Are you on the lookout for a Scottish road trip that allows you to see many of the most celebrated aspects of the country in a relatively short space of time? Scottish writer, Catherine McEachern, shares her experience of one route which allowed her to do just that…
Born and raised on the Isle of Arran, I’m very familiar with the West Coast of Scotland, but the North East Coast? Not so much. After 26 years of calling Scotland my home, however, I decided it was time to remedy this ignorance; my boyfriend Joel and I set off on a three-day-long Scottish road trip, on a route which circumnavigates the North East of the country.
Relatively new, the North East 250 (NE250) was established in 2018 as a driving route that helps guide visitors to the region’s many highlights. Lesser known, perhaps, than the North Coast 500, but just as impressive in terms of its variety of scenery, people and produce.
Indeed, from its vast mountainscapes and surrounding forests of dancing pine trees, to the quaint fishing towns and expansive beaches it bypasses, it is the NE250’s true diversity that makes it so special.
Day 1 of our 3 day Scottish road trip
Both based in Glasgow, Joel and I headed east in the early afternoon of a brisk yet bright Friday. As the NE250 is a circular route you can technically start anywhere, but coming from the west, we decided it would be easiest to start at Glenshee and drive clockwise through the Cairngorms National Park.
Immediately, we were hit by the enormity of the landscape. The mountains around us looked almost like paintings, and they appeared to ripple as the sun broke through ominous clouds and threw shadows across their uneven surface.
True to form, the weather was extremely varied as we passed by Braemar and Balmoral. We drove through sun, sleet and rain, but it only added to the experience. What looked like fields of future Christmas trees ran alongside the road, and a dusting of frost shimmering on their branches made me feel like I was driving through a festive greetings card.
Five minutes later, however, the sun would break through the misty, low lying clouds, and we were driving through luscious greenery on what felt like a balmy summer’s day.
Must visit #1: The Old Bridge Avon and fairytale-esque gatehouse
It took us roughly two and half hours to drive over the Cairngorms, and our first stop off was the Old Bridge of Avon, which stretches high above the River Avon and dates back over 200 years. It was once the main point of crossing over the river, until the current bridge was built in 1971. Venturing over it, we were treated to great views of the water below, as well as the surrounding greenery and beautiful wild flowers.
The gatehouse which stands next to the bridge looks almost like a miniature fairytale castle, hugged by trees and boasting a single, Repunzel-esque turret. This stands by the impressive grounds of Ballindalloch Castle and once prevented unwanted visitors from accessing the private land.
I half expected to be greeted by a bearded old man with a clipboard when I approached the window, much like Dorothy and her three companions when they reached the mighty Green Gates of Oz.
Hotel #1: The Delnashaugh Hotel in Ballindalloch
After some exploring of the area, we headed to the place we would be staying for the night: The Delnashaugh Hotel in Ballindalloch. I was reminded of my local pub on Arran as I walked through the doors and was welcomed by an open fire, tartan furnishings and a highly polished, dark wooden bar. It had that certain essence you only feel in a pub in rural Scotland.
We were shown to our room, freshened up for dinner and then sat down for a meal in the hotel restaurant – it did not disappoint. Congratulations to the chefs at Delnashaugh, whose portions were so substantial that neither Joel nor I could clear our plates: a very rare occurrence.
To reach our bedroom, we had to go outside and when we stepped out after our meal, we found it was snowing. I looked up at the sky and, as there are no streetlights in this part of the Highlands, the white specks falling were in total contrast with the surrounding blackness. With the speed at which they were coming down, I was reminded of thousands of shooting stars.
Day 2 of our 3 day Scottish road trip
When I spotted Dufftown on the map, I immediately thought of Harry Potter (it’s where Sirius Black is spotted before he reaches Hogwarts in the third film) and, as an avid fan of the story, I was keen to pay it a visit on the second day of our trip.
It took us 20 minutes to drive there via the A95 and on the way we passed countless distilleries; the Malt Whisky Trail overlaps with the NE250 route and Dufftown is often referred to as the Malt Whisky Capital of the World.
Must visit #2: The Glenfiddich distillery
We stopped in at Glenfiddich, Gaelic for Valley of the Deer, as it is one of my favourite tipples.
This distillery is well worth a visit for the luxurious whisky lounge alone, in which antique paintings, photographs and information boards explain the proud history of the place. The distillery was hand built by William Grant and his family in 1886, to fulfil his life-long dream of creating the “best dram in the valley”, and it is still family owned today.
Must visit #3: The Collectors Cabin in Dufftown
Continuing on to Dufftown’s iconic clock tower, we took a stroll down Balvenie Street and stopped in at a shop named The Collectors Cabin. With shelves upon shelves of crystals, coins, fossils and antique jewellery, it felt more like a cavern than a retailer. Upon speaking to the owner, we learned that the shop next door also belonged to him, and was home to an impressive collection of singing-bowls.
