Aberdeenshire: Scotland’s Castles, Other Coast & Hidden Wonders

If you are not from the UK, an archeologist, a paleontologist, an ancient or Celtic history buff or perhaps in the oil industry,  it is unlikely you have heard much about the Aberdeenshire region of Scotland. If you are from England, you likely think it is mostly a grey, dreary, wretched place. In fact it seems a great many Scots think this too.

Sunny Day in Aberdeenshire
A beautiful and sunny day in Aberdeen Scotland Aberdeenshire 2017 photo by Elizabeth Whitener

When I decided to drive around the entire coast of Scotland, shunning the typical “North Coast” route for one of my own making,  I was inundated with information about the route commonly known as the NC 500 . I found little about Scotland’s North East Coast beyond grumbles from my UK friends as to why I would even WANT to drive THAT coast.

The popular North Coast 500 is a lovely drive through my beloved Highlands, but you miss so very much stopping at 500 miles in. Yes you get to see the remarkable Highlands, but you miss out on most of the castles.

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NC 500 near Glenelg, Scotland Highlands Photo by Elizabeth Whitener 2017

The NC 500 part of my journey was truly spectacular. But Aberdeen and the surrounding area (Aberdeenshire) were equally full of splendor.  So much so, I plan to do it all again next year. All of it!

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Kildrummy Castle Ruins (a true castle) Scotland 2017 Photo by Elizabeth Whitener 

Since I am currently writing about my experiences as they unfolded, we’ve now left Edinburgh. I have much more to write about that city, but for now we are about a 3 hour drive Northeast-ish of there.

I only stayed at one conventional hotel during my month long journey. The rest of the time I stayed with friends or at AirBnBs.

I stayed at Kildrummy Park Castle Hotel for two (2) nights. It was at the tail end of the season, so the hotel was relatively quiet and I got a great deal from Booking.com. It was worth every damned dime.

Although rather remote and only accessible via some extremely rural roads, that is the general nature of such a journey anyway. It’s location made access to the numerous wonders in the area fairly easy and the view, service and food were simply stupendous. If you decide to stay there, ask for Fiona.

Kildrummy Castle Hotel
Kildrummy Castle Hotel aka Kildrummy Park Castle Hotel. Picture by Elizabeth Whitener, Aberdeenshire Scotland 2017

The hotel was built in 1900, partially from the ruins of the original 13th century castle that it now overlooks. It was turned into a hotel in 1950. Located near Kildrummy, which is fairly inland from the coast, but nothing in Scotland is really THAT far away (at least not to a road trippin’ American).

In Aberdeenshire, or let’s say the area between Edinburgh and Aberdeen (and a wee bit beyond) it seems one cannot drive more than 10 miles without bumping into an ancient castle. Now I am not talking about Tower Houses like the magnificent Castle Fraser, which is not really a castle at all, see my post about this here–> Tower Houses of Scotland aka Scotland’s Castles I am talking about castles, real Scottish castles!

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Castle Fraser. Magnificently preserved. Built in 1636 Z plan Tower House. Not a castle. Photo by Elizabeth Whitener, Inverurie, Scotland, Aberdeenshire 2017

Don’t get me wrong, there is a seemingly endless array of Tower Houses, Castellated Houses and Baronial House in the area. All well worth seeing as far as I am concerned. Some still in use, some well to moderately preserved and some in ruins dotting the landscape. But let’s talk castles, true castles.

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Dunnottar Castle. A true 16th century courtyard castle. Stonehaven Aberdeenshire. Photo by Elizabeth Whitener 2017

Magnificent Dunnottar Castle. A menacing ruin of a castle jutting up from a huge rock, surrounded by what is often a very turbulent sea. Fortified in the Early Middles Ages, the remaining buildings are from the 15th and 16th centuries.

Dunnottar is a little less than 2 miles south of Stonehaven, and you can make a day of castles and tower houses if planned well.

Castle FraserCraigievar Castle, Drum Castle and Crathes Castle (all actually tower houses by the way) are not so far away. They are all part of the National Trust of Scotland  so give them a call before you go. They are super helpful and every one of these properties have their own unique qualities.

