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Scotland Scotland the Brave


1000+ Posts
By Eleanor from UK, Fall 2013
We spent ten days in September exploring the area between Aberdeen and Inverness, visiting ruined castles, stately homes and gardens, as well as Pictish crosses and prehistoric remains.

This trip report was originally published on Slowtrav.com.


Over the years we have visited most of Scotland and the islands. One of the areas we haven’t been is north east Scotland, the large bit that sticks out into the North Sea between Aberdeen and Inverness.

Daughter and family were on holiday giving us ten days free of grand-parenting duties. It was too good a chance to miss. We borrowed the ordnance survey maps from the library and began to plan.

I didn’t bother with guide books but relied on Undiscovered Scotland website which threw up enough ideas to last us ten months rather than ten days. I hadn’t realized just how much there is to do and see in the area.

The area has a long history going back to prehistoric man and there are hill forts and cairns scattered across the countryside. All are open daylight hours and make a good fill in between the major sites.

There are beautifully carved Pictish stones. Many still stand outside exposed to the elements others are protected in a museum.

This area has been fought over and there are ruined castles as well as forts built after the Jacobite Rebellion in the 18thC. With the arrival of more settled times, stately homes sprouted up all over the area. Many are now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.

Difficult decisions had to be made. We crossed off all the places visited by guided tour only. We find these tend to concentrate on the history of the family and family portraits which isn’t what interests us. This reduced the list to manageable proportions. All were very different and many have excellent tea rooms attached to them. Unfortunately none of the properties allowed photography inside.

This is whisky country and the area is stuffed with distilleries. Some like Glenfiddich are well known names. Others are smaller and produce whisky for the named blends. Many offer tours. We decided we ought to visit a distillery during our trip to Scotland and chose Dallas Ddu, a small Victorian distillery which closed in 1983 and is now owned by Historic Scotland.

We are members of National Trust, Historic Scotland and Historic Houses Association which gave us free entry to all the properties we visited. They certainly repaid their annual fee this holiday.

Planning at short notice, we decided to use Premier Inns and Travelodges, which provide basic clean en suite accommodation. All were near supermarkets to buy food for breakfasts and evening meals. We needed to break journey overnight on the way up and back, so the final itinerary looked like this:
  • 1 night Travelodge, Perth
  • 3 nights Premier Inn, Westhill, just outside Aberdeen
  • 2 nights Premier Inn, Elgin
  • 3 nights Travelodge, Inverness
  • 1 night Travelodge, Todhills near Carlisle
We find that standards at Premier Inn are consistently higher than at Travelodge, although Todhills has been refurbished recently and is one of the best Travelodges we have stayed at.


Portsoy harbour
Impressions of Northeast Scotland

The area around Aberdeen is very flat and fertile with large fields and big farms, growing mainly wheat and barley. In September the harvest was well underway and some fields were being cut for a late crop of silage. There were cows and sheep grazing. This is a big landscape with rolling hills and mixed deciduous woodland. Verges were colorful with rose bay willow herb and ragwort.

Small towns are thriving and still retain their traditional family owned shops around a central square.

There are few villages, the settlement just gets closer together.

Leaving the coastal strip, there is more relief. Inland, the land is less fertile and is mainly rough grazing with sheep. There are few cows and oats is an important crop. Farms are smaller. Further west, the hills get bigger. This is an untamed landscape of large bare topped hills covered with heather and commercial forestry. There is little settlement and places like Corgarff Castle dominate the surrounding landscape. Aerogenerators are beginning to appear, but not yet in the numbers seen in the Southern Uplands.

The coastal strip along the Moray Firth is very exposed with a rocky coastline. A string of small villages hug the coastline anywhere it was possible to build a harbor. Many date from the 18thC when the crofters were cleared from the land to make way for sheep and were forcibly moved to the coast. Many harbors are small and unsuitable for larger boats. There is some crab and lobster fishing but many of the smaller villages have become second homes or holiday lets. There is still commercial fishing out of Fraserburgh and Buckie.

Elgin is set in pretty rolling countryside. Some cereal is grown but it is mainly cows. There is still a lot of natural woodland as well as commercial forestry. This is whisky country and there are a lot of distilleries. Many are unsigned and produce grain whisky for the blends.

Shortbread is also made in the area, with Walkers and Deans having large factories.

Further west the coastal strip is flatter with long sandy beaches. Much of the soil is poor and there are large areas of commercial forestry which at least stabilize the soil and stop it blowing. Places like Nairn are popular holiday resorts.

Beyond Inverness is the Black Isle, an area of fertile farmland.

Nigg Bay was the site of construction for the North Sea oil rigs. Some can still be seen in the bay. The fabrication yard was mothballed some years ago but has recently been taken over by the Global Energy Group and renamed Nigg Energy Park.

To the north of Inverness, most of the settlement is along the coastal strip. The A9 north has been improved out of recognition and bridges across the firths have reduced driving times. For those wanting to experience driving 30 years ago, the B9176 from Alness to the Dornoch Firth is one of the best drives through mountainous scenery. The views from the view point on Struie Hill on a clear day must rank as some of the best in Scotland.

This is the real highlands with substantial bare topped mountains and wild scenery. There is little settlement. Your companions are sheep and birds, however industrialization is beginning to appear with more and more aerogenerators.


View from Corgaff Castle
Prehistoric Scotland

Stone Age man left his mark on Scotland with the mighty hill forts of the Brown and White Caterthuns near Brechin and Tap O’ The North near Rhynie, with their impressive ramparts. Craig Phadraig near Inverness is unusual as the walls have been vitrified by tremendous heat. No-one is sure how and why this was done, although there are suggestions it might have been a ceremonial destruction. Now surrounded by commercial forestry, and reached by a way marked walk, there isn’t a lot to see.

Souterraines or earth houses date from the Iron Age and are stone-lined underground passages, which were probably used for cold or secure storage of goods. Ardestie and Carlungie earth houses are between Dundee and Carnoustie.

Culsh Souterrain on the side of the B9119 is not only one of the best preserved and impressive in Scotland, it is also one of the easiest to visit. If offbeat places attract you, this is one to add to the list.

Built into an earth bank to the south of the road, it would be easily missed if it wasn’t for the Historic Scotland sign. Originally it was probably part of a larger timber round house. There is a low entrance with a stone lintel above. Stone slabs line the passageway. Entry is very low, about three feet high, so it is a hands and knees job if you want to go inside and you need a torch (aka flashlight).

Perhaps of more interest are the stone circles and burial cairns.

Loanhead of Daviot surrounded by trees with views across the Aberdeenshire countryside, is well off the tourist beat and gets few visitors. This is described as a recumbent stone circle. It has a single ring of eight upright stones with a massive stone slab lying on its side, flanked by two upright marker stones. It is thought to be 4000-4500 years old and the flankers frame the moon rising or setting in the southern sky. The inside of the circle is almost filled by a later cairn of stones edged with upright stones. To the side is a smaller stone circle which is described as a cremation cemetery, in use around 2500 years ago.

Cullerlie Stone Circle, south west of Westhill is a Bronze Age circle of eight stones, enclosing eight smaller cairns which were used for cremation burials. This is in a lovely setting next to a farm. We were given a warm welcome by the farm collie who showed us the way to the stones.

Clava Cairns near Inverness are probably the most popular. We first visited these 40 years ago and had never seen anything like them. We were entranced by the stone cairns set back off the road surrounded by trees. Few people visited and they were a secret and magical place.

Times change. The road is a lot busier and there is now a huge coach and car park. Many of the trees have been felled leaving the site open to the road. Admittedly the trees were planted by the Victorians and the cairns would have been built in a treeless landscape. Even at 5pm there was a steady stream of visitors. It just wasn’t the same...

The cairns date from 3000-4000 years ago. There are two passage graves, a ring cairn and a later kerb cairn.

The northeast and southwest cairns have a stone circle round them and a neatly arranged row of larger stones around the cairn. Large stones neatly line the central passageway, as is the base of the centre of the cairn. Originally the cairns would have been covered and the walls are slightly corbelled.

The central cairn is different as it is an unbroken circular enclosure with a thick wall around an open centre. Larger stones line the inner and outer surfaces. This might have marked to site of a funeral pyre or ceremonies connected to burials in the adjacent passage tombs.


Clava Cairns
The Picts and Their Carved Stones

Everyone has heard of the Picts but we know little about them. They left no written language and the only records are their carved stones. They were a warrior people led by powerful kings and lords. They became Christianized and disappeared around 900AD. The Vikings were responsible for wiping out many of the Pictish nobility in a battle in 839AD. The Picts came under the control of Cinead (Kenneth) MacAlpine, a Gaelic king from Dál Riata. He brought together the different tribes into a new kingdom of Alba which eventually became Scotland.

