Scottish National Tourist Routes: Deeside

Scottish National Tourist Routes: Deeside

If you want to travel from Perth to Aberdeen in your motorhome, you can take the A90 dual carriageway, which will get you there in around three hours. Or you can take the much hillier and more spectacular Scottish National Tourist Route over the mountains and through Royal Deeside, which will take around an hour longer.

You could, of course, go one way and come back another and get an even better taste of what Scotland has to offer by way of scenery and things to do.

Before you start, it’s worth taking time to look around Perth, which calls itself the “Fair City” with some justification. The River Tay offers pleasant walks (when it’s not in flood), the setting is beautiful and the city is architecturally very interesting.

View from Kinnnoull Hill. Photo Credit: ShinyPhotoScotland

View from Kinnnoull Hill. Photo Credit: ShinyPhotoScotland

Perth also has plenty of places to eat and drink, good shopping, a swimming pool, a curling rink, several museums and art galleries, an excellent concert hall and a recently rebuilt theatre.  Kinnoull Hill, on the outskirts, provides excellent walking, and the Branklyn Garden, further down the hill, is famous for its rare and unusual plants from around the world. We’d recommend allowing a day to enjoy the city.

When you’re ready to head to take the Deeside road, cross the river away from the town centre and follow signs for Scone Palace and the A93 (don’t follow signs for the village of Scone, which is on the A94). Scone Palace (pronounced Scoon), original home of the Stone of Scone (or Stone of Destiny) on which Scotland’s kings used to sit for their coronation, is open April-October. As well as the house, there’s a tartan maze to wander round and over 100 acres of grounds (which stay open most of the year).

Scone Palace is a popular tourist attraction for those visiting Perth. The stately home has a rich history, and you can visit the Palace Rooms from April through to October. Photo credit: Aaron Bradley

Scone Palace is a popular tourist attraction for those visiting Perth. The stately home has a rich history, and you can visit the Palace Rooms from April through to October. Photo credit: Aaron Bradley

The grounds of Scone Palace are also home to one of Scotland’s horse-racing courses; you may want to avoid visiting on racing weekends, as traffic can get very heavy!

From Scone the road meanders in and out of sight of the River Tay to the junction at Kinclaven.  If you turn right here, you can visit the historic textile mills at Stanley, which date from the 1780s.

If you continue along the A93 you pass a hedge at Meikleour. Not just any old hedge: this beech hedge is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest and tallest hedge on Earth. It’s 580 yards (1740 feet, or 530 metres) long and between 80 and 120 feet (24-36 metres) high, with an average height of 100 feet (30 metres). It takes four men six weeks to hand-trim it so, not surprisingly, it doesn’t get cut back all that often.

The hedge was planted in 1745. The man who planted it, Robert Murray Nairne, was killed at the Battle of Culloden the following year and his wife moved to Edinburgh. The hedge is now owned and cut by the Meikleour Trust.

The road continues past some of Blairgowrie’s many and famous golf courses; book ahead if you’d like a game. Blairgowrie itself is one of Perthshire’s largest towns and the centre is very attractive. Originally famous for flax (linen), it’s now the centre of Perthshire’s soft fruit production: between them, Perthshire and neighbouring Angus produce around a quarter or all British raspberries and strawberries.

Blairgowrie is the last town you’ll come to before you cross the hills, so it’s a good place to stop for lunch or a cup of tea. Back on the A93, you take a turn to the left shortly after leaving the main square and crossing the river: follow  the signs to Glenshee along the River Ericht.  At Bridge of Cally cross the River Ardle and follow the road right. The road on the left would take you over the hills to Pitlochry – a great trip for another day.

The road through Glen Shee. Photo credit: Bob Hall

The road through Glen Shee. Photo credit: Bob Hall

You’re now into heather moorland, heading up Glen Shee. It’s a small part of the huge Cairngorms National Park, which covers most of the Grampian and Cairngorm mountain ranges and boasts some of the highest peaks in the country. Keep your eyes open for wildlife as you pass through it: you may see capercaillie, ptarmigan, golden eagles, deer, snow hares and even, if you’re extremely lucky and quiet, wildcats.

In a snowy winter, Glenshee is Scotland’s largest skiing and snowboarding area, while in summer it’s popular with walkers and mountain bikers (you take your bike up on the Cairnwell chairlift, a spectacular start to the exhilarating 3.2 km run). There’s a huge car park, so there’s no problem parking your motorhome if you want to head into the hills.

If you want to “bag” a Munro (mountain over 3,000 feet) or two, there are several nearby to choose from and, because the road has already brought you so far up the mountain, their summits are much easier to reach than most.

The road through Glen Shee is an old military road, built after the Jacobite risings to enable the redcoat soldiers to root out the rebels. It’s a long climb to the top: this is one of the highest roads in Britain, though the former highest point (the notorious Devil’s Elbow) is now bypassed.  Once you’re past the ski centre you start heading downhill towards Braemar; the military road parts company with the A93 a few miles before the town.

Braemar has a 17th century castle, built by the Earl of Mar as a hunting lodge, garrison and family homes; it’s now owned by the local community and open to the public. Mar Lodge and Kindrochit Castle are also both open. The town is a good place to stop and enjoy what’s on offer locally.

