Student's Guide to the Highlands & North East Scotland

Student's Guide to the Highlands & North East Scotland
2021-04-23

With the continuing pandemic and the lack of adventure suffered as a result of the restrictions, we have found ourselves reminiscing of trips to Highlands; all made a few months or years ago. This article is here to share the wonders of Scotland.

At the time of this blogpost writing, Aberdeen is at protection level 4 for the Covid-19 pandemic. The instructions are to stay local; therefore, this post aims to give students inspiration for future trips and not encourage them to start travelling today.

1) The Cairngorms

The Cairngorms National Park is home not only to the Cairngorms and Grampian mountain ranges, from which its name is derived but also to a plethora of cultural sites, wildlife parks, ski slopes and spectacular scenery of moorlands, peatlands, lochs, woodlands and forests. The Cairngorms offers something for all looking to escape the city bounds and explore a fraction of the flora and fauna Scotland has to offer. The following are a few of the worthy mentions.

The Cairngorms

Balmoral, Braemar and Ballater

Braemar and Ballater are some of the towns and villages encompassed by The Cairngorms. Balmoral Castle is the holiday home of the Royal family, and attracts a number of visitors to the historical site and the land surrounding the Queen’s estate. When the Queen is not home, tours of the castle and estate are offered to visitors.

Most famous for the 17th Century Braemar Castle and the renowned Braemar Gathering or Highland Games, Braemar is a definite hotspot and ‘must see’ stop for visitors to the cairngorms and anyone looking to experience the thrills of The Highland Games.

Ballater is the starting point for anyone keen to hike in The Cairngorms, with a Walking Festival in May. Located on the banks of the River Dee, Ballater boasts incredible springs to set the scene for a bike ride or stroll. The town centre is also incredibly scenic and green in the summer — the abundance of munroes and hills surrounding Ballater is a hiker’s paradise. With Stagecoach offering bus services to Balmoral, Braemar and Ballater from Union Square, visiting these towns during one’s time in Aberdeen is a must.

The Balmoral pyramid is also of interest. You would expect pyramids to be surrounded by sand, yet deep in Balmoral estate’s woods lies Scotland’s own pyramid. Albeit made of stone and grey, this pyramid is a memorial to a past royal, Prince Albert, and was erected by Queen Victoria. Longer walks around the estate lead to more pyramids and a clear view of Balmoral castle for keen hikers. Be warned: there is only an information booth and gift shop at the estate entrance in summer when the Queen resides there - so pack some lunch! When the Queen is not in residence during the winter season, the café in Balmoral is open to the public.

Balmoral, Braemar and Ballater

Castles of the Cairngorms

The Cairngorms National Park not only offers the best of the Scottish outdoors but also rich historical and cultural sites. In addition to the better-known Balmoral and Braemar Castles located in the National Park, there are also various castles and historic sites dating back to the 11th century. Corgarff Castle, situated just northeast of Braemar, offers insights into the Jacobite uprising and whiskey smuggling.

Visitors to the castle can also choose to visit some of the historical sites nearby, such as the Lecht Mine (an iron mine) and the Scalan Seminary, if they have time. Drumin Castle and Blairfindy Castle are also located at the top of the National Park. Castle Roy, the oldest fortress in the area, is approximately one-hour drive from Ballater. While in the area, the Kincardine Church, whose walls date back to before the Reformation, are also a suggested stop.

We would also recommend Loch an Eilein Castle, located at a 17-minute drive from Aviemore, a scenic town. It is an island castle in the Loch an Eilein, which is also considered the best picnic spot in the UK; the forests surrounding the Loch make for a relaxed walk. Lastly, located an hour away from Aviemore is Blair Castle. It is a stunning castle and grounds and it is a Medieval jewel with a rich history.

