It had been a while since the Dude and I ventured to the north east of Scotland on our travels. So when were asked to spend five days in Aberdeenshire we knew we would have a ball. For the last three summers I have been working non stop in my seasonal job for VisitScotland, but this year I decided not to go back. This means that we are now able to make travel plans in the summer too. Don’t get me wrong I love Scotland when she’s misty and mysterious but it’s nice to have the longer days and green fields too.
I’ve noticed that people tend to shout louder about the coastal towns, cliff hugging castles and walks in Aberdeenshire and as much as I love a vitamin sea fix, I’m also all about rolling hills, castles with walled gardens and walks in the forest. Strangely enough there was all that, and more, right on the doorstep of our accommodation Woodside Steading near Huntly.
Whenever we go away we like to make the car journey part of the trip too. Not just a necessary evil to get from A to B. We like to plan our route, do some homework to see what there is on the journey. This trip would involve driving the Snow Roads route up to Braemar and Ballater. We decided we would stop off at the Mar Lodge Estate to eat our packed lunches and then have a wander along the river to see if we could spot the resident red squirrels. Of course the Scottish weather had other ideas and the rain came down in biblical style and we thought better of it! No point getting soaked for the rest of journey so we opted for hot chocolate and cake in one of Braemar’s fine coffee shops, The Bothy.
By the time we had finished it had stopped raining so we walked around to the newly refurbished Fife Arms and admired it through the windows (feeling too scruffy to go in). It looks incredible, that is definitely on the list of things to see now.
We carried on north bound stopping periodically to photograph the view or just admire the scenery and arrived at our accommodation early afternoon.
On our return journey to Perth we stopped off at Balmoral Castle. We’ve driven by so many times and said we must visit and if it helped extend our Aberdeenshire stay a little longer, that is only a good thing! It is only open for a few months of the year before the Queen and some of the Royal family come to stay for the summer. I can totally see why they would spend their time here.
Less than eight miles south of the bright lights of Huntly is Woodside Steading. Not visible from the roadside, the only clue is the discreet wooden signage beside a long, uphill track/driveway.
In front of the Steading is ample parking and colourful potted flowers, a nice welcome. Our hosts, Susan and Richard, also happened to be our neighbours too. Susan welcomed us warmly, showed us around and then left us to move in, with the reassurance that if we needed anything during our stay all we had to do was come up to their house.
In a former life the building was a pig shed. A long, one level property with a few steps up to rooms; all leading back to the main hall way and front door.
The living room, with it’s high ceiling, woodburner, comfy sofa’s and large windows is a delightful place. In fact, the Dude and I even moved in (in our heads) and joked about me making an office space on the open balcony that over looks the living room. Plenty of space for all our books too.
Just off from this room is a twin bedroom and next door a family bathroom and a lovely big (over bath) shower.
The dining room and kitchen are to the back of the property and I just know that if we lived here we would never get any cooking done. With a bird table right outside the window we watched the drama as birds fed and flitted off. When the woodpecker arrived all the little birds watched from the nearest bushes not daring to move. We weren’t lucky enough to see the badger or local pinemarten though.
The kitchen is equipped with everything you need for a self-catering holiday, from fry-ups to curry, you can have it all.
It’s always good news when you get into a comfy bed on the first night. The super king size bed was a dream. In fact, the main bedroom is delightful. Beautifully decorated, light and has an en-suite bathroom with a gorgeous roll top bath. Another tick in my book was when I discovered the bath sheet towels too. No-one likes a tiny towel, do they?
The weather forecast didn’t actually look too promising on the lead up to our Aberdeenshire stay but we had plans to get out and do some walking regardless. Soon after unpacking at the accommodation we ventured out to Huntly.
Exploring the large market square and narrow streets we then found ourselves walking down the long drive passed the golf course and down to the castle. It was too late for us to go in to the castle so we continued to follow the river Deveron for a while. Really pretty wee walk and enough to make up for not getting our walk at Mar Lodge earlier in the day.
Just seven miles from Woodside Steading is the sweet village of Insch. The Dude and I were quite taken by this wee place and when we wandered around it grabbed us even more. We had only one hour to kill before The Dude was due to tee off at Insch Golf Club.
