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By asking where is Scotland, I mean where is the essence of Scotland, or the real Scotland. This suggested route delivers some of the vistas of mountain and moor that we expect as part of our perception of what is the real Scotland. But it also travels through a rural Scotland that is much more than just a (mostly) empty but picturesque landscape, as is, say, the north-west Highlands. So, we’ll head north around the Grampian massif, on the eastern side of the Highlands. Incidentally, if you're planning your trip to Scotland from overseas and intending to follow this tour - and you know you should - then you should also check out the cheapest and best way of getting here. And that's where CheapOair Coupons can help.
On the way, Fife and especially St Andrewshas its own tour description and shares some of the themes of the route described on this page – especially the the well cultivated and prosperous looking landscape as you head east and the general sense of a community sure of its identity. That sounds like a strong hint by way of partly answering our starting question about where is Scotland.
Travel up to the north-east of Scotland by taking the dual carriageway / divided highway, the A90, via Dundee. (See the cities in Scotland page.) The A90 bypasses all of the Angus towns, but the driving tedium at least offers an excuse for a coffee-stop. (Personally, I make that Brechin Castle Centre, just out of years of habit, as they sell great doughnuts there. After ingesting the doughnut I then feel slightly guilty, but that’s just me.)
(Above) The Grampian edge in winter. If it looks like this when you visit, then contact your travel agent for a refund or stay in the Lowlands. This only happens for a few days a year. Ehmm, usually. Except for winter 2009-10. Oh, and 2010-11 as well. 2011-12, on the other hand, was OK. That's why I don't do weather predictions.
The main road that heads north east passes through Strathmore – the ‘strath’ bit meaning a broad glen, the ‘more’ meaning large. The geological ‘Highland Boundary Fault’ – the demarcation between Highland and Lowland – runs this way too, with ‘the Grampians’ giving nothing away to the north-west – just domed broad hills, snow-dusted in winter sometimes. Perhaps the question about where is Scotland has an answer beyond this 'Highland line'? Follow the sign for Fettercairn off the A90, then take the high and narrow road, the B974, over the Cairn o Mount. Stop at the summit – where there is a cairn (a large pile of stones) – and enjoy the view from the carpark.
Generations of travellers went before you – armies, pedlars, folk heading south looking for work, farm servants. It’s a pivotal, poignant spot and – at least in my head – separates central from north Scotland. Then you roll downhill to another Scotland. Down through the pinewoods, the valley of the River Dee lies ahead and the question of where is Scotland will perhaps be in your mind again.
It’s appropriate to ask where is Scotland right here, as this is ‘Royal Deeside’ where the young Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert built Balmoral Castle and created their own play-acting version of Scotland. This was Scotland as an escape, and Scotland as the abode of the ‘noble savage’ – a romantic place where the royals kitted out their staff and their castle in head-to-toe, wall-to-wall tartan. (The old Great North of Scotland Railway, which was not allowed to build its railway too close to their castle, even painted a locomotive tartan.)
There is a good choice of accommodation along the valley of the River Dee (pictured below), with Ballater in particular offering some fine hotels. Two nights here would be good.
No, I'm not sure why the attractive upper Deeside village of Braemar was full of ducks that warm spring day. I couldn't even find a duckpond. Neither could the ducks, presumably.
So, let’s compromise. You should visit at least one castle and there is a great choice within easy reach of the Ballater-Aboyne-Banchory area. Many of these make for a better visit than Balmoral. Crathes Castle has superb gardens for example; Castle Fraser, to the north, is also worthwhile, as is Craigievar. But will you promise that you will take some exercise by exploring Glen Muick as well and at least walking towards Loch Muick? Start at the car-park where the road ends. And wrap up warmly. Besides, up there is a wild version of Scotland – moorland, mountain - and roaring stags, too, if you visit in October. If you hear these beasts in full cry, late in an autumn afternoon, you might get one answer to where is Scotand. It will certainly be atmospheric.
(Above) Lochnagar from the north. (Actually, from the B976 road.) This is the mountain in the poem by Lord Byron 'Dark Lochnagar' with the line 'England, thy beauties are tame and domestic' (What a put-down that was in 1807.) Afterwards set to music, 'The steep, frowning glories of dark Loch-na-garrrrrrrr' usually requires lots of vibrato, utter seriousness and possibly full Highland dress.
After you’ve done all that, it’s time to leave royal connections behind. Let’s have a hunt for the real Scotland in the byways of these farming landscapes on the edge of the hills. Choose your own route north out of Deeside – up the slopes then down into the Howe (cf hollow) of Alford, where the Grampian Transport Museum is a lot of fun.
Or, go up and over the tiny road that starts beside Balmoral, joins the A939, gives fine views over the wild Cairngorms, then eventually leads you past the impressive ruins of Kildrummy Castle. Here, a treacherous blacksmith once betrayed the Scottish garrison to the invading army of the English King Edward and was rewarded with the promised gold. It was poured molten down his throat, or so the story goes…..
However you make your way north you’ll probably be near Huntly. A great-grandfather of mine was the local postman here, and so I’m not entirely objective, but it has always struck me there is something unpretentious and honest about Huntly. It’s a little Scottish town with fine wee shops (including a good ironmonger – always a positive sign). In its unassuming way it’s got decent accommodations, a local café will deliver a fine pot of tea, scones and shortbread - and the town has even got a castle. Huntly Castle was once the HQ of the Gordons, and it’s worth a look. Where is Scotland ? Well, this is one way of answering the question. The real Scotland is in these small and everyday towns, just a little aside from the well-beaten tourist path.
