Aberdeenshire is a county in the north east of Scotland. It's a long way north - the coastline around Fraserburgh is further north than Newfoundland - but it's mostly lowland, fertile and productive, having more in common with the central belt of Scotland than with the Highlands. To the west rise the Grampian Mountains, with the scenic River Dee flowing out.
This page describes the historic or traditional county, but as elsewhere in Britain, administrative boundaries have chopped and changed. The City of Aberdeen now forms its own metropolis, with a population in 2016 of 489,815. The rest is the local government county of Aberdeenshire, with a 2019 population of 261,470 - yet its county seat is still the city itself.
Towns and villages
- 1 Aberdeen is built of grey granite. Its most interesting areas are around Union Street and "Old Aberdeen" a couple of miles north. Lots of museums, galleries and visitor amenities, and it's the transport focus for the county.
- 2 Westhill is a commuter town just west.
The county's red sandstone reaches the coast in a line of cliffs, interspersed with small fishing ports, where whaling and herring fishing were once major industries:
- 3 Stonehaven 15 miles south of Aberdeen has the clifftop ruins of Dunnottar Castle.
- Then comes Aberdeen itself. North are 4 Ellon and Cruden Bay.
- 5 Peterhead and 6 Fraserburgh are fishing ports.
Here the coastline turns west along the Moray Firth.
- 7 Gardenstown has red sandstone cliffs, rows of prettily-painted traditional fishermen's cottages and a beach.
- 8 Banff, with neighbouring Macduff, has Banff Castle and Adam-designed Duff House.
- 9 Portsoy has a well-preserved old harbour and the ruins of Findlater Castle.
The A96 crosses the top of the county between Aberdeen and Elgin, through gently rolling countryside and farmland. Small places in this triangle include:
- 10 Inverurie and 11 Oldmeldrum are commuter towns for the city. East, towards Ellon and Methlick, is Tolquhon Castle, while to the north is Fyvie Castle.
- 12 Methlick has grand Haddo House and what's left of Gight Castle, Byron's ancestral home.
- 13 Huntly has the ruins of Huntly castle.
The River Dee runs out of the Grampian Mountains along a scenic valley, accessed by A93.
- 14 Banchory is near Drum Castle and Crathes Castle. To the north is Lumphanan, where Macbeth (the real one) made his last stand, and beyond that is Craigevar Castle.
- The mountains west of here are part of Cairngorms National Park. Above 15 Ballater is the royal retreat, Balmoral Castle.
- 16 Braemar is where the main road leaves the valley to climb towards Glenshee then over to Perth, while a lane continues up the valley to scenic Linn of Dee.
"Understand" is what you are not destined to do if addressed in the local "Doric", see Talk below.
The lowland-highland boundary runs from Helensburgh in the southwest to Stonehaven in the northeast, where it funnels the overland routes to a pinch-point guarded by a much-assaulted castle. But north of that, the terrain opens up again. It's low-lying and well-drained upon a bedrock of Old Red Sandstone, with Aberdeen Angus cattle grazing upon grass that looks greener against the bright red soil. In early modern times the cultural boundary advanced a long way north of the geological boundary, and Aberdeenshire developed industries based on agriculture, forestry and North Sea fish - especially herring, the "silver darling".
To the west rise the Grampian mountains, cloud-wreathed, granite and ill-drained, with poor soil. These were the badlands until the Victorians romanticised them, the Queen herself had a retreat at Balmoral, and sporting guns boomed out against the grouse and deer. Anyone who was wealthy and needed a comfortable base to collect his farm rents while impressing the salons of London with his credentials as a Clan Chieftain would need a castle in Aberdeenshire, so there are lots and lots of these. The railways put tourism within reach of a mass market. Meanwhile the granite was quarried to rebuild Aberdeen, which had suffered far too many fires in its wooden buildings, creating the grey city landscape you see today.
The city and county declined in the 20th century, but then oil and gas were discovered in the North Sea, and from 1970 Aberdeen became a boom town. The oil was far offshore and wasn't brought here, rather the city's role was to be the support base for exploration and extraction, with a stream of helicopters chattering overhead to ferry workers to and from the rigs. Industry blossomed and property prices became silly; but beyond the city commuter belt the rest of Aberdeenshire was little affected. That industry is now in its sunset years but enough of the wealth has spread around to make the city and county a culturally rich destination.
Aberdeenshire is culturally lowland, and Gaelic largely died out by the 19th century. The everyday language was English with a unique Scottish dialect known as "Doric". This was especially dense in Buchan, the rural triangle bounded by the North Sea coast as it turns the corner at Fraserburgh. Doric was mocked as uncouth teuchtar, and its name probably began as a snooty Edinburgh joke. Edinburgh was dubbed the Athens of the North, and ancient Athenians spoke Attic Greek and couldn't understand the country bumpkins of Corinth and Sparta who spoke Doric Greek, and therefore . . .
If you hear Doric in the city nowadays, it's probably being used ironically or as a badge of identity, like Cockney or Geordie. Its vocabulary is much the same as standard Scots: "aye" for yes, "wee" for small, "gie" for give, "hoose" for house and so on. What's distinctive is the pronunciation, especially the substitution of "f" for "wh". So you might hear:
- - "Fit like?" - how are you?, to which you reply "Nae bad, yersel?"
