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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.

And of course there’s Outlander. I’m a big Outlander fan, and the beautiful scenery featured in the series is part of what got me excited about Scotland in the first place. The show goes into the politics of the Highlanders leading up to and after the Second Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. But during the First Jacobite Uprising of 1715, it was in Peterhead itself that King James the VIII landed in Scotland and was declared the rightful King. That’s big news for a little fishing village!

These connections bring these stories alive. I’m able to visualize historical events and activities that happened in these places, and make the connections between the fictionalized series and the real lived history, which only serves to deepen my experience of this country.

But perhaps beyond all of that, beyond the fishing and the history and the castles and the coastlines, was the ethereal beauty of it all. Forvie National Nature Reserve lies hardly a 20-minute drive north of Aberdeen, but you feel like you’re in a different world. The stretching beaches brought me right back to Sri Lanka, but the empty sand dunes took me to the Thar Dessert and sleeping on the sand in Rajasthan. The curving coastlines could be Prince Edward Island, while the rolling fields filled with golden haystacks could be back in my home province of Alberta.

I don’t like Bucket Lists. I don’t like the idea of ticking off experiences and moving on to the next thing. One of the things I love most about Scotland is its ability as a space to continue exploring, while also processing and internalizing on my past experiences. And that whether I’m on a beautiful beach on the Northeast coast, or deep in the Highland hills, it always shows me something new.

The Practicals

I stayed in Peterhead, which is almost at the very northeastern corner of Scotland, on the North Sea. Generally a train runs from Glasgow to Aberdeen, but it was only running as far as Dundee when I went. From Dundee I took a bus to Stonehaven, getting off at Dunnottar Junction to explore Dunnottar Castle, then walking into Stonehaven where I caught the bus to Aberdeen, then another bus to Peterhead, where I was staying.

The next day was Shabbat, so I just walked around Peterhead, which has the ‘Peterhead Heritage Trail’ - essentially a series of historical information signs, as well as a walking path along the bay to a nice beach at the far side.

Sunday I took the bus to Forvie National Nature Reserve and got off at the crossroad for Collieston (at the North end of the park). It’s about a 30-minute walk to the Visitors Centre, where there’s parking, as well as signs outlining the various trails within the park. I walked the Heath Trail, then took the Cliff Trail to Hackley Bay, detoured to Forvie Kirk, and walked along the beach and into the dunes, then did the whole thing in reverse to get back to the visitor centre. The whole thing was about 12 km, but so beautiful! I then walked back to the highway and took the bus back to Peterhead. In hindsight, I could have walked from the north end of the trail by the visitor centre all the way down to the south end, catching the bus by the waterside car park, which would have meant less walking, but only doing one arm of each circular trail. As it happened, it was so beautiful that I didn’t mind doing more of it over 2 days.

Monday I took the bus to the parking lot for Slains Castle. I then walked along the coastal path to the Bullers of Buchan, which was really not as impressive as it was made out to be (‘Some of the most dramatic scenery in Scotland!’), although the 2-hour coastal walk was quite nice (I don’t think I’d have liked it in the rain though). I then caught a bus back to Forvie Reserve, this time to the Waterside Parking Lot just north of Newburgh, where I walked the remaining Dune Trail and had a nice picnic on the beach. Most of these aren’t official bus stops, but you can ask the drivers to stop where you want, and flag down a bus if you wait on the side of the highway (just check the schedule because they often come once an hour or less).

Tuesday I checked out of my hotel (The Lost Guesthouse in Peterhead - totally adequate if a bit sparse, but quite cheap and centrally located!) and took the bus to Fraserburgh, where I walked along the beach, checked out the town, and bussed back to Aberdeen. I didn’t look around Aberdeen much, although I could have, and then a bus to Dundee, where I also could have had a bit more time, and then a train back to Glasgow.

Most of these hiking spots don’t have proper food options, or if they do it’s more expensive cafes and restaurants, so each day I stocked up on food and snacks at grocery stores in Aberdeen or Peterhead, which worked well!

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