Aberdeen - the Don, the Dee and living in a castle.

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June 21st 2018
Published: June 22nd 2018
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With the sun rising just after 4am and curtains that did not block out the light, we stirred early, packed speedily and even with a leisurely cooked breakfast, were on the road to Aberdeen by 9am. We had missed the Cairngorms National Park on the last leg because it was pouring rain, so with that route still an option we decided the sun would entice us to take the scenic route. Trusting ourselves to the capricious Google maps we set off - realising as soon as we hit the mountains and thick forest that we only had a quarter tank of petrol!

Carr Bridge was the first little town and we pulled in thankfully to the service station. So the little red Clio was fuelled for 80 something bucks but I struggled to find good food for our own supplies, settling on cheese twists and a fruit drink as the best of a bad lot and a Bounty bar in case we got lost in the mountains! The bonus surprise was the bridge that the town is named after - an amazing ancient stone arch bridge from 1717 which I have now learnt is the oldest stone bridge in the Highlands. So it is an ill wind etc and we enjoy the unplanned events.

We managed to head off immediately in the wrong direction and had to turn back, but soon were winding through incredibly rugged country, with soaring barren mountains, miles of conifer plantations, vast expanses of gorse and heather, wide and deep valleys with burns running through them and scattered sheep. Iconic Scottish highlands, and quite breathtaking at times. Not that we could stop for photos, as there is almost nowhere to pull up safely. With single width road again, no shoulder, ungraded curves and Peter in rally driver mode, it was a an exciting ride (only one close call). Three hours later we approached Aberdeen.

In view of our impressive early start, we had decided to do some more ancestor hunting before checking in. Strangely enough, the Aberdeen forbear was a miller as well, but perhaps not so unysual as his daughter married the Inverness miller we had just left behind. Peter’s yet to find out how that happened, though we’re sure these journeyman millers moved around. He has another set of 3rd great-grandparents who were millers in Berkshire, England - no wonder Peter likes bread... As we suspected, this mill has long gone, but we found the later mill and mill house near the burn (we know all about how it works now) and the mill stone and wheel that had been kept. Peter disappeared down the steep banks towards the water, and I reminded him that I would find it difficult to help him if he got stuck.

He made it back and had a conversation with a delightful white haired lady called Betty, who trustingly took him to the back of her property and she told where the sluice used to be in the burn. So we have done our best to track down three millers and in the process have learned a lot and met some lovely people.

Our accommodation in Aberdeen is a little different - it is in a castle! It is actually a Mercure Hotel, but located in a wonderful bushy spot outside Aberdeen. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, with rhododendrons and vivid pink peonies everywhere it looks good enough to be in a Disney movie. A few amenities that are much better than the BnB, plenty of space and a huge bed - wonderful. We must have scored a good deal for it to be in our budget.

We did our best to fuel ourselves up with an impressive full Scottish breakfast the next morning before heading through the old town area to the Brig o Balgownie - the oldest stone bridge in Scotland Going back to the 13th century. Given its significance and beauty, it wasn’t exactly easy to get there, and Google predictably took us to the wrong side for access, but we parked near some postcard cottages and headed over. On the other side there was slippery path down to the bank, and a Private Property sign on a huge house next to the bridge that blocked the views. So we had to scramble further and it got muddier and muddier and I was in danger of going face first into the mud. But it was worth it - stunning views and reflections and astonishment that the structure could last so long.

I love the dense riverside trees and plants. Some ancient trees as a canopy and an early summer profusion of water loving plants give a lush feel. The gorse had nearly finished and the aniseed smelling Sweet Cicely was just bursting into bloom. I hunted without success for a rare blueish spotted orchid that flowers there too. And, just like at home, swathes of sticky weed everywhere, which ended up on our shoes and pants. The area is next to the Aberdeen university and student housing, and apparently the tradition is for students who graduate to jump off the bridge - which is quite a height and would be very dangerous!

Only a few minutes away is the Cathedral of St Machar, built mainly in the 13th century, and added to since. Major renovations going on now with a beautiful new stone floor going down. In the brief tour from a volunteer we learnt that a stone set above a door is from the 588AD earlier church building! Wonderful stained glass windows, light filled nave and an ancient Celtic cross rescued and re-set were some highlights. I was struck by the human stories in the graveyard: so many children died in infancy, often several in a family, and even adults dying in their 40s and 50s. Life has changed, but sadness and loss always cast shadows.

Lunch had become urgent by then so we tried to find a highly recommended Thai place not too far away. My goodness, by the time we circumnavigated the city blocks at high speed and ended up heading out of town, went back, found a parking station, found a loo, found our way out of the centre with the help of two sweet elderly ladies, walked a fair distance and then wondered if it was even there - we walked into another Thai place in a sort of basement and would have eaten anything. Well, it turned out to be a new little business and the cook had worked at the place we were looking for. She gallantly told us where it was but we decided to give her a go. We were treated like royalty! The Scottish boss, married to the Thai cook, kept coming back, plying us with drinks and crackers while our food was prepared. And it was the best Asian food we have had since our little Thai place in Bittern! Spot on for flavour and freshness and degree of spice, and generous. They hovered around, asking for honest feedback, so we were glad it was good! Peter asked for green tea, and was served with a bright green iced drink like a milkshake - I think it was a mung bean smoothie. He quite liked it and we staggered out from the little cafe after Peter managed to get all our new best friends together for a photo! We reflected that these little experiences are as interesting as big ticket sight seeing.

Peter wandered down town and I browsed for the last couple of presents to bring home and we finally returned to the hotel - to find that our key cards didn’t work so we were locked out. That can happen, but the customer service or lack of it that followed was rather bad, and we were left standing in a long corridor nearly 200m from reception and no-one came. Peter went back twice and I was close to lying down on the carpet until eventually someone paid attention and came to let us in. He was extremely apologetic and in the end offered us a complimentary meal in the restaurant! We know what we paid the night before and it was the most we have paid for a meal on the whole trip!

Our last day in Aberdeen was spent mainly following up the Reid, Petrie and LeiTh Family connections which are centred on the Peterculter area. The heritage centre was not supposed to be open until the weekend, after we leave, but when we pulled up, a guy was doing maintenance work and it was open! So that occupied us for the rest of the day. Although the church is not used now it has a wonderful collection of records and memorabilia, and had booklets identifying all the graves - that saved us a lot of time! So we searched for and photographed all the relevant headstones, the best find being George Reid, a possible 5th great grandfather!

As the sun (finally) shone on us on the summer solstice and the Dee river sparkled in the background, we decided to sign off in Aberdeen and return to the hotel for our complimentary meal before packing for Edinburgh, our last destination in bonny Scotland.We dined extremely well - much better than our vegemite and cheese sandwiches would have been!

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