Running Diaries – The River Don Trail

On an afternoon of icy rain in Aberdeen I found temporary shelter under the arching Diamond Bridge. This is the third Don crossing, a structure completed in 2016 which connects the housing estates of Danestone and Middleton Park with the city centre.

Five miles into a nine mile run and the bridge was offering little respite from the biting cold. My hands were damp and almost numb. Despite this, I was most definitely in my happy place.

I scanned my surroudings. The River Don looked heavy from rainfall and snowmelt from the Eastern Cairngorms, 70 odd miles upstream. The thought of the icy water made me shiver.

For the last two years I’ve enjoyed following the river’s journey through Aberdeen on foot, switching between its north and south banks in different combinations. For a country lover like me, the area surrounding the Don isn’t too distant from a rural setting.

Monday’s muddy scramble had began by shadowing the river at Persley Bridge, a workmanlike crossing which carries the A92 as it heads North-East. The surroundings hadn’t been too glamorous for the beginning of this mini-adventure but I didn’t mind.

Separated by a roundabout, a sewage works sits across from the two storey Danestone Tesco store complete with massive car park. However, it was a steep embankment beside a Bannatyne gym that started my journey down the Don proper, leading me onto the path to Danestone Country Park.

On entering the park I had crossed the Bridge of Wellies. As my name for it suggests, this is a bridge with dozens of Wellies clinging to its fencing. Each welly boot contains a plant as part of a local initiative to brighten up the otherwise barren country park.

The Bridge of Wellies which crosses the Grandholm Mill Lade.

The path then distances itself from the river, but on Monday I turned back on myself and onto an always slippery slope. In my opinion, it isn’t really trail running if there aren’t some slips and trips. This time was no different and I soon had a mud splattered knee.

This excursion led me right down to the riverside for the first time and onto a more technical path. Careful attention has to be paid here to not tripping over a large tree root and headfirst into the Don’s dark waters. I’ve accidentally dunked myself in the River Dee at Kincardine O’Neil previously, but I think I’d rather fall in there for obvious reasons.

Across the water from this section is the Woodside sports pitches where I last attended a rugby match. That was in March last year, while on reporting duties as Aberdeenshire narrowly defeated Ross Sutherland.

Meanwhile, the trail meanders around trees with more lethal roots and stingy nettles in abundance. This is what a trail runner cooped up in a concrete jungle longs for.

Across the river from the Woodside Sports Complex.

This section soon gaive way to the cobble stoned Grandholm Avenue which leads to a complex of houses, shops and a care home. There are options here to cross a narrow girder bridge and tackle a cobbled ascent into Tillydrone. I personally prefer the muddy route to Diamond Bridge where I then crossed over onto the river’s south bank.

Between the Third Don Crossing and Seaton Park is an impressive Archimedes Screw and an island which seems to be permanently closed off despite there being a small wooden bridge across to it.

After my break under the Diamond Bridge, I had passed both these landmarks and traversed a short section of trail on boardwalk before reaching Seaton Park. This is a particularly picturesque area of the Granite City, especially when the sun shines and a plethora of flowers start to blossom in the summer months.

On Monday, the path towards Brig of Balgownie could be compared to a slip n slide. In my road runners I struggled to gain much grip with the path gaining altitude as it passed the prison like Hillhead student halls.

This exceedingly muddy section comes to an end at the scenic of Brig of Balgownie. Originally built in the 14th century, this bridge would have been the primary crossing across the Don in the locality for many years.

Night falls at the Brig O’Balgownie.

Addicted to polished running statistics and Strava segments, I used to foolishly view stopping for breaks during a run as almost a cardinal sin. Since moving away from Strava as a platform however, I now always ensure I include a moment or two of respite here. I watch the river flow lazily downstream and under the much newer Bridge of Don towards the nearby Donmouth Nature Reserve.

Just upstream from the Brig an ordinarily small trickle down the side of a steep drop sometimes becomes a majestic waterfall following a period of heavy rainfall. It cascades down from just below Balgownie Road and into the Don.

Crossing the river again here, its didn’t take long to reach Ellon Road. Often this is where I bid farewell to the river, returning to the realities of the bustling city. On other occasions I venture slightly further and into the small sand dunes of the Donmouth, the quieter side of the river’s completion point where there are often more seals than people.

On this occasion I ventured no further, flying down King Street. My hands reminded me that my poor circulation had taken a hammering. The ensuing discomfort of thawing them out in the flat is always worth it if there is mud and trails involved.

Six Festive Strolls

Cora pants with unstoppable enthusiasm as she drags me up the side of Carn na Drochaide with ease. Mum follows on behind as we struggle to navigate the slippery path in search of a good viewpoint. As humans we are unable to depend on the natural four-wheel system which dogs have at their disposal.

Eventually we are provided with views across to some of the highest mountains in Britain. The white complexion of the distant peaks of the Cairngorms means that several of them are difficult to make out against a darkening and overcast sky.

We agree to head back to the car instead of pushing onto the summit. It’s the day after the Winter Solstice and the landscape will soon to be pitched into total darkness. I’m tempted to chatter away to Mum about nothing much, but pause for a split second.

As we rest the silence is almost overwhelming. In that moment I realise how much I’ve missed the countryside and how grateful I should be for the opportunity to leave the city over Christmas, especially under the current circumstances.  

During the first unwelcome installment of lockdown, I often found it better to walk instead of run. Primarily, because it was usually a more relaxing form of exercise to slot into my permitted once daily venture out from Leah’s flat.

I suddenly found walking a great activity to slowly release any stress I had in my fragile system. Walks also provided a great opportunity for me to let any creative thoughts flow. Even if they centered on nonsensical nonsense half the time. Thus, I kept a short diary of my walks over the festive period. 

Monday 22nd December:

We left it until early afternoon to hop in the car with Cora, the excitable black and white Greek mongrel who enjoys elegantly posing for photographs. Parking near the punchbowl at the Quoich, we walked around the west side of Carn na Drochaide along a gradual incline to see if we could get a good view of the Cairngorms.

