Ford Model T was on show. Such an iconic car, and by 1919, almost half of all the cars in Britain were actually Ford Model Ts! This example was a beauty, and one of over fifteen million that were built during its twenty years of production.
The highlight of the museum’s exhibits for us, however, was the Guy Martin collection. Guy may be more familiar to the public as a TV presenter, but for his fans, he will always be remembered for his 17 podium finishes at the Isle of Man TT events.
Guy Martin's Volvo Vox “Amazon” estate car had been loaned to the museum. Rumoured to be one of the fastest cars in the UK with almost 800BHP on tap it is undoubtedly a beast! Guy’s own perception is that it matches a Suzuki GSXR with 220 BHP up to 100 mph but leaves it trailing between 100 mph and 200 mph. Not many Volvo Estates will accelerate to 60 mph in under 3 seconds.
There was also Guy’s first car – a SAAB 96 V4 – which he purchased for £300 shortly after passing his driving test.
The exhibit which had the most interesting history was the Gravity Racer in which Guy attempted to break the world record for a gravity powered vehicle. The previous record stood at 84.4mph, but on the Channel 4 ‘Speed’ series, a special kart was designed and constructed by Hallam University for Guy. The location that they chose for the attempt was Mount Ventoux in Provence, France, famous as a classic climb in the Tour de France cycle race. After a series of practice runs, Guy Martin managed to go through the timed section at 90mph, but for this speed to be set as a record, he had to come to a controlled stop! The ensuing crash was spectacular, but thankfully Guy was unhurt. In the end, Guy did manage to officially break the record, accomplishing 85.61 mph!
Our next stop, 15 minutes west along the Don, was the double attraction of Kildrummy Castle and Kildrummy Castle Gardens.
Managed by Historic Scotland, Kildrummy Castle was known as ‘the noblest of northern castles’. Even as a ruin, it is easy to imagine why the castle was given this title. In its medieval heyday, the huge castle dominated Strathdon as seat of the mighty earls of Mar. Built in the mid-1200s, the castle guarded the point where main routes from the south met before entering Moray and Buchan. The once mighty Snow Tower, the earl’s residence, collapsed in 1805. But the Warden’s Tower and two other lesser towers still stand. So does the gable of the castle chapel.
Kildrummy Castle Gardens
Kildrummy Castle Gardens are next door to, but a separate attraction from the castle. The gardens were created in the ancient quarry below the medieval Castle. The bridge spanning the garden is a copy of famous brig o' Balgownie in modern day Aberdeen and reflects beautifully on the largest of the four ponds which plays host to a wide range of water plants. The quarry left behind after the building of the castle in the 12th Century is now planted with fine examples of alpines and shrubs. A walk around the gardens is a great way to relax, and we found that at a gentle pace, a circuit of the garden took us almost an hour.
Tomnaverie Stone Circle
The time was now nearing towards the evening and our thoughts were turning to our stomachs, but as we headed to Banchory, we had one last stop to make – the Tomnaverie Stone Circle, which can be found just outside the village of Tarland.
Tomnaverie is a recumbent stone circle, a kind of monument found only in north-eastern Scotland and part of south-west Ireland. Their characteristic feature is a large horizontal (or “recumbent”) stone which has an upright flanking stone at either side of it. The alignment of these stones probably helped prehistoric farming communities to follow the changing seasons. This stone circle surrounds a burial cairn dating to about 4,500 years ago, making the circle a similar age to Stonehenge and the great Pyramids of Giza. The site appears to have seen use as late as the AD 1600s.
There is ample car parking available at the base of the hill on which the circle stands, and from here, it is a five minute walk up a gentle brae to the monument. The views over Royal Deeside are spectacular and Lochnagar is easily seen on the horizon.
Royal Deeside PassporTour book
Following that connection with our ancient heritage, our thoughts returned to our bellies. For dinner, 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 Burnett Arms Hotel and we duly received 10% of our meal. It should be noted that the PassporTour book also gave a discount for visiting Craigievar Castle – buy 2 Adults and 4 Kids go free – however, we already have a National Trust for Scotland membership, so we did not need to use the discount.