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Crathes Castle & Gardens. The painted ceilings of this castle are wondrous. Built 1596 Banchory Scotland, Aberdeenshire. Photo by Elizabeth Whitener 2017

Check ahead that Dunnottar is open before you go. It is private and not attached to the National Trust. It was NOT open when I was there due to weather.

Also check schedules for events, as well as road closures along your route. Drum closes down to the public for special events and road closures happen frequently. I do not advise it, but I drove around the road closure signs after circling for too long. It isn’t uncommon for detour signs to lead you either in a circle or to nowhere, according to the locals.

Dunnottar is truly a marvel, and is a huge part of not only ancient but more modern Scottish history. This impressive group of structures belonged to the Keiths from the 14th century and was practically impenetrable until the shit hit the fan after the 1715 Jacobite rising. See my short post on the subject here–>  And then the English… 

If you wish to go a bit off of the beaten path, there are the Nine Castles of Knuckle, 2 of which are gone. From west to east, the castles are Dundarg, Pitsligo, Pitullie, Kinnaird, Wine Tower, Cairnbulg, Inverallochy, Lonmay and Rattray

  1. Kinnaird Castle (tower house) now The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses
  2. Winetower (?) – preserved
  3. Cairnbulg Castle (z plan tower house) – private residence
  4. Inverallochy Castle (true castle) – ruin
  5. Dundarg Castle – ruin
  6. Pittulie – ruin
  7. Pitsligo (keep) -ruin
  8. Lonmay Castle (gone)
  9. Castle of Rattray (gone)

True castles in Aberdeenshire to note. Click on them for further info. Some quite obscure.

Cluny Castle – Z-plan Castle – Built 1604 – Private Residence – South of Monymusk

Corse Castle – L / Z plan Castle – 16th Century – Ruin – Three miles NW of Lumphannan

Coull Castle – Fortress –  13th Century – Ruin – South of Coull

Findlater Castle – Courtyard Castle – 14th Century – Ruin – Sandend

Inveralochy Castle – Courtyard Castle – 13th Century – Ruin – Inverlochy Inverlochy Castle Hotel looks like a great place to stay.

Kildrummy Castle – Castle of Enciente – 13th Century – Ruin – Kildrummy

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Kildrummy Castle – 13th Century ruin – photo by Elizabeth Whitener Kildrummy Scotland 2017 (quite a sunny day too)

Lauriston Castle – Courtyard Castle with later additions – 13th Century – Private Residence – St Cyrus (right outside of Edinburgh). A beauty with fantastic gardens and views. Lots of people walking dogs! Lots of wonderful little benches and hideaways.

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View from Lauriston Castle. True 13th century courtyard castle with additions. Private residence. Look, another sunny Aberdeenshire day! Photo by Elizabeth Whitener 2017

Toluqon Castle – Courtyard Castle – Built 1589 – Ruin (Historic Scotland) – Pitmedden

Scotland, ALL of Scotland, has so much to do and so much to see. Plan your journey well and be open to making changes as you go.

Scotland is just a beautiful place. Its diversity is as unique as is its history, its flora and fauna and its people.

Closing yourself off to one part of this country, to me, is like getting a glimpse of a small corner of a masterpiece and calling it a day, never getting a full view of all that you could have seen.

Tower Houses of Scotland aka Scotland’s Castles

“ABC!” he said to the women in front of him, with the tinge of a cockney lilt. We were all standing in little stone room utilized as the gift shop / lobby of yet another of Scotland Castles, Drum Castle, awaiting the tour to begin.

“ABC!!” he said louder to her back and pretty much all of us this time….

He was a handsome guy. Tall, lanky, pasty white. He looked black Irish to me, definitely a Brit. He had that haircut I love on men his age. Shaved on the sides long on the top, reminiscent of a 1930s style. It added to his boyish charm. His tone was playful.

His girlfriend or wife or whatever she was to him had her back to him (and me), but I could tell she was rolling her eyes as she paid the lady at the counter. His brown eyes twinkled, he was complaining but with mirth. The small crowd in the low ceilinged room was silent.

Having paid she slid by him and out the front entrance, leaving him with an audience staring at him in muted suspense.

“Another Bloody Castle!” he asserted, smiled broadly, swept the long piece of hair from his eyes swooping it back over his head and walked out the door to await the tour guide.

