Everything you need to know for a memorable road-trip along the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail
Everyone has a landscape that they are drawn to, a setting where they instantly feel at home. It could be the mountains, forests, or even the bustle of the city - for me, it has always been the coast. A couple of summers ago I decided to travel around the entire periphery of mainland Scotland on a 6 week road-trip. As this was only enough time to get a taster of the many coastal gems around the country, I mentally noted all the places I wanted to return to and explore more thoroughly at a later date.
One of those places was the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail, which I only became aware of thanks to brown tourist signs along the road-side. Post trip research provided little information on the route other than an online leaflet which I printed off. This seemed a bit strange given the obvious amount of investment in signage.
So last year while everyone else was off doing the North Coast 500, I opted to return to Aberdeenshire and follow the suggested 165 mile route. This was effectively the second time I'd been along this stretch of coastal road but this time I had more opportunity to visit places.
I loved it even more the second time around and made lots of new discoveries although I still didn't manage to spend as much time as I would have liked in some places - Banff being one. However, having completed the journey twice I have gotten to know it well enough that I feel confident my own suggested highlights along with the official literature will help you get the most out of the route.
There is so much diversity along this small edge of the country and I recommend setting aside 3 - 5 days so you can experience as much as possible. The following highlights are not a comprehensive guide and you should leave enough time to make your own discoveries but these are the places I think shouldn't be missed - grab a cup of tea, there's a lot to take in!
For more ideas, check out my guide to things to do in Aberdeenshire
St Cyrus Nature Reserve
HIGHLIGHTS - NATURE, BEACH, EASY WALKING TRAIL, HISTORIC CHURCH
The first stop on the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail and indeed my first stop, was the National Nature Reserve at St Cyrus. I parked up at the visitor centre where I picked up some leaflets and had a look at the board where members of the public note down their wildlife sightings. I was jealous of those that had spotted whales off the shore during the summer, and although it was unlikely I would see one as it was too late in the season, I was optimistic of spotting a peregrine due to the numerous recent comments about sightings.
One of the leaflets in the centre provided details of the Tyrie Trail, an easy circular walk of just under a mile through the reserve which is home to more than 300 plant species. I opted to follow the trail, adding in a slight detour to the Sand of St Cyrus, a beautiful beach that stretched as far as I could see in either direction, with some quirky driftwood shelters dotted along the sands.
The trail leaves from the visitor centre and heads over a bridge built by a troop of Gurkhas as a community training project. Stone markers on the ground lead the way through the reserve which was full of fungi during my autumn visit but must be teeming with wildlife in the spring and summer. Before the trail heads back to the visitor centre, it passes the Nether Kirkyard. I love exploring old churches so just had to stop off for a quick look around the atmospheric ruin which sits in the most picturesque spot below some towering cliffs. I was also rewarded with a peregrine falcon, shrieking and circling overhead. From here it is a short walk back to the visitor centre where you can share your wildlife sightings.
As you head back look out for the former ice-house which is now a quirky looking holiday home.
Fowlsheugh RSPB Reserve
HIGHLIGHTS - VERY LARGE BREEDING SEABIRD COLONY, SCENIC CLIFFTOP WALK
ST CYRUS TO FOWLSHEUGH
DISTANCE - 16 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 30 MINS
I didn't stop off at the Fowlsheugh RSPB Reserve on my latest road-trip along the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail as it was the wrong time of year to spot the vast amount of seabirds that can be seen perching on the cliff edges during the breeding season from late April until the end of July. However, I did take a walk along the clifftop path on a previous visit during the summer and it was a complete assault on the senses, thanks to the noise and smell!
The spectacle of over 130,000 breeding seabirds is a really memorable one and at the right time of year, RSPB Fowlsheugh should definitely be one your Aberdeenshire coastal stop offs. It is one of the largest seabird colonies on mainland Britain and some of the birds to look out for include guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, puffins and fulmars. Take binoculars and you can also scan the sea below for local marine mammals. The clifftop path is fairly easy walking, just be careful of going too near the edge as it is a long drop to the sea below!
HIGHLIGHTS - HISTORIC CASTLE, ICONIC SCENERY
FOWLSHEUGH TO DUNNOTTAR CASTLE
DISTANCE - 2.5 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 5 MINS
One of the most photogenic (and photographed!) castles in Scotland is Dunnottar and this is a popular stopping point along the coastal trail. I would love to tell you more about visiting the castle but I've yet to look inside due to bad timing on my part, something I really need to rectify.
Previously home to the Earls Marischal, one of Scotland's most powerful families, the castle has a colourful past involving some of the most famous figures in Scottish history. Today it is one of Aberdeenshire's most popular tourist attractions.