Burghead on the coast of the Moray Firth, north east of Elgin, is the site of a major Pictish Fort. Having admired their carved stones on our travels around Scotland, we had to visit. The fort occupied the headland but much of the site was destroyed when a planned town was built in the early 19thC. Now all that remains are a few grassy ramparts and a ditch - not a lot to see. It is however, a nice place to drop out with views across the Moray Firth and up the coast of Sutherland. The small Visitors Centre has examples of carved stones. The Pictish well is surrounded by 19thC housing but is currently closed because of health concerns about the water.

Carved Pictish stones are found all over northern Scotland. The earliest date from around 600AD and have simple symbols carved onto the unshaped surface of the stone. These include animals, mirror and comb as well as the enigmatic double discs and Z or V-rods. There are good examples of these simple stones in the porch of Inveravon Church in Morayshire with their carving of an eagle, mirror, comb and V-rods. Other examples with a carved serpent, double discs and Z-rod can be seen at Inverurie Cemetery.

Later stones dating from 700AD are described as cross slab stones as one side has a Christian cross which may be embellished with interlaced patterns. The stones are more carefully shaped before carving and designs are either picked out by incision or else left in in relief by removing the background. These are the most commonly found stones. A good example is found in the Manse garden at Glamis.

The purpose of the stones is unknown and they may have been set up a prayer stones along tracks or boundaries. Others like those found at Meigle and St Vigeans were close to early church sites. These were important religious centers associated with the ruling Pictish aristocracy and large numbers of carved stones have been found. The stones have been collected and are now displayed in a small museums.

Meigle Museum of Sculptured Stones contains several large and very elaborate cross slabs as well as smaller grave marker stones. There are some beautifully carved stones and there is a lot of information about the stones and the Picts. Lighting is good and photography is allowed. This makes a well worthwhile visit.

St Vigean’s Sculptured Stone Museum is only open by appointment. Lighting isn’t good and no photographs are allowed. It contains the dramatic Drosten stone with carved animals on either side of the cross and Pictish carvings on the back including a dog chasing a stag, an osprey catching a salmon and a bear and a goat. The rest of the stones are less impressive than those at Meigle.

Groam House Museum in Rosemarkie has a small display of carved stones including the Rosemarkie cross slab. Photography is allowed and they also have folders of photographs of other Pictish Stones in Scotland.

Some like the now much eroded Maiden Stone at Chapel of Garioch still stand a few paces from their original site. Others like Rodney's Stone were moved to the grounds of Brodie Castle when the estate was redesigned in the 19thC.

Erosion is a problem and some stones like those at Shandwick and Sueno's Stone in Forres are protected by Perspex cases. Sueno's stone stands nearly 20' tall and is one of the most impressive stones with a heavily interlaced Celtic cross on the front and a detailed battle scene with over one hundred carved figures on the reverse. Opinions are divided as to the battle and vary from the defeat of the Picts by Kenneth MacAlpine to encounters between Norse and Picts.

Nigg Sculptured Stone has been moved from the graveyard into the church. The stone is unusual as it has a triangular top with a carving of St Anthony and St Paul with the raven that brought them bread while they were in the desert.

There are two stones in the small church at Wester Fowlis, which are well worth searching out. Don’t be deceived by the large stone surrounded by railings in the square. This is a replica of that in the church. Even more impressive is the smaller cross slab with its interlaced cross with carved animals and figures around it. The bottom right of the stone is broken and the damage must have been done during carving as the stone was discarded and the back is not carved. It was used as building stone in the church wall before being discovered and placed in the church. This accounts for its remarkable state of preservation giving an indication of just how much detail went into the carving of these stones.

Perhaps the most impressive collection of stones is found at Aberlemno.


Cross slab, Wester Fowlis
Aberlemno Pictish Stones and Church

Aberlemno is a tiny settlement of a few houses, church and village hall on the B9134 between Forfar and Brechin. Most people take the faster A90 and miss the small church and superbly carved Pictish Stones.

On a ridge of land between the South Esk and Lunan valleys it could have acted as a territorial boundary, with the stones acting as markers. Visit during the summer months, as the stones are protected by wooden boxes between October and April.

The roadside stones are on the south side of the road through the village. The oldest of the stones at the far end of the village, originally found in the field behind, was re-erected here. Dating from the 6/7th, it is an unshaped stone with an incised serpent and a Z-rod below cutting through a double disc.

Next to it is an unshapen stone which, with the eye of faith, may have traces of carving. The jury is out on whether this is an unfinished symbol stone.

The most southerly stone is much later and is a cross slab stone with a high relief Celtic cross on the front with angels holding a book. At the base are two animals attacking each other. On the reverse is a beautiful crescent with interlacing and a V-rod and a double disc with Z-rod. Below is a hunting scene.

Perhaps the best and most exciting is the cross slab outside the church. Dating from the 8thC, this is often described as the 'Battle Stone'. On the front is a cross standing out in high relief. This has circles with interlacing on the shaft and centre of the cross. The side arms and head have geometric patterns. On either side of the shaft are entwined beasts.

The reverse is thought to commemorate the Battle of Nechtansmere (Battle of Dun Nechtain) fought near Aberlemno in 685 AD. By around 650, Northumbrian Angles had spread northward into Pictland. One had married a Pictish princess and fathered a future king. For thirty years the Angles had held the southern part of Pictland until they were defeated in the decisive battle of Nechtansmere.

The battle scene was carved many years after the event, but folk memory would still have been strong. The long-haired Picts are clearly victorious over the helmeted Angles.

At the top is a notched rectangle with a Z-rod symbol and a triple disc. Below are three battle scenes. At the top is a Pictish warrior with his sword raised and chasing a weaponless Anglian horseman. Below, a group of three Pictish warriors on foot with swords, shields and spears, confront an Anglian horseman armed with a spear.

Below are mounted Pictish and Anglian horsemen fighting. The Anglian horseman on the right has drawn back his horse's head to steady him and is about to throw his spear. The Pictish warrior has his shield raised to ward off the blow, and is preparing to hurl his own spear. On the right is a dead Anglian warrior with a raven pecking at this body.

It is also worth visiting the Church. It is thought there has been a church here since the 7thC. The first written records of a church date from 1242. The present church underwent a major rebuild in 1722 and is an excellent example of a typical post reformation style church. Entry is through a small porch on the north wall. Stairs lead to the wooden gallery built round three sides of the church.

Inside it is a T plan with a large pulpit on the south wall with a separate reading desk in front of it. Next to the pulpit is a 12/13thC stone font. Simple bench seats are painted a shade of deep pink. On the north wall is the Mitchell memorial dedicated to three generations of Mitchells who were rectors between 1715-1841.


Battle scene on reverse of cross slab
On the Way North - Acorn Bank Gardens

We always use the A66 when heading to Scotland and Acorn Bank Gardens, set on the hillside above Temple Sowerby, make an excellent place to stop and stretch legs. They also have a very good tea room with a wide range of homemade cakes. We can particularly recommend the Westmoreland pepper cake.

The ticket office and shop are on the ground floor of the lovely old red sandstone house, which is now open for the first time this year.

An archway by the splendid dove cot leads into the gardens. On the right is a walled garden, now an herb garden, with the largest collection of culinary and medicinal herbs in the North England. Some are old favourites, but there were many new names. There is a leaflet available with pictures and information about some of the herbs.

Beyond is another walled garden with a collection of apple trees. A board explains these are planted in natural grassland which is cut in mid July. In spring the grass is covered with narcissi and snakes head fritillary and is a beautiful sight if you visit then. In September/October it is covered with autumn crocuses.

On the house side is an herbaceous border which, at the end of August, was full of color from dahlias and sweet peas. At the far end, a doorway through the wall leads to a smaller orchard newly planted with small apple trees. There were also runner beans and squashes grown here.

At the back of the house is a delightful small sunken garden with steps leading down to a pond with a small fountain and white water lilies. A small gateway in the hedge leads to the wild garden on the sides of Crowdundle Beck. Footpaths through ancient oak woodland, lead past a pond to a restored watermill. Flour ground here is on sale in the shop and is used in the tea room.


Sunken garden
On the Way North - Drummond Castle Gardens

Set in the depths of rural Perthshire these are reached by a dramatic drive along a narrow road lined with mature beech trees forming a canopy above.

A stone archway leads into the outer courtyard with the uninhabited 15thC tower house. A gatehouse with the small ticket office (there is no tea room unfortunately) leads to the inner courtyard with the present castle. This was built in 1689 after Cromwell's troops had twice attacked the tower house. The 4th Lord Drummond was created Earl of Perth and built a new house to befit his status. Not open to the public, it is a splendid large stone building with turrets and family crests.

A metal gateway leads to the top of the terrace and the gardens, laid out in the 19thC. Even though we have visited the gardens many times, the first view of the gardens from the top of the terrace never fails to take our breath away. It is stunning. Photographs are impressive but the actuality is even better.