The first thing we came across was St Drostan’s Church. In fact, the only remaining part of the old church is a gable end and bellcote. Our interest spiked when we read that it is said to have been gifted to the Abbey of Lindores around 1195. We live less than ten miles away from Lindores Abbey. This site is also believed to have some of the earliest links to Christian worship in the north east of Scotland. Now home to some Commonwealth war graves too.
We then moved on to walk at Insch Meadows. A small flat circuit of pathway that is managed by the council and is a wild meadow (the clue is in the name). It’s been allowed to grow and the wildlife has responded and moved in – butterflies, frogs, small mammals and many different birds. There is a children’s play park is here too. We followed a path that lead us into the woods and to the river Shevock (and a rope swing over the river). There were tracks leading off in all directions, but we were conscious of the time and so found our way back out to the village. Had we more time I think it would have been nice to stop and watch the wildlife.
Hill of Dunnideer
The remains of Dunnideer Castle and the iron age hillfort dominate the skyline from every which way and we were eager to take a look (even after walking 10k around the golf course).
The short, but lung busting walk up to the top treated us to the sweet scent of of gorse and some rather lovely views at the summit. At this time of year the lush green rolling fields of Aberdeenshire are a spectacular sight and the village of Insch with it’s golf course can be see too.
It is believed that Dunnideer Castle was Scotland’s first mainland tower house and is said to have been constructed by Gregory the Great, King of Picts, around AD 880. Records for the site date from 1260. Certainly a good choice for a castle as the 360° views would have been an advantage.
Long before the castle, around the third century BC, the hillfort still shows signs of it’s defences today. This sort of place always blows my mind, fascinating – with a little help from the wind!
There is a circular walk for this but on this occasion we just walked the same path back down from Hill of Dunnideer.
We actually found this beautiful walk by pure accident after spotting a brown sign at the village of Rhynie for Clashindarroch Forest. After driving for nearly five miles and thinking we’d missed a turn, the forest appeared before us. Covering a whopping 14184.47 acres we found the car park and put our boots on.
I’m unsure of the altitude here but during winter the forest is used for cross-country ski-ing. With a variety of trails suitable for beginners and more advanced experience.
No snow for this visit, just a bit of rain but still really warm.
The trails are numerically marked and you can just make it up as you go along. At each trail turn off there is a map so you can decide if you want to carry on further or turn off. The main trail is wide and well maintained but some of the off-shoots were firebreaks in the trees that were now made into tracks.
There has obviously been a lot of work put in to this forest to maintain it. We found ourselves admiring the forest floor because the trees had been thinned out enough to allow light through and plants were growing.
I was super excited to learn that there are also Scottish wildcats living in here. Obviously we didn’t see one because they are super elusive and would have heard my size fives tramping along and made a run for it, but the fact they’re there is cool. I did however, find some pinemarten poop! Please excuse my excitement, I’ve never seen one and so this was my first encounter.
We walked about 10k through the forest and saw only one man and his dug. We thoroughly enjoyed the walk and didn’t mind getting a bit wet.
I’ve mentioned before that when we go away the Dude likes to check out the local golf courses and this trip was no different. Spending five days in one place allows us to do this without feeling like we are missing out on something. It wasn’t a golf trip.
That said, he was spoiled for choice when trying to decide which one to play but eventually the weather made his decision easier. On the day we arrived we had wandered passed Huntly golf club to find that the course was closed and the 18th green was sodden.
With a weather window on the Thursday the Dude booked online for a 12:30 tee time. Dry, mild but with a brisk wind.
I like to walk the golf course with him when he plays as they are usually really pretty (especially the links courses).
I’m sure this course is overlooked by many visitors to the area because they want to play more illustrious courses but I think Insch golf course certainly holds it’s own with challenges and pretty scenery.
A par 69 course and currently measures 5,371 yards. Thankfully, for the Dude, there was only one large water obstacle. These are normally his nemesis and without fail a ball will land in the drink! Not on this occasion, so he was happy with this.
Not knowing the course, obviously makes it more difficult but this is off-set by the lovely wide fairways, the mature trees and well kept greens all adding to the game.
For most of the course Hill of Dunnideer can be admired and although most of the course is flat there are a few holes with elevation.
He managed this round with a par 89.
We didn’t use any of the facilities here but as a visitor he received a warm welcome and a wee map of the course to help him out.