- - "Fit?" is what?, "fa?" is who?, "fan?" is when? and "far" is where? as in "Far aboot ye fae?", where are you from?
- - "Da ken" - don't know - may be used instead of the standard Scots "dinnae ken".
- - "Hay min" - excuse me good sir?
- - "Foos yer doos?" - how are you? - literally "how are your pigeons?", to which you reply "Aye, peckin awa". This exchange is always ironic, as Aberdeenshire no longer relies on pigeons for meat, amusement or communication.
Doric versions of Greek are still spoken and recognised as precious cultural heritage, so Doric Aberdonians might feel aggrieved that their own traditions are scoffed at: it'll be no use canonising the language once it's dead and gone. There are no translation apps, and inviting Google to detect language with Foos yer doos? gets "Duh . . . maybe Tamil?" When the first Bible translations into local Doric appeared from 2012, these came 15 years behind translations into Klingon.
Aberdeen is the transport hub for the county, with good air, rail and road connections, and car ferries to Orkney and the Shetland Islands.
In 2019 the A90 was re-routed west of Aberdeen, with the opening of the "Aberdeen Western Peripheral Road" to relieve the congested A92.
For the north end of the county along the Moray Firth, another approach is via Inverness and Elgin.
Buses radiate out from Aberdeen to all the towns along the east coast, inland up the Dee valley, and northwest towards Banff. They also ply along the north coast. You can also use the train between Aberdeen and Stonehaven. Beyond that, there is very little cross-country transport, you'll need a car.
- Castles: Balmoral on the road up the valley above Ballater is a grandiloquent Victorian pile of a castle, the prototype of the "Scottish Baronial" style, all mock-turrets and stags heads looming over the stairways. Completed in 1856, it remains the Royal Family's summer holiday home.
- Among the many other castles are Dunottar at Stonehaven; Crathes, Craigevar and Drum castles around Banchory, and Tolquhon and Fyvie around Ellon.
- Peterhead Prison was notoriously bleak and harsh. It's now a museum.
- Tiny fishing villages include Gardenstown, Crovie and Pennan which is the one with the red phone box in the film Local Hero.
- Scotland's Gardens opens up private gardens once a year in summer, with all proceeds going to charity. There are about 20 participating gardens in this area, dates staggered so there's one open most weekends.
- Highland Gatherings and Games: each town or large village hosts an event during a summer weekend. Pipe bands, caber-tossing, field and track events, and so on; they're often combined with Agricultural Shows. The full calendar is posted online.
- Ski at Glenshee or Lecht. With a longer drive you can also reach Aviemore / Cairngorm in Highland Region. (But this remains closed in 2021 / 22, making other ski resorts even more congested.)
- 1 Glenshee Ski Centre, Cairnwell, Braemar AB35 5XU (Top of Cairnwell Pass on A93, 10 miles south of Braemar), ☏ . The main ski area is west of the road, in the shaded bowl between the mountains of Cairnwell and Càrn Aosda; east of the road is "Sunnyside", lower and with less snow cover. It gets very congested at weekends and in school holidays.
- 2 Lecht 2090, Strathdon AB36 8YP (on A939 between Ballater / Strathdon and Tomintoul), ☏ . "2090" means in feet, it's only 645 metres altitude at base, with the hills above rising to 775 m. So do the maths, it's a beginners' and family-oriented resort. 12 lifts including a "magic carpet" for wobbly novices. Half a dozen short runs on the shady side west of the road, one even shorter run on the sunny east slope. Mountain bike trails here in summer.
- Climb mountains: one fine ascent is Lochnagar at 1155 m / 3789 ft, reached from Glen Muick above Ballater.
- Golf: most towns have a course and the area around Aberdeen is studded with them. To date only one is owned by that fellow Trump, but he's clearly destined for greater things.
- Aberdeen has the widest choice of cuisine and price range.
- The small towns go for cheap and cheerful fare such as fish & chips. They often have an Indian, an Italian and a takeaway Chinese to add variety.
- Carron Fish Bar in Stonehaven claims to have invented the deep-fried Mars Bar, and still serves them.
- Aberdeen Angus, the local breed of cattle, are prized for their marbled beef. The small odds and ends go into burgers.
- Aberdeenshire still has lots of pubs, in spite of their general decline across the country. They're usually open daily till 23:00 or later.
- There are whisky distilleries at Crathie, Portsoy, Macduff, Oldmeldrum and Huntly. They also make gin near Aberdeen, and rum in Banchory. The heartland distilling country is further west, in Moray and the Spey valley, but you'll never be far from a quality dram. Start your research in the nearest supermarket.
The natural hazards are because you're on the same latitude as Newfoundland, so conditions on higher ground can become hazardous very quickly, and not just in winter.
The man-made dangers are probably less here than elsewhere, but exercise usual caution around road use, valuables, and drunks.
- Angus just south is often overlooked, but it has the Angus glens and striking Pictish carvings.
- Southwest to Perth and Kinross - yet because of the line of the geological boundary, this brings you into the Highlands, and very scenic they are.
- West to Moray, now a small county but once the extensive realm of Macbeth, centred on historic Elgin.