They are an amazing sight with neatly trimmed low box hedges with roses and bedding plants, ornamental Acers, carefully trimmed trees, urns, statues and peacocks. The central design is a St Andrew's cross with a tall obelisk at the centre. This is in fact a sundial made by John Milne, master mason to Charles I, in 1630. Beyond, the eyes are drawn across the garden to the wooded hillside beyond with a wide swath of grassland running up the hillside.

Stone steps run down through a series of stone terraces to the garden below. There is a narrow brightly colored herbaceous border beside the grassy walk along the first terrace. Steps lined with fuchsia bushes lead down to the second terrace with Yucca and huge blocks of white quartz along the top of the wall.

Gravel paths run through the main garden with carefully trimmed box hedges marking out the design of the parterres. The central path has lavender bushes between the box hedges. The rest of the design is filled with rose bushes or yellow and red antirrhinums. Cross paths have borders with Stachys byzantina, what as children we always called "bunny rabbits ears."

Large and small ornamental Acers are planted round the gardens. In a few weeks time their leaves will have changed color and provide a welcome splash of color in the garden. In the grass areas there is a wide range of coniferous trees, all carefully trimmed. Many are shaped to look like giant mushrooms.

At the end of the garden, gates in the walls lead down to the vegetable gardens and greenhouses.

The gardens are described as Scotland's most important formal gardens and amongst the finest in Scotland. This is no exaggeration. Even after many visits, we never cease to be wowed by the garden.


Drummond Castle Gardens
On the Way North - Edzell Castle

We drove through the splendid stone arch across the road leading into the planned estate village of Edzell, with its single storey stone houses along the main street and the impressive Lister Memorial Hall with its clock tower.

The castle is set in open farmland and the only sound is bird song. It is surrounded by neatly mown lawns with picnic tables, peacocks and a herbaceous border, getting past its best by the end of August.

The original castle was a motte and bailey type castle, 300m to the south west of the present castle. It was built to guard the mouth of Glenesk, a strategic pass leading north into the Highlands. It was replaced by a new, more comfortable tower house and courtyard in the early 16th century. Additions were made in the late 16thC when a north range with round corner turrets was added, but building work was never completed as Sir David Lindsay died heavily in debt. The north east section is incomplete rather than ruined. The need for a fortified residence had passed and it was designed as a comfortable home rather than a fortress.

The castle began to fall into ruin around the time of the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion. The Lindsays were Jacobites and after the failure of the Rebellion, their lands were forfeited by the crown and sold to the York Buildings Company, who bought many forfeited estates intending to strip them of their assets.

Built of red sandstone, the building has a warm glow in the sunlight. There is a splendid main entrance in the centre of the western range adjacent to the original tower house. On the other side are the remains of the later 16thC range with a round tower at the corner.

Inside is a large courtyard with the ruined and uncompleted remains of the north range. The kitchens were on the ground floor. The collapsed arch of the fireplace is still laid out on the ground. Behind was the bread oven. Above was the great hall, originally reached by a spiral staircase in the round corner tower. Now there is a modern wood staircase.

On the opposite side of the courtyard are the scant remains of other domestic rooms which may have included bake-house and stables.

The entrance to the keep is on the north wall, protected by the later west range. Walls here are nearly seven feet thick. Inside a passageway gives access to the two vaulted basements with gun loops. One has a service stair to the first floor. The principal staircase to the upper floors goes off the end of the passageway.

The main hall was on the first floor. On one wall is a huge stone fireplace. There are good views down onto the gardens from the large windows on the east wall.

Stairs continue up to the second floor with two bedchambers, each with small fireplace and garderobe.

An archway leads from the courtyard into the walled gardens. Created in 1604, these are thought to be the finest Renaissance Gardens to survive in Scotland. They were laid out by Sir David Lindsay and his second wife Dame Isobel Forbes, whose coat of arms and initials can be seen above the gateway in the east wall. Unfortunately he died bankrupt before he saw the garden completed.

In the centre is a large spherical trimmed yew bush, surrounded by four smaller bushes. Low trimmed box hedges contain rose beds. These form the shapes of the Scottish thistle, English rose, and French fleur-de-lys. Further planting is clipped into letters, spelling out the two Lindsay family mottoes, Dum Spiro Spero (while I breathe I hope), and Endure Forte (endure firmly).

The walls are divided into regular compartments each about 10 inches square. When we visited, these were planted up with blue and white lobelia. Along the walls are carved panels. Those on the west wall represent the cardinal virtues. Those on the south wall, the liberal arts. On the east wall are the five planetary deities plus the sun and moon.

In the south east corner is the summer house. The vaulted room in the bottom was used as a banqueting hall for the taking of sweetmeats after a meal. The room above contains the only surviving example of the castle's carved oak panelling. They were rescued from a house in the village and thought to have been part of window shutters of great hall.

This is a lovely site and a nice place to sit and drop out on a warm sunny afternoon. Wooden benches are thoughtfully provided for visitors in the garden.


Edzell Castle and gardens
On the Way North - Drum Castle

Just north of the A93, lies Banchory to Peterculter road, reached by a long and very bumpy drive down an unclassified road with a lot of potholes.

In 1323 the castle was granted to William de Irwyn by King Robert the Bruce. The castle remained within the Irvine family until 1975, when it was handed over to the National Trust of Scotland.

The late 13thC tower house is thought to be the oldest in Scotland but was unfortunately shut for renovation when we visited. Much of it was covered in polythene while work is ongoing. The large wing to the south was added in 1619 by the 9th Laird. There were further alterations in the Victorian period. The front and side of the castle are covered with harling. The back is stone. The front is a rather plain, but typically Scottish building with crow step gables, dark slate slab roof with dormer windows and a corner tower with a pointed roof.

Visitors enter at the back of the castle off the courtyard. A doorway, still with its iron yett (gate), leads into a small entrance hall with the ticket desk. A service passage way leads to the shop and a very good tea room serving homemade scones and cakes.

A stone staircase leads up to the drawing room, on the first floor of the 17thC wing. This was originally the great hall but was subdivided to form two rooms in the early 18thC, when the large windows were added. The room has a lovely golden oak panelled ceiling and a splendid carved wood fireplace, which was a wedding gift to the family from their tenants. Family portraits cover the walls.

A door leads through into the dining room with an oval dining table laid with flowered china and glassware. Beside the dining table is a small table with an inset blue and white china tray, used for serving tea. Against the wall is a huge wooden Crathes chest with large brass handles and brass corner decoration; another wedding present.

This leads into the business room. A small wooden doorway was used by tenants coming to pay their rents so they didn't need to come into the castle. It is a cosy room with a round wooden table in the centre and two easy chairs by the fire. There is a bureau inlaid with mother of pearl, a bible box and scales for weighing letters, complete with prices.

A spiral staircase leads to the bedrooms. The chintz room was shut as part of the tower renovations. The first bedroom has a small fireplace, sage green carpet and half tester bed with flowered drapes. There is a lovely bedside table with a marquetry design with a candlestick holder and snuffer on it.

A doorway leads through into a small sitting room with fireplace and easy chair. A large wall cabinet has a blue and white china horse with attitude, displayed on the top.

The spiral staircase continues up to the day and night nurseries, both with fireplaces. The day nursery has a selection of 19thC toys including rocking horse, dolls house, train and bagatelle board. There is an upright piano and samplers on the walls. The night nursery beyond has a brass bed with paisley bedspread and two smaller cots. On the wall are worthy religious texts.

The tour would normally continue into the tower and library, but these were closed off until the renovation work is finished. We returned down the spiral staircase to the late 19thC gallery which was added along the length of the 17thC range to give access to the different rooms without having to go through all the rooms to get from one end of the house to the other. It was very quiet apart from the grandfather clock ticking. This leads back to the stone stairs down to the reception area.

In the grounds is a tiny chapel. This is a small rectangular stone building with crow step gables and a small bell cot at the west end. It was built in the 16thC and restored in the 19thC.

Steps lead up to a small round topped door. Inside there are plain stone walls with a low wooden beamed ceiling. On the walls are 19thC brass memorials to the Irving family. A 15thC stone canopy on the north wall was part of the altar tomb of Alexander Irving, the 4th Laird. The font is a copy of the Saxon font in Winchester Cathedral, as some family members were educated at Winchester School. There is a modern stone altar with a 19thC stained glass window of the crucifixion above. To the right is the Ausberg silver Virgin, brought here in 1897 by Anna Forbes Irving.

Many tourists, who head for the more popular Crathes Castle just down the road, ignore this site.


Drum Castle
Around Aberdeenshire - Day 1, Pitmedden Gardens

We had two full days near Aberdeen and decided to spend the first day heading north. After a brief stop at Inverurie Cemetery to admire the row of four Pictish stones we headed to our first main stop at Pitmedden Gardens.