People we spoke to on the course also recommended Turriff golf course, so we will have to check that out next time.
Scotland as a whole exudes it’s history around every corner and Aberdeenshire is no exception. Well known as “Castle Country” there are more castles per acre than anywhere in the UK and so it would have been rude of us not to have visited at least one.
On the most unexpected of sunny days (weather app showed no indication of sun!) we visited Fyvie castle for a guided tour and a walk around the grounds. It is a bonnie place and I have decided that it deserves it’s own post. Keep your eyes peeled for that follow up.
Thanks to the leaflets provided in our accommodation we discovered that this north east corner has some other fascinating trails. A Stone Circle Trail, Historic Churches Trail, Pictish Stone Trail and even a Historic Bridges Trail.
Pictish Stone Trail
The first of our Pictish stone visits was to the Picardy Symbol Stone not far from the village of Insch. A two metre high carved stone and believed to still be in it’s original spot and is believed to be part of a burial monument. Standing just metres away from the road, in a field the stone is now protected from livestock by railings but still allows people to get up close.
Our second stone find were the Rhynie Stones. A set of three stones, now safely under a shelter to protect them, at the Old Kirkyard, the largest being 1.3 metres tall. There are boards of information describing the carvings and their history here too. Some of the carvings are easier to see than others but with the help of the boards it is easier to make them out.
Whilst we were in Fyvie we also stopped off to see the stones that are in the external walls of St Peter’s church.
I find it totally mind blowing that these stones and their carvings date as early as the 4th century AD and that they are as close to a written record for the Picts as we have got. Something very special about this.
Historic Churches Trail
The Dude and I are not religious but we do love to visit the a church, abbey, cathedral occasionally. Throughout history churches have been the heart of a community and the craftsmanship and quality materials means that we are still able to visit them today.
After inadvertently finding St Drostan’s church in Insch we decided that we should explore some more of these church ruins and discovered there were a couple close to Woodside Steading.
Whilst looking for St Mary’s of Auchindoir church we discovered the Old Church of Auchindoir (aka Auchindoir North Parish Church). It is actually the predecessor to St Mary’s dating back to 1811. Today the remaining four external walls are all in good condition and it’s fair to say it’s quite photogenic.
Less than a mile up the road we found our intended destination tucked away from the road, St Mary’s Kirk (see header photo). Built around the late 1200’s, early 1300’s the intricate details of the stone is now mostly protected and looked after by Historic Environment Scotland. The rather lavish door arch is one of the original 13th century features. The Sacrament House (a cupboard in a wall of the chancel) is now protected by a perspex shelter. Over time alterations have been made – the original long and tall windows are long gone to make way for larger square windows.
Surrounded by beautiful mature trees, it was easy to see that nature has now moved in around this kirkyard and as we looked over the wall, down a steep drop, we spotted a deer. Very peaceful place.
During our stay we also discovered a wee Sculpture trail in Lumsden. There are about six sculptures on a small stretch of trail as you come into the village from the south. If you fancy a break from driving and maybe want to see to some highland cattle (in the field next to the trail) then it’s worth it.
On a soggy soggy wet day we also had a tour of Leith Hall (National Trust for Scotland) but sadly it was too wet even for us to venture around the gardens. We followed this up by driving to Lil’ C’s diner for a late lunch. Proper hearty portions of American grub was just what the Dr ordered and washed down with the best proper milkshake I think I have ever had.
See ya later Aberdeenshire
We had an absolute ball for five days in Aberdeenshire and the weather was actually quite generous with only one day of heavy rain. Even that didn’t stop us getting out.
For a couple who love beaches and harbours, we discovered there is a lot more to staying inland than we expected. We have enjoyed the lush green countryside and rolling hills; watched wildlife and found it’s poop. What more could you wish for on a road trip in Scotland.
For me, I think this just emphasises why we should spend more time in one place and explore the surrounding area. Everything in this blog post was less than a thirty minute drive, with the exception of Fyvie Castle which was about forty minutes. No need to be racing around ticking boxes.
*The Dude and I would like to thank Susan and Richard of Woodside Steading for their kind hospitality and complimentary stay in return for this blog post and social media posts. All opinions on the requirement for massive bath towels and excitement over animal poop in the woods are my own.*