High mountains, wooded glens, cityscapes, beaches, rich farmland, towering cliffs and moorland - North East Scotland has the lot. And yet it is relatively unknown by those outside Scotland, apart from the city of Aberdeen and along Deeside. The beaches are quiet and uncrowded, the country lanes are a joy to drive in, and there is history and heritage aplenty.
And always in the background are the Grampians, which reach their highest peaks here. Queen Victoria popularised Deeside, a glen that goes deep into the heart of the mountains, and it has remained firmly on the tourist trail ever since. But, as with many parts of Scotland, the tourist traps swarm with people, while other places, equally as interesting and picturesque, are bypassed.
To go off the beaten track in the North East is to be rewarded with some wonderful discoveries. Nowhere else in Europe is there such a concentration of historic castles - around 1000 at the last count. The local tourist board has organised a Castle Trail, with a leaflet that explains their history and how you get to them. And then there are the distilleries. The industry is centred mainly on Banffshire and Moray, where the streams are swift flowing and the water pure. It’s amazing that two distilleries a mile or so apart can make whiskies that are totally different in character. The local tourist board has laid out a Whisky Trail and, like the Castle Trail there’s a leaflet to guide you as you explore it.
The inland villages are quiet and peaceful, and the market towns, such as Inverurie, Forres and Huntly, are packed with history and charm. The coastline is as dramatic as anywhere in Britain. Yet another trail, the Coastal Trail, takes you on a tour from St Cyrus in the south to Findhorn in the west.
For all its crowds (especially in late summer when the Queen is there), Deeside should not be missed. This long glen follows the Dee up into the heart of the Grampians with Braemar, at its heart, being officially Britain’s coldest place (though summer days can be balmy and long). Balmoral, Crathie, Aboyne, the names are familiar to us all through news programmes, and yet the reality of seeing them makes you realise why Queen Victoria, and subsequent monarchs, fell in love with Royal Deeside in the first place.
Aberdeen is Scotland’s third largest city and Europe’s oil capital. The name, which means at the mouth of the Dee and the Don, sums up its location exactly, as the two rivers enter the North Sea here. The oil industry has brought money to the city, and it has also brought a cosmopolitan lifestyle that includes smart restaurants, boutiques, nightclubs and stylish pubs.
The other city in the region is Elgin, at one time one of the most important places in Scotland. It has lost some of that importance now, but not any of its charm. It is still a busy place, and is the shopping and administrative centre for a large fertile area called the Laigh of Moray.