These are one of the great formal gardens of Scotland, created by Sir Alexander Seton, 1st Baronet of Pitmedden in 1675. It was designed as a private pleasure garden; a 17thC status symbol of wealth.

The house was built in 1860 after the original house burnt down and is a typical Scottish harled house with crow step gables. The house is not open to the public apart from reception, shop and very good tea room on the ground floor. This sells a wide range of homemade cakes and the scones. The scones were large with the 'rustic' look only found in homemade scones.

The gardens are reached through the conservatory built onto the side of the house. There is a large area of grass behind the house with tall specimen trees and a small fountain surrounded by carefully clipped yews. Trimmed beech hedges enclose two small parterres with clipped box hedges, gravel and bedding plants.

Pyramidal clipped yews lead down the lawn past the fountain to the walled garden, with a splendid entrance gateway giving impressive views down onto the garden. Divided into four squares, each has a different design and central fountain. Low clipped beech hedges mark out the squares with lower hedges inside marking out the pattern. Bedding plants like geraniums, French marigolds and salvia fill in the designs and provide color. There are over five miles of box hedging in the gardens which takes three months to clip.

A central avenue of pyramidal clipped yews leads to a gateway through the wall at the end of the garden. Beyond is woodland.

Cordoned apple trees grow along the walls and there are colorful herbaceous borders along the west and south walls with montbretia, astilbe, monkshead, Japanese anemones, golden rod and geraniums. At the corners of the north wall are two pavilions. The northwest one, called the Thunderhouse Pavilion, is open and has panelled walls, quarry tile floor and a small fireplace. It contains a round table and chairs with a selection of gardening books. There are display panels with some history of the garden.

To the north of the pavilion is a human sundial. An apple tree arch leads along the side of a small herb garden to the farmhouse and stables. The farmhouse has been furnished as it might have been around 1800. There is an outside toilet with a bucket and wooden seat. The kitchen has an iron cooking range with hand knitted socks hanging above it. On the mantelpiece are two china dogs. Hanging from the beams are preserving pans. In the centre is a large work table with earthenware pots and a tin of tobacco. On a wall is a dresser with blue and white china. Across the hallway is the best sitting room with a table covered with a chenille cloth. There are easy chairs around the fireplace with Paisley throws over them. There is a sideboard and glass display cabinet with a stuffed bird above. On the walls are prints and there is a grandfather clock.

A central staircase leads up to a bedroom over the living room. This has a brass bed, cot and wooden crib. There is a wash stand with bowl and jug. The fireplace has a crocheted fringe along the top and above is a large print with a picture of cows. Above the bed is a religious text.

A second room above the kitchen contains a collection of household items.

In Aberdeenshire, it was the custom for staff to change farms regularly. There were spring and autumn hiring fairs and single men would move every six months. Married men moved every year.

This is a delightful garden with hardly a weed in sight. There were two gardens working when we visited. There were bees and butterflies in abundance. It would be quite easy to spend half a day here as there are a couple of walks around the estate.


Pitmedden Gardens
Around Aberdeenshire - Day 1, Tolquhon Castle and the Tomb of William Forbes

Tolquhon Castle is only a short drive from Pitmedden Gardens and is described on the web as "one of the most picturesque of the castles in the Grampian countryside." William Forbes, 7th Laird of Tolquhon, built it for show rather than defense in the 16thC. He had inherited through marriage an early 15thC tower house, the Preston Tower, but felt the need for something a bit grander and more comfortable. He even designed a suitably grand tomb for himself and his wife which can be seen in the churchyard of Tarves Church.

He kept the tower house but demolished all the associated buildings replacing them with buildings round a central courtyard. This included the great hall, private chambers, kitchens, brewery, larders, pantry, library, and a gallery. The castle was surrounded by formal gardens and pleasure park.

The castle remained in the Forbes family until the 10th laird invested heavily in the ill-fated Darien Scheme, a speculative attempt to establish a Scottish colony in Panama. Debts were so high that Tolquhon had to be sold. However, the 11th laird, Sir William, refused to vacate the castle, and had to be forcibly evicted by a troop of soldiers. The Earls of Aberdeen, who owned Haddo House purchased, the castle and state and used it as a farmhouse before abandoning it in the 19thC.

Now it sits as a romantic ruin set in the midst of fertile farmland with a row of low single storey stone houses nearby.

The first view of the castle is the splendid gateway set between two semi-circular towers in the centre of the curtain wall. At one end are the remains of the 15thC Preston Tower. Above the door is the Forbes coat of arms with the Royal Coat of Arms of James VI above. To leave the visitor in no doubt, the inscribed panel beside gatehouse informs you that ''Al this warke excep the auld tour was begvn be William Forbes 15 Aprile 1584 and endit be him 20 October 1589."

There are small figures carved at the top of the walls. One of these is thought to be William himself as it is similar to the statue on his tomb. The gun loops were there more for decoration than as a serious attempt at defense. The gatehouse was intended as a statement of power and presence.

Inside there is a pebbled courtyard. Facing you, standing almost to its full height, is the three storey range with a projecting semi-circular tower. The side ranges stand to first floor height. Only the outer walls of the Preston Tower survive.

Entering the range opposite the gatehouse, there is a corridor running the length of the building. In the left hand corner is the kitchen still with its open fireplace, with an oven in the side wall and a slop drain through the outer wall. There is a serving hatch into the vaulted storage room next to it. Stairs lead up to the first floor. At the opposite end of the corridor is the wine cellar, also with stairs to the first floor.

Stone steps by the wine cellar lead up to the first floor, now open to the sky. This was the great hall with stone fireplace and a splendid flagged floor. Beyond is the inner, private chamber. A spiral staircase in the semi-circular tower leads to the family apartments on the second floor. In the wall of the laird's bedroom is a small cubby hole. A wall plaque describes this as the laird's secret hiding place.

The spiral staircase continues to a small room, the cap house, at the top of the tower.

Turning right out of the great hall into the adjacent wing takes you into the long gallery which stretches the length of the building. This is one of the earliest examples of a long gallery in a castle. As well as being a library, it was used to display paintings and treasured belongings.

The bake house is in the far left hand corner of the tower and is separated from the kitchen by a narrow passageway. It still has two massive bread ovens in the walls. A new wooden staircase leads up to what may have been the castle steward's room with a small fireplace. A trap door in the floor leads to the 'pit' and castle prison.

After visiting the castle we headed to Tarves, a very nice small planned village set around a central square, to find William Forbes tomb. This had originally been in the south aisle of the medieval church. By the 1700s the church was in a very poor state and was replaced by a newer building a few yards away. The tomb with part of the backing wall was preserved and now stands isolated in the graveyard to the south of the church.

William Forbes designed the tomb as a suitable resting place for himself and his wife. It is one of the best examples of what is described in Scotland as 'glorious tombs' of the Jacobean Age.

The tomb is a mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles, although the way it is set into the wall is reminiscent of medieval tombs. Along the base is a table with carved arches with a skull and cross bones. Above is a decorated arch with carvings of flowers and animals. At the sides are two balusters which look a bit like the carved wooden posts seen on four poster beds. They don't quite go with the rest of the tomb.

Do look out for the two tiny stone effigies of William Forbes and his wife Elizabeth Gordon on either side of the base of the arch. In the corners are the armorial shields of William Forbes (top left) and Elizabeth Gordon (top right) with their family mottos.


Around Aberdeenshire - Day 1, Fyvie Castle

After Tarves, we headed to the small town of Fyvie and Fyvie Castle. This is reached down a long drive past a lake with ducks, swans and a lot of green algae. The car park is next to the walled garden, a modern garden divided up into squares separated by paths with newly planted fruit trees and grass. There is an herbaceous border along one wall and flowers are planted among the vegetables. It is different.

It is quite a long walk through trees with borders of flowering plants before the castle comes into view. It is an L shaped building and typically Scottish with harled walls, crow step gables, dormer windows, turrets and pointed towers surrounded by beautifully kept lawns.

The castle has had a checkered history and has passed through a succession of clan families; Preston, Meldrum, Seton, Gordon and Leith. Each left their mark by adding a new tower to the building. The castle is a rabbit warren inside and very confusing with rooms opening off each other. There are information sheets in most rooms but they give no indication which part of the building or tower you are in.

The tour begins in the grand entrance hall with armor and antlers on the walls. Above the fireplace is a stone relief of the Battle of Otterburn, presumably because the original castle had been a Royal stronghold until the battle when it passed to the Preston family.

The great processional staircase, often referred to as the wheel staircase, leads off to the right with more armor on the walls. The dining room on the first floor is a large room with a huge table which seats up to 24 people. This is laid with deep blue and gold French porcelain plates. The Leith family commissioned glassware with gold decoration for a golden wedding. Deep red wallpaper covers the walls and the plaster ceiling has the coats of arms of all the different families who have owned the castle, a typical Leith touch. At one end of the room is a massive, carved wood fireplace and there are family portraits on the walls.