It wasn’t too cold and there was little ice underfoot, but we still had to navigate a couple of sketchy river crossings. From an elevated viewpoint we had a perfect of the east Cairngorm mountains. No one was about and blissfully, there was no unnatural sound. We descended carefully and eventually finished a decent outing as the last light faded in the west.

Tuesday 23rd December:

It was almost a full house for the Braemar Nixons contingent as we clambered up Carn na Sgliat on a chilly afternoon. At 690 meters, it is affectionally referred to by some locals as Coo Hill. The only member of the family missing in action was Skye, a tiring 13-year-old Black Labrador.

Although her fur is greying and she looks a lot slimmer, I don’t think she has run her race just yet. Though sadly, she does seem to be becoming slightly senile in her older age and is unable to come along on the longer walks with us anymore. I think she enjoys being without Cora and Islay’s company for periods though, especially as the former is the equivalent of a jumpy 20 something. Meanwhile, Islay is an 11-year-old Westie with a can do attitude.  

Coo Hill is one of my favourites hill runs. A winding path takes you up through the heather and eventually onto the summit. On a clear day you can get cracking views and it’s a great place to view Braemar village from.

Today it was blowing a hoolie and started to ding down with snow as we turned into the wind to return down the hill. Mags and I reminisced about eating lunch on the summit of every hill we climbed as a family when we were younger no matter the weather conditions. If we had climbed Everest as a family the result would have likely been death by tuna sandwich.

Christmas Eve:

Our Christmas Eve walk consisted of the classic Creag Choinnich excursion which is unequivocally the closest hill to the house. At a canter it takes about 25 minutes to traverse the steep path to the summit. It’s a perfect hill to climb if you find yourself in Braemar and are short of time. With enough exertion involved there is still a feeling of achievement when you’re able to stop and admire the several different views from the hill in all directions. Skye joined us this time and did admirably in slippery conditions.

Christmas Day:

Its almost family tradition to go for a decent walk every year on Christmas Day. In previous years the suggestion of an outing into the usually pretty ordinary festive weather is met quite begrudgingly. As a kid all I wanted to do was play with my new Subbuteo set or play with my new rugby ball.

This year it was definitely worth it though as we ventured out to try and find the Colonel’s Bed, a rocky overhang in a ravine in the River Ey. We parked the Corsa at Inverey, a hamlet three miles from Braemar and set off up Glen Ey. There was a smattering of snow on the ground and we had to take great care around the steep sided canyon where the bed lies.

The Black Colonel was a particularly violent Jacobite by the name of John Farquharson who apparently burnt down Braemar Castle in the late 17th century. Farquharson had also earlier been banished for killing a man from Ballater.

In search of shelter the colonel is said to have hidden from the Red Coats on the large overhang when they would pay visits to the local area. It is an atmospheric spot, but I also felt a little spooked when gazing into the tumbling rapids within the deep gorge.

 According to local legend, the colonel wanted to be buried at Inverey alongside his lover, but instead ended up at the graveyard in Braemar after his death. The story goes that on the day after the burial his coffin was discovered on the ground next to his grave. This happened twice more before he was eventually buried for good at Inverey.

This is a far-fetched story which I would love to explore in more depth as a piece of creative fiction. Despite this, I seem to get a shiver up my spine every time I read or write about the Black Colonel. It’s a bizarre feeling which I also experienced this afternoon in the vicinity of the Colonel’s Bed and again as I write this after everyone else has gone to bed.

Monday 27/12/20:

Today we walked from the Linn O’Dee car park to Derry Lodge, a building arguably at the outer edges of where the largest Cairngorm mountains begin. This was a bitterly cold walk which my numb hands and feet can attest for despite my thick gloves and wearing three pairs of socks.

Cora pulled Mags along on the lead with glee. When walking her we would love to let her run free, but she has run away so many times that we can’t really risk letting her off the lead. Her early years involved a tough upbringing on the streets of Athens, before she somehow ended up in the UK. With gas to burn Cora dog will just keep running.

This afternoon we were treated to stunning views of some snow-covered peaks as they almost blended in perfectly with the low cloud which obscured their summits. I again allowed myself to drift into my own creative thoughts as I strolled along. I considered how the weather conditions would-be near perfect conditions for the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui to make an appearance on Britain’s second highest peak, which is relatively close to Derry Lodge.

 Macdui is a monroe which I still haven’t ticked off my list. The fantastical accounts of coming across a giant creature near the summit in low visibility captured my imagination, but also irrational fear when I read up on the subject a couple of years ago. On the way back it started to snow heavily and darkness started to ascend quickly. I was suddenly glad that I wasn’t anywhere near the high peaks.   

Tuesday 28/12/20

This latest walk involved trying to find an abandoned cottage in the middle of a forest in a race against the fading daylight. Mags, Mum, I and the dogs went off the beaten track near Crathie, navigating a substantial forest with several spooky dark patches where the trees were more condensed.

After much map work, we finally found the cottage, apparently used by Queen Victoria during her extensive visits to the nearby Balmoral Castle. More recently planted trees now hem the long-abandoned building in and we had to walk a bit further to find the other end of the forest.

Once outside the intimidating woods we were treated to truly stunning views across to Lochnagar, a mountain which is synonymous with Upper Deeside. Today’s hike was the perfect ending to several festive walks which I was lucky enough to experience in a beautiful part of the world and with my family.

 Wherever you are I wish you the best for 2021 and hope you are also able to enjoy some walking when you need some peace. I would highly recommend it.  

A Glen for the Less Cynical

I’m no dentist but as I face Shrek and Donkey with their, bulbous wide open eyes I can’t help but notice their truly terrifying teeth. Fiona is nowhere to be seen and nearby Barney the purple dinosaur looks like he’s been out on the town the night before. His mouth agape in a twisted smile as his beady black eyes stare into your soul.

Thankfully, these characters and their rotting teeth aren’t real, but are also not a part of a deeply weird dream. In reality its a bright Sunday afternoon in the countryside and several excitable kids are running their parents ragged around the 28 acre Den in the Glen. Otherwise known as Storybook Glen.

The three of us felt understandably out of place as we wandered around the grounds as childless adults, but curiosity kills the cat. I think we wanted to discover why this local attraction has received so much attention for ourselves. Receiving plenty of positive and negative recognition since its opening in the 1980s.

