A view of Scotland's Dunnotar Castle on the coast of Aberdeenshire

Aberdeenshire Castles & the Royal Family’s Balmoral Estate

SCOTLAND

Plan a visit to the northeast coast of Scotland, rich with historic fortresses, stunning castles and the royal family’s famous summer residence 

Dramatic cliffs, fairytale-pink castles and the Queen’s summer home make the Aberdeenshire Castles of Scotland a noble and fascinating holiday destination.

The most famous of the estates, Balmoral Castle, the summer home of the Royal Family, is perhaps even more familiar to the millions of people who watch The Crown on Netflix.

Lady Diana Spencer is first introduced to the Royal Family at Balmoral as is show in season 4, and a country girl at heart, is shown trudging happily alongside Prince Philip as they hunt a stag on a sodden Scottish moor.

When we travelled to Scotland with our young teen boys, the Aberdeen seaside and castles seemed an easy sell. We also found out that one side of my husband’s family, the Pirie clan, apparently came from Aberdeen, the largest city of the region.

Google Map

Aberdeenshire Castles

Having visited, I can say that the Aberdeenshire Castles trail, rich in history, significant architecture, and gorgeous scenery, would appeal to many types of travelers.

There are more than 260 castles, stately homes and medieval ruins in the region; I’ve selected 10 of the most popular, several of which we visited and others which are on my list for next time – I am definitely returning to Scotland. 

I’ve arranged them into a four-day itinerary of Aberdeenshire Castles. Tickets for each castle are purchased separately, online.  However, if you plan to visit multiple castles, you may want to consider a membership with the National Trust of Scotland which preserves and manages six of the properties listed below: Crathes Castle, Craigievar Castle, Castle Fraser, Drum Castle, Leith’s Hall and Fyvie. National Trust of Scotland.

Note: As of late 20202, openings vary, due to Covid-19. Please check websites for latest information. When indoor exhibits are open, masks are required

DAY 1

Balmoral Castle

Balmoral Castle in Scotland

In August each year, Queen Elizabeth moves to her summer home in Scotland.  Balmoral Castle is set in the stunning Cairngorms National Park, as shown on the map above. It’s ideally suited for the country life which the royal family has such for.

The first home was built here in the 14th century, but the property wasn’t owned by the royal family until 1852 when Prince Albert purchased it for Queen Victoria. 

How to Visit Balmoral Castle

Sheep are often seen among the Aberdeenshire castles

Balmoral Castle is open to visitors as of November 2020, through the end of the year.  Socially-distanced guided tours are being held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The one-hour tour takes guests inside the castle to the ballroom where important objects from around the castle have been placed on display. The Game Larder and Ice House are also a part of the tour, and afterward, guests are free to explore the grounds and gardens. Bookings must be made in advance at the Balmoral website. 

Another special way to explore the estate, and view wildlife in the stunning national park, is on a Balmoral safari tour.  Safaris are on hold as of late 2020, due to Covid-19; check the Balmoral website for the latest information.

 

Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire Scotland

And if you want to live like royalty for a few days, cottages are available for rent on the Balmoral property – just not when the Queen is in residence. 

DAY 2

Dunnottar Castle

Dunnottar Castle sits on the Aberdeen coastline
Dunnottar Castle sits on the Aberdeen coastline

After Balmoral, Dunnottar Castle is a stark but stunning contrast. A ruined medieval fort set high on a rock cliff, surrounded on three sides by the North Sea. It was built between the 14th and 17th centuries, although the site was a part of Scottish history as far back as the 5th century when it was a Pictish fortress (the Picts were the Celtic people who lived in this this region in the early and middle ages.) 

The castle is accessed by a narrow isthmus of land and stone-cut path which winds to the top with gorgeous views along the way. 

It’s fun to meander among the ruins and imagine all that has happened here: the site has been besieged and invaded by the Vikings, and it was bunt and rebuilt more than once. Mary Queen of Scots visited in 1562 and Cromwell’s English army was held off, and the Scottish Crown Jewels saved from destruction.

Dunnottar Castle, a ruined medieval fortress
The ruined Dunnottar Castle with gorgeous views of the North Sea.

And beyond all that, it is simply a stunning place to walk around. The ruins are interesting and the coastal views spectacular. Below the castle is a striking beach with tidepools that is also worth a visit, especially if you are with kids. 