Beyond the dining room is the butler's pantry with a wood sink for washing glassware. There are three taps, one for hot, one for cold and one for rain water. There is a dumb waiter from the kitchen and cupboards containing china line the walls.

The tour continues up the great staircase to the morning room. This was originally the great hall which was divided into two. Wood panelling lines the room and has a plaster ceiling and chandelier. Blue Delft tiles line the fireplace. There are easy chairs, small spinet and a writing desk.

A door leads into the back morning room with cream wallpaper and a less elaborate plaster ceiling. There is a lovely chest of drawers inlaid with tortoiseshell with gilded handles and corners. Round the walls are armchairs with tapestry seats and backs.

From here a long narrow corridor with red wallpaper and carpet and prints on the walls, leads into the next wing. The first room is the Seton room, a small sitting room.

At the end of the corridor is the Library, a cosy room with red wallpaper and large bookcases on the walls. There is a central desk and a grandfather clock with one hand which tells the hour. There are smaller dials which record minutes and seconds as well as the day of the month. The marble fireplace has a carved wood mantle with gilded fruits and flowers. Off this are two smaller rooms with more books and a small desk.

Returning back down the corridor, the tour continues into the charter room. Oak panelling conceals fire proof safes. On the walls are crests of the Seton and Hamilton families. There are portraits of James VI and Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia who was the daughter of James VI. There is a beautiful small cabinet inlaid with deep red tortoiseshell and engraved bone.

The tour continues upstairs to the Drummond room with a model of the castle and some information.

The tour continues down a long corridor with a plaster ceiling painted brown to resemble wood and tapestries and paintings on the walls. On the right is a small bathroom. The Gordon bedroom has an unusual American four poster bed with a detachable head board and canopy. Off this are a bathroom and a small sitting room with a huge carved bureau.

Next is the Dunfermline bedroom and dressing room. The dressing room has a marquetry boat bed and cupboard. The bedroom has a four poster bed, dressing table and easy chairs.

At the end of this corridor is the drawing room, above the dining room. This also has an elaborate plaster ceiling with family crests. The walls are green and there are green upholstered chairs.

This opens into the gallery, a large room with a splendid stone fireplace with decorative blue, white and turquoise tiles with horseman and peacock on them. Walls are panelled and there is a plaster ceiling. At the far end of the room, two massive barleycorn twist pillars with vines and grapes support organ pipes which occupy the end wall. Below is a small symphony organ.

Back down the great staircase, the tour ends in the billiard room below the gallery. This has half panelled walls and a wooden beamed ceiling. As well as the billiard table, there are big sofas around the fireplace.

The tour exits either by the shop (the usual selection of NTS goods) or the (average) tea room. The homemade soup and sandwich made a satisfying lunch but we were disappointed by the flapjack which was sweet and cloying.


Fyvie Castle
Around Aberdeenshire - Day 2 Corgarff Castle

We decided to spend today heading west from Aberdeen into the Grampians. We made a brief stop at Culsh to admire the souterrain before heading to Corgarff Castle, miles from anywhere and surrounded by rounded low hills, with pastureland with sheep, some forestry and heather covered tops. The castle is a startling white harled tower house silhouetted against the skyline and surrounded by a star shaped wall.

The tower house dates from 1550 and has a most checkered history. In 1571 John Forbes, a supporter of King James VI, owned it. This brought him into conflict with the neighboring Gordons who supported the ousted Queen Mary. A force led by Adam Gordon of Auchindoun marched on Corgarff to seize the castle. When they got there they found the men folk away and the castle only defended by John's wife Margaret and 27 other women, children and servants. When Margaret refused to surrender the castle, Gordon's men set fire to the building killing everyone inside.

It was burnt by Jacobites in 1689 so it couldn't be used by Royalist troops supporting William and Mary and was burned down again after the 1715 Jacobite uprising.

In early 1746, Jacobite forces were using Corgarff Castle as an arms store after their retreat from Derby. A forced march by 300 government foot soldiers and 100 dragoons through the snow from Aberdeen just missed the Jacobites who had been tipped off about their arrival and had fled leaving still warm fires and the cat. The government troops found large quantities of gunpowder and over 300 muskets. In 1748 the castle was bought by the government and converted for use as a fort as part of their measures to control the Highlands.

The high stone-vaulted ceiling of the old hall was removed and an extra timber floor inserted, providing accommodation for the commanding officer, three non-commissioned officers and up to 42 men. Half based in the castle, the rest divided into small, scattered patrols based in barns or in the homes of a largely hostile population.

Outside, the courtyard buildings and surrounding wall were demolished. They were replaced with two single-storey pavilions and the star-shaped wall, equipped with musket-loops. It wasn't strong enough to withstand cannon fire, but would have deterred a band of armed highlanders from attacking.

Later it was used as a base by excise men trying to stamp out illicit whisky distilling and smuggling. It was abandoned by the army in 1831. Its last residents eventually left in 1912. The castle was fully restored in the 1960's and now contains an exhibition and reconstruction of a barrack room from 1750 when the redcoats of Pultenay's 13th foot were stationed here.

The castle is reached by a steep climb up the track from the car park. There is a single doorway through the walls. This leads into a narrow cobbled courtyard around the tower house with the well. Steps lead up to the tower house which has two smaller outbuildings, pavilions, on either side. The reception and shop are on the first floor in what was the officer's apartment. This had a small fireplace flanked by shelved cupboards and served as bedroom, sitting room and office.

Next to it is a smaller room with bare stone walls. This had been the kitchen of the original tower house, but this was moved into one of the outbuildings in the 18thC alterations. The room was then used by the second officer. It still has a small fireplace with barrels of peat beside it. The small room in the walls would have been a garderobe.

Stone steps lead down to the two vaulted stone cellars from the original tower house. These were used to store food and ammunition and were lit by small windows.

Steps lead up to the reconstructed 1750 barrack room on the first floor. There is a small fireplace at either end and six beds. Above these are wooden pegs to hang belongings and slates with names on. On the end wall is a stand which would have held muskets. There is a table and two benches used for eating and a small storage recess in the wall by the fire. This has an old kettle and there are boxes with peat and logs. The walls are whitewashed and the ceiling is covered with graffiti.

The soldiers slept two to a bed, although NCOs probably had a bed to themselves.

The soldiers were given a ration of food everyday; about half a loaf of bread, a pound of meat and two pints of beer. If they wanted any more food, they had to buy it themselves. They were responsible for cooking their own food over the fire.

Steps continue up to a second barrack room. This is now empty but has display panels about General Wade, military roads, Corgarff and the other barrack blocks owned by Historic Scotland.

More steps lead up to a garret, the cap room, under the roof which has a display about conserving the landscape for future generations.

The two pavilions on either side of the tower house were added in 1746. The east pavilion was a guard house and prison where Jacobite sympathizers or whisky smugglers were kept. Prisoners were held here until they could be escorted to Perth or Aberdeen. Although Inverness was closer, prisoners were not sent there as magistrates were sympathetic to the prisoners cause and rarely upheld the prosecution.

The west pavilion was the kitchen and brew house for the garrison and had a large peat store off it.

Although the sun was shining there had been a cold wind so we headed back to the Goodbrand and Ross Tea Room on the main road. It was busy and doing a steady trade in bacon butties. The cakes made by local women are excellent and tempted us.


Corgaff Castle
Around Aberdeenshire - Day 2 Kildrummy Castle and St Mary’s Kirk, Auchindoir

After Corgarff we head north east past the Doune of Inverlochy, one of the best examples of a motte and bailey castle in Scotland and the principal castle of the Earl of Mar before the larger stone castle of Kildrummy was built.

Kildrummy Castle stands high above the Culsh Burn. The 9th Earl held important positions at the Scottish Court and needed a residence to reflect his stature and importance. Now ruined, it was originally a splendid example of a 13thC stone castle with a curtain wall and towers.

The castle was besieged by Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots, and eventually fell when Osbourne, the castle blacksmith, treacherously set fire to the grain store in the great hall. The fire spread through the garrison forcing them to surrender. Edward was responsible for the massive gatehouse. A barbican was added in the 15thC to improve defense with a deep pit and drawbridge. The castle was abandoned after The Earl of Mar was involved in plotting the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1715. It is now a ruin.

Little is left of the barbican and gatehouse with its guard rooms; just a few low walls. There would have been living accommodation above.

A cobbled passageway leads into the courtyard. Not a lot is left of the curtain walls and towers. These would have been used for storage on the ground floor with more accommodation above. Arrow slits in the projecting walls provided cover for the curtain wall.