Its defensive clifftop position does mean that it is not the most easily accessible and be warned that there is quite a climb up and down some steep steps to reach the entrance - people with mobility issues may struggle. The castle also closes in adverse weather for safety reasons so if the forecast is looking grim then it is best to check ahead if they will be open to save disappointment,
Even if you don't manage to explore inside, you can still capture an iconic shot of the clifftop castle from the trails opposite.
HIGHLIGHTS - PRETTY HARBOUR TOWN, OPEN AIR POOL, FIREBALL FESTIVAL
DUNNOTTAR CASTLE TO STONEHAVEN HARBOUR
DISTANCE - 2 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 10 MINS
Stonehaven is a pretty harbour town which is probably best known for it's Hogmanay Fireball Ceremony. This is a great stopping point for something to eat at one of many the cafes or restaurants. Personally I like parking near the harbour area and taking a stroll along the waterfront, eating outside if the weather is nice or finding a cosy table inside on a wet day.
The historic Ship Inn, built in 1771 sits on the harbour front and is a good choice for a sit down meal with a view. The nearby Harbour Hut is good for takeaway drinks and snacks and there are lots more choices if you walk further into the town centre. I always advise checking Tripadvisor for the latest reviews of a place as I'm more than aware that a change in owners or staff can quickly change the quality of an eatery for better or worse.
While in Stonehaven you might want to go for a dip in the heated open air saltwater swimming pool which dates back to the 1930s and has become a visitor attraction in its own right. For a Hogmanany to remember, head to Stonehaven to watch approximately 40 men and women walk through the town while swinging flaming fireballs around their head. I've yet to go but it is on my Scotland bucket-list!
New Slains Castle
HIGHLIGHTS - HISTORIC CASTLE, DRACULA CONNECTION
STONEHAVEN TO NEW SLAINS CASTLE
DISTANCE - 44 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 1 HR 15 MINS BUT MAY TAKE MUCH LONGER DURING PEAK TIMES!
New Slains Castle is probably the strangest looking castle ruin I've visited in Scotland. Although perched dramatically on a cliff top, it has none of the beauty of Dunnottar, instead it feels and looks quite strange and gloomy.
What started out as a tower house was expanded several times between the 16th and 19th century. This explains the different period design features and the peculiar layers of old and modern material used during various renovations which are now exposed to the elements. Like many grand buildings around the country, its ruinous fate was sealed after the roof was removed in 1925 to avoid taxes. Sadly this mirrors the story of Dalquharran Castle in Ayrshire.
Walking around the foreboding and creepy structure which is full of nooks and crannies, I could understand why Bram Stoker would have used this as an inspiration for his Dracula novel after staying here in 1894.
This is another iconic castle on the Aberdeenshire coast and one that you shouldn't miss.
Buchan Ness Lighthouse
HIGHLIGHTS - MOST EASTERLY POINT ON MAINLAND SCOTLAND
NEW SLAINS CASTLE - BUCHAN NESS LIGHTHOUSE
DISTANCE - 5 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 15 MINS
There is some debate over the most easterly point on mainland Scotland - I'm with Buchan Ness, a headland reached by crossing a small bridge from the village of Boddam. Others claim it is Keith Inch which was once an island and now forms part of Peterhead harbour.
Buchan Ness is home to a pretty red and white striped lighthouse and I would love to stay at the former lighthouse keeper cottages which are now holiday homes.
A few miles before you reach Buchan Ness, I recommend a detour to visit 'The Bullers of Buchan' a spectacular archway in the sea. There is free parking nearby, followed by a short walk.
Peterhead Prison Museum
HIGHLIGHTS - AUDIO TOUR, EXPLORE INSIDE A NOTORIOUS SCOTTISH PRISON
BUCHAN NESS TO PETERHEAD PRISON MUSEUM
DISTANCE - 3 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 10 MINS
Visiting what was one of Scotland's toughest prisons may not sound like an unmissable visitor attraction but it was actually one of the highlights of my trip. It also came highly recommended to me and I've yet to find anyone that hasn't found a tour of Peterhead Prison Museum to be completely fascinating.
Yes, it is a little grim but the history of the prison covers over 100 years of crime and punishment in Scotland. You will not only see inside the notorious jail, but also hear what life behind bars was like for inmates and guards on an excellent audio tour.
If you're lucky then your visit might coincide with one of the days that former prison guard, Jackie Stuart, is on duty as a museum guide. He was famously taken hostage during a riot which ended with him being rescued by the SAS. Having the chance to speak to him in person is a real treat.
Peterhead has often been overlooked as a place to visit but the opening of this excellent museum has been a real draw for locals and tourists. I personally think this is a must do when you're in the area.
HIGHLIGHTS - BEACH, LIGHTHOUSE, GIANT SAND DUNES, PHOTOGENIC SCENERY
PETERHEAD TO RATTRAY HEAD
DISTANCE - 13 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 30 MINS
I was lucky enough to visit Rattray Head on an unseasonably warm October's day but I can imagine this would be a very wild and desolate feeling place in rougher weather. Again, this was another highlight of my trip although I'm sure the blue skies and sunshine had a big part to play in this!