You now have a choice. You could overnight in the Huntly area and tour distilleries. Glenfiddich in Dufftown to the west is popular and as good a place as any to learn more about Scotland’s national drink. Also keep in mind you’re trying to find a real Scotland, not one that’s got itself dressed up like one of Queen Victoria’s servants.
To see another Scotland at work by the sea, head north. The coast is easy to reach, say, at Banff, for a quick peak at a working harbour at deeply unglamorous Macduff, just to the east. And, by way of a contrast of cultures, Banff has an outstation of the National Galleries of Scotland, Duff House, styled a country house gallery and essentially a collection of outstandingly stuffy pictures in a restored William Adam mansion. (The local folk have been bemused by it for years now.)
By the way, if you are looking for five star accommodation in the area, then you should check outAcademy House in Fordyce.Take a look at their website. (Best book in advance.) They get my vote as a great place to stay. Then you could work your way, coast-wise, west by way of Portsoy (picturesque old harbour - above), Sandend (picturesque beach), Cullen, Portknockie and Findochty (picturesque fisher-towns) via Buckie (not really picturesque at all) to the mouth of the River Spey. Here, at Spey Bay, if you’re lucky, you could see dolphins – although they put in their spectacular appearances all along the Moray Firth coast. In fact, they’re positively iconic hereabouts. Ospreys fish the estuary as well, so look out for them too.
OK, let’s recap. You’ve spent a couple of nights on Deeside, then explored northwards beyond the hills and discovered a rather fine piece of coastline. You should probably stay a couple more nights hereabouts – perhaps around Elgin, Forres or Findhorn – or even Nairn - which lie to the west and all make good bases for further coastal exploration. Unpretentious Moray, with its beaches, distilleries, heritage and easy going folk, is also another place where you'd get an inklng of the answer to the question where is Scotland.
(Left) This picture, taken on the splendid Covesea Beach, near Lossiemouth, disproves the assertion that the waters of the Moray Firth are too cold for paddling, or even lying in. However, it helps if you have a thick coat and an uninhibited personality, like Millie. You can just make out the northern hills as a smudge on the horizon as well.
(Above) Can I offer you one more beach, because it's my favorite? OK, let’s go down to Burghead Bay, to Roseisle perhaps, where the trees grow to the water’s edge. Great views of the Highand hills across the Firth to the north-west. Except that is out of shot to the left. Sorry. However, from here, it's an easy journey west to one of Scotland's iconic visitor attractions - the battlefield of Culloden.
Absolutely not! This is a ‘must see’ visitor attraction within easy reach of anywhere you choose to stay on the inner Moray Firth. (Elgin to the Culloden battlefield site is well under an hour’s drive, for example.)
Here, in 1746, on this bleak and poignant open moor, the hopes of the Jacobite army of Prince Charles Edward Stuart- aka Bonnie Prince Charlie - died in the hail of musket and grapeshot fired by the well-drilled troops of the government army under General Cumberland. He was a distant relation of the Prince.
Cue sad bagpipe music. No, stop. Wait a minute. The intention of the Prince was to restore the line of the Stuart monarchs to Scotland – actually, to all of Britain - complete with their belief in absolute monarchy. You’d better make up your own mind on that one, but it could hardly be termed enlightened. There were 30,000 clansmen (at least) able to fight in the Highlands at that time. The Prince only managed to raise about 5,000. Some of them were coerced by their own chiefs to take part in this civil war.
This is the eastern corner of the battlefield, showing the old and much altered Leanach Cottage that played a part in the actual battle. View from the roof of the totally splendid visitor centre.
The National Trust of Scotland, who run the impressive on-site visitor centre, have done very well in placing the last battle on British soil in a European - actually, a global context – reminding us, for example, of the power-struggle at the time between Britain and France, for example, for the territories across the Atlantic. And France helped fund the Prince’s whole mad escapade. But the visit to Culloden should be a historical highlight of any tour of the north of Scotland.
By the way, I also have to be ever vigilant as I frequently mistype the Jacobite leader as ‘Bonnie Price Charlie’ which makes him sound like a bargain-priced Scottish souvenir shop. Still, that isn’t inappropriate.
While you’re near Inverness on this tour, you should also visit Fort George. This is the finest surviving 18th-century military fortification anywhere in Europe – an architectural essay in the art of defence. It was the Hanoverian government response to the possibility that the Highlands with their clans (that is, private armies) could ever become again a breeding ground of rebellion. Oh, and you might see dolphins while you’re walking round its walls.
Then there are the Clava Cairns, Cawdor Castle, the town of Nairn, Culbin Forest, more endless beaches – more than enough for the rest of your week before you whizz back down the A9 ‘the Highland Road’. It’s less than three hours back to, say, Edinburgh.
So, where is Scotland? I mean, essential Scotland? You might have heard it in the vocabulary of a local farmer you overheard in the little shop somewhere in the north-east corner. Maybe you tasted it in that sample dram at the Speyside distillery – or maybe it was the tarry-rope-and diesel smell of the fishing boats or the scent on the wind over the moors of Glen Muick. Actually, these are all the real thing. And, just maybe, I’ll allow the sound of that pipe band in the town square as well…..
Where is Scotland? Return to the Places in Scotland page for some more tours that could help you work out your own answer.
Go back to theScotland Tourism page.
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Scotland in Three Days