Next stop … Norway!

Have you ever been along the coast road north of Aberdeen? It is one of the most beautifully remote corners of the UK with many hidden treasures to explore. We took a round trip – a day – to discover stunning beaches, nature reserves, off the beaten track farm shops, ruined castles, gorgeous golf courses, glacial landscapes, an observatory, wonderful woodland walks and a magnificent museum that looks back at the area’s farming history and heritage. Sit back and enjoy the ride …

The official ‘coastal trail’ is clearly marked as you drive north on the A90 from Aberdeen. Take a right onto the A975 and the journey of discovery begins.

9am …

We took a quick detour as we can’t resist a farm shop. Followed signs to Ingram’s Farm Shop at East Pitscaff Farm: it is a tiny store but a big, friendly welcome … and they sell their own produce as well as goodies from other producers in the area …

Sausages bought, we were back on the road …

In Newburgh, take a short detour to find the Newburgh-on-Ythan Golf Club. It is just 2 miles north of Trump International Links Scotland, mid-way between Royal Aberdeen and Cruden Bay championship golf clubs. Founded in 1888, the Clubhouse is on a small hill – the course and dunes spread out before you. Open to non-members, it is a great stop for breakfast rolls, coffee and to plan your day ahead …

10am …

Back on the road and across the Ythan Estuary, you’ll find the The Waterside access to Forvie National Nature Reserve. The reserve has some of the largest sand dunes in the UK and the coastline is spectacular. It is a bird & wildlife-watchers paradise – eider ducks, oyster-catchers and many more feathered friends that use the estuary as a feeding stop. There are trails from the car park and guides available from the information point.

The drive to the reserve’s Visitor Centre and main car park is a further three miles along the coast – passing various lay-bys that give you panoramic views across the Ythan …

A short drive on the B9003 towards Collieston you’ll find a visitors’ exhibition, toilets, classroom (for educational visits) and more trails – one of which is an easy access route …

It is a great picnic spot – and some of the tables allow wheelchair access.  Please be aware that almost all access points have restrictions on vehicle height and width.

 

Next up the coast: Cruden Bay. This spectacular expanse of sand stretches south from Port Erroll Harbour and is accessed across a wee wooden bridge …

11am …

The area can stake a literary claim … literally! Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, often holidayed in Cruden Bay. It is claimed he was influenced by the nearby Slain’s Castle for his writing of the vampire tale. We took a walk out from the car park in Cruden Bay …

It is a lovely walk that takes you to the clifftop castle ruin …

The property – historic seat of Clan Hay – is an amalgamation of styles over the centuries: the original castle was built in the late 1500s and has been added to through the 17th and 18th centuries. Its decline began in the 19th century was its roof was removed to avoid paying taxes. There may be another page to turn in Slain’s history as plans exist to restore the castle and create a series of holiday apartments – but that remains on hold. You can imagine the place being an inspiration for story telling – a view shared by many who have shared their experiences on TripAdvisor.

The coastline is dotted with historic and archaeological gems and well as more recent industrial landmarks. North of Cruden Bay you head through the shire’s biggest settlement – Peterhead – where fishing has been the focus since the first port was established in 1593. The town still employs more than 500 fishermen. On the northern outskirts of the town you’ll see evidence of what makes this part of the country tick: the Peterhead Power Station. Beyond this, the St Fergus Gas Terminal servicing the north sea pipelines. And yet just a few miles further, you return to rolling farmland and the wild and natural beauty of the coast.

At Rattray, you’ll spy the 120ft high Rattray Head lighthouse – dating from 1895. On either side of the lighthouse are 17 miles of beach and dunes some of which rise to 75ft in height. Rattray itself no longer exists as a settlement. People have lived in this part of the world for more than 4,000 years – but Rattray of old was lost to the shifting sands of the coastline in the 1700s. Today, the area is a magnet for those in search of wildlife – primarily to visit the RSPB reserve at Loch Strathbeg.

Noon …

Britain’s largest dune loch is stunning. In winter months, thousands of wild geese, swans and ducks fly in. In spring and summer, you’ll see gulls, terns and wading birds raising their young – and you can watch this wonder either from walking the wildlife trails to the reserve’s hides or from the comfort of the visitor centre …

 

Heading north again, you may spot historic houses. There are two in particular to note: Cairness House was built to the designs of Scottish architect, James Playfair. He used revolutionary forms of Neoclassicism, unique in British architecture of that period. In terms of uniqueness, you can stay in the property’s gatehouse – known as the inkwells! The main house is a private residence – not open to the public – but you can make an appointment to visit by contacting them direct.

