A Three-Day Exploration of Royal Deeside
Any visit to Aberdeenshire should invariably encompass a journey to the storied lands of Royal Deeside. It is a realm where Queen Victoria sought solace after the loss of her beloved Prince Albert, and where John Brown vigilantly protected her. This was the place where the late Queen Elizabeth II was reported to have experienced the utmost contentment, and eventually, it became her final resting place—a locale steeped in regal history and tranquillity and with it some exceptional walks for all abilities and visitor attractions. A drive through South Deeside is possibly one of the best drives in Scotland and certainly the UK.
The breathtaking scenery that unfolds through Royal Deeside is, to put it succinctly, awe-inspiring. As one departs from Aberdeen, they trace the course of the River Dee, initially heading westward to Banchory and continuing to Braemar, passing through Ballater and Balmoral.
Travellers have the choice of two equally captivating routes through Royal Deeside, although my preference leans toward the South Deeside Road, which showcases the majestic Clachnaben—a peak of unmistakable prominence. Should time permit, a detour to the Forest of Birse, with the prospect of a leisurely riverside lunch by Birse Church or a visit to Balmoral Castle, replete with its Pyramids Cairns Walk (details available here), is certainly a worthwhile pursuit.
Day 1 - Aberdeen to Loch Muick
On our westward journey, we directed our course towards Loch Muick, a picturesque freshwater lake nestled within the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland. It resides amid the Grampian Mountains, a region of the Scottish Highlands celebrated for its rugged hills and verdant woodlands. The locale is renowned for its diverse wildlife, where sightings of red deer, golden eagles, otters, and various waterfowl are not uncommon. The surrounding hills provide a habitat for a myriad of upland birds.
Loch Muick is situated within the expansive Balmoral Estate, a cherished retreat for the British royal family. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert initially leased the estate in 1848, later acquiring it in 1852. It has since remained a favoured destination for subsequent generations of the royal family. Along the shores of Loch Muick stands Glas-allt-Shiel, a former hunting lodge erected for Queen Victoria in 1868 and now under the stewardship of the National Trust for Scotland.
Visitors can conveniently park (charges apply) at Spittal of Glenmuick, serving as a starting point for exploration and walking around the loch, including ascents of the renowned Lochnagar. Overnight stays are permissible for campervans, subject to a fee of £10, and the free access visitor centre provides insights into the geology, fauna, and local wildlife of the area and with the public toilets remaining accessible throughout the night for those staying on.
No dumping of campervan waste is permitted and there is no drinking water available! To promote responsible environmental practices, a 'no bin' policy is in effect, encouraging visitors to carry their rubbish away with them.
The Loch Muick Circular Walk, encompassing approximately 7.5 miles and taking around 4.5 hours, as described by Walk Highlands, consists mainly of estate vehicle tracks, with rocky pathways on the southwest and west sections along the loch, leading to the pine wood at Glas-allt-Shiel—a former hunting lodge commissioned by Queen Victoria in 1868 and now inherited by King Charles.
In winter or after heavy rainfall, this route can be quite exposed and slippery, necessitating sturdy footwear and good equipment.
Fortunately, we were graced with favourable weather conditions—cold and crisp yet beautifully sunlit, with sparse clouds that accentuated the resplendent autumnal hues.
Later in the evening, we lit a fire to ward off the chill, then later retired to the van, enjoying the comfort of the diesel heater. The clear, cloudless night offered a spectacular view of the dark starlit sky, but it also translated into sub-freezing temperatures and a hard frost.
Day 2 - Loch Muick to Linn Of Dee to Linn Of Quoich
Our sleep was interrupted earlier than planned by the resonant bellowing of a lone stag that ventured past our campsite into the surrounding woodlands.
After a breakfast consisting of Oats So Simple (with Golden Syrup) and a steaming cup of coffee, we braved the -2 degree chill.
The sun had already illuminated the mountaintops but had yet to reach our camping spot. Kenzie, was eager to stretch his legs and was tantalized by the scent of the deer. With unwavering focus, he darted in every direction, often at high speeds, miraculously avoiding collisions with obstacles.
