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Of Castles and Coastlines

There are a good many things I love about Scotland.

One is the diversity. Most people think of whisky and tartans and Edinburgh Castle, but Scotland is so much more than that. Even within the highlands there are meadows and glens, craggy peaks and shimmering lochs. The mood changes from hour to hour, between the bright blue sunshine and the dramatic black-grey clouds. When the rain is coming and the mist creeps up over the hilltops and shrouds everything with a thick mist you feel like you’re in another world. There are castles and cottages, ruins and railway lines, and you never know what you’ll find next.

But when you leave the Highlands there are the islands, with dramatic scenery, rural lifestyles and beautiful coastlines. There are the cities, eclectic mixes of old and new, with traditional Scottish pubs sat next to trendy Indian cafes.

And then there are the places you’re not quite expecting, that don’t seem to fit into what you thought Scotland was. This past week I visited Aberdeenshire, in the far North East corner of the country. Aberdeenshire was quite unlike any of the other trips I’ve done around Scotland, and I wasn’t really expecting it. It was never on my radar of somewhere to go, and the North East chapter of my guidebook (which is coincidently the shortest) is one that I hadn’t really looked into.

But what I found in Aberdeenshire was sprawling sandy beaches, beautiful (and easy!) walks through the moorland, authentic little fishing towns and a whole new experience of travelling in a pandemic world.

The first thing I saw were the castles. Apparently Aberdeenshire has more castles per capita than the rest of the UK combined. The first one I stopped at, Dunnottar Castle, was a trifle touristy, but its beauty more than made up for it. The whole castle was set out on an outcrop of rock just attached to the mainland, and you had to climb all the way down the cliff and all the way back up to get in. Though now in ruins, walking through the grounds you could really get a feel for what life might have been like for the people who lived there. Little signs illustrated what the buildings may have looked like in their heyday, and information panels told tales of the inhabitants, including how the owner, the Earl Marischal, kept a lion in a cave under the castle.

The second castle I visited was a lot less assuming. While not quite as old as Dunnottar, New Slains Castle is still very picturesque, perched on the clifftop along the North Sea coast. It’s said to be the castle that inspired the novel Dracula, and walking through the ruined passageways it did feel a bit creepy. But what I loved about Slains Castle was that it was just a quiet, ruined bit of history sitting on a clifftop.

Scottish castles can be remarkably grandiloquent tourist attractions. Besides the £13 entrance fee that most castles charge (that’s $23!), they also really dictate your experience - walk here, don’t walk here (most of the cool nooks and crannies are usually blocked off), and while they do try and frame it, it often comes off a bit stale. My favourite castles are the forgotten ones, the open ruins that are often empty, where you can walk around on your own and try and imagine what might have taken place between the stone walls.

I stayed in the town of Peterhead. Most of my friends here have probably never heard of Peterhead, and those who have think of it as an industrial working town, certainly not a place for a vacation. In truth, I chose Peterhead because of the cheap hotels and the decent transit links, but I did appreciate it for what it was.

Most small towns in Scotland where tourists find themselves thrive primarily on tourism. Some may have small forestry industries or other such work, but these places which exist in their current state primarily to serve tourists. There are entire villages composed of holiday rental properties. Peterhead is not one of those villages.

Peterhead is one of the largest fishing ports on the North Sea, and one of the primary suppliers of fish for the whole country. And while that did make the town come off a bit gritty, it also made it feel incredibly real. In Peterhead I felt like I was able to come into contact with a whole new side of Scotland that I’ve not yet - that of real industry, a part of Scotland still very much based in the present.

In my hotel room I turned on the TV one night, and the BBC was showing a documentary on the Scottish fishing industry, based in Peterhead! I watched aerial camera shots that zoomed directly over the hotel room where I sat watching it. That’s another thing I love about Scotland - it’s an entire country, but it’s also a wee village. It’s the kind of place where everyone has met the First Minister, where you speak to a stranger on the other side of the country and find links in common. It’s the kind of place where people smile at you and acknowledge you on the street, where they stop to help you out.

But it’s not just the current cultural insights. My visit to Aberdeenshire also gave me a deeper understanding of Scottish history. There are some great TV shows that explore key moments of Scotland’s past. Reign looks at Mary Queen of Scots and her life in French Court before her shaky return to the Scottish throne. The series leaves off (spoiler alert - but not really because it’s a historical drama) with her execution and the takeover of her son King James the I and VI. But it was on the little information panel in the Peterhead harbour that I made the connections between that point what happened to King James afterwards.