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Drum Castle. One of Scotlands oldest tower houses

They call them castles all over Scotland, but actually, they are tower houses. Referred to as castles, pretty much all over these days. Even by the National Trust of Scotland which owns and maintains many of the castles aka tower houses of Scotland today. These fortified estates were built with the defensive nature of castles in mind. If you know much about the history of Scotland, you understand the need of such castle like structures.

They initially appeared in the middle ages, mostly in Scotland and Ireland, later turning up in Spain, Italy and France. Built in more remote or mountainous regions, (which at the time was much of Scotland) where people were often left much to their own devices and raids of one’s home was common place.

Craigievar Castle (tower house) Scotland tower house
Craigievar Castle (tower house). A pink harled structure near Alford, Aberdeenshire Scotland. Photo by Elizabeth Whitener aka januarymoon 2017

The high middle ages was a time of great extremes in Scotland and seriously tenuous relations between many europeans. Great Britain changed allies more often than the king changed his hat. There was a rapid and sudden population increase, a mass exodus from the rural areas to the cities, endless wars, economic strife and then the plague aka Black Death… which is suspected to have killed upwards of 50% of the population. Things were a wee bit unstable. For Scotland, perhaps even more so.

Castle Fraser
Castle Fraser (tower house). The most elaborate Z plan castle and truly grand inside and out. Located near Kemnay in Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Tower houses were simply large homes, built to maintain the safety of those within, with limited man power or forces. They became popular with aristocrats for obvious reasons, and were often stark and foreboding on the outside while filled with the comforts of the wealthy inside. They popped up all over Italy, England and Spain during times of strife, but today Scotland seems to maintain some of the finest examples of such residences.

Some of the tower houses of Scotland are now owned and managed by National Trust for Scotland. Others remain privately owned. But there are so very many you can visit throughout Scotland that continue to be intact. It is so worth visiting as many as is possible.

And then the English…

Dunnottar Castle and the Jacobite rising
Dunnottar Castle 2017 by Rootless Routes

Scotland lays claim to some of the most magnificent castles in all of Britain. Due to the Jacobite rising ‘s Scotland today bears some of the most magnificent castle ruins.

The evocative remains of Dunnottar Castle, command the seas from a massive rock promontory. For more than 2000 years man has inhabited this redoubt.

In the 5th century, Picts built a church on the rock from which Dunnottar now rises, that grew into a fort and then a settlement. It took 300 years before vikings successfully invaded the subsequent castle, killing King Donald II.

More than one hundred years of sieges plagued the Rock of Dunnottar until the Keiths took hold of the land. Dunnottar then maintained its steely stronghold for the Keith’s for centuries.

Dunnottar Castle grew with time becoming a regal and impenetrable fortress. Valiantly aiding its inhabitants in winning wars, warding off attacks, even saving Scotland’s Crown Jewels.

As the Keith family rose in rank and stature, Dunnottar Castle grew in might and grace.

Dunnottar Castle and the Jacobite rising
Dunnottar Castle today 2017 by Rootless Routes

And then the English… found George Keith, the 10th Earl of Marischal (and the last), guilty of treason for his part in the Jacobite rising. In 1715 Dunnottar Castle was seized by the British Government and left to fall to ruin.

Kildrummy Castle and the Jacobite rising
Kildrummy Castle Today

Built in the early 13th century, Kildrummy Castle (Caisteal Cheann Droma) was one of the most extensive castles in the area. For hundreds of years the castle was considered “the noblest of the north”. Long dominating the Strathdon for the earls of Mar.

Kildrummy Castle survived numerous seizes, gallantly defending the family of Robert the Bruce . In 1374 the castle’s heiress Isobel was seized and married by Alexander Stewart, who laid claim to Kildrummy and the title of Earl of Mar.

In 1435 James I took control, making the already regal Kildrummy, a truly royal castle. The castle passed on through clan hands for more than 200 years growing in elegance, size and repute.

And then the English… forced out clan Erskine after the 1716 Jacobite rebellion and the mighty castle was left to fall to ruin.

Kildrummy Castle ruins
Kildrummy Castle 2017 Rootless Routes