As we enter Royal Deeside the landscape serenades with stunning mountain peaks, towering pines and the rush of water all around. All the elements seem to converge here, in the shadow of the Cairngorms.
We reach the Gairnshiel Bridge and a turning point in Scottish history. The stone arch bridge was built after Culloden to open access to the Highlands and drive out the rebellion in the north.
The bridge takes us on the road to Balmoral Castle, sold in 1852 to Queen Victoria, who did much to romanticize, popularize and rename the Highlands 100 years after Jacobite attempts to oust her ancestors from the British throne.
From the depths of the fir trees emerges the granite baronial heap which has become the ultimate emblem of the Scottish royal family.
A favorite of two queens
“Everything seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to forget the world and its sad troubles,” Queen Victoria wrote of her first visits to Balmoral, this Aberdeenshire holiday home remaining a favored royal retreat.
Business at Balmoral is brisk, with the £15 entry ticket giving access to the extensive gardens and one venue, the Ballroom, where a glimpse into royal life is offered through a series of photographs and some of the Queen’s favorite outfits. All other rooms in this private residence remain closed to the public, but a stroll through the grounds gives an idea of why Balmoral is so admired by the monarchy.
The castle is surrounded by woodland and formal gardens, with five miles of walks crossing the estate, including Broad Walk, which was created by Prince Albert. All around, the romantic views of Deeside open up to the hill of Craig Gowan to the south and the mighty Munro of Lochnagar, one of Scotland’s finest climbs, to the south-west.
Leaving Balmoral, it’s time to delve deeper and get closer to what makes Royal Deeside so special.
Loch Muick is a great option for a day trip, with the eight-mile circular route around the water, which lies southeast of Lochnagar, taking you deep into the heart of Deeside. The air here is clean and plentiful, the walk leading you to the small beaches that line the loch where you can rest and enjoy the moment amongst the mountains and fir trees.
You will pass Glas-allt-Shiel, a house built by Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert, where she retired from the hustle and bustle of castle life. Nearby you will find the Glas Allt waterfalls, which tumble into the loch and are well worth a detour.
Braemar… an art form in itself
From Loch Muick, another welcome stop is the village of Braemar, recently revitalized by the opening of the Fife Arms, owned by international art collectors Iwan and Manuela Wirth. The couple have transformed this traditional Scottish hotel into a breathtaking experience where the old meets the contemporary and where colour, pattern, art and style come together in bold ways.
An overnight stay is expensive and highly sought after but a fair compromise on the pocket is lunch at the Flying Stag bar, where the food is locally sourced, finely cooked and fairly priced. You can also wander around the premises, where 16,000 works of art, antiques and trinkets include a Picasso and a playfully playing piano.
As we join the North East 250 we head east on the home stretch and reach Ballater, a thriving and welcoming place that is built on its connection to the Royals. Princess Anne can sometimes be seen at the butcher here buying her favorite smoked bacon with the Queen’s staff who regularly visit the hardware store for essentials.
Continuing east and a very rare spot is at the Burn O’Vat, a pothole and waterfall where a magical atmosphere lingers. Outlaws are known to have hid here in the 17th century, but it feels like this place had a special appeal long before that. Close to Loch Kinord, Iron Age crannogs, where people gathered and possibly lived over 1,000 years ago, are found on two islands that jut out of the water.
Continuing our journey we come to Aboyne, a village known for its Highland Games and the Boat Inn, where warm hospitality is served on the banks of the River Dee. A good lunch can be found here, its menu and selection of drinks drawn from the region’s rich natural pantry.
Among the producers causing a stir is Lost Loch Spirits, which is just six kilometers inland from Aboyne in Dess. Owners Pete Dignan and Rich Pierce have made modern distillation part of the region’s folklore, with the couple’s absinthe – the first to be made in Scotland – named Murmichan after an evil Scottish fairy.
Another star drink made here is Haroosh, a liqueur from an old Dignan family recipe that combines whiskey, bramble and honey in a sweet offering. Gin is another offering and visitors can compose their own bottles to their liking in special sessions, with the distillery’s plant wall providing the right notes to combine for the perfect sip.
As we happily return to Aberdeen, we can regard the North East 250 as a voyage of discovery, a route that connects the mountains to the sea and brings us closer to history, natural beauty – and the road less frequented.