 

Just to the north is Cairnbulg Castle, formerly Philorth Castle. Built in the 14th century, it is one of the oldest buildings in Aberdeenshire still inhabited by the family who built it – and it remains their home. The castle is of great interest to students of mediaeval Castles and architecture and, incredibly, it contains a portrait of every Laird since 1570. Again, this is a private home and is generally only open to visitors by written arrangement. You can contact the family via this link.

The Fraser family – whose descendants are at Cairnbulg – built the nearby town of Fraserburgh. It was Sir Alexander Fraser who is credited with developing the fishing port in the late 16th century – creating the harbour, founding a University and building Kinnaird Castle. The castle was altered in 1787 to incorporate the first lighthouse built by the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouses – and it now houses The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses.

Back to the coast road …

1pm …

To the east of Fraserburgh are two villages – or three if you prefer. St Combs has a great hotel – The Tufted Duck – that commands a position overlooking the stunning coastline and Whitelinks Bay. It is a great spot for lunch. The Bay runs along Inverallochy Golf Club – founded in 1888 and a great links course – all the way to the village of Inverallocy, also known as Cairnbulg due to its close proximity to the castle. There’s a great walk along the coast.

In 1860, the original fishing settlement was wiped out by a cholera epidemic. The planned fishing settlement saw cottages built in rows – gable end to the sea – to reduce the effect of storms. The wee spaces between the cottages were used to shelter the boats – dragged up out of the shore. The new settlement led to a boom in fortunes. More than 200 boats were operating from Inverallochy within 20 years. Today, the houses remain – but most of the boats have gone.

Back in the car …

We drove through west Fraserburgh to visit another castle – this time a near complete ruin in the village of Rosehearty. Pitsligo Castle is one of what have been called the ‘nine castles of the Knuckle’ – a group of ancient castles found along the coast of the ‘knuckle’ that makes this remote corner of Aberdeenshire. From west to east, the castles are Dundarg, Pitsligo, Pitullie, Kinnaird, Wine Tower, Cairnbulg, Inverallochy, Lonmay and Rattray.

Rain! We began our journey home – heading inland to discover yet more history and heritage.

2pm …

We drove to find the Forest of Deer – a beautiful spot near Mintlaw (off the A952 heading south). These woodlands extend across the hills that formed one of Scotland’s most extravagant estates in the 18th & 19th centuries – the Pitfour Estate, home of the Ferguson family from the 1700s. The property boasted its own two-mile long racecourse, an artificial lake and canal, an observatory, landscaped parkland, follies and temples. Subsequent generations of the Ferguson family invested in planned villages in the area and the estate flourished. The extravagance of the fifth and sixth Lairds led to its downfall. They lost the estate in 1926 – it was sold bit by bit to pay off debts. The racecourse became woodland, building fell into disrepair and the estate house was demolished.

The observatory remains and can be visited and is open during the summer months – there are walks through the woods as well as a picnic spot.

Our final stop heading back to the start of our circular tour was to delve into the regions’ farming past.
3pm …
Another old house that is no more – but much of its land and buildings have been restored to create a wonderful attraction – Aden Country Park.

Aden has historical records dating back many centuriesand, almost inevitably, has links with King Robert The Bruce. In 1758, Alexander Russell, a local laird, bought the estate from the then owner – none other than James Ferguson of nearby Pitfour.

Russell introduced current ideas of farming ‘improvement’ that involved re-organised tenant farms, planting woods for shelter and builing a modest house overlooking the South Ugie River. The next generations of Russell’s family completed the transformation adding the unique steading in 1800, enlarging the mansion and building a coach-house and gate lodges. Falling farm income after the First World War led a decline in the estate’s fortunes and, in 1937, the last resident Laird sold Aden including no fewer than 52 farms.

In the 1970s, the local authority took on the park. Today, after a restoration and renovation project that has lasted several decades, the 230-acre park includes a huge variety of attractions and activities to be enjoyed, including the Aberdeenshire Farming Museum …
The museum has a great representation of the area’s farming history – recreated in an exhibition and series of rooms in the estate’s former steading.
Photo credits:
All images are our own except the photo of Cairness House by Harrydelavigne – Own work, Public Domain and we’d like to thank the Press & Journal for the photo of the Pitfour Observatory.