I had been to Aberdeen the sum total of once. It was when I was still in the ‘prime of my youth’, the teenage years when I could handle a 6am start and minibus hilarity (now, I’d just get travel sick). I was flying to Norway with a bunch of naval cadets from Aberdeen Dyce. I remember very grey buildings. We stopped at McDonald’s for a tea break. The city centre remained a mystery.
This time, the second time, the road is longer than I remember. Roundabouts are dotted like cats’ eyes along the road; speed cameras loom like a reoccurring nightmare. What I don’t recall is the traffic being so horrendous – then again, we did avoid rush hour last time – and so our stop at Stonehaven is a welcome coincidence. We slip off the dual carriageway and park in the warm, pollenated air at Dunnottar.
The car park is peppered with foreign vehicles. I eyeball a French car (Basse Normandie! My region!) and notice a coach-load of Spanish tourists (I think). The sky is a smoky blue. We wander down the pale yellow path with wildflowers falling towards us on each side. Sandy-coloured, broken Lego bricks seem to be rising from the cliffs. I blink again and it’s the castle.
The path forks and leads left (down steep steps towards the castle; entry fees are bloated so I just take photos, a student at heart) and right (across a stream and then to a high pasture which looks across the cliffs). It’s fairly busy but not so much that we are thrown off the trail by overzealous photographers. Though I become one as we meander along the headland. The views are stunning.
The following day is one of those Very Hot Days that demand capital letters and vehicle air conditioning. In the morning, we walk into the small burgh of Kintore where one of the cafés has installed outside seating. Running parallel to this main street is the River Don, dense and rolling in the heat. The occasional ripple of sub-surface activity disturbs the glass. Little fish bunch together at the river’s edge, attempting to tan.
Back in the town centre, we choose the other café, Rachael’s Tearoom, as it offers smoothies. The waitress misjudges litres or bananas or water and I end up with two large glasses of fruity refreshment. Perfect. The scones are larger than my palm, and the ice cream is Riazza’s and very tasty. We’d be back if we were staying longer.
In the afternoon we jump in the car (sauna) and drive through Kintore and Kemnay towards Castle Fraser. It’s very well signposted so I barely need to use the satnav. We park up, pay the two quid and wander into the gardens.
The walled garden is beautiful. There’s a ‘shabby chic’ greenhouse with a pale blue door; a tiny clock perched halfway up a terracotta wall; bees zoom around in a honey-hazed happiness. A couple get photos taken (for their engagement?) Their older doppelgängers shuffle slowly in front of us, wrinkled hands clasped together. A cat rolls lazily, massaging its back on the gravel.
Castle Fraser is much larger than I thought. There is a huge courtyard which features a visitor shop (tablet! postcards! tartan!) and a tearoom (the scones are more bread than scone). We don’t have time to wander inside, but we can see the floors stretching upwards to the sky.
There is a trail to the front of the castle which spans about 45 minutes through woodland and ferns. As we walk, the sky gets darker. The heat bubble will burst soon. We quickly stroll back along the lawns towards the car.
We didn’t manage to get to Bennachie, but that’s on my list. As usual, the Visit Scotland brochures were really handy, as was Dee N’ Do magazine. It’s a free publication which is really well designed and a great read! You can pick it up at Tourist Information points in Aberdeenshire.