A 15 minute drive from Aberdeen, the Storybook Glen is located near Maryculter, a small village along the South Deeside Road to the west of the city. I have little recollection of visiting the park before, although my parents have informed me that I had previously visited as a chubby infant.

The Den includes a restaurant and soft play Centre, both currently closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. Meanwhile, the Glen hosts 94 figures ranging from Humpty Dumpty and his wall to the cast of In the Night Garden. This huge collection of fictional characters are inarguably the most interesting commodity of the attraction.

Don’t get me wrong, several of the figures in the park are very well done. It also feels misplaced for a below par artist like myself to be so critical of the work on display at the Glen. At secondary school level my trees still looked quite dodgy and my hills looked like buttocks protruding into a sky of fluffy sheep. Basically, I’m no Picasso okay.

In truth, Cinderella looks quite resplendent in her well maintained sky blue dress, complete with horse drawn pumpkin carriage. Other highlights include its three miniature castles, a grinning tiger and Puff the Magic Dragon, which coincidentally is one of the only songs I could play on the violin. In a dark twist the tiger was apparently decapitated by a thief in 2012, but seems to have miraculously recovered quite well.

These caveats aside, its not too difficult to see why the well attended attraction aimed at young children has previously been labelled as nightmarish. As mentioned, everyone’s favourite purple dinosaur is quite terrifying and several others could definitely do with a fresh lick paint.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the park Fireman Sam looks like he’s suffered a particularly hard paper round and the Teletubbies look like they been eating too much tubby custard. Nearby, Postman Pat is joined by a red van which he would struggle to fit in with his colossally oversized noggin.

Pat and Sam are child’s play compared to the miniature Emerald Castle though, complete with a worse for wear lion, a tin man with little heart and a scarecrow who’s peeling nightmare of a face topped the lot.

Lisa Simpson does however, offer stiff competition to the Wizard of Oz gang, her saxophone attached to her featureless face for the rest of eternity. The older Simpson sister stands next to her brother, Bart, his eyes bulging out of his head as he balances on a skateboard with his eight fingers outstretched.

In 2011 the site bared witness to the shocking discovery of a dead body amongst its grounds in a darker dose of reality. The man in his 20s was initially mistaken for a vandalised figure by a family, before they discovered something much more horrifying than that on closer inspection.

There is however, a noticeable appeal to Storybook Glen, especially for those children who are easily captivated by the site of their favourite fictional characters all in the same place. We were lucky enough to get a nice day for our wee outing amongst its picturesque grounds, but I don’t think I quite rediscovered my childhood.

The Glen also homes a couple of pigs, some bunny rabbits and chickens, which seem to appear from thin air, in its Old Macdonald’s farm section for any animal lovers. But I’m not sure I would return anytime soon, even to go and see the real highland cow which we somehow managed to miss.

And yet, Storybook Glen was well worth a look around on a day when I didn’t have much else going. If nothing else, the staggering amount of caricatures offer a unique experience to its many visitors who are hopefully a little less cynical and younger than myself.

Birthday Adventures

In past years I’ve often awoken on New Year Day around midday, slightly dazed but with a vague feeling that I want to do things differently in the year to come. Unfortunately, the lazy and dare I say slightly dull resolutions that many of us make at Hogmanay have often failed to come to fruition by February 1st if not before.

Thankfully we aren’t too near the end of an eventful (to say the least) year yet. I did however, find myself having similar feelings on the 29th August, which happened to be my 22nd birthday. Yes you read that right, I’m 22. Its frightening really.

So on Saturday I decided to make one simple resolution to try and seize the moment whenever I could. This thinking was challenged when faced with the decision about whether to make a four hour round trip on the hoof to Eilean Donan castle with Bumble and Leah. I wasn’t keen after making a long journey before, but then reality kicked in. Life is too short.

And so we found ourselves on the road to Kyle of Lochalsh, traversing single track roads and steep inclines on the northern route to this postcard perfect part of the Scottish Highlands. An exhausted Bumble would have probably preferred if we’d given this trip amiss, but being situated in Nairn meant this was too good an opportunity. We had to tick this item of our collective bucket lists.

As an undeserved birthday surprise, Leah and I had been booked into the Great Wagon in Nairn, an old train carriage transformed into a cosy accommodation for two. We arrived late on Sunday afternoon in the bonny Highland town, having made our way up from an Aberdeen recently freed from its personal lockdown.

Masked up, we went for a pleasant, but chilly alfresco meal in the town, before enjoying a quiet wander along the beach. I also needed an early night after accidentally double booking myself for the following morning, travelling the 88 miles back to the Granite City for a flat viewing postponed by the local lockdown.

As I set of down the pretty joyless roundabout extravaganza* which is the A96 with Bumble, Leah headed into Inverness to catch up with a friend the next day.

Viewing done and dusted, I traversed the eternity of the 102 mile trunk route westwards, life endangering crawler lanes and all. That road isn’t much fun and previous driver surveys back this point of view up. Reuniting Bumble with her owner**, we then set off for the Black Isle as I napped in the passenger seat.

Passing through the narrow and twisty streets of Avoch and Fortrose, we eventually reached Cromarty, a quaint fishing village dominated by several nearby oil platforms. It was indeed, bizarre to see these complex structures up close as they loomed over the cream cottages of the village’s sea front. Almost similar to HG Wells’ description of the Martians’ tripods in War of the Worlds I thought.***

We wandered along the coastline for a couple of miles in the afternoon sun, watching a small boat circle the closest rig which whirred continuously from its position near the entrance to the Cromarty Firth. This walk provided impressive views across the Moray Firth, but no dolphins were unfortunately spotted on this occasion.

That evening was another quiet one of alfresco dining on the cheap with the eat out help out discount and another wee walk along the beach. This time enjoying the perfectly timed sunset of oranges and pinks.

Thus we come to yesterday when the most exciting adventures and epic travels took place. Waving a sad farewell to the wagon and its generous owners who had provided us with four cans of Brewdog on our first evening, we set off for Eilean Donan Castle.

