All throughout lockdown, I was jonesing for one type of trip in particular: a camping trip. I just wanted to park up near a loch or the bottom of a mountain and take our tent into the middle of nowhere and just be away from it all.
I’ve always been a “west coast is best coast” kinda gal, which is funny considering I grew up in Orkney (north east), was born in Aberdeen (east) and live in Edinburgh (south east), but undoubtedly most of Scotland’s best scenery is on the west, and when you’re on a camping trip, any incredible scenery is a bonus. So imagine my surprise when, driving down through Aberdeenshire a couple of weeks beforehand, we stumbled across some of the best scenery I’ve seen in Scotland.
“THIS would be a good place to camp,” we said.
And so here we were, on our fourth weekend out in a row, setting up our tent in very much eastern Scotland, although on the western border of Aberdeenshire.
Aberdeenshire is a highly underrated part of Scotland – much like Fife which I only really explored recently, it tends to be overlooked in preference for mountains, lochs and the popular cities, and where the A9 that carves its way through the Cairngorms is the lifeline route to the northern Highlands of Scotland, Aberdeenshire is just slightly out of the way if you don’t make the effort. But, again much like Fife, I was about to find out that Aberdeenshire has a whole lot to offer! And although it’s only a tiny sliver of the county that boasts scenery like the above, the rest of the area is filled with more fairytale castles than you’ll find anywhere else in Scotland, as well as fantastic seaside towns and beaches.
Our visit began in Braemar, a quaint village in the heart of the Cairngorms that we had passed through a couple of weeks earlier and immediately resolved to go back. Even better, then, that we should chance upon the perfect camping spot nearby too.
One of my favourite things about Scotland is that you can legally wild camp for free, though sadly a lot of people have been taking huge liberties on this recently and assume that if it’s free, that must mean all other rules go out the window and you can also leave your rubbish for someone else to clean up – in fact, if you don’t think you’ll camp ever again, like clearly some of these people never have before, why not just leave your tent and all your equipment to rot as well? After all, the wilderness is just a massive festival, right? Don’t worry, the Staff Of The Wild will pick up after you.
Wild camping also doesn’t mean parking your campervan at the side of the road (or even worse, a passing space that is needed by moving traffic, or even worse than that, on farmland where the farmer asks you to move only for you to hurl abuse at them and stay anyway – yes, this has ALL been happening!). In fact, wild camping means different things to different people, and I’m sure we weren’t even truly “wild camping” in the eyes of some people, as we were only a few minutes’ walk from the road. Whatever wild camping means, I fear that all this nonsense is going to lead to restrictions being imposed, which rather defeats the point.
Wild camping is a huge privilege that we are fortunate enough to have, but with such privilege comes many responsibilities. The main #1 rule, which applies to absolutely everything in nature, is leave no trace. It’s probably the most important rule of all, and is it really that hard to pack up everything you brought in?
There are plenty of other rules such as caution with open fires (general rule: don’t), cleaning up your own waste (we might be out in the wild, but humans are supposed to be domesticated, remember?) and just generally being respectful of the environment and your surroundings (e.g. don’t be too loud, don’t camp in a farmer’s field, don’t pee in the river). In summary? Don’t be a dick.
Apologies for turning this post into a bit of a rant – I think wild camping is a wonderful experience, and would hate to see this privilege lost due to a handful of idiots. Anyway, we truly had a great night by the peaceful river, apart from a slight hiccup with our new camping barbecue! We wished we’d just brought our stove!
And in the morning? Here’s what we left at our little camping spot.
NOTHING. Exactly how we’d found it.
In the morning, instead of a typical camp breakfast, we headed into town to try Gordon’s Tearoom (I know, what kind of campers are we??). It was our first meal out-but-indoors since February, so we were a little apprehensive about experiencing the new normal but also quite excited to at least feel a bit “normal” again. And, considering we’re all getting used to the new normal, I thought they had dealt with everything really well, taking our contact details with our orders, making sure everyone was seated far enough apart, offering great table service. I highly recommend them and I was glad to support them after they had been closed for so long.
We also passed the luxurious Fife Arms hotel, into which I peered through every window because the public areas look astounding, and I’d love to go for afternoon tea in one of the rooms of decadence. I did look up out of interest how much it costs to stay the night in their even more extravagant rooms, and it’s by the most expensive place I’ve ever seen in Scotland!! (£750 for the cheapest room when I looked it up in the summer; £414 when I looked it up last night. For comparison, you can stay at the Balmoral in Edinburgh, arguably the most posh hotel in Scotland, or so I thought, for less than half the price.) Does anyone know of anywhere more expensive here? Answers on a postcard, please. Bonus points if the postcard is from the hotel.
