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Published: July 30th 2021
Me, Burn O' Vat
Cairngorms National Park
Greetings from the Scottish Highlands! I’m really quite excited to be here. While there is much to see in the country, it seems that the Highlands are what make Scotland quintessentially Scotland. It is the region of high fells, forested hills, snow-capped mountains, rushing rivers and Highland Games such as tossing the caber. It is also the wildest part of Great Britain, where wild deer are common and golden eagles can still be seen. I am looking forward to exploring this part of the country for the next six days: three days spent here in Ballater in the eastern part of the Cairngorms National Park, and three days spent in Carrbridge near Aviemore, in the northern part.
My goodness the weather has changed since yesterday. So far I think I’ve been really fortunate with the weather – while the rest of the UK was experiencing thunder and heavy downpours leading to significant flooding last week, the eastern part of Scotland has remained sunny, dry and warm. Things changed last night though, and I awoke this morning to heavy rain falling on the roof of my accommodation. This part of Scotland received an “Amber” weather warning for the
day, and it really bucketed it down this morning. Because of the downpour, I booked a taxi from my accommodation in the southern suburbs of Aberdeen to the bus station, but then cancelled it shortly after as the weather suddenly improved around 9.30am, and the Met Office forecasted a lull for the following few hours. It turns out that the lovely accommodation owner was also going to offer me a lift if the rain didn’t stop, which was just so kind of her. In the end I took the bus, and managed to stay dry for the journey into town, to catch my onward transportation from Aberdeen bus station to here, Ballater. This was the number 201 bus, taking an hour and three quarters, and taking a lovely route which rose steadily into the high mountain region of this part of the country, with the landscape changing from grey granite blocks to thick woods, open fields and flowing rivers. Indeed, this part of the country is known as Royal Deeside, situated along the River Dee, and since Queen Victoria had the royal Balmoral Castle built in the area in 1855, has been a retreat for the Royal Family ever since.
Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve
Queen Elizabeth herself is in fact due to spend the summer here starting from next week.
Arriving at my destination, the lovely little highland village of Ballater, I headed to my accommodation, and my first BnB for this trip. This means that I will be enjoying a full English (or probably Scottish) breakfast each morning during my stay here – yay! There is only a kettle in the room however, and no fridge or microwave, so my evening meals for the next three days will be of the Pot Noodle and salad variety. Still, I’ll have a cooked breakfast each morning – yay, again!
Again, I was very fortunate with the weather upon arriving in Ballater, as on the way here, we travelled through some major downpours. But in the short two-minute journey from the bus stop to my accommodation, the weather amazingly held off for me. Not long after arrival, however, the heavens opened once more, for around two hours, and I took the chance just to rest and relax in my new room with a lovely cup of tea. Around 4.30pm, the rain began to clear, and I made it out to explore a bit of
Me, Tossing the Caber!
(Not really me though...)
Ballater and around.
The village is lovely, having been founded in the 18th
century due to nearby curative water springs being found, and then later developing from the 19th
century onwards as main supplier to the Royal Family’s Balmoral residence. Many shops in town bear official “By Royal Appointment” crests, showing that the Royal Family partake of their wares and provisions. I walked around the small quiet centre, taking in the restored railway station building, although no railway has run to the village since 1966, and the attractive Glenmuick Church in the central Church Square. I then headed south and crossed the Ballater Bridge, across the River Dee, for my first awesome vistas of the beautiful Scottish Highlands – the scenes of misty forested mountains, open fields and the River Dee rushing along below were really something. I headed for a walk in the nearby woods, signposted to a place of local interest called the Bridge of Muick, which ended up being a lovely three-mile return walk, and a great taster for Highland walks, no doubt that I’ll be doing a fair few of these in the days to come. Something that really caught my attention, as well as
Celicall Guest House
My accommodation in Ballater
the amazing views and simply walking through Scottish forests, was every now and then, an insect-like creature passed along the path underfoot. Upon closer inspection, I found that the path was covered in tiny, baby frogs, no bigger than one’s little finger nail. I took great care not to step on any of them, no doubt they were heading towards the nearest stream. That was quite something to behold. For my walk and for the rest of the day, the weather held off, and it looks more promising now that the next few days will be drier here.
