“Ye hiv tae ken faar tae look. Ye need tae ken a the different places tae actually see the good characteristics o Aiberdeen.”
This was Leah’s wonderfully positive reply to a pretty negative question which I had tasked her with. It had come towards the end of a practice interview as part of my placement at Scots Radio. I had asked her if she thought Aberdeen had “something gaun fer it?”
My ever patient girlfriend from Keith was helping me sharpen my broadcasting skills as we discussed the idea of ‘A Sense of Place’, using the Scots language. This straight to the point reply took me aback and resonated with me as someone also from another part of the North-East.
You see lockdown and my third year as an Aberdeen resident has given me an opportunity to understand the city better. To realise that there is more to the Granite City than the unerotic shades of grey its nickname conjures up.
Growing up in a rural Aberdeenshire setting I always saw Aberdeen as somewhere I didn’t want to be. A larger dot on the road atlas I obsessed over. Eight capital letters at the end of the red A93. A destination which offered little more than 30 minutes of hell in John Lewis and a cringy secondary school date to Cineworld at Union Square. Snobbish I know.
Fast forward out of my teenage years (thank God) and I now feel more Aberdonian by the day. I’ve even considered changing my Facebook profile home town to Scotland’s third city. Therefore, renouncing the romantic falsification that I originally hail from a small fishing village (I spent my first year of my life in Whitehills, near Banff).
Through running (shock horror) and walking these streets, I’ve discovered parts of Aberdeen that I love. The River Don trail, Bucksburn Gorge, Seaton Park, Northfield Tower, Donmouth Nature Reserve and Girdle Ness lighthouse to name just a few.
Staying here due to lockdown imposed necessity has meant appreciating Aberdeen and it’s less obvious details more. I now search for previously unexposed detours amongst its many streets. I people watch and inspect every day life inside the city limits with an attentive curiosity that I didn’t have previously.
A large part of this is of course my connection with the harbour. This is where my late grandfather worked as a harbour pilot for many years.
At the entrance to the harbour sits the roundhouse, now dwarfed by a larger less aesthetically pleasing maritime operations building. The former is where my grandpa was based.
I often take a seat on one of the marble benches nearby, watching the boats of all shapes and sizes sail peacefully into the North Sea. This is somewhere I visit in search of some headspace. A place of important and joyful memories.
I think my memories are always intrinsically linked with the places I’ve been and the places I’m from and that this can sometimes be detrimental. For example, I realise that I was incredibly lucky to grow up in Deeside with the countryside as a playground and relatively safe adventures a stone throw away.
Unfortunately I feel I have to reconcile these feelings with some painful memories which I’ve tried to leave behind. Its not even events which happened in those geographical places, but more what headspace I was occupying while I was there.
This is course offset by a catalogue of wonderful memories with friends and family. By saying I’m from Aberdeen I feel I’m actually more connected with my family. They come from across the North-East and many have made memories of varying degrees in Aberdeen.
Over the last three years I’ve spent in the Granite City I’ve made an overwhelming amount of happy memories. I’ve stuck at a university course and will hopefully be going into fourth year next year. Additionally, I met my girlfriend here, I’ve shared two flats with brilliant flatmates, experienced the excitement of living in student halls and made good progress towards achieving my dream of becoming a journalist.
I now feel like an Aberdonian. A title I would be disinterested in claiming several months ago. This teuchter is gradually becoming a toonser and I don’t know whether to be pleased, slightly terrified or both.
Bringing in the distant bells of 2021 atop Creag Choinnich, I felt truly hopeful. I didn’t know what the start of this year would bring, but I did have one definite purpose: To cycle, run and walk 300 miles between New Year’s Day and the 6th February.
It had all started with a message into a family group chat from my Dad. The old man suggested my brother and I join him in logging our miles for the Doddie Aid challenge. This challenge would run throughout January and up until Scotland’s Calcutta Cup clash with England.
He didn’t have to wait long for my reply and I promised to donate a tenth of the miles I completed to the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation. This is a charity inspired by Scotland rugby stalwart Doddie Weir following his diagnosis with Motor Neuron Disease a few years ago.
After we had negotiated the treacherous descent of Creag Choinnich, my Mum and I woke early the next morning, setting off to find the Secret Howff. The location of this secret bothy is meant to be kept secret and we battled through deep snow to find it hidden on an outcrop after a five mile walk in.