I was first up in the driving seat, attempting to treat a tired Bumble with care and respect as we travelled north of Inverness before heading briefly towards Ullapool. The roads were an unmitigated pleasure to drive, with plentiful amounts of variation and stunning scenery thrown in for good measure. I’m taken aback at the feat of managing to build a railway out this way to Kyle of Lochalsh.

Two hours later we arrived at the stunning spot, queuing for the toilet and then making our way into the fortress which has its earliest origins in the 13th century. I think I’ll write about the castle and its history in more detail in another post, especially as it was an interesting experience to visit a historical site affected by Covid-19 restrictions. It was though a sign of the weird times that visitors were rightly made to social distance and handwash before entering each room of the impressive island based building.

This is peak postcard perfect Scotland and the surrounding landscape is a definite reminder of what attracts tourists to our shores. Kyle is located eight miles westwards of the castle and this bustling village was where we stopped for lunch following a very brief trip over to Kyleakin to at least say that we had been on the Isle of Skye.

By this time it was late afternoon and we reluctantly decided to head for home. Leah took over the driving duties once again as we trundled through more stunning landscapes. The peaks of the Kintail Sisters rocketing into low cloud above the road towards Loch Ness. This road seemed longer, but eventually we arrived in Inverness, making our way to Keith from there.

It had been a fantastic weekend where Bumble and a decision to grasp an opportunity had done us well. After being stuck in the city several times this year, this was a timely reminder of Scotland’s inherent beauty.

*I counted 37 roundabouts on my journey between Aberdeen and Inverness, nine of which were located in Elgin. I was bored okay!

**To avoid any confusion, Bumble is the affectionate name we have given to Leah’s bright yellow Vauxhall Corsa.

***Although Wells’ imagery is impressive, I’m specifically imagining the artwork on Jeff Wayne’s 1978 album which was one of the soundtracks of my childhood.

Granite City Getaways

There was some faint hope yesterday on a sad day for the North-East that Nicola Sturgeon would announce a lifting in lockdown restrictions for Aberdeen. Alas there was understandably no change in the five mile travel restrictions currently imposed on Aberdeen’s 205,000 odd residents.

August is of course a time of the year when many Aberdonians would usually be jetting off to enjoy warmer climes or indeed, enjoying some Scottish sunshine while it lasts. This return to lockdown has therefore likely been a bit of blow, especially for those struggling to find or stay in employment.

However, for the former of these setbacks I thought I would maybe look at some of my favourite places to visit in the aptly named Granite City. While compiling this short list I realised the city which I often berated while growing up in rural Aberdeenshire isn’t really a bad place to live.

Kincorth Hill – Lets begin in the south of the city where most Central Belters and lost Dundonians will enter ‘Furry Boots’ city. Kincorth Hill is located just east of a Shell Garage which I spend much of my time in RGU library staring at when I have writer’s block.

There are several viewpoints atop this small gorse and heather covered hillock which provide great views of the city to the north. The hill itself can be quickly accessed via several criss-crossing paths from all sides.

I’d strongly recommend strolling across the hill with a fluffy Golden Retriever, although other dogs are available. Kincorth Hill is also one of several recognised nature reserves in Aberdeen and I imagine it would be a handy spot for those who have a keen eye for birdwatching.

Torry Battery – On the Southern side of the outer regions of the Aberdeen Harbour walls is the Torry Battery. This 19th century fortification was used during both world wars to protect the city from a very real threat. It was last actively used to house residents who were displaced during the resulting housing shortage following WWII.

The Battery is now recognised as a historical site which doubles up as a perfect viewpoint of the busy nearby port and the whole Greyhope Bay area is great for spotting a dolphin or two. These playful animals are often seen dancing in the wake of larger vessels as they pass the South Breakwater.

Girdle Ness Lighthouse – Just along Greyhope road from Torry Battery is the 37 metre tall Girdle Ness Lighthouse. This impressive structure is complete with a rusty fog horn and a cottage which can apparently be rented on Airbnb. To the south the lighthouse overlooks Nigg Bay, where a new harbour has been under construction since 2017.

It was built by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the famous Treasure Island writer, Robert Louis, in 1833. Activity on the building site next door is somewhat patchy due to apparent contract issues. This makes it a nice spot to find some peace and quiet away from the rush of the city.

Footdee – Directly across the River Dee’s mouth from Torry Battery is Footdee, an old fishing village pronounced as Fittie. This is a charming part of the city which likely dates back to at least the early 15th century. Its narrow pedestrianised streets give it the feel of somewhere which is almost stuck in time.

However, on my last visit to the village I noticed are signs which recommending against visiting the tight-knit community during the current pandemic. This should therefore be taken into consideration when visiting the area and I’ve ran along the beach when passing through the area.

Out with the village there is the modern Pilot’s House, with its many dimmed windows towering over the older building at Pocra Quay. This is where my grandfather worked for many years and it has recently become somewhere I like to go and reflect on life. A handy place to have in 2020!

Again this is also a great location for spotting the odd dolphin or porpoise along with the ships sailing into and departing the harbour.

Donmouth

At the other end of Aberdeen’s long beach promenade, the River Don enters the North Sea at Donmouth Nature Reserve. This area of conservation encompasses some grassland and sandy beaches on both sides of the river’s mouth.

I often enjoy strolling up the North Donmouth Beach while ensuring to maintain a safe distance from the seals which often congregate here. They seem to stop here for a friendly chat before swimming out to the icy waters of the North Sea again.

Brig of Balgownie & River Don Path

One of my favourite routes to run in the city has quite a rural flavour to it and involves traversing the Don from Ellon Road to Persley Bridge in Danestone. This route begins at the five arch Bridge of Don which was constructed from ganite in 1830, before reaching the Brig of Balgownie, an historic crossing which possibly dates back to the 13th century.

From this stunning bridge I usually follow a woodland track, passing through Seaton Park on my way to the relatively new Diamond Bridge at Tillydrone. Seaton Park is a lovely area to wander around on a sunny day, with a wide green space which is often traversed by students making their way to university.

