Today is Thursday September 13th, and we are starting to leave the Borders, and Central Scotland well behind us. As our journey takes us further north, we will be zigzagging back and forth in order to try and see as much as we can along the way.
In what seems to be a recurring pattern, it had rained on and off all night, yet as we made our way downstairs for breakfast at the Atholl Arms Hotel in Dunkeld, we could see some blue sky in one direction, and ominous clouds in the other.
We had a full Scottish Breakfast (another recurring pattern as far as how we start our days), over which we discussed our game plan for the day. We plotted a route that will take us into the eastern edges of Cairngorms National Park up to Braemar and Balmoral, where there are two castles we want to see. From there we will continue on to Banchory which will be our stopping point for the night. (don’t bother asking me about Cock Bridge on the map below as I’m sure your own imagination can come up with some rude idea of what might go on there)
Over breakfast, Mary and I chatted with two women at the table next to us. As further proof of how small a world we live in, one of the ladies lives in Camberley, Surrey, and when I mentioned that is where some of my relatives (the Riches) had lived for years, it turns out she lives just a couple of streets over from where their home was located on Gordon Avenue. I have many fond memories of summers visiting there as a teenager.
You can see what I meant about the weather from the pictures below, with clouds moving in from the west, but some blue sky to the north and east where we were heading.
I should note that Cairngorms National Park is huge, encompassing more than 1700 Square miles, and it is the largest national park in the British Isles. We will be passing through sections of it in the days ahead, and as we set out this morning, it wasn’t long before we started see some pretty remarkable landscapes around us. A couple of things to note; first you can see how the clouds and rainy skies are moving in and we had only driven about 20 miles from Dunkeld at this point, and second, those narrow roads are considered a main highway. Yup, and that is what Mary has been driving on for major portions of each day so far.
The first leg of our journey was a 75 minute drive from Dunkeld to Braemar Castle, which to be honest, I had considered a minor attraction, but worth a stop since we’d be driving right past it. As we pulled into the parking lot, the winds were picking up, and we had to walk through a blowing spray of mist/rain to get to the castle, a trek of about 500 metres. As we approached the castle, the rain stopped, the skies cleared, and I was able to take the picture below of Braemar, a building which in its current iteration, has stood here since 1746 (it was raining again by the time we emerged from the castle 45 minutes later – such is Scottish weather). There had been previous buildings on this site dating back to 1628, when its location was first seen as a strategic one, able to control travel routes in all directions.
Braemar Castle has been in and out of the possession of the Farquharson clan since 1732, and it has certainly been through a lot over the past three centuries. For example, after the failed 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, the Farquharson’s leased the castle to the Government, who repaired and remodeled it, and subsequently turning it into military barracks for troops pacifying the Highlands. They built a star-shaped wall around the castle, and you can see it in the picture behind Mary. Graffiti from the military occupation can still be seen in the Dining Room and Drawing Rooms.
The Farquharsons returned in the mid-1800’s and in order to “make ends meet”, began entertaining guests who used Braemar Castle as a vacation getaway. One of the more celebrated visitors was Robert Louis Stevenson who while on vacation with his stepson, began writing a serialized drama aimed at young boys called Treasure Island. It initially appeared in Young Folks magazine in 1881 and 1882.
Stevenson wrote the first 15 chapters of the novel (written in 15 days) while at Braemar, and the entire novel was published in 1892, bringing him international fame.
From 1922 to 1961 Braemar Castle was leased to a number of different tenants, and beginning in 1961, the Castle was opened to the public from Easter to October each year. The castle that Mary and I visited today appears almost frozen in time, as all the rooms are exactly as they were left once the Farquharsons moved to a larger home that year. In 1956, during a time when the Farquharson’s were in residence, they entertained a rather important guest. At the table in the room below, there is a visitor’s book and it is opened to the a page dated September 30th. Appearing there is the simple yet elegant signature Elizabeth R, which of course is Queen Elizabeth ll. We thought that was pretty cool.
We really enjoyed Braemar Castle, from discovering an oversized curved door in one of the rooms (see below), to the pink bathroom complete with porcelain toilet (also below).
Traveler’s tip here. When we purchased our tickets to explore Braemar Castle, the cashier handed us two Autumn Rover passes which effectively gives us free entrance to three other visitor attractions of our choosing in the area (from a list of 7). We were surprised and delighted to get this as there are three items of interest on the list, and we definitely plan to take advantage of the offer.
Our next stop was Balmoral Castle, a scant 12 minute drive up the road from Braemar Castle. We knew in advance that Balmoral was closed to the public in September (from their website) but we didn’t know that it was because Queen Elizabeth ll was in residence, and had been since the end of July. Having no sense of what the grounds of Balmoral were like, we at least hoped to be able to see the castle from the outside. Unfortunately we could get no closer than the front gate, and as you can see from the picture (below), the grounds of Balmoral Castle are heavily wooded, and the public cannot see inside.