At the left hand corner (northwest) is the Snow tower, which had a well and was used by the Laird and his family until they moved into the central Elphinstone tower built in the 16thC on the site of the former great chamber. This is now a roofless ruin. Next to it is the remains of the great hall which still has part of the staircase which gave access to the upper floor. In the opposite corner is the staircase which used to lead to the minstrels' gallery.

In the northeast (right) corner is the Warden Tower. This had a prison on the ground floor reached by a passageway with doors at either end strengthened by sliding draw bars. The warden lived above and access to his rooms was by the staircase on the left.

Next to the Warden Tower on the first floor, was the chapel which had a small room off it for the priest. This is one of the best preserved bits of the castle with the east wall with three lancet windows still standing to nearly its full height.

The southeast tower had a bread oven added at a later date. This also had a wooden fighting platform round the outside giving extra protection. Next to it is the bake house with two ovens which project into the courtyard. This was also used to brew beer.

After visiting Kildrummy we headed to the tiny ruined St Mary's Kirk at Auchindoir, set among the trees above the Craig Burn. Now a roofless ruin the church was built in the 13thC and is one of the few medieval churches to survive. It was altered in the 17thC after the Reformation when the bell cot was added and larger windows replaced the original tiny lancet windows. A doorway was made in the east wall and a square doorway added in the south wall with a small carved shield above it. It was in use until 1810 when a new church was built.

The main claim to fame is the Norman doorway and sacrament house, both of which survived the post Reformation make over.

The Norman doorway in the south wall has water leaf capitals at the top of the side pillars and a carefully carved dog tooth arch above.

The sacrament house set in the north wall would have contained the bread and wine used during the communion service. It is flanked by buttresses and has a pyramidal roof. This has a carved inscription: "Hic est Corpus Domini Nostri Jesu Chrisit Virginis Mariae" (This is the body of our Lord Jesus Christ of the Virgin Mary). On the top of the roof is a small carved crucifix with a tiny skull at the base. There is a small ambry on the east wall and a piscina on the south wall.

On the east wall are carved shields of the Gordon family with their family mottoes. There is a splendid 1580 granite slab propped up against the wall and another carved memorial tablet on the south wall with an angel head at the top and crossed bones at the bottom.


St Mary's Kirk, Auchindoir
Around Aberdeenshire - Day 2, Castle Fraser

The last stop of the day was Castle Fraser. This is described as one of the grandest castles of Mar and we were looking forward to our visit. There has been a tower house here from the 15thC. The 6th Laird extended the tower and added a second and larger round tower. His son continued the work by building two new wings to enclose a courtyard. The castle was modernized in the 18thC when a new entrance was added on the south side and larger sash windows fitted throughout. The estate was sold at the end of the 19thC and was used as a shooting lodge. A partial restoration by the last owners, Major and Mrs. Smiley, removed much of the 19thC work. It now belongs to National Trust of Scotland.

It was a Saturday and the car park was busy. Our hearts sank when we saw the wedding group around the front entrance to the house. I know that weddings are major money spinners for historic houses, but they often mean parts of the house are shut to 'ordinary' visitors. This was very much the case when we visited as the kitchens, great hall, dining room and peacock hall were closed resulting in a preponderance of bedrooms. Normally entry is by the front door. On wedding days, you are re-routed and use the exit at the back of the house, up a spiral staircase.

It is a rather depressing introduction to the house as there is no formal reception area and you have to contend with visitors coming down the narrow staircase as they leave.

After a quick look in the Charter room used to store important documents, the tour began in the 'worked room' with hand sewn tapestry bed head, hangings and chair seats. The huge wooden door frame and carved lintels are survivors of the 16/17thC building. In a corner is a secret lug. This is a slang word for 'earhole', and the Laird could hide in here and eavesdrop on the conversations of visitors in the great hall.

Beyond is the north bedroom, a smaller room with a four poster bed with red drapes. The garderobe off this was later turned into a built in wardrobe.

Next is the portrait gallery added in the 19thC to give access to all the rooms when people understandably felt it was no longer acceptable for rooms to be reached through each other. This has 17/18thC pictures on the walls of Scottish Kings and Queens.

At the end of the corridor and admired through a roped off doorway is the green room in the south tower.

Continuing up the spiral staircase is the pink bedroom, with four poster bed and patchwork quilt. The drapes and curtains are copies of an 18thC pattern and the carpet is a modern copy of what is described as a Scotch flat weave. Traditionally this was made up of strips which were stitched together and was reversible for extra wear.

At the top of the spiral staircase is Major and Mrs. Smiley's room. This is a soulless room with painted Chinese pattern wallpaper and a well stocked cocktail cabinet in the corner. At the top of the tower is Major Smiley's room with pictures and maps of the estate, a large desk and display cases with mementoes of Major Smiley's military career in the Rifle Brigade in World War Two.

Back down the staircase is the library, a big room created in 1830 from two bedrooms and used for entertaining. There were antlers on the walls and a grandfather clock ticking. As well as bookcases it had a piano, card tables and Trou-madame, a form of bagatelle just played by ladies. The aim was to pot the balls through numbered holes at one end of the board. There is also the wooden leg of Charles MacKenzie Fraser who fought in the Peninsular war and was shot in the head and leg. The head wound wasn't too bad but his leg had to be amputated. He survived this and returned home to father 14 children, dying at the age of 79.

A doorway leads to the Victorian sitting room with a pulley in the ceiling over the table to raise or lower a gas lamp. Next to it is the governess's room, a depressing and cold room with a small brass bed, wash stand with blue and white china wash set and a sampler on the wall.

All in all, it was a disappointing visit. We didn't even bother to take any photographs. We were also very disappointed by the tea room which is run by a franchise rather than National Trust for Scotland. Service was poor, cakes were mass produced commercial offerings and we felt prices were very expensive compared with elsewhere.
Along the Moray Coast to Elgin - Pennan to Whitehills

Our next stop after Aberdeen was Elgin and we decided to follow the coastline along the Moray Firth, exploring the string of small fishing villages. Many of the settlements were established in the 18thC when crofting families cleared from inland estates to make way for their landlord's sheep, were moved to the coast. It is a hostile and rocky coastline and settlement grew up around the mouths of streams where a small harbour could be built. Families fished from boats owned by the landlord. They used lines to catch haddock, whiting and mackerel. By the end of the 19thC some fishermen had managed to save enough money to build their own boats. However larger boats appearing in the first half of the 20thC were unable to operate out of many of the small harbours and fishing declined rapidly. Now there is little fishing from many of the settlements apart from some crab and lobster and harbours are full of small pleasure boats.

We began with Pennan, a small settlement huddled under red sandstone cliffs below the plateau behind. This has a small harbour at the mouth of the stream which has cut a deep gorge down through the cliff. The single row of white houses under the cliff are built with their gable ends facing the sea to reduce exposure to the elements. There is just enough space for the road and narrow grassy area in front of the houses protected by a concrete sea wall. The wire lines are now used to hang out washing to dry, rather than nets.

Next was Crovie. Here the houses are built on a narrow ledge above the beach. There is just room for a narrow footpath of boulders and cement above the shore, which gives access to the houses. This also doubles up as a sea wall. There is a visitors' car park at the top of the cliffs and a footpath with steps drops down the village by the mouth of the stream, which is the only place boats can be pulled up out of the sea. The small harbour is very exposed with a single breakwater to provide shelter.

Originally the only contact with the outside world was a footpath along the cliffs to Gardenstown across the bay. At the end of January 1953 a mighty storm with hurricane force winds and huge seas washed away the cliff and parts of the footpath as well as houses and sheds at the western end of the village. Many people left or abandoned their houses and moved round the bay to Gardenstown. Although a new road was built down to the village with the cleared western end of the town providing residents' parking, Crovie remains one of the best preserved fishing villages in Europe.

Gardenstown is one of the larger of the fishing villages along the Moray Firth. The newer houses tumble down the hillside, dominated by the bulk of the large stone built St John's church. Beyond the town on the opposite hillside is the cemetery and the remains of St John's Church.

The harbour is large compared with the other fishing villages but is now mainly pleasure craft. A billboard advertises pleasure trips to the RSPB reserve at Troup Head with the second largest gannet colony in Britain. The large stone warehouse by the harbour is now the Heritage Centre.

Harbour Street is an attractive street of well maintained two storey buildings with the plaster render painted in different shades of rust, green, cream and white.

Seatown to the west of the harbour was the traditional fishing village with rendered and pastel washed houses. Streets are narrow with alleyways between the houses. We went in search of the Garden House Arms in the hope of getting something hot to eat. Entering the town, we had seen their banner advertising ale (keg only), food (only in the evenings) and accommodation (didn't investigate). It is a whitewashed 18thC building with black window and door surrounds. Inside there are low beamed ceilings and an assortment of tables and chairs. Locals were arriving for their Sunday lunchtime drink and were sitting at stools round the bar. We were in search of lunch but were out of luck.

