Aberdeenshire is the best place to go castling in Scotland. The highest concentration of castles can be found in this eastern corner of the country that juts out above Edinburgh and below Inverness. To explore this area I based myself in Aberdeen, the only city in the region. Of the near week I spent in this city, I actually did not see much of Aberdeen. Everyday was spent catching trains to other places. Though my movements were limited and slow because I did not have a car, I still managed to see so many castles and ruins that my head started to spin. Sorting through the pictures is a bit of a nightmare considering all the stones start to look the same.
At this point I do not remember everything I learned at each site, but I can tell you that every castle I visited claimed to have hosted Mary Queen of Scots at least once during her short, ill-fated reign. The one cathedral I saw had been a focus point of church power struggles in the area and had been destroyed by at least one King James in an effort to put bishops back in their place.
I will share a few specific stories about these adventures. Scotland is a special place forever in my heart in part because of what happened while I bounced around Aberdeenshire.
The first place I went to is a town called Huntly. I simply wanted to visit the castle there but ended up spending the whole day. This is what happened.
I got off the train started speaking to two women who had also just gotten off the train and were conferring over a map of the town. I asked if they were going to the castle and they said no, they were trying to find the taxi stand where they could catch a ride to the falconry center just outside town. This peaked my interest immediately considering my love of raptors and desire to become a falconer someday. Later we would call this meeting one of those magical coincidences that happen when you keep your eyes open while traveling. They told me how I could find the falconry center and I said I might meet up with them there after I saw the castle.
Once I had explored the castle and walked back to town, I stopped into the tourist information office to ask how to get to the falconry center. The lady there kindly called a taxi for me and in just a few minutes I was on my way. In true Scots fashion, the very friendly driver and I spent the whole ten-minute drive in cheerful conversation. The falconry center itself was a very special place. Owned, and chiefly operated, by a husband and wife team, the whole center consisted of a café, simple lean-to mews, a small shed for leatherworking supplies and hoods, and a breeding barn that was closed to the public. The husband performs demonstrations throughout the day but the bulk of the income for the place comes from the captive breeding he does for certain species. I found my friends from earlier in the day perched on benches in the field where the demonstrations take place. They had meant to go back into town earlier but found the falconer and his birds to be so intriguing that they never wanted to leave. I soon developed a similar sentiment.
The demonstration was a lot more informal than I anticipated. Rather than the natural history lesson followed by a small demonstration of flying that I was expecting, the falconer marched out with an owl and promptly started asking who wanted a turn holding the bird. From five-year-old kids to a sweet old granny, anyone who wanted a chance was given a glove and instructions as to how to hold their arm so the owl could fly to them from a perch. I was astounded and so excited. Something like this would never be allowed in the US. The falconer did give some basic information about the owl, and each of the other half-dozen birds he brought out through the afternoon, but his goal seemed to be more about getting people interacting directly with the birds. The only birds that he did not allow guests to hold were the peregrines. He took out two of these birds to demonstrate their incredible speed. One female he said would be a “bit sticky”, meaning that she had a mind of her own and liked to take her time exploring before getting down to business diving for a lure that the falconer had on a string. The birds seemed to enjoy startling the audience by whizzing right between our heads; their speed and agility were incredible.
When the rest of the guests dispersed, my friends and I lingered to ask questions and even hold some of the larger eagles. I know I will probably never again have the privilege to hold a fully-grown female bald eagle, or feel the weight of a year-old golden eagle. I was grinning the whole afternoon. On the train ride back to Aberdeen, my new friends and I could not stop talking about birds. I had done a little bit of research on how to become a falconer in the US and my companions commented on the serendipity of our meeting: they who had a newfound interest sparked by a memoir they read recently, and me a person who had worked with raptors and done research on how to become a falconer in the US. The evening evolved into a wonderful dinner and conversations about adventures and what it means to be a woman traveling, particularly alone. For my part, I found much inspiration and proof of the quiet power women can achieve when they look deeply at themselves and at the world.
My second story comes from the day I went to Elgin Cathedral and Spynie castle. The cathedral was easy enough to find, as it was located in the center of the small town. The castle was a bit different. I asked the kind gentlemen working the shop of the cathedral how I might get the castle and they directed me to the bus station saying it would be a quick ride on the proper bus. The bus driver, however, claimed to have no idea where to drop me and told me to give a shout when we got close. So much for local knowledge. A large sign proclaiming the castle’s location made both our jobs quite easy and I had a lovely visit at the castle and was given an brief overview of its history by its friendly custodian. Getting back on the bus proved much more awkward. Since there was no definite bus stop, the custodian told me to simply stand at the end of the drive and wave the bus down. Unfortunately, the drive ended at a blind curve and the traffic on the road going past move quite fast. Flagging down the bus would be a challenge. After standing on the side of the road looking a fool for about fifteen minutes, I managed to catch the attention of the first bus that came along. He could not stop directly in front of me because he did not have enough time to slow down, so I had to awkwardly run through the tall weeds on the side of the road for several meters only to be greeted by the driver gently scolding me about standing in the wrong place. Because obviously I would know things like that. Sometimes travel and exploring new places is humbling, but experiences like this teach me to always have a sense of humor and to never be afraid to look like a fool while doing something for the first time.
Spynie castle. Fun fact: this tower is the largest by volume in all of Scotland. Now you can wow someone at your next party. You’re welcome.
My final story from Aberseenshire starts with Dunnotter castle and ends with a music festival in the town of Stonehaven. Dunnotter castle sits on a bluff on the outskirts of Stonehaven. It is a lovely walk from town out along the cliffs to the castle. Of all the castles I visited in my time in Scotland I think Dunnotter was my favorite. The whole complex is fairly intact and the views over the ocean are incredible. The romance of being a seaside lady watching ships pass was easy to imagine.
First glimpse of Dunnotter
Once I finished exploring every corner of the castle, I made my way back into town to find a light lunch. While sitting in a pub enjoy some soup and pint, a woman sat next to me and struck up a conversation. We spent a good two hours discussing the ills of the world over a few more pints. She eventually invited me to join her friends in listening to a bit of the music festival that was going on in town. I spent the better part of the afternoon and evening getting pleasantly drunk with them before sobering up just enough to catch the train back to Aberdeen. This was probably one of my favorite occurrences of making instant friends that happened so often on this trip. Never underestimate the power of a friendly smile and the magic of alcohol as a social lubricant.
Such were some of my adventures while staying in Aberdeen. Next stop, Inverness.