The Glasgow Garden Walks Group are a group of retirees who travel Scotland in their minivan, staying in hostels and exploring the many, beautiful gardens of Scotland. They are a force to be reckoned with, as they embark on a four day adventure around Old Banffshire, Aberdeenshire and Moray.
Day one: Journey over the Cairn ‘O Mount
The journey is always part of the holiday. Taking in the countryside and the sights to see is fun and relaxing. Stopping at favoured tea and coffee places break up the miles and is good for everyone … especially the driver. When we drive from Glasgow towards the North East of Scotland we stop at Gloagburn, Tibbermore just off the main road to Perth for excellent food and cups of refreshing tea and coffee. This farm shop has loads of fresh fruit. Local strawberries and raspberries in season. Take some fruit with you to snack as you go. Refreshing and scrumptious.
Once we reach Brechin we turn North for Fettercairn with the ancient market cross and its own distillery. Drive on to Banchory on Royal Deeside.
This is a fantastic road. It twists and bends, rises and falls like a giant roller coaster. We pass through forests, farms and moorland on the journey. Look out for bikers testing the extreme capabilities of their motorbikes.
At the Cairn ‘O Mount we stop at the viewpoint to look down and South to see the county of Angus, Lewis Grassic Gibbon country, the Mearns. If you haven’t already done so read Sunset Song and absorb the people, their lives and rural Scotland a century ago. Captivating. To the East we can see the North Sea. A great view indeed.
Take a two hour break at Crathes Castle
When we reach Banchory the town looks bright and clean. The grey granite of the buildings sparkles in the sunlight. A short distance east of Banchory sits Crathes Castle. The garden is stunning lying below the attractive and imposing castle.
I had the privilege of working here sixty years ago. A good friend and fellow student Ian and I were posted from Threave School of Practical Gardening for work experience. The Head Gardener was Douglas MacDonald and he was a well liked, knowledgable gardener. He set us to work throughout the garden mainly hoeing and weeding the superb borders.
He took us to see Pitmedden another special garden looked after by the National Trust for Scotland. We met George Barron who became famous for presenting the Beechgrove Garden TV programme.
He also introduced us to Arroll Winning, the Director of Links and Parks in Aberdeen. We were taken by the energy and vision Arroll had for improving Aberdeen’s Parks. Aberdeen won the RHS Britain in Bloom competition ten times which was fantastic. I went on to work for him in Aberdeen for almost two happy years.
We finally arrived at the Sail Loft Bunkhouse Portsoy
By the time we had taken in the wonders of Crathes Castle we were glad to be on the final journey to Portsoy and our accommodation. The title ‘Bunkhouse’ does not do the hostel justice. It is a first class hostel with excellent facilities. From the outside the three buildings; the Sail Loft, a Georgian House, home of the Sail Loft owner and the cottage for a Foreman and his family look as they would have done over a century ago.
Inside is a state of the art hostel to a modern standard. Prince Charles opened the building and complemented the Sail Loft Trust on restoring historic buildings and putting them to a modern purpose.
The staff are friendly and go out of their way to be helpful. It is a wonderful project which benefits the local community.
On one family visit Joshua, our seven year old grandson, was shown our room. He went straight to the first bed he saw and put his hands on it and announced “This is my bed”. He has the makings of a true hosteller.
Day two: Touring Gardens
The Great Garden of Pitmedden in Aberdeenshire is a very special garden. The partierre with beds of colourful flowers contained within boxwood hedges is similar to Versailles in France. This is a spectacular garden. I recommend a visit to the Museum of Farming Life which is on the edge of the garden. Agriculture is still very important in the North East of Scotland.
Fyvie Castle Gardens, near Turriff
These gardens are an excellent demonstration of what Scottish Gardens were like fifty years ago and earlier. Scottish fruit and veg growing and labelled clearly to help the visitor decide what he or she would like to grow at home. Native varieties of apples, blackberries raspberries and so on. Look at their performance and see how to grow them.