I've been to some stunning beaches in Scotland and this one was truly breathtaking. As I walked through a stony and sandy landscape with towering dunes either side, I felt like I could have been transported to another planet. As the views opened up and I got my first proper look at the perfect golden sand and pretty whitewashed lighthouse, I honestly felt like I had stepped into a painting.
With sand dunes reaching up to 100ft in some places and pristine beach as far as the eye can see, Rattray Bay is just too pretty for words. I would actually love to go back in wilder weather just to get a different experience.
HIGHLIGHTS - WORKING HARBOUR, CASTLE FEATURING SCOTLAND'S 1ST LIGHTHOUSE, LIGHTHOUSE MUSEUM, HERITAGE CENTRE
RATTRAY HEAD TO FRASERBURGH
DISTANCE - 13.5 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 30 MINS
When I first visited the town of Fraserburgh I was blown away by the busy working harbour filled with fishing boats of every size and colour, from industrial giants to tiny one man vessels and everything in between. Despite all my travels around Scotland, I've never come across anything on this scale and I found it fascinating watching the fishermen mending their huge nets and setting up their colourful equipment for the next day. The size of some of the trawlers just blew my mind!
Next to the harbour is the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses which is a must for any lighthouse lover. You can also take a tour of Kinnaird Head Castle which also incorporates Scotland's first lighthouse, dating from 1787. A full-size lighthouse built through the middle of a 16th century castle is definitely a unique attraction.
Next door is the Fraserburgh Heritage Centre, which covers over 400 years of local history. I've not yet made it along myself yet but will definitely pop in next time. The town is also a good place to stock up on supplies and fuel if needed.
HIGHLIGHTS - PICTURESQUE COASTAL VILLAGE, LOCAL HERO CONNECTION
FRASERBURGH TO PENNAN
DISTANCE - 16 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 35 MINS
Pennan is one of several quaint and photogenic villages along this stretch of the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail. It is probably most famous as a filming location in the 1983 'Local Hero' movie when it starred as the fictional village of Ferness. Although not in quite the same location as the movie, there is still an iconic red phone box near the harbour that just begs to be photographed. The Pennan Inn which was also made famous by the film has a bar and restaurant although I've not tried it out personally, the latest reviews on Tripadvisor have been positive.
Pennan is basically one street with pretty cottages and washing lines along the seafront. Both times I visited it has was very quiet and I suspect it is mostly holiday homes.
During the summer there was an honesty table filled with artists prints and cards which were really lovely. I just had to buy one with a painting of Pennan as a souvenir. I love honesty tables and boxes which I frequently come across on my travels around Scotland and always carry spare change as I can never resist buying a unique local gift.
HIGHLIGHTS - PRESERVED HISTORIC FISHING VILLAGE, ICONIC VIEWPOINT
PENNAN TO CROVIE
DISTANCE - 4 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 15 MINS
The next attractive village just along from Pennan is Crovie (pronounced Crivie). The houses here are wedged so narrowly between the cliffs and the sea that there is no room for a road never mind cars! There is very limited parking next to the village for residents so visiting as a tourist involves a bit of a hike up and down a steep hill from a car park.
I'll put my hands up and admit I've not braved the walk yet and like many others I have settled for the iconic shot looking down across Crovie from the viewpoint above.
It may seem like a strange place to build a village given the dramatic location but it developed from necessity during the Highland Clearances when tenants had been cleared off their land to make room for sheep. The landlord decided he wanted the families to operate fishing boats instead and Crovie became a village of fishermen. Today it is mostly holiday homes alhough It is considered one of the best preserved 18th century fishing villages in Europe.
HIGHLIGHTS - PRETTY HARBOUR VILLAGE, HISTORIC CHURCH
CROVIE TO GARDENSTOWN
DISTANCE - 1.5 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 5 MINS
Gardenstown is the largest of the the three neighbouring villages and confusingly some locals still call it by its original name of Gamrie. As you drive in to the top of the town, you are met with modern housing which is a total contrast to the original harbour and seafront development.
Continue down a steep winding road (do you see a theme here?!) and you are met with colourful and characterful houses and boats. Unlike Pennan and Crovie which can appear deserted at times, Gardenstown has much more life about it and I instantly fell in love with the quirkiness of the place. There is also a heritage centre next to the harbour which was unfortunately closed when I visited, a hotel and tearoom.
I missed visiting Gardenstown on my first trip along the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail and many people told me I had missed out and they were right. I'm glad I stopped by the second time, don't make my mistake!
