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Cruden Bay, Scotland

Castles, Cats, and the North Sea

We spent 2 weeks in Cruden Bay pet sitting for 2 spirited cats and exploring the area nearby.  Our roommates for this stay were Angel and Shadow.  They were very playful and silly, and we miss them already.  I’d like to apologize in advance for the number of castle photos you are about to see.  In my defense, it’s believed that there were over 3000 castles in Scotland of which 1500 still exist; many of which are just ruins.

After getting acquainted with the furballs we headed out to our first castle which was about a 20-minute walk from town.  Slains Castle sits on the cliffs just outside Cruden Bay and is believed to be Bram Stokers inspiration for writing Dracula.  He was staying in the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel in Cruden Bay when he wrote the novel.  The castle was given up in 1925 by the last owner Sir John Ellerman and the roof was removed in order to avoid paying property taxes.  It is now just ruins, but still fascinating to explore.  They have a couple of plaques in town dedicated to the Castle which show photos of its original grandeur.

Getting to know Cruden Bay took us down the beach all the way to a rocky outcropping where we stumbled over a cute baby seal.  He seemed content enough, but I was a little concerned that there were no other seals around.  Hoping his mama came back for him. We took in the views of the North Sea and sat to watch the waves crashing on the rocks.  For some reason we both find waves hypnotic and despite the cool windy weather we spent quite a while just watching the water.

On the other side of Cruden bay you can hike up on the cliffs, so we wandered up and ended up sitting on an outcropping watching the waves.  We lucked out and saw dolphins just below where we were sitting and a seal in the small bay below us.  A storm rolled in, so we headed back to shelter in town, but it was wonderful to just sit and watch the wildlife.  We also wandered just past Slains Castle to Dunbuy Island which stands just meters from the cliffs and is home to a ridiculous number of birds.

Just a little further down the coast is Bullers of Buchan.  This refers to both a collapsed sea cave and to the village that sits next to the cliffs.  There are just a handful of houses left in this tiny fishing village, but they used to launch boats from the bay below.  The cliffs are majestic and for some of us terrifying.  We hiked along the edge to experience the views firsthand; Mike loved every minute…I did not.  I have a very healthy fear of falling, but despite my misgivings I still managed to follow Mike down the coast and back without incident.  We would have loved to get some drone footage of the collapsed sea cave and many other sites, but the weather just wasn’t cooperating.

Cruden Bay doesn’t have much to offer other than beach side living and a golf course, so we got to explore the nearby towns when we need supplies.  Ellon is just down the road, so we took a drive and wandered around town before grabbing some groceries.  We checked out the Standing Stane, also known as the Candle Stane.  It is a 10-foot standing stone that is the only remaining stone from a circle of 8.  Not much is known about the site, but it was neat to see.  We also walked along the river and wandered through town.  Ellon Castle Gardens looked interesting, but unfortunately was closed the day we were there.  It is a walled garden with castle ruins.

We also shopped in Peterhead which is one of the busiest fishing ports in Europe.  We wandered around one day and took photos of the Reform Tower, the town, and the seals swimming around the fishing boats in the harbor.  The Reform Tower was built in 1832 as one of 2 monuments to commemorate the Reform Bill; the second monument is on Broad Street downtown.

Aberdeen is a large port city nearby and while we were enjoying the slower pace of the countryside we did drive into town a couple of times.  One trip was just to Costco on a rainy day because…why not.  The other trip we explored the University of Aberdeen Zoology Museum, Cruickshank Botanical Garden, and Seaton Park.  We also walked past the impressive St. Machar’s Cathedral; although, we didn’t go in.

Down the coast from Cruden Bay is the small town of Newburgh which is home to the Forvie National Nature Reserve and Seal Beach.  We hiked the sand dunes in the Nature Reserve on a windy day. Apparently, it's windy there about 360 days a year and as a result, the dunes are constantly moving.  We also went to Seal Beach which is a designated haul out area for seals at the mouth of the Ythan river.  There were an unbelievable number of seals lazing around on the beach that day, a sign said there can be as many as 3000 seals on the beach.  On the other side of the river, we hiked down Balmedie Beach past the Trump International Golf Links which runs along the coast.

We took a drive up the coast to visit Crovie, a tiny fishing village perched on a narrow ledge between the base of the cliffs of Gamrie Bay and the sea.  There is only room for one row of houses on the ledge and although there is a road down to the town residents have to leave their cars in a parking area at the bottom of the road and walk to their homes.  Not many people live there anymore and most of the homes are vacation rentals.  The original residents were forced off their land by their landlord to make room for his sheep.  They initially operated fishing boats for the landlord, but later built their own boats.  In 1953 a storm wiped out the costal path to Gardenstown, the neighboring village, along with several houses and stretches of Covie’s sea defense.  At this point most of the residents left and moved to Gardenstown.  On the way home we stopped at Aberdour Beach and explored some sea caves.

We really wanted a chance to explore the Cairngorms National Park, but it is a pretty far drive from Cruden Bay.  So, we made a one-day road trip, but it ended up being more driving than anything.  We drove all the way to Braemar for Mike to attempt to lift the Inver Stone which is an oval shaped granite stone; one of the most famous lifting stones weighing in at 260 lbs.  Braemar is home to The Braemar Gathering or “The Games”, an annual highland games event, held the first Saturday in September.  The town of Braemar also has several beautiful historic buildings and of course a castle.  The castle was closed for refurbishment, so we just took a few pictures from the parking lot between rain showers.

On the way back from Braemar we stopped at Balmoral Castle, a residence of the British royal family.  The castle itself was closed for the weekend, but we were able to wander the grounds and at least see the outside of the castle.  It was one of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite places and she actually passed away there in 2022.  We also hiked up to Prince Albert’s Cairn; also known as the Balmoral Pyramid.  It was erected in 1862 by Queen Victoria in memory of Prince Albert.  The views from the hilltop were stunning.

And now for the rest of the castles.  Towards the end of our time, we toured several castle ruins and one complete castle.  They are all interesting in their own way.

Tolquhon Castle was commissioned in 1584 by Sir William Forbes and was built more as a showpiece than a defensive Castle.  They’ve done a fantastic job preserving the ruins and making them as accessible as possible.

Huntly Castle was originally built in 1190 by the earls of Fife as the Peel of Strathbogie, but in 1314 following the Battle of Bannockburn the Fifes lost their lands and titles.  Robert the Bruce then granted Strathbogie to Sir Adam Gordon and around 1450 the Gordons began construction on the palace as it is today.  Not much remains of the surrounding structures, but the 6-story palace is still in exceptional shape considering.  It also has a resident cat, so that didn’t hurt any.  He hangs out in the Visitor Center during open hours and guards the castle at night.