The riverside trail then continues through the greenery which lines the lower echeleons of the Don. Taking you past the Woodside Sports Complex and through some newly built houses until you reach the Persley Bridge.

Northfield Tower

For anyone familiar with the outer regions of Aberdeen, picking a location in Northfield may seem like a slightly left of field option. I disagree.

Behind the area’s high school is the Northfield Tower which I happened upon a couple of weeks ago while looking to stand at the bottom of the city’s alternative to the Eiffel Tower.

From this landmark of the Aberdeen skyline also great view towards Aberdeen Airport and the northern regions of the city. Additionally, visitors to the surrounding playing fields can look into rural Aberdeenshire, a bonus for a teuchter currently stuck inside the city limits.

So there you have it. If you are currently struggling with being stuck in Aberdeen then perhaps you may want to visit one of the locations listed above for some local light relief. Although, even I’ll admit it will be a relief when lockdown has been lifted and everyone can carefully venture out into the countryside again.

The Spookiest Castle you’ve never heard about

It was a particularly gloomy evening as we made our way towards Dufftown in Leah’s yellow corsa. The bright colours of the car contrasted with the dull greys of the sky above Speyside as we navigated the wet roads.

This was a perfect example of a cheaper and shortened version of a good old road trip. One which had started in nearby Keith and would preferably end up somewhere within a 15 mile radius. Still an enjoyable adventure, but one which lacked the mileage of a Route 66 trip or the Scottish equalivent, the North Coast 500.

My fellow traveller wanted to see another castle, inspired by our visit to the dramatic Slains Castle during the previous week. Stopping in Dufftown, a small village surrounded by hills and several whisky distilleries, we had a look to see which historic sites were within our reach.

It didn’t take long for Leah’s beady eyes to spot Auchindoun Castle, an innocuous place name found on Google Maps. The digital generation’s version of a reliable coffee marked AA road atlas.

I recognised the name and swore I’d visited the site when passing down the nearby Cabrach road (A941) in years gone by. This undulating and winding road takes the traveller through a pretty barren and desolate landscape, linking Dufftown with Rhynie. It’s a road I know well from childhood visits to the Moray Coast when travelling over the hills from Deeside.

From the clock tower in Dufftown’s small square, it took us little over five minutes to reach the castle. The only hurdle along the way being a deeply eroded and steep track up onto the hillside from the road. I imagine this would be likely impassable in the wintery conditions which will often grace this area in the colder months.

A corsa or similar make of car isn’t likely an ideal vehicle for this track, but thankfully the makeshift road doesn’t last too long. Parking is supplied for visitors on your right when you reach the top of the short hill.

On this occasion no other visitors were apparently brave enough to visit the eerie ruin at 7.30 on a Thursday evening and we found the car park empty. Walking past fields of cows we first sighted the castle’s highest tower, peaking above the nearby trees.

Leaving the corsa there was a 10 minute stroll to the castle itself. This involved traversing a grassy and slippy path through a sheep field. If visiting its especially important to close every gate which you pass through. The local farmer will probably not take kindly to one of his woolly friends going for a jaunt in search of greener grass.

There are seemingly two or three entrances to the ruin, with a larger one on the North facing side of the castle. From this side there are good views down to the River Fiddich and beyond, although care should be taken not to fall into what remains of the moat.

The 15th century fortification was most likely built by Thomas Cochrane, an ally and architect of King James III. Cochrane received the Earldom of Mar in 1479 as reward for his hard work, but the castle was more infamously owned by Sir Adam Gordon.

The Gordons likely occupied the castle from the mid 1500s onwards and Sir Adam wasn’t a man you’d want to come up against. In 1571 he launched an awful attack on the nearby Corgarff Castle, burning 29 of its occupants to death following a feud with the Forbes of Towie. Corgarff was heavily affiliated with the Mackintosh clan and this slight overreaction didn’t go down too well with them.

Diplomacy was obviously quite sparse back then and Auchindoun Castle faced a similar fate when William Mackintosh took it upon himself to seek revenge. He taking it upon himself to burn the Gordon owned castle down several years later.

Some historical accounts suggest Mackintosh was later beheaded at Auchindoun for this crime. This being one of numerous harrowing unlisted incidents at the spooky site, which unsurprisingly played host to even more brutal clan warfare.

In its heyday the castle would have stood at three stories high, but the site has actually sat derelict for almost three centuries. The Oglivy family left the site in the 1720s before materials were removed en masse from the tower house to construct a house for William Duff of Braco.

Despite the distint lack of human activity at Auchindoun in recent years, there’s something which sends a chill down the spine when standing inside the ruin’s ancient walls. As a cynic of ghost related spirituality there is something about the castle which I just couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Maybe the low light helped create this atmosphere of mystic . Whatever the case, I won’t be returning at night anytime soon, but would highly recommend a visit to this rather atmospheric remote (and free!) castle.

 

 

 

 

 

Searching for Dracula

In the midst of an overcast Scottish summer there are wonderful days where this country is literally shown in it’s best light. I think us Scots quite often deliberately forget about these days, feigning for some average conversation starter about how the weather is always rubbish.

Thursday was definitely one of those days, the type you dream about while out in a sleet storm in the darkest depths of a diet failing January.

Waking to wall to wall sunshine in Leah’s new Aberdeen flat, I knew the opportunity of getting out into the Shire was too good to miss. Though Cruden Bay maybe wouldn’t have such an adventurous or large hobbit population.

We set out in the Mitsubishi for Ellon at around lunchtime in search of some fish and chips by the seaside. My morning had involved a dehydrated run in the 21c heat. Maybe not the best running conditions for a Scotsman with poor temperature control.

It took all but 25 minutes to reach the market town where we found a one way system implemented in the name of social distancing. Passing the Tolbooth pub, we found the Bridge Street chippy closed, perhaps a sign of the lasting impact of Cornonavirus on small businesses.

I had last visited the Tolbooth in March, sharing pints with my Dad and Grandad as we watched Scotland overcome Italy in the Six Nations. This must have been amongst the last days of recent normality for most in this country. Although a Scottish away victory was pretty abnormal.

