Deeside – pinewoods and a rushing river

Royal Deeside is the valley of the River Dee that runs downstream from the Cairngorm Mountains eastwards to the sea at Aberdeen.

Pinewood and birch, silver granite and rushing waters – and a route west that simply gets more and more grand. These are some of the more obvious characteristics.

And other glens lead off it, such as the beguiling Glen Muick, seen here, looking towards Lochnagar.

Old Tracks across ‘The Mounth’

Old and half-forgotten things are out there in the landscape too. Here is just one historical example.

The east-west river valley runs at right angles to old, old routes between north and south. These ancient trackways, sometimes collectively called the Mounth Roads, cross ‘The Mounth’ – the area of upland that hems in the valley of the Dee on its south side.

Few visitors probably stop at the ruined church of St Mary in Kincardine O’Neil (between Banchory and Aboyne in the lower part of the valley). You can see this ancient place as you drive past anyway.

The walls have stood since the 13th century. But it was here because the river could be forded and the Cairn o’ Mount(h) road came out of the hills nearby. And King Edward of England and his armies camped overnight here in 1296.

Perhaps he was the least welcome among the many generations – the soldiers, packmen, peddlars, shepherds and cattle-drovers who journeyed north or south – and crossed the flow of the River Dee.

They still do, of course: the Mounth tracks today are still used by those who wander in the hills for recreation!

Looking north west towards Deeside
Looking north west into the valley of the River Dee from the edge of the White Mounth near Lochnagar.

The healthy air of the valley of the Dee

Being an easy day from Aberdeen, small resort towns grew up along bridging places of the river, perhaps not more important than Ballater.

This is today’s bridge across the Dee at Ballater, opened in 1885.

Health and recreation was key to its early prosperity.

The handsome little town of Ballater owes its origins to the tales of the curative properties of the water that flowed (and still does) from a spring a little way downriver, at Pannanich.

A bridge over the Dee further ensured the town’s local importance. The Dee is a powerful river when in flood (as events in late 2015 demonstrated).

Before the present bridge, two previous bridges had been built and sooner or later swept away. Queen Victoria turned up one day in 1885 to open the one that still stands. She named it the Royal Bridge. Yes, a lot of thought had gone into the name.

The Royals Arrive

You cannot journey far along the Dee without tripping over some royal association or landmark.

That ‘royal’ cachet all came about after the wee woman Vicky with her dear Albert had stayed at Ardverikie House in 1847, further west in the middle of Scotland. (Gosh I never knew she was only 4ft 11″ / 50cm, by the way.)

When they returned south her own doctor remarked that his son had been on Deeside at the same time and found the weather dry. (Typical Scottish weather.)

At Balmoral Castle, you get to press your nose against the windows, but are only permitted in the Ballroom and an exhibition space and only when the place is royalty-free.

It’s ironic – or fitting? – that Ardverikie House features as a stand-in for Balmoral in ‘The Crown’, the hugely successful tv drama about the oddball shenanigans of the royals of more recent generations.

Back in 1847, with Teutonic thoroughness, Albert studied rainfall statistics. His conclusion: ja, Balmoral was a goer!

They first leased the old castle that stood there, but soon found it cramped for mother-of-eight, Victoria. They occupied the new castle for the first time in 1856.

Today, Balmoral Castle is a kind of ‘part-time’ visitor attraction, though with mountains and trails in plenty in the valley, little towns to explore and much else that opens all year round, why would anyone want to visit?

Getting to Royal Deeside

Geographically speaking, the west to east fall of the river from high ground to the sea means that most visitors generally arrive in Deeside from the east – the Aberdeen side – or from the west, probably via the A93 from the south, via the Cairnwell Pass – at 670m (2199 ft), the highest main road in the Untied Kingdom.

Some day-trippers, Scottish residents and innovative tourers may arrive from the north too, I suppose. (I know I usually do!)

One way you can’t discover Deeside now is by rail. Nevertheless, there is still a station at Ballater. The nearest regular train service (Kintore) is 37 miles / 59km away.

Ballater station, very smart following a total rebuild after a fire that almost totally destroyed it in 2015.

Railways were, of course, the great Victorian transport improvement. The valley of the Dee got its service as far as Ballater in 1866.

Back then, the prospect of a railway did not always please the local ‘gentry’, intent on preserving the pheasant-strewn sanctity of their private estates. This sometimes meaning the railway builders having to deviate from their original planned routes.

Victoria and Albert went one further. They did a real service (not) to the people of upper Deeside: the monarch, via her legal team, decreed that the railway would go no further than Ballater, to keep a decent distance from the holiday hideaway a further eight miles / 13km to the west.

The Deeside railway closed in 1966 – a Dr Beeching victim – but remarkably, today you can still walk a section of trackbed west of Ballater – towards Balmoral. This section never saw a rail laid.

The famous Ballater Station

Thus the old GNSR station in Ballater saw the comings and goings of generations of heads of state en route for the royal residence – actually, two reigning queens and four kings of Britain, and an assortment of foreign royals, including the ‘Czar of all the Russias’ -and that’s without starting on the list of politicians.