At several moments during this mini-adventure I felt the cold ease into my bones. Casually chatting with Mum and glancing at Cora dog’s frozen paws warmed me up pretty quickly though. I had barely seen Mum during 2020 due to the sporadic nature of the previous year. This 10 mile walk had been the perfect sociable beginning to Doddie Aid.
I left the natural beauty of Braemar, three furry companions and my mother behind two days later for Aberdeen, just before another lockdown was announced. I added another nine miles in Upper Deeside to my total and then hopped on a bus. I knew I had to try and keep this momentum going in the Granite City.
I walked everyday, trying to discover route variations between Leah’s flat and mine or wandering down to the beach often in the dark. My phone can’t handle GPS, so every mile was being logged manually with the help of Strava’s routes function. Although this process had a time consuming element to it, I love maps so it wasn’t too testing a task.
My running was steady, if not slightly scattered into intermittent blocks of activity. I had habitual routes, but quickly became obsessed with running along the River Don where it almost felt like I was venturing into the countryside again. If only for a short while, I was able to get away from Aberdeen’s cold grey granite and the unnatural right angles of the city streets.
On two successive Saturdays I jogged to the Bridge of Don from my King Street flat, running a 7.4 mile loop around the River Don and timing myself. When I would return around 90 minutes later I was cold, sweaty and clarted in mud. The air felt fresher by the riverside, the trails fun and the nature more…natural. Those two runs were tough and magical in equal measure.
A difficult aspect of the challenge was the weather, with the mercury often plummeting towards freezing for most of the five weeks. This all but put the kibosh on my plans to brush the cobwebs of my bike. I could have ridden it, but I was admittedly nervous to face a potentially sketchy time in the saddle. I hadn’t ridden my stead for nearly six months following a crash at speed in the summer. I didn’t want to dent my confidence and more importantly my body, more seriously.
My original target of 300 miles would have still been reachable, but I unashamedly let this target go. I just wanted to be on my feet and to continue moving. Figures outside my daily totals began to feel meaningless. I took reassurance in taking every day as it comes.
The walking continued and I began to enjoy this less laboured form of exercise more. Towards the end of January the snow was beginning to deepen in areas of Aberdeenshire, but the city remained predominantly icy and sleety. On the penultimate day of the month I ran to the top of Danestone and found some feeble snow underfoot. Sometimes getting that wee bit of altitude opens up the city for those of us who like to explore its many streets.
On Friday 5th February I ran four easy miles around the beach and went straight into the shower on my return, running late for placement. It was only later that I realised my Doddie Aid total was at 190.4 miles. I stared at this figure for a while, in the knowledge that the day after was the final day of the challenge. Surely I had to try and finish on 200 miles?
And so the next day I set off with a 10 mile route planned out. I plodded towards a ominous sky along the Spital, scrambling across the slippery cobblestones of Aberdeen University’s cobblestones. From there I powered up Gordon Brae, breathlessly ascending this longish hill, before joining Whitestripes Road. On the final day of this personal journey I was finally leaving the city by foot. With a dull football playlist on low volume in the background, I ran with purpose in an easterly direction before turning back towards Dyce.
The Raynaud’s in my gloveless hands kicked in without mercy and the pain of having to clasp my phone became slightly overwhelming as I ran on. Continuing back towards the city, I passed a raging River Don which made me feel colder every time I glanced it. For the first time I was able to inspect the paper mills on the other side of the river in more detail. Running is a brilliant medium for actually experiencing your surroundings.
Eventually I reached Aberdeen’s city limits again. Ascending Great Northern Road I was buoyed by the deafening weekend traffic and the pain in my hands. I felt privileged to be able to run and more pertinently, to be able to use my legs for my own enjoyment at this time in my life.
And so with just hours to spare until kick-off at Twickenham I finished the challenge on 200.4ish miles. As promised I donated £20.04 to My Name’s Doddie and I hope I managed to raise a wee bit of awareness through my activities. It was a good excuse to be out and about for a worthwhile cause.
On a more selfish note, as I sat with my hands buried in a towel trying to get some feeling into them again I felt a huge amount of satisfaction. For some 200 miles in five weeks on foot will be impressive, while for others it will be less so. For me, I was just glad I rediscovered a lost love for running and as it turned out, for walking as well. I had pounded Aberdeen’s pavements with a feeling of purpose for five weeks.
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 ofCarn na Drochaidealong 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.