Home to more than 300 castles, stately homes and ruins, Aberdeenshire is Scotland’s castle country.
From the Queen’s own residence to ruins with a tale to tell, it’s hard to beat for anyone interested in historic, majestic buildings set in unspoiled rural idylls.
Around 20 of the region’s most dramatic examples have been linked to form a tourist trail illustrating the upheavals of Scottish history, impressive architecture, interior design, art, armour and not least, the stories of the people who lived and worked there.
So whether you seek out a battered fortress, an elegant stately home suited to a Jane Austen character, or a retreat fit for royalty, you’ll discover tales of love, wealth, conflict and patriotism echoing round every room.
The Jewel in the Crown
Opening its doors for the season on April 1 is Balmoral Castle, the summer residence of the Royal Family. In the 19th century Highland Scotland captured the public imagination as a wild, romantic destination — and the ideal place for someone in the public eye to escape.
Which is exactly what Queen Victoria did when she refashioned Balmoral Castle near Braemar in the heart of Royal Deeside. After acquiring the estate in 1852, work began to rebuild and extend the small existing castle to make it fit for a Queen. Victoria was so happy with the finished result she described Balmoral as “My dear paradise in the Highlands”.
It’s still an annual retreat for our current royal family, with Queen Elizabeth II acting as patron of the local Highland Games, the Braemar Gathering, in September. And while it’s still a private space for the Queen and her family to enjoy, there’s lots for visitors to explore.
The grounds and gardens are all open to guests, along with a gift shop and cafe. In the stable block, exhibits describe the background of the castle as well as the social history of those who worked on site, such as how the gamekeepers manage the wildlife and heather moorland. There’s also a film about how the 50,000 acre estate is run today and the work involved.
The main attraction of the tour is the Ballroom within the castle itself. Here are displayed works by Landseer and Carl Haag as well as outfits worn by the Queen, although this grand room is still pressed into service as an operational Ballroom where the royal family entertain.
Tickets cost £11.50 for adults, open from April 1 to July 31, 10am-5pm.
The ruin with a past
A ruined beauty perched atop a rugged cliff, jutting out into the unforgiving North Sea, Dunnottar Castle is one of the country’s most dramatic sights. It’s such a raw location that if the weather is particularly fierce the castle will close to the public, but when the sun shines it’s breathtaking.
As well as being a photographer’s dream, iconic and enthralling in any light or weather, its history is rich too, not least its role in hiding the Scottish Crown Jewels, known as the Honours of Scotland. As Oliver Cromwell’s army progressed through Scotland in the 17th century, the jewels — a potent symbol of Scottish independence — were safely hidden away at Dunnottar.
When Cromwell laid siege to the castle it withstood bombardment for eight months, finally surrendering in May 1652. But the jewels had already been smuggled out of the fortress, under Cromwell’s nose, to a nearby church in the tiny village of Kinneff.
Tickets cost £7 for adults, open from 1 April to 30 September, 9am-6pm. Check online for winter opening hours.
A touch of Downton
Duff House is the perfect destination for anyone seeking a touch of period drama. This elegant Georgian country pile is the work of renowned architect William Adam, as far from haunting Dunnottar as you can imagine.
Artworks by Raeburn, Gainsborough, Lavery and El Greco grace the walls of elegant rooms with opulent furnishings, and from the drawing rooms to boudoirs, it’s an architectural delight, bringing a touch of glamour to the Banffshire coast.
Explore the grounds and you’ll discover the elaborate mausoleum and a semi-subterranean ice-house too.
Tickets cost £7.10 for adults, open April to October from 11am-5pm. Check online for winter opening hours.
The family fortress
Near the small town of Banchory is the National Trust for Scotland’s Drum Castle, where small history buffs can find a wooden outdoor play area in a woodland to let off steam after a day climbing Drum’s tower and delving into its dungeon.
The castle, grounds and elaborate walled garden are as intriguing as you’d expect from a National Trust property but there’s another fascination for families; the poignant day and night nursery on the top floor of the castle.
Here, little cots, beds and toys elicit questions from wee ones who develop a sudden interest in how their forefathers once lived. Drum is also minutes away from Crathes Castle, another NTS property, so it’s easy to visit a couple of castles in a small area if you’re trying to tick off several fortresses in one go.
Tickets cost £12.50 for adults, open 1 April to 30 June from 11am-5pm. Check online for hours outside this period.
The castle at night
The ultimate castle experience has to be spending the night in one of Aberdeenshire’s architectural highlights, living amongst the opulent interiors and letting the history and atmosphere of the building make its mark as you get a real insight into life behind the castle walls.
Built in the 11th century, Delgatie Castle near Turriff is a privately owned castle; it’s been in the Hay family for over 600 years. Mary Queen of Scots visited for three days, with her bedchamber on view to the public, and now it’s possible for guests to stay at Delgatie for themselves.
Within the castle itself are two suites. Symbister has a master bedroom with an elegant four-poster bed, a twin bedroom, living area and kitchen, while the Hayfield is slightly larger with two twin bedrooms. There’s also further self-catering accommodation available in the Coachhouse.
The castle’s award-winning baking, furnishing the plates of the Afternoon Tea platters in the Laird’s Kitchen, is another good reason to visit even if you don’t stay.
Tickets cost £8 for adults, open 10am-5pm. Contact the castle for accommodation rates.