For nine hundred years British royals from Robert the Bruce to Queen Victoria have taken up residence in the castles of Aberdeenshire, leaving a rich and fascinating legacy.
In fact when Queen Victoria and her beloved Prince Albert selected Balmoral Castle as their summer residence that Aberdeenshire instantly became a tourist hotspot.
There are several beautiful castles and interesting sites that have a royal connection, all within 1.5 hour’s drive of the royal warrant town of Ballater.
Here are seven of our favourite places to visit in Aberdeenshire to get your royal fix.
Balmoral has been the summer residence of the British Royal family for more than a hundred years. Purchased by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the 1852, the royal couple and their family spent many happy times here, with Queen Victoria famously recalling in her diary: “All seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils.”
Today, Balmoral is equally beloved by HRH Queen Elizabeth II, who travels to Balmoral with Prince Phillip each year from late July to October for several months of recuperation.
The estate is open to the public from April to July, and visitors can explore the magnificent grounds and gardens. The ballroom is also open to visitors, and hosts a grand royal exhibition featuring photos, paintings and artworks belonging to the royal family.
Visitors can walk around beautifully tended grounds with relative freedom. During the summer, the gardeners work tirelessly to ensure the flowers bloom in time for the Queen’s arrival. Lilies, fuchsias and colourful begonias line the greenhouse, and the gardens and Victorian glasshouse are an eruption of bright colours and floral fragrances.
Royal Lochnagar whisky tour
Next door to Balmoral is the Royal Lochnagar Distillery, so named after the nearby 3,000ft Lochnagar Mountain. The whisky distillery was built by a man named John Begg in 1845, after the original distillery burnt down in suspicious circumstances in 1841.
John had the good sense to invite Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to sample a dram of his finest whisky when they first visited Balmoral in 1848. The royal name was bestowed on the distillery soon after and to this day they supply cases of their best whisky to their royal neighbours. It is said Prince Charles is quite the fan.
Now owned by the multinational alcohol producer, Diageo, Royal Lochnagar remains one of the smallest distilleries in Scotland, producing around 450,000 litres a year (600,000-700,000 bottles). Visitors can take part in the daily whisky tours and learn about the process of producing a find bottle of Scotch whisky, from inception to bottling. The tour ends with a tasting of two different whiskies.
Drum Castle, now a National Trust property, was the family home of the Irvines of Drum for more than 650 years. The estate lands were awarded to William de Irwin in 1323 by Robert the Bruce, who led Scotland during the First War of Scottish Independence against the English. The picturesque castle has gone through several renovations over the centuries, and the oldest part of the castle to survive is the magnificent 13th century tower.
Both the grounds and interior of the castle are open to visitors, and there are daily tours. Expect high ceilings, antique furniture and plenty of portraits including one of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The top floor of the tower hosts a modern art exhibition, which provides an interesting contrast to the rest of the interior. The castle gardens are stunning with a beautiful walled garden with plenty of secret spaces to get lost in.
Royal Deeside Railway
The Royal Deeside Railway, a gauge steam and diesel hauled heritage railway, once formed part of the Deeside Railway that once transported members of the royal family to Ballater (just a short distance from Balmoral). Prince Charles visited the railway in 2018 and even had a go at driving the steam train.
The railway has been painstakingly restored by a voluntary society for over two decades, and features several working steam trains and an original battery operated train, which was loved by the Queen Mother for its relative silence.
The steam trains run every Sunday and more regularly in the summer months for visitors, who can enjoy a historic ride through the pretty landscape of Royal Deeside. The carriages are all originals, and the passionate volunteers are eager to share the history of these fascinating locomotives.
Passengers can opt to have a delicious cream tea on board for just £18 (including the ride ticket) – best to book in advance.
Braemar Highland Games Centre
If you’re planning a visit to Aberdeenshire in September, pay a visit to the Braemar Highland Games Centre to watch the Braemar Highland Gathering. Held on the first Saturday in September, the event is open to the public and is attended by the reigning Monarch and members of the royal family.
The yearly spectacle involves men and women battling it out in a variety of modern and traditional sports, from the high jump to the caber toss, complete with bagpipes and Scottish reeling.
If you miss out on the gathering, you can still visit the centre and take a look around the permanent exhibition in The Duke of Rothesay Highland Games Pavilion, named in honour of Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay.
The exhibition tells the story of the highland games and its proud Scottish heritage. There is also a charming café decorated in Duke of Rothesay tartan which serves a delicious ploughman’s platter with Balmoral bread.
Castle Fraser sits on 300 acres of land and has been home to the Fraser family for more than 400 years. It was gifted to the National Trust in the 1970s, and has been a film location on several occasions, most significantly as a double of Balmoral Castle during the filming of the Oscar winning film The Queen, starring Helen Mirren.
Castle Fraser has several unusual features that reflect the whimsies of the Fraser family. This includes the “laird’s lug”, a special window and secret room that allowed the laird (the land owner) to eavesdrop on his guests.
The castle was adapted again by Charles Mackenzie Fraser in the 19th century. He lost his leg while fighting for the Duke of Wellington in Spain, but never allowed this impediment to prevent him from his duties as a laird.
The grounds of Castle Fraser has a beautiful walled garden, which was commissioned by Elyza Fraser, laird of the castle between 1772 and 1814. It was unusual at the time for a women to play such an active role in estate management.
Slains Castle (not to be confused with the nearby Old Slains Castle) is the only ruined castle on this list, and an absolute must-visit. First constructed in the 16th century, it fell on hard times and the final owner removed the roof in order to avoid paying taxes in 1925. Overlooking Cruden Bay, the castle is free to enter and explore.
Slains Castle is most famous for its connection to Bram Stoker: it is believed the castle provided the inspiration for Dracula’s castle in his beloved gothic novel. The castle also featured in the first season of The Crown, as a stand-in for Castle Mey when the Queen Mother visits Scotland.
FLY: Flybe and British Airways fly Aberdeen International Airport.
STAY: If your base is Ballater, book a room at Darroch Learg Hotel. The newly renovated hotel has beautifully furnished rooms, lovely views and a warm, welcoming atmosphere.
For fine dining and spa relaxation, try Ardoe House Hotel & Spa, which is part of the Mercure brand. The 19th century mansion house is inspired by Balmoral Castle and is just three miles from Aberdeen. The spa is excellent and has a decent sized indoor swimming pool.
EAT: In Ballatar, there are several excellent restaurants, including The Clachan Grill and the Rothesay Rooms, which was opened at the behest of Prince Charles after a terrible flood in 2015 almost brought the town to its knees. Both restaurants serve traditional Scottish fare with a modern twist.
TIP: If you plan a visit to Slains Castle stop by the Kilmarnock Arms, where Bram Stoker stayed for several days. See the guestbook with his original signature.
GETTING AROUND: Aberdeenshire is the perfect location for a road trip, but there are also plenty of bus options – just avoid taxis if possible as they are quite expensive.
For more information visit https://www.visitabdn.com/