Our interest in seeing Balmoral Castle relates to it having been the Highland home of the British Royal family since the estate and original castle was purchased privately in 1852 by Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. They remain as the private property of the royal family and are not the property of the Crown.
The Balmoral Estate has been added to by successive members of the royal family, and now covers an area of approximately 50,000 acres. It is a working estate, including grouse moors, forestry, and farmland, as well as managed herds of deer, Highland cattle, and ponies.
We did speak to a very pleasant and approachable member of the Queen’s guard at the gate. He confirmed that when the royal family are not in residence, the public can access some of the grounds and tour parts of the castle. He also told us that there are approximately 150 buildings on the estate, including Birkhill, formerly home to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, and used now by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall for their summer holidays.
Back on the road again, we told Sid (our GPS) to get us to Banchory, where I had booked us into the Banchory Lodge for the night. We arrived in Banchory shortly before 3 and our plan was to visit Crathes Castle before it closed. We needed to eat first.
While there was nothing unique about where we ate, the Chatterbox is typical of the mid-afternoon tea shops we have frequented throughout our holiday. Five or six light menu items, potatoes stuffed with a variety of fillings, soup and sandwich specials, and a mouth-watering display of cakes, pastries, tarts, loaves, and homebakes. We noted they also serve breakfast (fresh-baked scones) and even though we have the option of eating at the Banchory Lodge (included with our room), we are both in need of a break from the heavy breakfasts we’ve had so far. We just might come here first thing tomorrow.
We didn’t linger long at Chatterbox, and in light rain (again), Mary drove us over to Crathes Castle, just three miles from the town of Banchory.
Crathes Castle is a 16th-century castle built by the Burnett clan and was held in that family for almost 400 years. The castle and grounds are now owned and managed by the National Trust for Scotland (yet another property we were able to access through our pre-purchased membership). It sits on land given as a gift to the Burnett family by King Robert the Bruce in 1323. Construction of the current tower house was begun in 1553 but delayed several times due to political problems during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots. It was finally completed in 1596, with an additional wing added in the 1700’s.
Unlike other castle homes, we were actually able to take pictures inside of Crathes, and somewhat unusually, instead of starting the tour in an entrance way, this tour began in the kitchen!
Before going up to the second floor, we noticed a door which turned out to be the original entrance to the castle. It is protected/reinforced with an iron yett, a Chinese puzzle-type construction making it virtually indestructible.
On the main or second floor, we spent considerable time talking to a guide in the High Hall, the most important room in the castle. At one time, the entire ceiling was painted but all that remains is in the two window alcoves that you can see in the pictures below.
The next room we entered, the Stair Chamber, was particularly interesting for here, the painting ceilings have survived, dating back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries. You can also see the remains of a frieze than ran around the room.
A few rooms further along, was the Victorian Bedroom. Mary has been increasingly fascinated and in awe of some of the tapestries and embroidery work she has seen in the castle homes we have visited, and Crathes Castle was no exception.
The guide Mary is chatting with told her that the patchwork bedspread was made in 1878 by Lady Burnett, and you can just see a few words on the inside of the right front edge. Lady Burnett had embroidered the names and birth dates of all her children into the bedspread.
As evidence that Crathes Castle is still very much a family home, the aptly named Family Room (below) was opened to the public in 1989. It is chock full of pictures, family tree data, and information on the Burnett family in other parts of the world.
I feel like I could write about every room in this house as we found it to be one of the more interesting ones that we have visited. I will resist that urge, but not without telling you about one last room of interest, the so-called Green Lady’s Room.
The room owes it name to the legendary ghost of Crathes, who has reportedly still been seen in recent times. The 4th Baronet developed an obsessive fear of ghosts, and about 100 years after his death, a child’s skeleton was uncovered in a small recess, during some alterations. According to the ghostly legend, a Green lady can be seen carrying a small baby in her arms. According to our guide, who acknowledged that it adds flavour to the story, the ceiling paintings in the room contain a mixture of grotesque faces and weird designs, all intended to further drive home the message of human frailty. I’ve also included a picture of a gorgeous chair cushion, another example of the beautiful stitch work that we found in every room of the house.
In better weather, we would have spent time wandering the grounds of Crathes Castle, as there are close to 600 acres of wooded trails replete with tall trees that have been collected from all around the world. There are also numerous ponds, streams and a marshland, each with wildlife that was just waiting for Mary and her binoculars.
Our day ended on a bit of sour note, for when we got to the highly regarded Banchory Lodge at 5:45, we were informed that our room was not yet ready. No-one seemed to know how or why that was the case so late in the day. We were forced to sit in the bar, in a mildly bedraggled state (from the rain), and even though they did provide us with a complimentary drink while we waited, all we really wanted to do was get into our room and change into some warmer dry clothes.
After 45 minutes, our room was finally available, and despite the less than auspicious start to our stay at the Banchory Lodge, it was in fact a very nice spot. As we sat in bed, planning tomorrow’s adventure, we decided we would take our time getting going in the morning and that we would indeed start our day back at the Chatterbox with a tea and a scone. How very Scottish!