Castles of the Cairngorms

Aviemore

Aviemore is a gem of the Highlands with activities and attractions all year round. In summer, there is the Thunder in the Glens, a three-day motorcycle rally. The spectacle is appropriately named, the atmosphere electric, the pubs are alive with people and revving motorbike engines. The surrounding Cairngorms also provide for hikes, quad biking, mountain biking and trekking on Clydesdales - an opportunity to live out your Merida dreams. Being in the Cairngorms National Park’s heart, nearby attractions can be easily reached, such as the Old Packhorse Bridge in Carrbridge. In addition, there is a nearby loch, Loch Morlich, with water activities and equipment and gear for hire. Aviemore also hosts the incredible and unique experience in Scotland of reindeer trekking at their reindeer centre. Various outdoor centres offer other activities such as fishing, clay pigeon shooting and aerial assault courses. Aviemore really has it all!

Old Packhorse Bridge

Wildlife and stargazing

While only 2% of the UK’s landmass, the Cairngorms is home to 25% of Scotland’s native forests and the same percentage of the UK’s rare and endangered species, making the Cairngorms a bucket list stop for nature lovers. While in the national park, one should keep an eye out for the iconic golden eagles, the native red squirrel, red deer and capercaillie, just to mention a few.

The Highland Wildlife Park, a 105-hectare safari park, is also in the Cairngorms. It is home to both native and exotic animals, with the main attractions being the red pandas, European grey wolves, Japanese macaques, snow leopards, polar bears and the amur tigers. The park has both car and walking paths that allow one to admire the wildlife. Apart from just being an attraction, the park is heavily involved with wildlife conservation and research and even offers live webcams of the animals on their website.

The park is also a great location for those interested in stargazing and those hoping to spot the Northern Lights away from the city’s bright lights, Glenlivet and Tomintoul being the best spots to enjoy the night sky. With numerous lodges and cabins located in the area, an overnight stay comes highly recommended

Watersports and Skiing

Watersports and skiing

Given the numerous lochs, mountains, and hills in the region, the Cairngorms is a great place to enjoy a day of outdoor activities with friends, depending on the season. During the winter months, particularly January, the Cairngorm mountain range is a hotspot for those wanting to snowboard and ski. While at the Cairngorm mountains, one can also have a sleddog experience that the Cairngorm Sleddog Center offers. During the summer, they also provide off-road ATV experiences that will appeal to any adrenaline junkie.

The Lochs of the Cairngorms during warmer months is not only great for picnics and walks, they also offer a day of watersports that can be enjoyed with friends. While visiting Loch Insh, the watersports centre offers activities such as sailing, windsurfing, paddleboarding, raft building, archery, orienteering and it even has a dry ski slope. Like the rest of The Cairngorms, cabins and lodges in the area provide the perfect escape from the city for a few days to explore the area.

Watersports and Skiing

2) Loch Ness

No Scottish highland blog would be complete without mentioning the home of the infamous Loch Ness Monster! With depths of up to 230m, it is completely plausible that the monster - affectionately known as ‘Nessie’ to the locals - lives in the large body of water, the second largest Loch in Scotland and with more water in it than all the lakes in England and Wales put together. The ney-sayers would benefit from a trip to the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition or Nessieland. The picturesque Urquhart Castle overlooks the lake, and boat excursions allow for a up-close experience and improved chances of catching a sight of disturbed waters - a tail? A fin?

Urquhart Castle

3) Craigmin Bridge

On the border of the Highlands, within a fairy forest in Buckie, is a most peculiar bridge. It seems to be a double-decker bridge with leaping arches. It spans the babbling burn of Letterfourie; at that level, it allows the bridge to be viewed in all its architectural glory. It is steeped in history as, allegedly, Bonnie Prince Charlie once hid in a secret room accessed by a passage between the multi-tiered arches. Both levels of the bridge can be explored and lead to many amazing photo-opportunities.

Craigmin Bridge

We hope that our recommendations inspire you and you are able to see some of these fabulous places for yourself when Covid-safety regulations allow.

Published by School of Law, University of Aberdeen

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