Naturally, we paid it a visit too and were enthralled by the sounds and vibrations made by the hammered metal bowls. He explained that it was an ancient method of relaxation that originated in Nepal. The bowls ranged in size and pitch – some big enough to stand in, which we duly did.
As I stood barefoot in the bowl, while the owner struck it with a wooden baton, sending vibrations through my entire body, I couldn’t help but think this was truly a once in a lifetime experience. Indeed, it is these weird and whacky moments, and the characters you meet, that make Scotland’s North East so incredibly unique.
Must visit #4: Cullen and Bow Fiddle Rock
From Dufftown, we headed to the coast in search of some of Cullen’s well known Skink. The sun broke through and brightened up the area magnificently; it was truly gorgeous.
We clambered to the top of the viaduct, which cuts diagonally across the town, and the views were some of the best I have ever seen in Scotland.
After a walk, we fuelled up on the creamy, smoky, broth for which Cullen is so famous and then wandered around some of the many antique/second-hand/vintage shops in the area.
The character of the place, along with its beauty, drew me in entirely, and I know I will be back one day soon.
The famous Bow Fiddle Rock is just a couple of minutes in the car from Cullen Beach and is a must-see. Waves lash through the natural sea arch, the sight of which is quite remarkable.
Perhaps it is because I grew up next to the sea, but in my opinion, the sound of waves crashing against rocks, stones and sand is truly second to none.
Must visit #5: The dramatic Findlater’s Castle and Portsoy
Heading east, we drove ten minutes to Barnyards of Findlater, the parking area for Findlater’s Castle, and walked the half-mile up to the information board on the cliffs behind the ruins. I’ve visited plenty of impressive structures in Scotland, but none as haunting as Findlater.
The castle’s ruins seem to grow from the grass on which they sit and loom over the cliff edge. It is definitely worth a visit, but I wouldn’t recommend venturing further than we did, especially on a windy day.
Less than a ten-minute drive away from Findlater is Portsoy, where harbour scenes in the Peaky Blinders series were filmed. We actually recognised some of the scenery from the show, and the 17th century architecture of the area does make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time.
Hotel #2: The Buchan Braes Hotel in Peterhead
From this hidden gem of a fishing town, we headed to our second place of accommodation, The Buchan Braes Hotel in Peterhead, right next to the impressive Bay Ness Lighthouse that was built in 1827 by Robert Stevenson.
The hotel was warm and welcoming and the staff could not have been nicer. What’s more, it served the best fish and chips I have ever tasted.
Day 3 of our 3 day Scottish Road trip
After a classic hotel buffet breakfast, we were ready for the last leg of our trip. We drove to New Slains Castle, which sits on the sea cliffs on Cruden Bay.
Must visit #6: New Slains Castle
The castle is said to be the inspiration for the setting of Count Dracula, and you can see why. As we approached, I felt its eerie, blackened windows and crumbling parapets could well be hiding some inhuman creature.
The wind whipped up as we got closer and closer to the cliff edge, so we decided it was time to turn back to the car. But the unnerving, yet alluring sense of the place is something I had never experienced before.
Indeed, both castles we visited on the North East Coast were unlike any I’ve ever seen in Scotland.
Must visit #7: Balmedie Beach
Carrying on down the coast, the white sand dunes of Balmedie Beach were calling, and I was reminded of the long, expansive beaches of the Isle of Islay, my second favourite Scottish island. We watched as families surfed down the sand dunes on boogie boards, and looked out over the overwhelming expanse of the North Sea.
For me, this beach was one of the highlights of the trip. It wasn’t warm, the sun was barely out, but I took off my shoes and socks and waded into the freezing water, relishing my Scottish surroundings, and feeling an overwhelming appreciation for this breath-taking part of the world.
We stopped for some lunch in Banchory before driving, once again, towards the Cairngorms, only this time from the opposite direction and with the sad knowledge that our trip was almost over.
250 miles of the North East coast later: Home time and final thoughts
As the name would suggest, the route is 250 miles long and so could technically be driven in a day. Splitting it over three, however, gives you time to appreciate your surroundings and discover unexpected places and people along the way. It also means the driving never feels like a chore, as it is broken so frequently by the beautiful attractions.
From whisky, to fishing, to ancient castles and stunning coastlines, the NE250 truly encompasses everything for which Scotland is celebrated worldwide. I’m so glad I decided to discover what this part of the country has to offer, and I would most definitely urge you to do the same.
Go Your Own Way on the NE250 and start planning your road trip today.