We drove through Macduff and Banff on either side of the River Deveron. Macduff is a pleasant stone built town and is one of the best fishing harbours along the Moray Firth and is the only place in the UK building deep water wooden fishing boats.

Banff with its stretch of golden sand is no longer a commercial fishing port and is dependent on the tourist trade. It is one of the best preserved townscapes in Scotland with a Georgian 'Upper Town'.

Whitehills still has a fish market on the quayside although it lost its fishing in 1999 when the marina was built. It is trying to promote tourism by a series of information boards around the settlement.


Along the Moray Coast to Elgin - Portsoy to Buckie

Portsoy was one of the oldest harbours to be built along this stretch of the Moray coast in the 15thC. The harbour was replaced in 1692 by the Lairds of Boyne with a massive breakwater on the seaward side and a number of quays. The construction used large stones set vertically, apparently because it was believed that this made them less likely to be washed away by the sea. It seems to have worked as the old harbour is still there, although it is now replaced by a newer and larger harbour to the east.

Portsoy had been a busy harbour and trade was varied. As well as fish, they exported locally produced thread and linen to England and locally quarried green Portsoy marble. Some of this even found its way into the fixtures and fittings of Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles. Coal was imported.

The New Harbour was built in 1825 to meet the demands of the herring boom and the volume of trade going through Portsoy. This had to be rebuilt following storm damage in 1839.

As elsewhere along the coast, fishing and trade declined through much of the 1900s. There have been a number of regeneration projects from the 1970s which have succeeded in giving Portsoy its heart back with an attractive centre with streets winding down to the old harbour. The stones of the harbour are covered by bright orange lichens and there are bright pink tufts of thrift and white heads of scentless mayweed growing between the stones.

The old harbour is surrounded by impressive buildings dating from 1600-1700. Houses and warehouses are clustered round the head of the harbour. At one end is the Shore Inn, at the other is a big stone warehouse, now Portsoy Marble. Next to it is Beggar's Belief with a wooden statue of pirate outside and a board saying "coffee and curios." Actually it serves teas, soups, rolls and pancakes as well. The Cullen Skink soup was served in a big bowl and was thick with chunks of smoked haddock and potato along with two rounds of homemade oatcakes. It was just what we needed to warm us up on a cold day.

Just inland from Portsoy is Fordyce, which still retains its medieval street plan with stone built houses with attractive flower gardens around Fordyce castle, a typical Scottish tower house. The remains of the 13thC church are found in the graveyard behind the castle. This was dedicated to St Tarquin, a 6thC Celtic saint who founded a church here.

It was originally a small rectangular building with a porch on the south wall, with a room above. A chapel, St Mary's aisle, was added later on the south side. After the reformation, the nave was used as the parish church and the chancel became the burial aisle of the Ogilvy family. In the 17thC a bell cot was added to the porch and the room above was used as a prison. The Arbercrombie family added an aisle to the north side of the church.

The church was abandoned when a new church was built at the other end of the village in 1804. Most of the church was demolished for building stone. The tower and chapels stand isolated from each other. The Findlater and Boyne Tomb, dating from 1510 is a highly decorated recess set into the north wall of the chancel and contains the recumbent effigy of a knight with his feet resting on a dog. The Latin script on the front edge of the tomb translates as: "Here rest two honourable men, James Ogilvy of Deskford, and James Ogilvy, his son and heir presumptive. The former died 13 February 1509 and the latter 1 February 1505. Pray for their souls."

Cullen is an attractive town at the mouth of Deskford Burn. The Great North of Scotland Railway connecting Portsoy and Elgin had run through Cullen. Closed in the aftermath of Beeching, the three great viaducts still dwarf the town.

The main road drops down through the newer town, built round a large square with the Mercat cross and a good range of small family owned shops. The chain stores haven't arrived here yet. Just above the viaduct on Seafield Street is The Ice Cream Shop, regarded by many as the best in Scotland. The vanilla ice cream is made by them and served from old fashioned fridges at the back of the shop. In a counter display are varieties which are bought in. As well as the traditional favourites of chocolate, choc chip and strawberry, there were also more exotic offerings including Turkish delight, rum 'n' raisin, honeycomb crisp and spearmint (rather a lurid blue).

The original harbour was built by Thomas Telford in 1817 as part of a government program to improve communications and create employment in the north of Scotland. In 1842 it was described as one of the best harbours along the Moray Firth. It imported coal, salt (for curing fish), staves (for casks) and barley (for whisky making). It exported herrings, dried fish, timber, oats and potatoes. The town specialized in smoked haddock and there were three large curing houses. The local dish of Cullen skink soup probably dates from this time.

To the west of the harbour is a long sandy beach with rocks. Seatown, the original settlement, is here. This was a planned town. Small fishermen's cottages are arranged on a grid patter with narrow alleyways between them. They are small single storey buildings with dormer windows. Those along the shore have their gable ends turned towards the sea. Beyond is a long stretch of sand, popular with holiday makers.

Portknockie is unusual as the village is built on top of the cliffs above the harbour. It is a very exposed coastline. The town grew in the 1770s when fishermen from Cullen settled here and it grew rapidly during the herring boom of the 1800s. The town is a planned town with a regular grid street pattern. Houses are small although there are some larger captain's houses with external steps up to the net loft.

The double harbour is now mainly pleasure craft and there is a small sea water swimming pool in the outer harbour.

Findochty is described as a non-touristy settlement which has been settled since the 1400s. It has a large and very well sheltered harbour which is now full of pleasure boats. There are a few lobster and crab pots along the harbour wall. At the end of the harbour are larger captain's houses. There is a white church with a manse set on a rocky outcrop at the eastern end of the town. The oldest part of the settlement is beyond the church. There seems to be a small natural harbour here with a grassy area to pull up boats. Beyond is a large sandy bay guarded by rocks.

Buckie is the largest fishing settlement along the Moray coast and is made up of several small fishing villages which have grown into each other. It is a thriving and busy centre for the area. The main road runs along the harbour with boatyards, industry and large fishing vessels.


Coastline to the west of Portsoy
Around Elgin - Elgin Cathedral and Spynie Palace

The ruins of Elgin Cathedral stand in the centre of Elgin. This had been an important religious community surrounded by a wall with four gateways. The cathedral was at the centre of the complex and all the church dignitaries had a manse in the precinct surrounded by a garden. Now the only one to survive is across the road from the cathedral. Often wrongly called the Bishop's House, it was the Precentor's manse.

The cathedral was built at the end of the 13thC. It was damaged by a fire in the late 14thC after being attacked by Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch. It was rebuilt and extended in the 15th and 16thC. The cathedral was abandoned after the Reformation as the congregation moved to the parish church of St Giles. The lead was striped from the roof, the bells removed and much of the interior was robbed for building stone. The Chapter House survived as it was used as a meeting place by the townsfolk. The central tower collapsed on Easter day in 1711, demolishing much of the nave.

In the 19thC, the site was tidied up and stabilized. The south choir was reroofed in the 20thC.

It is possible to see most of the outside of the building, including the splendid west doorway from outside the railings. It is, however, worth paying to go into the site as there is a lot of detail to see as well as a Pictish cross.

The double west towers still stand to nearly their original height. At the base is an elaborate double doorway with carved pointed arches set in a larger archway of pillars and pointed arches.

There is a small exhibition in the south west tower about Elgin cathedral. A spiral staircase leads to the top of the tower. I looked at the base of the steps but decided not to tackle them as they were narrow and badly worn.

There is little left of the nave apart from two windows on the south wall and part of the south transept beyond. There are a few old tomb slabs set in the grass and the bases of the central pillars. The splendid east end with choir still stands to nearly its full height with two rows of tall thin lancet windows and a blank round window above. At the corners are small octagonal towers with blind pointed arches on the walls and the remains of a pointed roof. On the south side is a vaulted aisle. The north aisle is roofless and has the chapter house off it. Nothing is left of the cloisters.

The large choir has the remains of a sedilia on the south wall. On the north wall is the remains of the tomb of Bishop Archibald which may also have doubled up as an Easter Sepulcher, which held the host between Good Friday and Easter morning. The walkways round the top of the walls are still visible, with open pointed arches with cross carvings between the pillars. On the floor are more old grave slabs.

There are more old grave slabs in the south aisle, many with coats of arms and skull and cross bones. There are two free standing tombs. One has a knight in armor with his sword at his side. The second is a (now headless) bishop. On the north wall are two wall tombs under ogee arches with carvings of bishops. On the south wall is a monument to Henrietta, Duchess of Gordon 1682-1710 who was married to Alexander, Marquis of Huntly of Huntly Castle, and bore him five sons and seven daughters. At the top is a cameo of Henrietta held by a young boy and a coat of arms.