After returning to Ballater, and a short visit to the nearby Co-Op supermarket for supplies for the evening, I called it a day and headed to my cosy BnB room, ready to rest up for more in-depth Highland explorations beginning the next day.
Thursday was a wonderful day. I really enjoyed my first full day exploring the highlands, and I can see why the Royal Family, since Queen Victoria, have chosen this part of the country to spend lots of their leisure time in – it is quite simply beautiful, and the people are just so friendly and nice.
After my first full English cooked breakfast of this trip, although I had to say no to the black pudding, I felt fully nourished for my day of highland explorations ahead. I took a bus first to Balmoral, where I had booked online to visit the beautiful Balmoral Castle. The castle was built in 1855 for Queen Victoria as a private royal residence, and its Scottish Baronial style re-ignited the fashion for such architecture throughout Scotland for the rest of the century. There is something very iconic about a Scottish baronial castle – at once majestic, but also defensive. Whilst there was no need for Balmoral to be defensive, it still retains that imposing stature, alongside its beauty.
I had two hours to spend at Balmoral, and enjoyed walking around its gardens and grounds immensely. I was one of the first to arrive, and pretty much had the place to myself – as I was leaving though, the car park was filling up, and so were the tourist numbers. The only part of the house itself that is open to visitors is the ballroom (though no photos were allowed in here), as the rest of it is the Queen’s
private quarters, so the visit involves mostly exploring its grounds, and admiring the castle from the outside. This was still very much worth it to my mind. Every year, the castle opens to visitors from April to late July. This year, it closes its doors next Monday, so I was quite fortunate that my visit coincided with its opening times. At some point next week, the exact date apparently is never known to the staff, the Queen will take up residence for the summer, a summer getaway, I guess from the heat, hustle and bustle of London, although I’m sure there is still plenty of space to poke around in in old Buckingham Palace and its grounds. I really enjoyed my visit to Balmoral Castle, and it was just lovely to think that the grounds I walked on, the benches I sat on, have been and will be walked and sat on by so many members of the Royal Family.
Back on the bus, I was heading further westwards, this time to the other main Deeside tourist centre besides Ballater, that is Braemar. Braemar is smaller than Ballater, but it felt much more touristy – I was glad to
have chosen Ballater to base myself in. I had another two hours in Braemar until the next bus would take me back again to Ballater, and I planned to visit two places of interest in the village.
I first headed to the Braemar Highland Games Centre just on the outskirts of the village, and sitting under the looming bulk and presence of Morrone Mountain. Scottish Highland Games are held in many places throughout the summer, but the most famous one takes place right here in Braemar, attended once more by the Royal Family since Queen Victoria, who have their own Royal Box there. The Braemar Gathering has taken place every year here since 1817, when the informal gatherings testing skill and strength throughout the country for centuries began to be formalised. Sadly the games are cancelled this year for the second year running, due to the c-word situation, but the grounds and spectator seats were very much open to the visitor. I had a wonderful walk around the central grassy arena and circular seating stands all around, imagining the cheers and clamour that would fill the air when the pipes are played, the cabers are tossed, and the hammers
My second destination in Braemar involved a short walk through the lovely village, taking in a butcher’s shop and my first glimpse, and photo, of an actual haggis. I have no intention to try one whilst here though, since their ingredients include a sheep’s stomach, lungs and heart – I just don’t think I could stomach it. I was happy to see one quite literally in the flesh though, and the friendly butcher was happy to show me one. A mile out of the village I came upon my destination: the imposing, yet still graceful, Braemar Castle. I didn’t get to go inside as this involved another online booking, but I was happy to simply walk around the castle’s grounds and admire it from the outside. I really do like these Scottish baronial castles, I love their beauty and grandeur combined with their fortress functionality. This one was originally built in 1628, and was a stronghold for the powerful Earls of May of the area. It seemed this family fell on the wrong side of the 1715 Jacobite uprising though, and a rival family in the area, the Farquharsons, bought the castle in the same year. It
was then leased by the Farquharson Clan to the English government in 1748 to provide an English garrison stronghold for Hanoverian troops following the years after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, before becoming the Farquharson family home from 1831 to 2006, when it was leased to the local community who now open it for tourism.
