Come along on a drive from Aberdeen to Inverness in Scotland’s northeast, a route we will travel by way of coast roads and quiet towns, where you may experience the touch of history, a hint of mystery, small town welcome and elegant architecture, and the natural world as a day to day presence.
As you head north from Aberdeen you will be aware of that natural world through the presence of sea cliffs, the sound and sight of the sea, and the many birds which choose these shores for stopping places or seasonal homes. Puffins and swans are two of the birds you may come across.
At Cruden Bay you can explore what remains of Slains Caste, said to be Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula’s Castle.
The cliffs of Bullers of Buchan are known as a place to spot birds, and nearby is Buchan Ness lighthouse, which marks the farthest eastern point of Scotland’s coast.
That lighthouse — and you’ll see others on the way — reminds that fishing, shipping, and work on the waters is part of past and present of life along this northeastern coast. You’ll come to Peterhead, these days along with Aberdeen a major gateway for North Sea oil exploration. Once Peterhead was the main home port of Scotland’s whaling ships. Today fishing for herring and other sorts of sea life continues.
Here’s a song from Peterhead’s whaling days that’s still well known in Scotland and around the world. The version I like best is by Judy Collins:
Take a short break from the coast to drive about ten miles west from Peterhead to explore the town of Auld Deer, remains of Deer Abbey from medieval times, and much older Pictish stones. Saint Columcille came here in the fifth century the when he came north to share Christian beliefs with Picts. The Book of Deer, once held by the abbey and now in the library of Cambridge University, is an illuminated manuscript with notes on the margins of the Latin text that are the oldest surviving written record of the Gaelic language in Scotland.
Fraserburgh, further to the north and as you are at the corner of this part of the north coast is where you might pause in your drive to visit the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. One of the first lighthouses on the northeast coast was built on the top floor of a castle on nearby Kinnaird Head in 1787.
If you’d care to step a bit further back in time, take a jog a few miles south of Fraserburgh to find the Memsie Cairn, where archaeology tells us that people lived thousands of years ago in the Bronze Age.
When you reach the town of MacDuff you’lll want to visit the world class MacDuff Aquarium and learn more about plants, mammals and fish that live in the sea that make a constant presence on this drive. Banff, next along the coast road, is a good place to take a look at eighteenth century houses and older buildings as well, including the market cross. You might want to stop at Cullen, too, namesake of Scotland’s well known smoked fish soup, cullen skink. Nearby in Buckie, you could learn about the history of herring fishing on the north coast.
Elgin is one of the larger towns you’ll find along the north coast. There’s a golf course nearby if you are looking for that Scottish experience, and several distilleries which offer tours. People have been living in the area for centuries as the ruins of the medieval cathedral attest. There is a Jacobite connection too: on the eve of the Battle of Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed in Elgin at Thunderton House.
In Burghead you might visit the town library to see several stones found nearby that come from the times of the Picts and look for evidence of these ancient people in the land near the coast too.
In Forres, next along the road, you could take a look at a large stone which may be a record of battles between the Picts and the Vikings. If driving this coast road has you wondering about the time of the Picts, you might care to take an imaginative trip back to that with with Juliet Marillier’s trilogy of novels called The Bridei Chronicles. Burghead sits just about where the North Sea turns into the Moray Firth, so you might keep an eye out to the waters for dolphins, which often go to the Moray Firth to seek food.
Soon enough, this drive along the northeast coast of Scotland will bring you to Inverness. You will traveled a bit more than a hundred miles in distance, through landscapes centuries in the making. You’ll have met kind and friendly folk making their living along Scotland’s north east coast, seen sites that tell of those who came before in this area, and felt the lasting interaction between people and the sea.
On another day, I’ll show you an inland route or two in Scotland’s northeast, but for now, savor these connections along the coast road. You could explore it in a half day, if you like — or a half year.
Photographs by and courtesy of Karen Vernon, Iain Smith. Anne Burgess, Gwen and James Anderson, Richard Slessor
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