On the hillside about a mile outside Gardenstown is the historic ruins of St John's Kirk, which also provides an excellent viewpoint all the way across the village and along the coast to Crovie. It is believed that the original church here was founded in 1004 and once had the more gruesome title of 'Kirk of Sculls' as it is said the skulls of Danish chiefs were displayed here after they were defeated at the nearby 'Battle of the Bloody Pits'. The church has been rebuilt several times since and the collection of skulls remained here well into the 19th century until the building was abandoned in 1830. There are also some interesting old gravestones to see in the grounds.
HIGHLIGHTS - HISTORIC HOUSE WITH FINE ART COLLECTION
GARDENSTOWN TO MACDUFF
DISTANCE - 8 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 15 MINS
Duff House is situated in the town of Banff and is one of the locations on the Aberdeenshire Castle Trail. Banff and the neighbouring town of Macduff are only separated by a bridge with Macduff being the first town you arrive at. You can't miss the distinctive white Macduff Parish Church which sits perched on a hilltop overlooking the town. Incidentally, next to the church is a good spot for a view and photo along the coast. The main attraction in the town is the marine aquarium where you can find out more about the underwater world of the Moray Firth. I've not managed to visit myself yet but it does attract good reviews.
I didn't have much time to explore neighbouring Banff so I can't share as much information about the town as I would like. However I did manage to visit Duff House, a very grand 18th century mansion house situated in large grounds which have been turned into public parkland.
Cared for by Historic Scotland, it is used to display furnishings and paintings owned by the National Gallery of Scotland. If you are hoping to see a preserved historic interior you might be disappointed as most rooms are set up as a gallery. If you are a fan of art, then you will enjoy viewing the current collection and latest exhibits in a grand setting.
As for the rest of Banff, I will just need to return and update my discoveries in the future!
HIGHLIGHTS - HISTORIC HARBOUR, BOAT FESTIVAL, BOAT BUILDING, ICE-CREAM
MACDUFF TO PORTSOY
DISTANCE - 9.5 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 15 MINS
Portsoy is a small coastal town with a characterful historic harbour. It is famous for its annual 'Scottish Traditional Boat Festival' which takes place across two days during the summer and celebrates the tradition of boat building. It attracts tourists from all over the world and also features crafts, music and food.
Speaking of food, the local Portsoy ice-cream shop is a must try - I couldn't resist the sticky toffee pudding flavour, yum!
An interesting place to visit next to the harbour is The Boatshed, a local community project with a workshop for building and renovating boats. It is run by passionate volunteers and I found it really positive to see local youths spending their summer holidays learning new skills. They really do welcome the public to come in and have a look around and I loved watching them work away on the boats and finding out more about the project.
Just 2 miles outside Portsoy is Glenglassaugh Distillery which runs public tours. If you are a fan of whisky then this is a great addition to your coastal road-trip - just remember you won't be able to sample the goods if you're driving!
HIGHLIGHTS - HOME OF CULLEN SKINK, PHOTOGENIC TOWN, BEACH, HISTORY
PORTSOY TO CULLEN
DISTANCE - 5.5 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 10 MINS
The final stop on the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail is Cullen, home of the famous Cullen Skink, a thick, creamy soup made from smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. If you're going to try a food then there is no better place than where it originated.
Cullen itself it a picturesque seaside town with cute cottages, shops and cafes. You may notice there are two distinct parts - the main town and the fishing village, Seatown of Cullen which has a unique historical charm of its own.
The town also has a large beach where you can view the distinctive stacks known as the 'Three Kings' said to mark the graves of - you guessed it - three kings! Another interesting place to visit is Cullen Auld Kirk, where it is said that the organs of Robert The Bruce’s wife are interred.
Cullen is a fitting place to end the road-trip along this often overlooked part of Scotland as it ties together many of the coastal themes that make the whole journey so memorable.
If you decide to continue along the Moray coast, I highly recommend it as there is lots more to see, including some fascinating historical sites. If you decide to end your trip here then I'm sure you will have bagged some amazing memories and if you're anything like me, you will probably want to do it all over again!
Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail Map
I've marked off all the places I've mentioned on the map below. This generally shows the shortest route between locations which means it doesn't always hug the coastline and should just be used as a guide.
Where to Stay
On my first trip I stayed at the quirky Coastal Carriage near Fraserburgh which I absolutely loved. There is a variety of unusual accommodation at Down on the Farm if you're looking for somewhere unique to stay.
On my second trip I stayed at an Airbnb in Strichen which isn't quite on the coast but it was a great location and a really nice little place. If you've yet to try Airbnb I highly recommend it as I've stayed in some fab properties recently at really reasonable prices. You can also use my discount code to get £25 off your first booking, provided it is over £55. I also get £15 credit which helps me to keep travelling and more importantly blogging!
Looking for more off=the-beaten-track road-trip ideas in Scotland? Then check out my guides t0 -
More things to do in Aberdeenshire
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