(Oh, and it also includes King Edward VIII meeting Mrs Simpson off the train, the lecherous royal rascal, at the same time when he should have been in Aberdeen opening a new hospital.)

A fire destroyed the old station and its exhibition, café etc in 2015 The conflagration also finished off the original (and preserved) royal convenience, with its wooden seat and floral bowl, alas.

It was a loo used by two reigning queens, four kings of Britain, foreign royals, the Czar of all etc etc. And Margaret Thatcher. Probably.

An Excursion to Glen Muick

Ballater is a gateway to a fine Grampian experience: Glen Muick. It’s approximately seven miles / 11km of single-track road from the main valley to the terminus carpark. But that’s where the adventure begins.

From the road-end at Glen Muick, you choose a route to suit your fitness. Maybe it will be Lochnagar and views of the great cliffs and gullies of the corrie headwall.

The Dubh Loch, ’round the corner’ and out of sight from Glen Muick. En route for the White Mounth Munros. (Well, some of them on that particular day…)

Perhaps it will be another big day out: along Loch Muick, past the Glas Alt Shiel where the royals go to slum it, then up to the Dubh Loch. It’s beyond the head of Loch Muick at higher level.

From there you can get to high level to take in Cairn Bannoch and Broad Cairn – two of five Munros reachable on a big day out. The other three are Carn a’Choire Bhoidheach, Cairn Taggart (Carn an t-Sagart Mor) and, of course, Lochnagar. They are ‘doable’ on an even bigger day on to the Mounth plateau.

Spring snow on the corrie headwall, Lochnagar.
Spring snow on the corrie headwall, Lochnagar. Summit in background – Cac Carn Beag – 3793 ft / 1156m.

Low level options too – in Glen Muick

Don’t think it’s all stravaiging around high on the plateau, battling with the elements. The walk down to Loch Muick might be quite enough – or even (partly) round or strolling up a bit of the Capel Mounth – another ancient Mounth route that eventually drops in to the head of Glen Clova in Angus.

Loch Muick in November – snow shower going through. The sun shone in the afternoon.

If it’s high summer and the Loch Muick carpark is looking a bit full, then there is always Glen Tanar as an alternative. Though that will probably be busy too! And you have to journey down towards the wee town of Aboyne.

Royal Lochnagar Distillery

Don’t worry. Visiting Deeside isn’t all boots and Gore-Tex. You can enjoy seeing round a distillery – a popular part of the visitor experience of Scotland.

At the Royal Lochnagar you can have a tour, tasting and altogether a typical distillery excursion. Queen Victoria got hers in 1848 on the invitation of the distillery owner.

It was really convenient as Balmoral Castle (at that time the ‘original’ one) is only a mile away and she was easily able to stagger back afterwards, hiccupping gently. (OK, I made up the last bit.)

Upstream, towards Braemar

Main A93, near Braemar, close to the river, approaching Invercauld.
Distant Beinn a Bhourd from main road
Distant Beinn a Bhourd from main road, near Braemar

Vistas one moment, momentary glimpses at others – Lochnagar again, the Old Bridge of Dee at Invercauld (you have to stop for a decent pic of this!) then the tantalising few moment when the eastern Cairngorms come into view beyond the river, just as you approach Braemar Castle…

Ah yes, there’s Braemar Castle to delay you, if you wish, very close to Braemar itself. It’s got a star-shaped defensive wall, which isn’t an everyday decoration.

Braemar Castle

The castle was a stronghold of the Earls of Mar, then later the Farquharsons. The local community currently leases it on a charitable basis.

It is sometimes confused by first-time visitors with Balmoral Castle but couldn’t be more different.

Braemar and a change of direction

Braemar is the place where the main west-bound A93 takes a look at the terrain ahead, loses its nerve and turns south, ultimately for Perth. By the time the main road has reached Braemar from Aberdeen, it has climbed over 1100 ft (335m) from sea-level.

This is quite high for Scottish settlements and Braemar has been the site of record-breaking low temperatures in the recent past, as well as largest diurnal range (ie difference between highest and lowest temperatures in 24 hrs.)

It has been on a tourist route for generations, has a good range of shops and eating places, plus the wee ‘proper’ castle nearby, as mentioned above.

If you intend to buy a sporran, then Braemar has the facility.

If you can tear yourself away from the retail delights of Braemar (where the local posh hotel will sell you a large souvenir box of matches for a tenner!)…

Towards the Linn o Dee

The little road west to the Linn of Dee is perhaps the most scenic stretch of all. En route, walking options in plenty: Morrone birkwood, Glen Ey and the Colonel’s Bed, the Devil’s Punchbowl on the Quoich Water and more.

That’s even before you consider the pinewoody carpark at the Linn of Dee that the National Trust for Scotland built for all visitors to their Mar Lodge Estate.

The Mar Lodge Estate takes in four of the five highest mountains in all of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England.

To summarize: you reach the road-end and really that’s where another adventure begins. Perhaps not today. Perhaps only in your imagination.

But it is a special part of the character of Deeside; as picturesque and tranquil as anyone, royal or otherwise, could wish for. Yet just a prelude for wide open space and wildness.

With thanks to Riverside Cottage, Ballater. As a base it greatly helped in updating Deeside information.