For the last four years — in celebration of St Andrew’s Day — Historic Scotland has done away with admission fees and made 345 of its attractions available to the public for free.
The properties in question regularly include Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle and Urquhart Castle, but for anyone looking to escape the throngs of tourists there is also the chance to see the lesser visited likes of Elgin Cathedral and Iona Abbey.
Although not included in Historic Scotland’s list of open attractions, I had been asked to travel with a friend to Loch Ness, and it seemed as good a place as any to commemorate Scotland’s national holiday. Unfortunately, it proved too short notice and we had to rethink our choice of destination.
Instead, Mel suggested a visit to the Aberdeenshire town of Aboyne. I knew next to nothing about Aboyne, but was assured that it was well positioned for sightseeing with a number of castles and other attractions located in the surrounding area. Rather ambitiously, our itinerary included no less than seven potential points of interest.
I checked the Internet for information on Aboyne, but aside from learning that there was a village green (traditionally an English feature) and a nearby loch (unusual in itself for being both artificial and freshwater) there seemed to be surprisingly little to the town itself. The modest population of just over 2000 people is said to double every August when Aboyne hosts The Highland Games, but in November our hopes clearly lay around and about.
We left Aberdeen just after 10am on Sunday the 30th of November, having agreed to meet at Union Square shopping centre where I was due to arrive by bus, and travelled west by car out of the city limits. The first stop on our journey was to be Drum Castle, located ten miles along the A93, and after a brief drive we pulled into the castle grounds.
Famed for having the oldest keep in Scotland, with the entire tower building dating back to the 13th Century, Drum Castle is also notable for its Jacobean and Victorial extentions, which include a mansion house and surrounding gardens. The most recent addition — conspicuous blue scaffolding — was a little less pleasing on the eyes.
With the castle closed and the views somewhat reduced, we left the car and set off to explore the grounds. We followed two separate trails, the first taking us back to the road and the second leading into the Forest of Drum, with an illustrated map promising foxes and some sort of lizard. We didn’t see anything, naturally, but the walk was pleasant enough and gave the sky time to brighten ahead of our next engagement.
From Drum Castle we continued west along the A93 to Crathes Castle. Not only was Crathes Castle scaffolding-free, but it was also open for business, and as we made our approach it became clear that we were not the only customers to have come calling that day. Whereas we were there to take pictures and have a stroll, everyone else had come for a different reason entirely; we arrived to large queues and — having paid the £5 admission charge (Crathes, like Drum, was under the care of National Trust, not Historic Scotland) — entered to find three reindeer pulling Santa Claus in the direction of the castle.
Seizing our moment, we left parent and child to follow Santa down the road and snuck off to the cafe for some lunch. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only people to have such an idea, and thus still found ourselves queuing for food and struggling to find a table. I had stovies, served with two generous oatcakes, while Mel went for the macaroni (which came with cheese — according to the menu, at least). We took our time, and then set off to tour the castle and explore the grounds.
Mindful of the time — somehow it was already well after 2pm — we tried our best to avoid the official tour groups, but occasionally found ourselves trapped in crowded rooms while guides tried their best to relay hundreds of years of history in real time. As interesting as I find the architecture and legends relating to castles and other medieval buildings, I’ve always found the decor to be anything but. I love to learn, but when it comes to vases and other remnants of everyday life I struggle a little with retention.
With the sun already low in the sky, and our schedule placing us a little unrealistically at Tomnaverie Stone Circle for dusk, we left Crathes after a stroll through the gardens and rejoined the main road once more on our way to Craigievar Castle. By now we were revising our plans left right and centre, and we decided to skip the Peel Ring of Lumphanan, Culsh Earth House and Kincardine Castle in order to make Craigievar the last but one stop of the day. We exited the A93 at Banchory and headed north in search of our destination, watching the sun sink ever lower in the sky as we drove.
Parking up, we hurried along the path towards the castle, a small but striking edifice that stands out from the surrounding Grampian Mountains on account of its pinkish colour. Closed like Dram Castle, we took pictures of the exterior before speeding back to the car, and departing once more, this time for Tomnaverie Stone Circle. This took us through Aboyne itself, giving us our first view of the town and providing another reminder that dusk was dawning as the sky overhead blazed yellow.
Eventually, we found a car park off of a minor road and raced — literally, raced — up the verge just as the sun set over the horizon. We used the last remnants of daylight to read the information plaque and take our photographs of the stone circle, slipping in the dew as we sought the most striking silhouette. The views were truly stunning, the 4000 year-old construction overlooking Morven and Lochnagar, while the backdrop changed minute by minute as darkness fell around us.
Ready to eat, we returned to Aboyne only to find little in the way of cafes or restaurants. There was a Co-op, a dry cleaners and a Post Office, but with The Corner House Tearoom closed and Huntly Arms doing little to whet our appetites (and The Village Green now shrouded in darkness) we decided to try elsewhere. Banchory proved similarly unsuited to evening arrivals, and we had to head back to the outskirts of Aberdeen to find a viable eatery. We took a table at The Ploughman in Peterculter and ordered our evening meals. The portions were small and the restaurant quiet, but we were too hungry to go elsewhere.
I left Aberdeen at 7pm, having visited three castles, stood among ancient standing stones and spent St Andrew’s Day with a friend I don’t see often enough. It was a day of Scottish history, food and people, in which we may have missed out on a Peel Ring and an Earth House (not to mention Loch Ness) but had a memorable time nonetheless.
Still, it’s just a shame Aboyne isn’t as fun to visit as it is to say.