Co-ordinates: 57* 08.77’N, 002* 05.32’W
Weather: Cloudy with rain, some sunny spells, cold wind
Air Temperature: 14C
Our penultimate day began early with arrival into busy Aberdeen docks at 7am, a place I have often been birding in looking for gulls in the winter. The docks are a remarkable complex, a place of travel and tourism, a place of industry, a place of fishing and a place devoted to the boom industry of oil exploration and supply. Indeed, this diversity of work and purpose in ‘the granite city’ (Aberdeen) was something that our tour guides immediately pointed out as we departed on coaches for a day of excitement and investigation. Soon we were looking at the mix of ancient and modern in the city streets, gazing at cathedrals, university buildings, the grand and broad Union Street, and the modern use of townhouses as financial service centres, oh, and a church that was now a pub, with the pulpit being used as a place for the DJ to spin records! But our final destination lay outside the city, away to the west in Royal Deeside. I was thrilled to show people three red kites as we journeyed through fertile agricultural land dotted with copse woodland and marshes, to the north of the famed salmon-fishing River Dee. These birds are part of a new re-introduction project by conservation bodies to help these raptors spread across all suitable parts of Scotland, and to allow established populations to linkup and inter-breed to spread the gene pool.
A combination of myself and the tour guide offered up historical and contemporary observations on the landscape and villages and towns we passed through, Aboyne, Ballater, Banchory, Crathes, with the final destination for the morning being the Highland town of Braemar (famous for it’s Highland Games and Royal patronage). This was a wonderful return to the geographical area of study that my PhD was based on for me, and I was thrilled to be able to share those memories and that acquired knowledge with guests. It was lovely to be back in the hills of Royal Deeside.
We toured two castles today. The first, privately restored and run by the dedicated local community, was Braemar Castle. This was very much a work in progress, and we were exceptionally privileged to have the castle owners open up to let us take a guided tour. The restoration of the fabric and contents of the castle continues, and I was interested to see how the group of volunteers were fighting for funding to continue the project and how money already donated was being deployed. I wish them well in this great endeavour, made all the more worthy by the powerful local and regional story being told here. After a hearty Scottish lunch of smoked salmon and Aberdeen Angus beef at the gloriously located Banchory Lodge Hotel (on the banks of a gambolling river lined with birch and alder woodland), we journeyed onwards to Crathes Castle, a popular stop on the ‘best castles’ tour of Scotland. Here, a completely different fortified house and formal garden greeted us, and the sun came out as we ascended turret towers and gazed out over walled gardens and topiary yew hedges. Crathes has a set of excellent guides and I noted the care with which they told the story of both the caste and the family owners, and set this against wider national events. The Queen had visited both our castles, and signed the visitor book, but then we were in her beloved country, near her summer retreat at Balmoral Castle and the wee kirk at Crathes where the media gather on Sundays in August to catch a glimpse of the Royal Family going to worship. We saw both places. Caught by the occasional light shower, and soaked in a landscape so fully associated with Royalty, we returned to the ship at 6pm, full of cheer and better patriots for it! And so to Leith overnight, the port of Edinburgh and sadly the end of our round-Britain adventure.