And so we tried nearby Cruden Bay for some greasy, salty, heart stopping battered cod. Having visited the coastal village several times with both grandparents as a child, the village was smaller than I remembered.

With no chippy in sight, we eventually settled for a chicken sandwich and an ice cream from the newsagents. I happily gobbled on my Feast after my trademark poor attempt at parking.

Our destination by foot was Slains Castle, a 16th century ruin 3/4 miles north of Cruden Bay. Not the old church transformed into a dimly lit watering hole on Belmont Street in Aberdeen.

Emerging from a pathway surrounded by woods and into the piercing sunlight we had our first sighting of Slains Castle.

Often referred to as New Slains Castle due to the Old Slains castle which formerly existed south of Cruden Bay, this one was built in 1597. It was lived in by the Errol family until the early 20th century, this surname being a namesake for the nearby primary school.

The castle itself sits impressively upon some sheer cliffs, almost jutting out into the North Sea. Even on a windless Thursday afternoon it is easy to imagine this spot on a dark and stormy night with slight fear and intrigue. The sound of the waves mercilessly pounding the rocks below in the pitch darkness.

Wondering around the roof less ruins it’s not difficult to understand where Bram Stoker’s apparent inspiration for a setting of Dracula came from. During an 1890s visit to the North-East, the Irishmen apparently imagined the vampire taking flight from the castle’s dramatic surroundings, perhaps sailing to the location from the far off Transylvania.

Our stay was far less dramatic as we enjoyed our chicken sandwiches in peace, before carefully strolling around the building’s remains. At one point it would have housed 14 bedrooms, although I didn’t quite trust the structural integrity of the building to venture upstairs.

The inherent lack of any roof makes Slains Castle look more weathered than it perhaps would have otherwise. Though apparently the roof was removed for economical reasons, the second owners of the castle being unable to pay their taxes in the 1920s.

In one room facing the North Sea is a huge gap where a window would have once been. Not daring to go to close I admired the view, trying to consider just how far it really was to Norway and how long it would have taken the Vikings to get to Scotland’s shores.

On the other side of the castle there are also impressive views, with a patchwork of fields giving way to the distant humble beginnings of the Grampian Mountains. With grandparents in Ellon and formerly in Newburgh, this is a scene I grew accustomed to in my childhood. Bennachie and its distinctive shape being the standout feature in a landscape of farms and wind turbines.

It was therefore with a bittersweet feeling that we wondered back to the faithful Mitibushi and travelled back into the Granite City. It’s no secret that I love this part of the world, Aberdeenshire that is.

It’s no surprise then that I’d highly recommend a trip to Slains Castle. From Aberdeen it takes less than 30 minutes to reach by car and if travelling on public transport there are usually buses to Cruden Bay on an hourly basis.

And if you do find yourself at the precarious yet impressive ruin, do mind the drop and don’t expect to sight Dracula. I hear he holidays around these parts at Christmas time and isn’t the sociable type. Though maybe the prospect of a potentially hard Brexit has put him off from visiting this winter.

Disclaimer: I’ve never actually read Dracula, but its definitely on my reading list now!

 

 

 

Like Riding Through Treacle

It’s always difficult to get out of bed when you can actually hear the rain and wind battering your bedroom windows. Friday morning was no exception to this rule. Awaking early for my planned ride I thought, ‘it’s June, it can’t be that cold outside.’ Spoiler alert: it was pretty cold.

Not only was it unseasonably chilly, but cycling the strong northerly wind forecasted was also an ominous sign. I would be heading northwards back to Braemar after being dropped off in rural Perthshire.

Eventually hauling myself outside and into the car later than planned, my raynaud’s was already starting to kick in. On reaching the summit of Britain’s highest A-road I noticed with some anxiety that the temperature reading was hovering around a balmy 3 °C.

After being dropped off I was soon on my way. The first section of the 30 mile ride was deceptively easy. Me and my sexy lycra were sheltered from the wind with a kindly gradient to boot.

Even the first climb was relatively simple. I started to convince myself that it was going to take no time at all to cycle home as I powered up the incline like a heavy set Nairo Quintana. That being if the Colombian regularly barely digested three soggy Weetabix before a Tour de France stage. This was going to be a piece of piss.

On reaching a less sheltered section of the road this arrogance was deservedly dashed by a strong northerly wind rearing which finally reared its ugly head. I enjoy a cool breeze on a hot June day as much as the next guy. When its cold and I’m trying to ride a bike however, I’m not as much of a fan.

The long and winding road to Spittal of Glenshee ascends and descends repetitively and it was on these small bumps that I realised I should of sorted my lazy lockdown sleep pattern out. For all intent and purpose my legs felt like they were still snoozing.

Passing the remote village across the modern looking McThomas Bridge the ride became tougher still. On the approach to the steep Cairnwell Pass, a section of road known locally as the ‘Slide’ for the direct route it takes to the valley floor, there was now no shelter at all from the incessant headwind.

The road over this hill used to be infamous for being one of the toughest routes in Britain. The now retired Devil’s Elbow included a double hairpin which unsurprisingly  proved a challenge for many motorists before a newer road was completed in the 1960s.

Looking down at the hillside below where this sensational road formerly lay, I grinded away in my smallest ring like a persistent snail, trying to ignore the lactate acid screaming murder in my cold legs.

It was on this pain inducing incline that I began to do some thinking. Not an unusual pastime for me, but not a particular strong point of mine when there is a distraction such as palpable lower leg pain.

I started to draw some clumsy comparisons between life and my sudden realisation at that precise moment there was only one objective which I wanted to achieve. All I wanted to do in that moment was to keep turning the pedals. That was of a crucial importance if I wanted to reach the Ski Centre two kilometres up the road without coming to an anti- climatic halt. 

Keeping it relatively brief, there are two clear trains of thought which entered my head as I traversed the hillside in the rain and wind. The first is that life can be a real grind.

That patience and a persistent effort is likely to be key in achieving personal goals and finding a fulfilling happiness in your lifestyle, even if the process towards succeeding in these areas can be slow.  This can also definitely be discovered in another person’s happiness.

Secondly, I considered how it takes a sustained and often slowly building effort to change your views. To educate yourself or others. To constantly bat away any ignorant or outdated views that you may have held for a while, perhaps years.

