As we enter Royal Deeside, the landscape serenades with stunning mountain tops, towering pine trees and the rush of water all around. All elements seem to converge here, in the shadows of the Cairngorms.
We reach Gairnshiel Bridge and a turning point in Scotland’s story. The stone arch bridge was built post-Culloden to open up access to the Highlands and drive out rebellion in the north.
The bridge leads us onto the road to Balmoral Castle, sold in 1852 to Queen Victoria, who did much to romanticise, popularise and rebrand the Highlands 100 years after Jacobite attempts to oust her ancestors from the British throne.
From deep among the firs, the granite Baronial pile that has become the ultimate emblem of the Royal Family in Scotland emerges.
A favourite of two Queens
“All seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils,” Queen Victoria wrote of her early visits to Balmoral, with this Aberdeenshire holiday home remaining a favoured Royal retreat.
Business at Balmoral is brisk, with the £15 entry ticket gaining access to the vast gardens and one room, the ballroom, where insight to Royal life is offered through a series of photographs and a few of the Queen’s favourite outfits. All other rooms at this private residence remain sealed to the public, but a wander around the grounds gives a sense of why Balmoral is so admired by the monarchy.
The castle is cradled in woodland and formal gardens, with five miles of walks crossing the grounds, including Broad Walk, which was created by Prince Albert. All around, the romantic views of Deeside peer through, from 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 go deeper and get closer to what makes Royal Deeside so special.
A walker’s paradise
Loch Muick is a great option for a day walk, with the eight-mile circular route around the water, which sits to the south east of Lochnagar, bringing you into the deep heart of Deeside. The air here is pure and plentiful, with the walk leading you on to the little beaches that cusp the loch where you can rest and enjoy the moment among the mountains and firs.
You’ll pass Glas-allt-Shiel, a house built by Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert where she retreated from the thrum of castle life. Nearby, you’ll find the crashing Glas Allt waterfalls, which tumble down into the loch, and which are a worthy detour.
Braemar ... an artform in itself
From Loch Muick, another welcome stop off is the village of Braemar, recently revitalised by the opening of the Fife Arms, which is owned by international art collectors Iwan and Manuela Wirth. The couple have turned this traditional Scottish hotel into a stunning experience where old is blended with contemporary and colour, pattern, art and style meet in bold fashion.
An overnight stay is expensive and highly sought but a fair compromise on the pocket is lunch in the Flying Stag bar, where food is local, finely cooked and at a fair price. You can also take a wander around the premises, where 16,000 artworks, antiques and curios include a Picasso and a piano which playfully plays itself.
As we rejoin the North East 250, we head east on the final straight and reach Ballater, a thriving and welcoming place that is built on its connection to the Royals. Princess Anne can sometimes be seen in the butcher here buying up her favourite smoked back bacon with the Queen’s staff regularly dropping into the hardware shop for essentials.
Magic and spirits
Continuing east and a very rare place can be found at the Burn O’Vat, a pothole and waterfall where a magical atmosphere lingers. Outlaws are known to have hidden out here in the 17th Century but it feels as if this place had a special draw long before then. At nearby Loch Kinord, Iron Age crannogs, where people gathered and perhaps lived more than 1,000 years ago, are found on two islands that emerge from the water.
As we press on, we arrive at 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 fine lunch can be found here, its menu and drinks selection drawn from the area’s rich natural larder.
Among producers creating a stir is Lost Loch Spirits, which sits just four miles inland from Aboyne at Dess. Owners Pete Dignan and Rich Pierce have embedded modern distilling in the folklore of the area, with the pair’s absinthe – the first to be made in Scotland – named Murmichan after a wicked Scots fairy.
Another star tipple made here is Haroosh, a liqueur made to an old Dignan family recipe, which brings together whisky, bramble and honey in a sweet offering. Gin is another offering and visitors can make up their own bottles to their own tastes during special sessions, the distillery’s wall of botanicals offering up the right notes to combine for the perfect sip.
Coming full circle
As we meander happily back towards Aberdeen, we can look back on the North East 250 as a journey of discovery, a route that connects mountains to the sea and which brings us closer to history, natural beauty – and the road less travelled.
Find out more and plan your next road trip today at https://bit.ly/NE250Scotsman