The Cairngorms National Park includes several Munros, miles of bike trails, the highest golf course in Britain, fishing (you’ll need to buy a licence) and deer stalking. Braemar hosts not one but two Highland Games: the Junior games in July and the world-famous Highland Gathering, usually attended by the Royal Family, at the beginning of September.

The Braemar Gathering has been running in its present form since 1832. Events include heavy lifting, pipe bands, dancing, tug o’ war and other athletic competitions. Photo credit: HandsLive

The Braemar Gathering has been running in its present form since 1832. Events include heavy lifting, pipe bands, dancing, tug o’ war and other athletic competitions. Photo credit: HandsLive

Rejoining the old military road and following the course of the River Dee, the A93 continues to probably its most famous point, Balmoral Castle. The earliest part of the castle dates from the 16th century but you wouldn’t think it to look at the building. It was completely remodelled for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1852 in the sturdy “Scottish Baronial” style.

You can visit Balmoral’s ballroom, which houses an exhibition, and the grounds if you arrive at the right moment. They’re only open three months of the year and that obviously doesn’t include the period in summer when the Royal Family spend their holidays there.

Just past Balmoral is Crathie. The kirk is famous as the Royal family’s summer parish church; a visit to the nearby Royal Lochnagar distillery might prove slightly more relaxing.

From Crathie roads follow both banks of the River Dee; the A93 follows the north (left) bank and is the better choice in a large vehicle.

Ballater, the next town on your route, bills itself as “The Jewel of the Cairngorms”. It’s certainly a very attractive Victorian town, standing in the shadow of “dark Lochnagar” and Craigendarroch mountains. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat, this is a good place to stop for a bite.

There’s an 8-mile footpath round nearby Loch Muick, part of the Balmoral Estate, which makes a for a good day’s walk. You can often see red deer, golden eagles and grouse here. Glen Tanar nature reserve also offers good walking and mountain bike trails, as do Drummy Woods. The Glen Tanar estate also offers highland safaris.

Red deer near Loch Muick. There are some excellent walks in the area and plenty of opportunities to spot Scottish wildlife. Photo credit: Vince O’Sullivan

Red deer near Loch Muick. There are some excellent walks in the area and plenty of opportunities to spot Scottish wildlife. Photo credit: Vince O’Sullivan

At Muir of Dinnet you’ll find a National Nature Reserve with woodland, heath and open water.    There’s a family-friendly bike route from Ballater to the rocky Burn o’Vat in the reserve.

Once past Dinnet you’re out of the Cairngorms National Park, and the scenery becomes less spectacular, more gentle and prettier. You’re still following the valley of the River Dee, but the hills either side are lower, with more open fields and woodland.

At Aboyne you’ll find the Deeside Activity Park, which offers quad biking, go karting, archery and clay pigeon shooting if you want a change from walking, cycling and golf. Aboyne was built as a Victorian inland resort and still feels pleasantly relaxed, with good shopping and eating facilities.

Kincardine O’Neil, one of the oldest villages in Deeside, missed out on the Victorian building boom, which means it has kept a large part of its charm. It’s been a conservation area since 1978, so with a bit of luck the charm will continue to survive. The town made its money from control of one the main fords across the Dee. Later it was also on the coaching route from Aberdeen to Braemar: the route stopped at Kincardine O’Neil in winter because of the snow.

Banchory, the next town on the route, is a long, skinny town with some fancy shops and a locally famous garden centre. It’s also home to Crathes Castle, a romantic maze of turrets and towers, with exquisite painted ceilings and oak panelling, which is now a National Trust property.

Crathes Castle boasts romantic turrets and spectacular gardens. Photo credit: Nick Bramhall

Crathes Castle boasts romantic turrets and spectacular gardens. Photo credit: Nick Bramhall

Crathes has a fine walled garden, 300-year-old yew hedges and several marked trails. Wildlife spotted here includes herons, roe deer, red squirrels, woodpeckers and buzzards. It also has a “Go Ape” tree-top adventure trail, which is very popular in fine weather.

Drum Castle, between Crathes and Aberdeen, is another National Trust property. More solid-looking than Crathes, it’s one of Scotland’s oldest tower houses, its history covering 700 years. The chapel dates from the 1500s, the main mansion is Jacobean and the library was remodelled in Victorian times.

Where Crathes has a walled garden and ancient yews, Drum boasts a garden of historic roses and an ancient oak forest where you might see red kites, deer, red squirrels and (at night, of course) badgers.

From Peterculter to Aberdeen the road becomes largely built up. If you’re heading south from here, and want to avoid Aberdeen altogether, cross the river from Peterculter to Kirkton of Maryculter and follow the B979 to Stonehaven where you can pick up the A90 (beware: there are humpback bridges on this route). You have to go through Stonehaven and out again towards Dunottar Castle to achieve this; Dunottar is worth the detour in its own right.

If you’re playing it safe, follow the A93 all the way to the Bridge of Don on the outskirts of Aberdeen. There are several car parks at the shopping centre near the bridge where you can leave your campervan, if you don’t want to drive it into the city.

If you’re heading south, cross the bridge and you’re on the A90, heading back towards Perth to complete your circuit. Or, if Edinburgh’s your destination, you could drive your motorhome down the East coast route south from Stonehaven that’s described in an earlier blog below