The stag had lingered in the vicinity, and Dave was grateful that Kenzie heeded his commands and refrained from getting too close. We managed to capture a few photographs with the camera before the stag, still bellowing like a banshee, departed across open terrain, disappearing into the heather. For those unacquainted with the resonant bellow of a stag, it can be quite disconcerting, especially in the darkness of a campsite.
By now, the car park was filling up, prompting us to wrap up our photographic endeavours and we swiftly packed the remaining gear and succeeded in diverting Kenzie's attention from the deer scent long enough to coax him into the van, before heading back down the single-track road to Ballater. The absence of clouds in the sky presented an irresistible opportunity to capture a few images of Lochnagar as we departed.
The day's destination was the Linn of Dee, located approximately 7 miles west of Braemar—a location we had frequented numerous times with our children over the years. In bygone days, Dave would venture into the hills alone for exploration and the conquest of several Munros in the area. Munros are Scottish mountains that exceed 3000 feet (914m) in elevation, numbering 282 in total.
It is a popular pursuit among outdoor enthusiasts (Munro Bagging) to scale these peaks. Although Dave’s tally of completed Munros stands at just over 100, our adventures continue.
The Linn of Dee, nestled within the Cairngorms National Park, is celebrated for its stunning scenery, captivating the imagination of the many daily visitors.
The narrow gorge carved by the River Dee, one of Scotland's most significant and picturesque waterways, is a focal point of this serene and beautiful location.
The river Dee traverses the Cairngorms before ultimately meeting the North Sea at Aberdeen.
The Linn of Dee provides a tranquil haven amid the rugged and untamed landscapes of the Scottish Highlands—a prime destination for nature enthusiasts, hikers, Munro-baggers, and those in pursuit of an idyllic escape.
However, the objective for the day was to hike to Derry Lodge, a route spanning just under 7 miles—a journey we hadn't undertaken in over two decades. With the weather again being sunny but colder than yesterday, the opportunity beckoned for Kenzie and us to embark on this quest. Kenzie was as enthusiastic as ever, keen to pursue the scent of deer and perhaps take a dip in the rippling waters.
The journey commences at the National Trust Car Park (charges apply) at the Linn of Dee, following a well-marked path that leads to estate tracks, guiding travellers up Glen Lui to the Derry Lodge. This Victorian-era former shooting lodge now stands boarded up and disused.
The vistas, once the morning fog cleared, as Ben Macdui, Derry Cairngorm, and Braeriach come into sight as progress is made up Glen Lui, are nothing short of breathtaking. If fortune smiles, you may even spot deer and eagles on your way. Walk Highlands, a valuable free resource for discovering routes, walks, and points of interest throughout Scotland, provides detailed information about this particular walk here.
At Derry Lodge, you'll find a Trowel Box, an ingenious offering that equips walkers and campers with a trowel and sanitiser, along with comprehensive instructions on the art of how to 'Sh*t In The Woods.' Although the box can accommodate six trowels, only one remained during our visit, leaving us bemused at the notion of either five individuals simultaneously engaging in woodland pooping activities or the type of person who appropriates a trowel that may have witnessed more action than a Thomas Crapper toilet!
After spending an hour on the riverbank, during which Kenzie enthusiastically plunged for rocks, leaving him constantly shivering but all the while frequently plunging back into the water and we indulged in a lunch of ham sandwiches and coffee, we then started our return journey.
The bright sunshine persisted, the views remained captivating, and Kenzie seized every opportunity to continue his quest for deer scent while simultaneously drying off.
Upon our return to the van, we started packing up, feeding Kenzie and getting ready to leave. Initially, we contemplated staying at the Linn of Dee Car Park, where overnight stays are permitted, and as a National Trust members, the privilege was free.
However, the car park was still full and busy, and the hour was relatively early, leading us to opt for a short drive to Braemar.
In Braemar, Kenzie stayed in the van to recharge after two days of extensive walks. First, we made use of the public conveniences available at the free parking facility in the village centre, followed by a leisurely stroll through town, along with a visit to a few shops.