The octagonal chapter house off the north aisle has a central pillar with small shields carved round the top. This supports a complicated vaulted ceiling with carved bosses. Round the walls is a stone bench. There are old memorials on the walls between the pillars, many with Latin inscriptions.

Standing in the nave near the north transept is a Pictish cross slab stone. The front has a small Celtic cross with the remains of figures round it. At the base are four entwined serpents. On the back is a double disc with a Z-rod and an engraved crescent with a V-rod. Below this is a hunting scene with men on horseback.

Spynie Place, to the north of Elgin is the fortified seat of the Bishops of Moray. Set on higher ground at the edge of a sea loch, it was the site of the original cathedral. There was a thriving settlement in the shadow of the palace as the sea loch gave safe anchorage for fishing boats and merchant ships. Later, the cathedral moved to Elgin, but the bishop's kept their palace here until 1689 when the episcopacy was abolished by the Church of Scotland and the buildings fell into ruin. The loch gradually silted up and has been reclaimed as farmland. The land immediately around the palace is still marshy and poor grazing. All that is left is the small Spynie loch with a canal to the sea. Nothing remains of the medieval town.

The first wooden palace was replaced by a stone building in the 14thC. This had a walled courtyard with small towers at the corners. In the 15thC, Bishop David Stewart replaced the south west tower with a splendid square tower. The domestic range on the north wall was built with cellars, kitchen, bake house, brew house and great hall above. Now little remains of the palace apart from the towers and parts of the curtain wall.

Bishop David died before work was finished and the tower was completed by his successor, Bishop William Tulloch. It was one of the largest tower houses in Scotland and contained five floors above a vaulted basement. The great hall was on the first floor with accommodation for the bishop and his entourage on the floors above.

On the south wall above a window are three panels which contain the arms of Bishop David Stewart and Bishop Patrick Heburn (1538-73) who was responsible for remodeling the tower. Above is the Royal Coat of Arms. At the top is a tiny coat of arms of Bishop William Tulloch.

A new wooden staircase gives access to the first floor. The supporting buttress was built in 1991 on the line of the original curtain wall and provides additional support for the tower. Now an empty roofless shell, holes in the walls mark where beams supporting the floors went and there are small fireplaces on each floor. A new wooden and spiral staircase leads up through the walls with passageways off. At the top there are views of Loch Spynie and the Spynie Canal. You can see Lossiemouth and its lighthouse and, across the Moray Firth, the mountains of the Highlands. Unfortunately you can also see the large wind farm to the south of Elgin.


Elgin Cathedral
Around Elgin - Duffus Castle and Church

Duffus Castle to the north of Elgin is one of the finest examples of a motte and bailey castle in Scotland, with a 14thC stone keep and curtain wall. It stands as a landmark in the surrounding flat and very fertile farmland.

Unfortunately the 12thC motte was never intended to take the weight of a stone structure and part of the northwest wall collapsed down the slope. The castle was eventually abandoned in the early 18thC in favour of the newly built Duffus house.

The castle was originally on the shores of Loch Spynie and surrounded by water and marshy ground. The area has been drained but the ditch round the outer bailey is still wet and marshy with duckweed and horsetails.

We followed the ditch round the outer bailey to the small, single arch stone bridge which was the main route into the castle. A cobbled roadway leads up a raised causeway to the castle. The outer bailey is now a large grassy area. There is no trace left of the stables, bake houses and workshops built here.

The inner bailey is surrounded by a stone curtain wall with the remains of storage areas, kitchen, great hall and great chamber. These would have become the main residence after the tower collapsed.

There is a smaller ditch round the motte and new wooden stairs lead up to the tower. Entry is though a round top door into the portcullis chamber, still with its grooves. On the right was the porter's lodge with a latrine at the end of the corridor. To the left are the remains of the stone stairs to the upper floors. The basement was used for storage with the hall above.

The inside of the tower is now roofless. There are good views of the collapsed northwest corner, complete with its latrine shaft. We could also see signs of collapse in the windows on the south wall.

The original settlement had been around the ruined St Peter's Kirk. When Duffus house was built, a new planned town was built further away and tenants moved.

The church is now a roofless ruin set in a walled graveyard. It is typical of small post-Reformation churches in this part of Scotland.

There has been a church on this site since the 13thC. The church was rebuilt in the 1700s reusing much of the stone of the earlier building. The 14thC tower at the west end with its lancet windows and remains of a crest and the south porch built around 1524 are all that survive of the original church.

On the north and east walls are the external stairs which gave access to the galleries, now long gone although holes in the masonry indicate where their floor would have been.

It remained in use until a new church was built in the new village in 1869.

There are some nice old graves in the churchyard as well as the Parish Cross, still in its original base.


Duffus Castle
Around Elgin - Huntly and Huntly Castle

Huntly is a very nice Scottish Town which has maintained a range of small family owned shops. The dark grey stone houses are neat and well cared for. Dean's Shortbread have their factory in the centre of the town with a viewing platform, good shop and excellent cafe. The very generous breakfast set us up for the day.

The castle is to the north of the town and is reached through a splendid archway with a clock tower and along a tree lined avenue.

The castle is in an attractive setting surrounded by trees with glimpses of the River Deveron glittering a deep blue in the sunlight below and with views across to the distant heather covered hills.

There has been a castle here since the 12thC and the original grass covered motte can be seen next to the castle. This was replaced in the 15thC by a stone tower house but this was burnt down during power struggles between the Gordons and the Black Douglases. Only the foundations remain. The castle was rebuilt and extended in 1550 by George Gordon, Earl of Huntly, who was Chancellor of Scotland and one of the wealthiest men in Scotland. The castle was eventually finished in 1606.

As a statement of power he left his inscription along the windows of the south range. Along the top is carved:

"George Gordon First Marquis of Huntlie 16"
"Henriette Stewart Marquesse of Huntlie 02"

The second marquis was executed in 1645 for backing the Royalist cause and the castle was uninhabited. It was occupied by government troops during the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion but then fell into disrepair and was used as a source of building stone.

Even though ruined and open to the sky, it is a splendid L shaped building with a tall round tower with adjoining great hall on the south wall.

The main entrance is in the east range. Close by are the remains of the medieval road to the castle which was in use until the 17thC. Around the outside of the castle are the grassy banks of the ravelin (detached artillery fortification) built during the Civil War.

A simple round archway leads into the courtyard. All that is left of the 15thC castle are foundations on the north side of the courtyard. This was built on the bailey of the 12thC castle. The grassy bank of the motte is beyond. In front are the remains of the 17th stables. Larger cobbles in the floor mark the stalls for the horses which were bred much smaller then. To the north is a square stone building which was the kitchen and brew house.

Entry into the 1550 building is through a splendidly carved doorway in a small round tower in the middle of the south range. The square doorway has four small shields carved along the lintel with three deer hounds between them. Above is the coat of arms of George Gordon and his wife Henrietta Stewart. Above that is the Royal Coat of Arms of James VI alongside those of his wife, Anne of Denmark. Above are the initials of James and Anne with the royal crown and crest of Scotland. The panel above had a depiction of the crucifixion with the image of the risen Christ in the roundel above. These were defaced by the Covenanting Army in 1640 as popish imagery.

Inside the doorway, stone steps lead down into a corridor with two vaulted storage rooms off. At the far end, round a right angle bend, is the pit prison complete with models of two 'prisoners'. Perspex on the walls protects graffiti scratched in the wall plaster by prison guards.

Inside the doorway, steps lead up to three vaulted ground floor rooms. These were the kitchen, still with its open fire and the servants' quarters. The room at the far end with a small fireplace and beneath the Earl's bedroom, was possibly the steward's room and had a spiral staircase to the upper floors.

A modern spiral staircase leads to the upper floors. The earl had his quarters on the first floor; his wife on the floor above. Each had three rooms and a privy. The main room was the main reception room. Beyond was the great chamber which was more private and only important or privileged guests were allowed in here. Beyond was the bed chamber, in the round tower.

In the Earl's apartments, fragments of a decorative plaster frieze, protected by Perspex, can be seen at the top of the wall of the great hall. There is a superb carved fireplace which is one of the best in Scotland. Supporting the lintel are two knights in chain mail. In the centre of the lintel is a monogram of the initials of George Gordon and Henrietta Stewart. On either side are their coats of arms and their mottos. Above the lintel is a quotation from Romans 8 v 28 "To thaes that love god al thingis virkis to the best." Above is the Royal Coat of Arms of Scotland. The triangular obelisks on either side had the names of George Gordon and Henrietta Stewart carved on them.

The staircase continues up to the second floor and wooden galleries allowing access to the rooms. The fireplace is less splendid than that in the Earl's quarters, with medallions with images of George Gordon and Henrietta Stewart. The shield in the centre had the coat of arms of the respective families and their mottos.


Huntly Castle

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