For a long time Aberdeenshire was a part of Scotland that I didn't know very well despite it being easily accessible in less than a few hours from Glasgow and Edinburgh. However, over the last couple of years I've been spending more and more time in the region either on weekend breaks or longer holidays. I've gotten a good flavour of the variety of scenery and attractions on offer by basing myself in diverse locations from Royal Deeside to the Banffshire Coast and the heart of Aberdeen City itself. Every time I visit, I make new discoveries and wonder why it took me so long to get acquainted with the place.
I thought it was time to share some of my favourite things to do in Aberdeenshire either during a day, a weekend or on a longer visit. This is a list that will no doubt grow after every trip as there is so much more of Aberdeenshire I've still to explore and hopefully these ideas will inspire you to embark on your own north-east adventure.
1. GO ON A ROAD-TRIP
Weekends are perfect for road-trips and the 165 mile long Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail can easily be completed in 2 days although you will have to be selective of your stops as there is so much to see. I've completed the route twice now and particularly like visiting the cute wee fishing villages and sweeping beaches. The journey also covers nature reserves, castles, lighthouses, historical towns and even passes by the Peterhead Prison Museum mentioned below, meaning there is plenty to do for all interests. It is an easy route to navigate with a variety of accommodation choices along the way. If you want to experience the diversity of the Aberdeenshire coast, this is the way to do it.
I've written a guide to the route with some of my top recommended places to stop along the way. Since I wrote that blog post I've been back again to visit Bullers of Buchan which I had somehow managed to miss out on previous trips and it will definitely be getting added to my recommended stops. The collapsed sea cave is easily reached by a short walk from the car park and the surrounding coastal scenery is dramatic and stunning. It's also apparently a great place to see puffins although I didn't come across any. However, I was greeted by the noisy spectacle (and smell!) of thousands of other nesting seabirds.
While everyone else is off doing the NC500, the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail offers a quieter and shorter alternative in an often overlooked part of Scotland and is an ideal length for those short on time.
The new NE250 road-trip route also takes in part of the region and although I've not yet done it myself, it's one I'll keep in mind for the future and one you might consider researching if you want to see more of this part of Scotland.
2. DISCOVER SOME STREET ART
Over recent years Glasgow has become famed for its street art which has really helped to brighten up the city and boost tourism. However, it now has a northern city competitor hot on its heels looking to claim the Scottish street art crown. Aberdeen has long been known as the 'Grey City' thanks to the abundance of locally quarried granite used in the architecture. Currently the city is trying to change that perception by undergoing a colourful face-lift, with bright murals now adorning numerous walls and buildings. The street art has been created as part of the Nuart Aberdeen festival which has been running for 2 years, providing a platform for local, national and international artists to showcase their work. There are free street art walking tours every Saturday until 30th September or you can do what I did and download the map of mural locations and explore the awesome artwork at your leisure.
It's not just the walls that have received a makeover, the Painted Doors project has also seen 24 doorways transformed in to works of art and I'm personally loving all the vibrant creativity in the city at the moment.
3. EXPERIENCE LIFE IN A NOTORIOUS SCOTTISH PRISON
Just to be clear, I'm not recommending you commit a crime and get locked up for the weekend! My suggestion involves staying on the right side of the law and taking a tour of Peterhead Prison to get a feel for life behind bars. The infamous Victorian built HMP Peterhead was closed in 2013 and has now been turned in to an unlikely but highly popular visitor attraction.
HMP Peterhead was originally opened in 1888 and at that time was Scotland's only convict prison, with the intention that inmates would be used as labour to help build Peterhead's harbour defences. Up until the point it closed in 2013, it had housed some of the hardest and most heinous criminals in the country including serial killers and notorious gangsters.
I found the audio tour fascinating and a chance to meet and speak to some of the prison guards that worked in this grim institution really helps to bring the prison history to life. If you're curious about the stories, inmates and punishment that made this jail in Peterhead so notorious, a visit here is a must. It's actually one of the most interesting places I've been to in Scotland and one of my top recommendations for things to do in Aberdeenshire.
About the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival
Over recent years I've developed quite a fondness for the charming fishing villages and dramatic cliffs of the Aberdeenshire coast. The scenery is very different to the wilder west of Scotland but I've found the quaint east coast settlements, steeped in history and tradition, are generally less touristy than their west coast counterparts and offer a more authentic local experience.
When I was recently invited to explore more of the area with an opportunity to attend the annual Traditional Scottish Boat Festival in Portsoy, I quickly made some space in my travel diary. The festival was founded after successful celebrations were held to mark the 300th anniversary of Portsoy harbour in 1993. It was decided that an annual festival promoting regional maritime and cultural traditions should take place in the historic fishing port and this year marked the 25th anniversary of the Portsoy Boat Festival. As I was to find out, it is about much more than just boats...
My festival experience
Although the main festival takes place each year on a Saturday and Sunday at the end of June/beginning of July depending on the tides, the party officially starts the night before. On the Friday evening I was pointed in the direction of the main marquee by a gaggle of excited chattering locals as they meandered down the winding streets towards the various festival venues around the village, while I continued to pursue the source of frantic fiddle notes drifting through the warm evening air. After tracking down my destination in Wally Green, I joined the gathered crowd for the next couple of hours while we toe-tapped to some traditional tunes by Ella McTaggart and sang along with folk legend Dougie MacLean, famed for writing 'Caledonia' which has become a bit of a Scottish anthem. As the concert ended, a fiery sunset had taken over the sky and revellers with more stamina than me moved on to continue the shindig at the late night session.
With up to 16,000 people expected over the weekend, I decided to arrive early on the Saturday morning to beat the crowds and the hot afternoon temperatures predicated later in the day.
Before I got there, I naively thought the boat festival would be a small community affair but over the years it has grown in to a major event which spreads along the harbour front and back towards the centre of Portsoy. I was grateful I'd put my comfy shoes on that day!
With four distinct areas to explore, like any sensible person I started at the food fayre. The scent of various local delicacies filled the tent from fudge to gin and coffee to cheese and I was overjoyed to discover The Isle of Skye Baking Company. Being gluten free meant I was a little concerned I wouldn't find anything suitable to eat at the festival food outlets but the bakery stand had me covered with their range of gluten free goodies including fresh bread, quiches and cakes. For a very long minute I seriously contemplated breaking my gluten free diet just so I could feast on all their delicious sounding loaves - malted barley and lavender, Stornoway black pudding, bacon, onion and tomato, and Scottish seaweed with Skye ale - they all had me salivating but I resisted the temptation. Instead I made a mental note to return later when my tummy started its inevitable lunchtime rumble.
With lunch sorted I followed the swirling tunes of the Portsoy Pipe Band as they marched down to the picturesque 17th century harbour and the heart of the festival. Historic and characterful wooden boats with colourful bunting sat anchored by the pier and coracles for hire were a big hit with boatless visitors keen to get out on the water. Personally, I passed up on the possibility of a soaking but those brave enough to venture aboard looked like they were having great fun.
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