Braemar, particularly on a sunny and dry day, teems with visitors—ranging from bus tours and day-trippers exploring local shops, cafes, restaurants, and amenities. The more seasoned outdoor enthusiasts tend to gravitate towards the hills when the weather is as favourable as it was on this particular day. After a relaxed couple of hours that included a visit to "The Bothy" for a pea soup and a cheese and onion toastie, we returned to the van, setting out for a short walk around town with Kenzie in tow.
The time had come to decide where we would spend the night. Following the exceptionally cold night at Loch Muick, our objective was to select a location that would be bathed in early morning sunshine. The warmth and radiance of morning sunlight are indispensable in initiating the day with vigour and purpose. Thus, the Linn of Dee Car Park was deemed to be unsuitable since it is nestled within a forested area with limited prospects for receiving warm sunshine until later in the day at best. Consequently, we opted for the Linn of Quoich, situated a short distance down the road from the Linn of Dee. This site offers open views to the south and east, a gamble based on the expectation of a warmer morning. Given the minimal and anticipated stable winds, it seemed like a more favourable choice.
The Linn of Quoich, like the Linn of Dee, serves as another National Trust Car Park (charges apply), albeit smaller in size. Once again, overnight stays are permitted, and our National Trust membership granted us free access. Regrettably, this location lacks public toilets and is essentially a no-frills car park devoid of amenities used mostly as an access point to the hills and nothing more. But this was not a problem for us as The Colonel our van has been set up to be fully self-supporting allowing us to venture off grid with no amenities for days at a time.
As dusk began to descend, we discerned the hues of the sunset over distant peaks. Swiftly, Dave launched the drone to capture an expanded view, hoping for the beauty of a spectacular sunset, which we enjoy almost as much as Dave loves a splendid sunrise.
For dinner, we kept it simple with a pot noodle. We decided against lighting a fire and, after a brief walk with Kenzie, retired for the night. A couple of hours were devoted to downloading footage from the cameras, phone, and drone before we nestled in with a good book content after another great day in nature
Day 3 - Linn Of Quoich to Aberdeen
Morning arrived, and Dave’s hopes for a warm sunrise were not fulfilled. News of Storm Babet dominated the headlines, and the winds had already begun to intensify. Following a leisurely breakfast, Kenzie and Dave embarked on walking the Punchbowl route, spanning just under 3 miles—a final walk to invigorate our muscles prior to the two-hour drive home.
The Punchbowl was historically a favoured destination for families from Aberdeen seeking summer outings replete with picnics and opportunities for their children to frolic and expend energy. However, a period of severe flooding some years back took its toll on the main car park and the bridge, reducing accessibility to the Punchbowl. Now, visitors can only drive as far as the new, smaller car park.
The walk entails a gradual ascent along the western side of the river, followed by a crossing of the footbridge to return down the eastern side. The telltale signs of flood damage and erosion are evident all along the river with sections of the eastern path washed away, necessitating traversing through heather in search of a more favourable track.
To aid navigation, red-painted wooden stakes have been strategically placed to assist in negotiating the heather-covered terrain. Upon regaining the eastern path, conditions remain waterlogged and, in some areas, rocky underfoot. As you approach the Punchbowl, it becomes easier to descend onto the smoothed rocks. Caution is advised, as accidents have occurred, leading to the loss of children and pets after falling into the fast water and narrow channels.
Upon reaching the bridge that spans the Punchbowl, the descent through the forest is facilitated by a well-maintained track, ultimately leading back to the road. Crossing the replacement bridge, a modern metal structure that contrasts poorly with its surroundings, it's a brief walk back to the car park, marking the conclusion of the walk.
Back at the van lunch consisted of a quick Cup a Soup before it was time to start the journey home. With Kenzie comfortably settled in the back, we retraced our steps to Aberdeen and then homeward, rejuvenated and content following our enriching three-day adventure.
Leave No Trace
The Land Managers of all the areas we visited run a no bin policy to encourage visitors to take their rubbish home with them and this is evident at Loch Muick, Linn Of Dee and Linn of Quoich. We always pack our rubbish out with us disposing of it only in suitable and acceptable locations often taking it home with is to put in our own bins.
You can help by doing the same to protect the environment.
Remember we are all at the mercy of nature, but nature needs our help!