Dunnottar is a spectacular stop on the Aberdeeenshire Castles Trail, so I recommend prioritizing it on your itinerary. It is open as of late 2020, and tickets are only available for purchase online: Dunnottar Castle.

An opening in the stone wall with a sign Thief's Hole at Dunnottar Castle Scotland
Thief's Hole at Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeenshire Scotland

Drum Castle

Drum Castle is over 700 years old

Drum Castle features one of Scotland’s oldest tower houses, built in 1323. Climb the medieval tower to enjoy an amazing view of this historic estate and countryside. The property was built over centuries so represents various periods including a Jacobean mansion house and a Victorian library with a collection of 4,000 rare books. 

The “Garden of Historic Roses” here has four unique rose garden areas – roses have grown here for 400 years! If this is of particular interest, the roses are best enjoyed in June and July. Drum also has a stunning stone chapel with stained glass windows; it’s a well-preserved gem dating to the 1500’s.

If you’ve always wanted to sleep in a castle, this is your chance. Drum Castle has a one-bedroom 16th century apartment located in its ancient courtyard. Sleep at Drum Castle.

Crathes Castle

Crathes Castle Scotland with ancient yew hedges
Crathes Castle with yew hedges dating to the 1700's

Crathes castle may not be the most spectacular of the Aberdeenshire Castles, but the setting has a fantastical sort of  “Alice in Wonderland” feeling.

Perhaps it’s the ancient yew hedges shaped into giant bulbous sculptures. Or maybe it’s the perfectly manicured croquet field with colourful gardens at its edge. It all made me feel as though the Queen of Hearts or Cheshire cat might appear as we toured this stunning Scottish estate.

A man walks through a beautiful garden at Crathes Castle
The beautiful flower garden and grounds make Crathes Castle special
People stand on a croquet field at Crathes Castle in Scotland
We had the chance to try our hand at croquet, while visiting Crathes Castle

There is as much to see outside Crathes Castle and if you are lucky as we were, a chance to play croquet with members of the local croquet club. Allow extra time for some unexpected fun at Crathes.

DAY 3

Fyvie Castle

Fyvie Castle, one of the most striking in Aberdeenshire Scotland

A castle and fortress and one of the most impressive on this list, Fyvie is considered the finest example of Scottish Baronial architecture. It was owned by five successive families over 800 years with each adding a tower onto the castle.

 

Fyvie is very large and offers lots to explore including a walled garden and loch (a small lake), racquets court and bowling alley, ice house and bird hide.

Inside, are a collection of lavish oil paintings and portraits by Raeburn, Batoni, Romney, Gainsborough, Opie, Lawrence and Hoppner.

Leith Hall

Leith Hall in Aberdeenshire Scotland

This impressive house is filled with interesting objects from around the world, the treasures of ten generations of the aristocratic Leith-Hay family

The building dates to 1650 and also has a military exhibition, telling the story of generations of military men in the family. The house also served as an auxiliary hospital during World War I.

After exploring the castle, wander through the beautiful gardens, spiral mazes and three trails. There is also a shop and tearoom here.

Duff House

The grand and striking Duff House in Scotland

This baroque mansion was built by architect William Adam; it was an ambitious and expensive project completed in 1735, after several delays and disagreements. 

This house also has an eclectic recent history. It was sold by the family in 1906 and thereafter served as a hotel, and a sanatorium. During World War II it was an internment camp and a headquarters for Allied regiments. In 1940, a bombing raid by the German army damaged the house.

After extensive restoration work, Duff House opened to the public in 1995 as a country house art gallery. Visit to see the permanent artwork collection  – a satellite of the National Galleries of Scotland –  works by El Greco, Gainsborough, Raeburn and Ramsay,  as well as important tapestries. 

DAY 4

Castle Fraser

Castle Fraser, among the more striking of the Aberdeenshire Castles

Castle Fraser dates to 1636 and features one of the largest tower houses in Scotland. This castle is beautifully preserved and decorated inside with a striking Great Hall.

This is well-suited to exploration by children with fun features such as secret staircases, trapdoors, a spy hole and a wooden leg. It also has a walled garden; all its features create a sort of magical castle of your imagination. 

