Good times up north in Aberdeenshire

Whisky is nothing but boiled beer – if you didn’t have beer you wouldn’t have whisky.”

At the Deeside Brewery in Aberdeenshire, head brewer Rob is single-handedly mounting a challenge to Aberdeenshire’s renowned whisky heritage. He turns out 3000 pints of ale weekly from a shed, naming his beers after Pictish legend.

I taste a floral Macbeth and a chocolatey Talorcan on my whirlwind tour of Aberdeenshire’s food and drink pitstops.

Eating stovies
People don’t necessarily associate Aberdeenshire with gastronomic delight – Aberdeen is built on oil, and tycoon Donald Trump has built a £1bn golf course here. But you don’t need to be minted to eat well. Much of its culinary heritage stems from peasant food. This is the home of stovies – spuds and leftover meat, cullen skink – tattie and haddock soup, Aberdeen Angus beef – and, of course, whisky.

The Queen’s garden
After beer, our next stop is the Royal Lochnagar distillery (pictured), right at the bottom of the Queen’s garden: it sits on the edge of Balmoral Estate in Royal Deeside, just west of Aberdeen. According to local folklore, the “Royal” was dropped once from the title in a fit of pique after the Queen’s hubbie accused the distillery of polluting his land. They’ve all kissed and made up since then and the royals, frequently spotted in the vicinity, seem much loved by locals.

Name your dram
While Scotch whisky has to be matured for at least three years in an oak cask, this distillery spends at least 12 years pooling the flavour in its barrels. The shape of Royal Lochnagar’s copper stills slows down the spirit’s flow during the distilling process, apparently giving it a grassy flavour.

And my dram had a lovely wee taste of fruitcake and, perhaps a little grass.

Getting wild
Next up is a highland safari with tour guide Neil through the Grampian mountains near the Cairngorms. We edge our 4X4 up crofters’ paths, across glens and past downy birch and Scots pine forest. We see herds of roe and red deer, stags, grouse and sparring pheasants.

That night we dine at nearby Darroch Learg, a grand Victorian country house, perfect for special occasions.

What else to eat in game country but Glen Muick venison served up with a pithivier of boudin – black pudding to you and me – with creamed celeriac and red cabbage?  

On the farm
The next morning, we visit Banchory farmers’ market, one of many in Aberdeenshire. Others can be found in Inverurie and Macduff.

I meet one hunter selling roe deer osso bucco – bones with a hole of marrow – at just £3.70 apiece. The great thing about the market is that there are no middlemen – this man had shot the deer himself before selling it at his stall. And that’s what I love about Aberdeenshire: when you get away from the oil rigs and the golf courses, there is a rural way of life with a whole wealth of nature to enjoy.

Games on the Highland
The Highland Games, which runs from spring to autumn, has its roots in medieval Scotland when the warriors of clans would show off their physical prowess. The practice was similar to modern-day military training and ensured the tartan-clad terrors had high command of the glens.

But it wasn’t just the brawny that took part – bards, poets and musicians would also test their skills. These athletic contests took part at cattle fairs or on holy days and included horse-racing and wrestling. Tossing the caber or “tossing of ye barr” was first recorded in 1574.

Today’s version of the Games began in the 1820s when the British ruling class took a fancy to the challenges.

These days the games mix field and track events with piping and dance competitions. And, for shows of strength, there is stone or hammer throwing, caber tossing and tug-of-war.

Some facts:

 The Highland Games run from May until September 18 (see for dates and locations).

For bracing coastal walks, visit during Winter Festival in November.

Getting there: British Airways, easyJet and bmi all fly from London directly to Aberdeen Dyce international airport. Or for a more romantic journey, take an overnight Caledonian Sleeper train from London Euston.

Transport: There’s good public transport around the city. A car is best for exploring remote Aberdeenshire.

Prices: £21 for a youth hostel dorm, £90 for a three-star hotel room midweek.


Story: Anita Pati




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