From Braemar, we had decided we’d head east to explore some castles in rural Aberdeenshire. We actually skipped Braemar Castle itself – you can see it from the road and I find it a bit too blocky and grey, especially when we were going to a lot of nicer ones – and headed straight on towards Ballater, which doesn’t even have a castle.
But before we got to Ballater, we did pass another castle that deserves a mention in the post…
You might remember from my July round-up post that we accidentally broke into the grounds of the Queen’s holiday home last time, and so we skipped it this time on account of not wanting to be arrested for trespassing on royal property!
(For reference, before you think we’re some criminal scallywags with zero respect for our gracious Queen, somebody – a tourist – walked out of the locked gate that leads into the grounds, and so we wandered in while it was open. Afterwards, we awkwardly realised we were the only people there and the gate must have been locked for a reason! Still – how did the first person get in?! Queenie, you need to up your security!)
I do want to stop by there again some time to do the walk up to the pyramids (did you know there are pyramids in Scotland?!), but unfortunately we didn’t have time the first time, and this time it was raining so we decided to give it a miss.
Ballater is such a cute town that I slammed my brakes on and pulled into a side road to have a little explore. A biker group was in town – a common theme in this part of the Cairngorms – and they were ALL parked outside the church (gone by the time I took the above photo).
We also walked up to the striking but charming railway station, which fits the lovely wooden theme of other stations in the Cairngorms, but isn’t actually a train station any more and hasn’t been used as one since 1966. In fact, the whole thing burned down in 2015, so everything you see now is rebuilt and modern. What I DIDN’T know, because we didn’t go inside, is that it’s actually a restaurant and tea room, and it looks really cool! So that’s going on the never-ending list of places I want to go in Scotland.
From Ballater, we went on to a castle we’ve visited, albeit very briefly, before – the fairytale pink princess castle of Craigievar!
We were a little confused here because the National Trust had signs saying that it was closed but that the grounds are open. We parked up and walked over, but then there was then a huge barrier across the piece of road up to the castle itself. Does that mean we couldn’t go past the barrier? Or was the barrier just for cars?
It soon became pretty evident that we were the only people even wondering that, so after a short walk trying to sneak photos from above, we went down and actually enjoyed it properly. (See, we’re not actually all that rebellious after all!)
Craigievar is like a dream, and is probably #2 on my favourite Scottish castles (I think Dunrobin just about pips it to the post). We had visited it once before, but it had been getting dark and it was snowing – still, I think it almost looked even more magical then!
Don’t you think? The colours really popped – and I haven’t even turned up the saturation!
What I hadn’t realised last time (not that we would have had time seeing as it was dark), was that Fraser Castle is just down the road from Craigievar.
I really loved Fraser Castle, and although the castle itself was also closed, it’s one that I would definitely go back to so that I can see the inside.
It was also way busier than Craigievar, and the tea room in the courtyard was heaving, or as busy as it could be safely anyway, so we avoided that area as much as we could. Yet behind the castle, where it’s arguably the most photogenic? Crickets.
From Fraser, we could either drive south the way we had last time and rejoin the A92 back towards Perth, or we could take a detour via Aberdeen and end up in Stonehaven for one of Scotland’s most famous castles, and one I couldn’t believe I’d still never seen.
Well, as if that wasn’t enough to convince us to take a detour, when we looked up the quickest route home, that was actually it anyway! Win/win.
Dunnottar was by far the busiest place we’d been that day; in fact, the busiest place we’d seen since probably the previous summer. It was wild. After a couple of unsuccessful drives around the car park, we decided to park in the coach park – after all, no coaches were running at that point, and it was already almost full of cars anyway. So I guess we got pretty lucky!
Out of all the castles in Scotland, I think Dunnottar has one of the most impressive settings; virtually on its own island, overlooking the north sea from a stronghold that would have been hard to beat.
Dunnottar was actually open as it’s outdoors, but you had to book tickets online. Instead, I took a walk along the coast to get different views of it, and each angle brought a new light to it. I loved it.
It was great to get out and explore some of Scotland’s frankly best offerings, particularly in such an underrated area of the country. It was a shame most things were still closed at that point – I’m keen to try to support the tourism industry where possible – but it also meant we had time to see a lot more than we would have done had we been spending a couple of hours in each castle.
We also couldn’t have been luckier with the weather! Despite our exclamation about what a wonderful place Braemar would be to camp, we had actually been looking at the west coast for that weekend, however it was rained out (as is often the case) so we decided to head back to Braemar instead. It obviously ended up being the perfect excuse to explore more of Aberdeenshire too, and I now have even more on my list that I want to visit, such as the actual town of Stonehaven (Dunnottar is just outside) and the twee village of Crovie on the northern coast.
From getting back to basics with wild camping to the luxury of castles, our weekend in Aberdeenshire showed us exactly what makes the county so underrated, and I’ve been left feeling a little perplexed as to what took me so long to discover it.