Flowers too are grown to perfection. The Dahlias are outstanding showing off many types, colours and again how to grow them. What a show. This is a garden and immediate countryside you can spend hours in.
Leave some time late afternoon and evening to wander through the streets of Portsoy. Wander the beaches and explore the 17th Century harbour where part of Whisky Galore was filmed. Relax and enjoy a rest ready for the next day.
Day three: Coast and Land
Coast – Cullen Bay, Bow Fiddle Rock, Buckie Harbour and Speybay
Travelling west we drive through the attractive village of Cullen. It has a lovely harbour much loved by local children for swimming with their wet suites on. The beach is dramatic and extensive. What remains of the three kings rock formations are still outstanding.
When I was eight we arrived from St Rufus Kirk Keith by steam drawn train on our Sunday School picnic. We clambered off the train and down the embankment to reach the beach. No one was killed or injured. Can you see this happening today. Elf and safety put a stop to that!
The Bow Fiddle Rock is near Portknockie. It is a dramatic rock formation in the sea that looks like, guess what, a bow and fiddle.
Sticking to the Coastal route we can view wee harbours in village after village and until we reach Buckie. Unlike the small harbours Buckie is home to very modern vessels. Big state of the art fishing boats which land big catches. Although the fishing industry is in decline in Buckie. It is still an interesting place to explore. Fishing boats, shipping supporting the oil Industry and so on.
Fisher folk are a close knit community. Mothers and children say their farewells in hope of seeing their menfolk again. The wild sea. The cruel sea.
By powers unknown they make the harbour with their precious haul. Safe in the calm harbour. Safe and ready for farewells as they cast off to chase the shoals in the wild seas.
We enjoyed many fine views of the Moray Firth and of the sea as we travelled west. The highlight for me was Dolphin Watch at Spey Bay where the great River Spey meets the sea. We sat for hours on the shingle beach looking out for these amazing mammals and sometimes we were lucky. Joshua loves seeing them. We saw them crossing Cullen Bay on one fine day.
Land – Return to Portsoy via Dufftown and Keith
Gordon Castle Walled Garden near Fochabers is a must visit destination. Almost eight acres producing a great variety of crops. Vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs. The cafe uses fresh produce from the garden and botanicals are used in Gordon Castle Gin. As an old garden many ancient fruit trees grow as espaliers on the garden walls. The plums are plentiful and delicious.
Driving through the Spey Valley from Fochabers to Dufftown takes us through the most gorgeous Scottish scenery. Mature Scots Pine and mixed broadleaves meet with green fields and the Tay. Wonderful countryside and Whisky Distilleries in the heart of Speyside.
For something different visit the Sidings Cafe Railway Carriage tea room at Dufftown Station. It is a 1950’s railway carriage laid out as a tea room and very worth dining in. Try Cullen Skink, a delicious creamy fish soup. Lovely food and lovely staff.
During the tourist season you can take the train to Keith and back again. The scenery is stunning. On one occasion we wondered why the train was coming to a halt in the back of beyond. All was revealed when a herd of red deer came down the hill and crossed the track in front of us. Spectacular.
Dufftown Station is between Balvenie and Glenfiddoch Distilleries. I have to mention whisky, usequebea, the water of life. It is the lifeblood of old Banffshire, flying Scotlands flag high and reaching all parts of the world.
Day four homeward bound via Aviemore
Ballindalloch Castle. On the way to the A9 and south we call in at the castle gardens which are as beautiful as any we have seen. It has a great rock garden near the castle and a lovely walled garden a good walk away graced by hundreds of roses and edging of violas in blue and white. In the centre sits a fine water feature which was recently upgraded.
Look out for the magnificent herd of aberdeen angus cattle across the ha ha. Shiny coats, content and looking great. The best I have seen.
We found what must be the poshest ladies toilet in any garden in Britain. Carpets and gold taps no less! Thank you girls for letting me have a wee peek.
Home to a good rest after our amazing four day tour.
Where is the next hostel and gardens? Look out. We are on our way.
Copyright Brian M Sutherland 2022.
Photographs copyright Brian M Sutherland 2022.