As an individual and a wider society we should always aim to make progress. Even if that progress is difficult, painful and slow, perhaps often frustratingly so. There is always progress to be made.

Weaving across the now 10% gradient road I considered this second point especially and thought about how weak the old arguments of ‘how it wasn’t like that in my day’ are. Similar worn-out excuses equating to the mentality that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Everyone, no matter their age or experiences has the ability to change their views. Everyone should have the ability to arrive at a different less thought out conclusion than they have previously reached. Even a huge amount of patience, humility and effort.

Bike on the bike, it took me all but 17 minutes to reach the summit. My reward? The king of all eye hurting headwinds combined with icy rain. Cycling past the empty chairlifts of the ski centre I could barely keep my eyes open as icy rain blasted my frozen facial features.

Eventually I completed the descent into Braemar and this was where I experienced my highlight of the day, maybe the week. Earlier in the ride I’d been passed by a Co-op lorry and before entering the village I met the same green vehicle again, heading southbound this time.

The driver promptly flashed his lights at me, giving me a heart warming thumbs up as he sped past. This gesture was the perfect remedy to a life which has often recently felt similar to being in a social bubble, sporadically interrupted by a pandemonic social media feed.

During the current events an innocuous glance at my multiple digital feeds presents many voices in favour of positive change. However, many others seem to enjoy disregarding or shutting down the important debate and issues which have almost became all encompassing right now.

Obviously, these negative voices can often drown out the helpful and pragmatic voices of the moment. I guess, perhaps naively, that driver’s simple gesture helped restore some faith on humanity on a visual level. If that makes sense?

Black Lives Matter https://blacklivesmatter.com/

 

An Irish Guinness Please

With a sense of intrepidation, I climbed the narrow steps leading to the small Aer Lingus flight which would be taking my Dad and I to Dublin. I’d describe it as smaller than a small plane. The mini bus of planes if you like.

Boarding the propeller plane, I rembered I’d previously convinced myself that it’s important to feel at least a little nervous about flying. It’s almost as if I feel I’ll be tempting fate if I fly with stonewall confidence. A confidence that this miraculous and almost non-sensical invention with all its intricate moving parts will actually work.

The take-off was most likely textbook and I still found myself worrying, becoming increasingly nervous as the prop launched itself into the skies above Aberdeen at an astonishing rate. It was a beautiful winter morning and we got a good view of the Granite City as we turned to go inland.

Carefully combining an uncomfortable nap with unnecessary worrying about normal inflight sounds meant the journey  went quickly and it wasn’t long before we were lining up with the runway at Dublin International. While we descended, a flat calm Irish Sea glistened in the sunshine below and the pilot was able to make a smoother than smooth landing.

Arriving in the Irish capital I was struck by how much larger Dublin is than I thought it would be. Stepping of the bus in the city centre, I was greeted by the sights and sounds of O’Connell Street. A seemingly less miserable version of Aberdeen’s Union Street if you will.

From there we strolled down the street to the rather peculiar Spire. An 120 metre steel monument which towers over the surrounding buildings. Alongside its slightly absurd location and shape, it is unusual that there are little to no information boards at the base of the structure.

A quick Wikipedia search reveals it is also referred to as the Monument of Life or the An Tur Salais in Gaelic. I thought it resembled the top of Thunderbird One, but that’s probably just my left of field imagination. Judgements on its aesthetics aside, standing at the bottom of the Spire and looking up certainly made me feel rather dizzy.

It being a Sunday morning, I was slightly disappointed to not see the inside of the renowned General Post Office. Remaining as the Irish Postal Service’s headquarters, it is known for the significant role it played in the Easter Rising of 1916. To this day bullet holes remain in its impressive, but weathered columns.

Wondering away from the city’s main drag and we came across the grounds of Ireland’s oldest university, Trinity College. From there was decided an open bus tour was in order, forgetting to account for the cold breeze which would accompany this activity on an already chilly January day.

Managing about halfway around the bus tour, the old man and myself both simultaneously succumbed to the cold and hopped off when the bus returned to near the city centre. It was insightful yet delivered in a downbeat and slightly dutiful fashion. Though I’m quick to admit I would find it near impossible to juggle dozens of historic accuracies while attempting to navigate Dublin’s busy streets with a bus.

From the driver’s commentary I learned that around three million litres of Guinness are produced at the 64 acre brewery in the city. On several occasions we travelled past the famous black gates associated with the dark stout.

The bus also took us through the vast Phoenix Park which is home to Viceregal Lodge. This grande building set off Chesterfield Avenue being the Irish President’s house.

Passing the large brewery again, I was reminded of the only time I’d tried Guinness previously. It was at a summer test at Murrayfield on a warm Edinburgh day. The drink was presented in a plastic cup and was overpriced and warm.

However, following the tour we decided to warm up in a sports bar which was showing European Champions Cup rugby action. A half-pint later and I’d changed my mind about Guinness.

My girlfriend suggested I’m a changed man when I broke this news to her later that day, though the more realistic theory is that Guinness does really taste better in Ireland. It was also refreshing to see the rugby given priority over the football. This would be a rare occurrence in Scotland.

After enjoying Dublin’s fair city where I’m not at liberty to describe whether the girls are pretty, we set off into the countryside on the bus. Our destination was the midsts of County Wicklow and into Baltinglass.

Travelling through darkness for the best part of two hours, we were eventually dropped off in the small town where we’d be staying for the next couple of days.

The next morning we arose to a hard frost, wrapping off before driving into the Wicklow mountains to find the roads slick with ice. Experiencing some hairy moments on slippy roads, we arrived at the Glendalough Visitor Centre and the starting point of our planned walk shaken but not stirred.

Walking along the Upper Lake we made our way uphill and out of the cooling shade at the floor of the valley. For around 125 years the Glendalough valley was home to the a lead mine and this is indicated by the old ruins of a miner’s village. I can imagine this would be quite a haunting spot at night and this is furthered by the old graveyard we passed at the beginning of the hike.