After taking in the beauty of the castle, I headed back into Braemar, and caught my final bus for the day, all the way back to Ballater again, 17 miles to the east. My adventures for the day didn’t stop there though, as I found I had a spot of energy left to climb the town’s local hill, Craigendarroch. It was quite a climb to the 400m summit, but very much worth the amazing views over Ballater and the Dee Valley below, and far away into the distance to forested Scottish mountains on the horizon. It was a perfect ending to a lovely day. I then returned to my BnB to rest my aching and weary legs, ready for more highland explorations the next day.
My final day in Ballater involved even more walking than the day before – I reckon around seven
miles or so. I enjoyed a wonderful walking route around the area to the east of Ballater, connected by the 201 bus route and its stops along the way.
First off, I took a bus from Ballater to a nearby place called Cambus O’ May, where I began a lovely forest trail walk through beautiful Scots Pine forest towards the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve. I was heading to an absolutely beautiful place called Burn O’ Vat, a secret hidden waterfall found by squeezing through a person-sized gap in large rocks at its natural entrance. Once through, there is a gaping chasm with a beautiful waterfall emptying into the very shallow pool at the bottom. It is really quite a unique place. Legend has it that the cave behind the waterfall was a hiding place for Scottish hero and outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor, but in actual fact it was a hideout for another 17th
century outlaw, Patrick Gilderoy MacGregor, a possible relative of Rob Roy. GIlderoy is said to have ravaged the lands of Strathspey, Braemar and other areas around Aberdeen, before his capture and execution in 1636.
After taking a number of moments to admire the
beauty of Burn O’ Vat, I continued my walk from there by crossing the main road and following the northern route around a nearby lake, the pristine and very still waters of Loch Kinord. Places of note here included a Celtic cross on the northern shore of the lake originally housed in a small chapel in the region built in the 9th
century, and an island in the middle of the lake called Castle Island, which once housed a medieval castle for centuries, location chosen as it kept its inhabitants safe from the wild wolves which once roamed the land. After leaving Loch Kinord, my walk then continued along the shores of the nearby and much smaller Clarack Loch, where I stopped for lunch in a lovely spot admiring the view out over the water, before continuing onto the hamlet of Dinnet. Here, I walked about half-a-mile further east, to the very boundary of the Caingorms National Park, which has also traditionally been considered the boundary of the Scottish Highlands prior to the National Park’s creation in 2003. There is even a stone here marking the point with a message “You are now in the Highlands”.
Returning to Dinnet,
I caught a bus heading back to Ballater, but got off at the Cambus O’ May suspension bridge. The current bridge is merely a replica constructed in 1988, and officially opened by none other than the Queen Mother in the same year. It is built, however, to resemble the original suspension bridge built in 1905. The more modern replica was itself damaged during the 2015 floods caused by Storm Frank, which led to the town of Ballater being evacuated. The bridge was only recently opened again in April 2021, following repair work, so I was fortunate to be able to see and cross it during my visit.
From here, I headed to the nearest bus stop, by the Cambus O’ May Cheese Company shop, and exactly opposite the bus stop where I began my walk earlier in the day. I took a bus back once more to Ballater, to once again rest my weary feet after another wonderful day of Highland explorations.
It has been a wonderful start to my time here in the Scottish Highlands. The Royal Deeside area is really quite beautiful, and I understand why the Royal Family also have a fondness for this place.
I have enjoyed my time here very much. Tomorrow I head to Carrbridge, on the other side of the Caingorms National Park, where I will be spending three further nights exploring a different part of these Scottish Highlands. Thank you for reading this blog entry, and I aim to write again once more from Carrbridge in a few days’ time.
All the best for now 😊
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