Craigievar Castle, a lovely pink hue and set among trees

Craigievar Castle

This gorgeous pink castle looks like something out of a fairytale; it feels as if Rapunzel might appear in the highest window and unfurl her hair. The architecture is a classic and beautiful example of the Scottish Baronial style, with iconic turrets. It remains one of the best-preserved of this style in Aberdeenshire and all of Scotland. 

The castle is explored on a guided tour and it has a significant collection of art and artifacts, including paintings and an armory. There are also two hiking trails here: a 1.2 km walk and a 3.2 km hike. 

The path to Craigievar Castle
The garden at Craigievar Castle Scotland

Its tall narrow shape give it a unique and magical feeling. It’s said that Craigievar Castle was Walt Disney’s inspiration when he envisioned Cinderella’s Castle for Walt Disney World. 

Tolquhon Castle Scotland
Tolquhon Castle, Scotland. Image: cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Mike Searle - geograph.org.uk/p/1872129

Tolquhon Castle

I didn’t make it to Tolquhon Castle but it’s said to be a fascinating  ruin and beautiful site. You could skip this if you feel you’ve already seen a castle ruin at Dunnottar. Conversely, if the drama of the Dunnottar ruins were especially enjoyable for your group, make a stop at Tolquhon. 

As with other castles  on the tour, the oldest part of the castle is a tower house, said to be built by Sir John Forbes in 1420. What remains of the castle today was finished in 1589. 

Although ruined castles don’t have all of the details that tell a story of the daily life of the people who once lived here, the dramatic remains offer inspiration for the imagination. 

View from Crathes Castle over its garden and the rolling countryside
A view out over the countryside of Aberdeenshire Castles

Visit Scotland is a wonderful resource for planning a trip to see the Aberdeenshire Castles, as well as the rest of Scotland.  

 

A man and his son sit at at a table in a country hotel in Scotland

Where to Stay near Balmoral & Castle Trail

Ramoir House

We stayed in a gorgeous Scottish country house with gorgeous views in all directions. The Raemoir House is only half an hour from Aberdeen which has an international airport. From here, you are in the midst of Scottish Castle country and about 40 minutes to Balmoral Castle. (I’ve marked the location on the map at the top of the story.)

The original house dates to 1690 and all the main rooms have an open fire; we visited in June and enjoyed the expansive lawn and sitting outside, but this would be perfect in winter.  After a day of site seeing I felt as if we had stepped into a Victorian novel as we enjoyed a cocktail and played games in the stunning Oval Room with its Victorian flocked-velvet walls and old family portraits.

 

Raemoir House, Aberdeenshire Scotland
Raemoir House, in Aberdeenshire Scotland is a 40-minute drive from Balmoral Castle

The house has a gorgeous formal dining room and for a more casual meal with the kids, we loved the Big Fish bar (pictured above). The big catch and celebrity of the bar weighs 96 pounds apparently. He sits above a well appointed and stocked whiskey cabinet.

The property is set on 14 acres of secluded wood with walking trails nearby. A lovely hike to the top of the hill offers views of the North Sea in the distance. 

It was a little pricey, as we needed two rooms since we were traveling with the boys, but it was a worthwhile indulgence and highlight of our time in the UK. And the prefect place from which to explore the stunning castles of Aberdeenshire. 

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Scotland Car Rental

This section contains affiliate links that could provide me with a commission, at no cost to you, if you make a reservation or purchase. More information at: Privacy & Disclosure.

We rented our car in Scotland with EuropCar and were very happy with the car, the price and the service. I’ve found the biggest way to save money is to reserve well ahead (most car reservations can be cancelled for free). Car rental pricing is dynamic – as demand increases closer to the date, so does the price.

A couple of things to keep in mind about UK car rentals: Not everyone is comfortable driving in the UK, on the left side of the road. My husband is fine with it, I’m not. Secondly, cars in the UK and Europe more often have standard transmission; if you want an automative, you will have to request it specifically, and double-check they have it available. 

Find more information and quotes at: EuropCar

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About - Midlife Globetrotter

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I’m glad you’re here. Can we talk about midlife? I reached my late 40’s, realized my kids were growing up, and adventure began calling in a new way: big travel adventures as well as everyday ones. I want Midlife Globetrotter to be a place where we explore how to add a sense of fun, freedom and meaning to these precious years. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and all that’s ahead.

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