Lunch at the head of the valley was followed by an often stomach churning walk alongside a ridge with steep drops to one side. This trail on the southern side of the lake amazingly encompasses around 600 railways sleepers ending in steep steps when it eventually descends to the valley floor.

Following this stunning walk we made our way to Dublin again, taking the coastal route to hopefully avoid anymore sketchy roads. The seaside town of Bray provided a pleasant place for us to stop-off for a hot drink. Although it was surprising to see ice creams being consumed in temperatures little over 5c.

We didn’t spend long in Dublin this time and experienced the city’s rush hour. This proved equally insightful as witnessed countless risky manoeuvres and several kamikaze cyclists on their commute home. I’m glad I wasn’t driving or worse, cycling.

Soon our last day on the Emerald Isle came around and I awoke this time to discover a thick mist blanketing the surrounding landscape. We had a relatively quiet day, travelling to nearby Carlow, a larger town of around 24,000 residents.

A brief tour of the town was carried out in less than ideal weather and if pushed I’d compare it to an Irish Inverurie. A place where your Grandmother likes to go shopping, but not somewhere that might be at the top of your destination list.

Poorly grounded judgements aside and the next day was our cue to travel back to sunny Scotland. Surviving the plane journey again through distracting myself from thinking about the physics of flight, I was pleased I’d visited Eire proper and pledged to return.

I had only visited a small part of this island nation, but would like to see more of the country in the summer when it will surely be warmer. Three days well spent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Away Days – Taking the Ferry to Shetland

As I left my flat on a grey Aberdeen afternoon, my legs decided they wanted to take me on a long, winding route to the harbour. It was a Thursday and I should have been attending a lecture like a good student does. However, there was a good reason for my absence as the time had finally arrived to go and visit my girlfriend.

Usually it would have taken me 20 minutes or less to walk to Leah’s flat which is ironically located near the ferry terminal. On this day, however, it was going to take slightly longer and was going to involve a huge test of my pretty non-existent sea legs.
My lack of sea legs had let me down when travelling to the Hebrides in the past and when boarding the Yasawa Flyer to the Fijian islands among other boat-related experiences. I didn’t entrust a huge amount of confidence in them at this point in time, realising it would be an even longer journey if I couldn’t stomach the often unpredictable North Sea waters.

You see Leah is on placement in the Shetland Isles, but more specifically she is on placement in Lerwick, the isles’ largest settlement and a town which is home to the northernmost Tesco in the British Isles. Obviously, this was slightly less exciting than the chance to see Leah again, but it’s a fact worth noting in my opinion.

I boarded the boat a good hour before she was set to leave on her 14-hour voyage. I was very excited, but also hugely nervous. Nervous because I had no sea legs. Nervous because I didn’t know how I was going to keep my ever-restless body entertained for 14-hours. And nervous because I had stupidly been reading up on the shipping forecast and it said it was going to be a little rough.

Just before 5pm the large roll-off role-on ferry left its berth and I was able to take some good photos of the old pilot’s house, my late grandfather’s former place of work. As we left the harbour’s sea wall behind, I realised I wasn’t too displeased at all to be leaving Aberdeen behind for a few days. The Granite City was looking as grey as ever and my mind needed sometime away from the urban sprawl.

Not long after passing the new and more modern pilot house I wondered if my grandfather would have thought I was pathetic for feeling slightly seasick already as we encountered the first North Sea breakers. Having approached my reserved reclining seat nearer the bow of the ship, I quickly realised I wouldn’t be able to stay there for long as a staggered around helplessly, suddenly feeling sick to the gills.

Eventually I was able to steady myself as I became more in tune with the motion of the boat, plonking myself down in the dining area, located near the vessel’s stern.

Occasionally I would step out onto the back deck, the fresh breeze helping as I watched the coastline north of Aberdeen in the fading light. I have no doubt it could have been a lot rougher, but the occasional larger swell would sometimes result in other passengers losing their footing to the cacophony of crashing silverware in the nearby kitchen.

As the Northlink ferry steamed away from the coastline, I was even able to eat something as I gradually began to feel less queasy. My concerns where transferred from my stomach to the adventures of Winston Smith as I dived into reading ‘1984’. I haven’t read many novels in recent years but had completed 200 pages of George Orwell’s terrifying dystopian masterpiece by the time we reached Lerwick.

More importantly, it kept me busy during a long sleepless night in the dining area. I had again attempted to no avail to return to my reclining seat, but despite the calming seas, I was unable to stomach any significant time spent away from my camp out near the vessel’s stern.

At around midnight the MV Hrossey had reached Orkney. I watched the lights of Kirkwall flickering from out on the deck as a sniffer dog smelled me curiously. I wondered how easy it would be to smuggle illegal substances into the Northern Isles, though this dog was more interested in my polos in my pocket.

After departing Kirkwall, the remainder of the journey was punctuated by short cold and uncomfortable bouts of sleep and reading. Unsurprisingly, ‘1984’ wasn’t doing much to lighten the mood as I sat alone, trying to ignore the noticable motion of the boat.
Throughout the night, I often wondered out onto the back deck, shivering uncontrollably as I watched the slight outline of the vessel’s wake as it cut through the icy cold North Sea waters. There was very little else to see except the frequent emergence of the stars in the night sky when the clouds would temporarily clear.

However, I found peace in looking out into the dark abyss as I searched for any distant lights of other boats, land or oil platforms in a natural darkness unlike any other I had ever experienced. There was something mysterious and slightly magical about it all as I looked out into the seemingly never-ending darkness. I almost felt like the world was my oyster, a feeling which had escaped me in recent months.

Eventually, the darkness faded into light as we passed the southern tip of the Shetland mainland, before Lerwick came into view on the starboard side of the boat. My poor stomach was finally able to relax as the Captain skilfully manoeuvred his boat into its berthing spot in the town’s harbour. I had somehow survived the journey without throwing my guts up. Perhaps I do have some sea legs after all.

Before I knew it I was on dry land again and with Leah, having experienced what getting the boat to Shetland is like. It had been a long, tiring journey while being an adventure which had reminded me about how exciting travelling can truly be. It was also worth every second as Leah reminded me when she gave me a big hug in the ferry terminal.