Aberdeenshire's Royal Deeside has been well known to visitors since Queen Victoria and Prince Albert purchased a holiday home here 1852. The River Don very roughly parallels the River Dee about ten miles to its north. Donside is much wilder and more remote than Deeside, especially in its upper reaches, and this tour allows you to gain a flavour of both, travelling along Deeside to Ballater before heading north into the foothills of the Cairngorms to pick up the River Don and then following it downstream.
The main route shown in dark blue on the map is 87 miles long, starting and finishing in Banchory and we'd recommend tackling it clockwise to view the busier Deeside before moving north to compare and contrast it with the much quieter Donside.
No excursions are suggested beyond the slight spurs on the circular route to Corgarff Castle, Alford, and the Peel of Lumphanan. The surrounding area is packed with places to go and things to do but, for example, extending the route west to Balmoral and Braemar, however tempting, would have pushed it out a little too far to allow time for what is already quite a packed tour. For those wishing to extend the tour to Braemar, this would add 15 miles each way.
Banchory is 18 miles west of Aberdeen. It stands just to the north of the River Dee and is the largest settlement on this tour, offering a wide range of facilities for visitors. You should leave it heading west on the A93. The first village en route is the highly attractive Kincardine O'Neill. This also stands on the north bank of the River Dee and for centuries overlooked one of the most important fords across it. Further to the west you pass through Aboyne. By comparison this was a late starter and has grown since the building of a bridge across the Dee in 1828. This bridge is of interest to the modern traveller because it gives access to the B976, which runs along the south side of the River Dee and provides an excellent and much quieter alternative to the A93 all the way to Ballater.
Assuming you stay on the A93, you pass a very active gliding club a couple of miles beyond Aboyne and then, two miles short of Ballater, the fascinating ruin of Tullich Kirk. Ballater lays claim to being the capital of Royal Deeside, and is an exceptionally attractive place. Glenmuick Parish Church stands in the centre and, like the nearby Old Royal Station, is well worth a visit.
A mile and a half north west of Ballater you should take the turning on the right along the A939. This is your gateway to an upland area that seems a million miles from Deeside, with, en route, some fairly short stretches of single track road. The A939 picks up the course of the River Don at its junction with the A944. We will be following the latter, but for the moment turn west and travel the two and a half miles to Corgarff Castle. This is a castle which for much of its life has been of strategic importance, guarding the quickest route from Deeside to Speyside.
Having visited the castle, which is in the care of Historic Scotland, retrace your steps and then follow the A944 downstream along the River Don. The hamlet of Bellabeg is a remote and attractive spot, perhaps best known because for a long time its roadsign to the neighbouring, even smaller, hamlet of "Lost" kept getting stolen by souvenir hunters.
There are two more castles to visit as you travel along Donside, both also in the care of Historic Scotland. Glenbuchat Castle is located on a bluff above the River Don and is an excellent example of a "Z" plan castle. It was built in 1590 for John Gordon of Cairnbarrow and his wife Helen on the occasion of their wedding, and was obviously intended to provide a home for the family and their retainers.
Kildrummy Castle is very different. It was once one of the most magnificent and imposing castles in Scotland and was built in about 1250 by the Earl of Mar. The castle was intended to consolidate the Mar dynasty's hold over north-eastern Scotland and was located where Strathdon meets the main routes from the north and east. It says much for the castle's place in Scottish history that King Edward I of England paid at least two visits to Kildrummy Castle, in 1296 and in 1303. On the opposite side of the main road a little to the north is Kildrummy Kirkyard, complete with its exceptional collection of old gravestones.
Further east, the River Don flows through what is known as the Howe of Alford. The main settlement is Alford, pronounced without the "L", which grew after Thomas Telford bridged the river here in the early 1800s. In 1983 Alford became the location of the Grampian Transport Museum, on the north side of the centre of the village. In 1985 the Alford Valley Railway Museum introduced a passenger service on a mile of 2 foot gauge track. Both the museums are well worth a visit.
From Alford, the tour backtracks for a short distance before heading down the A980. Five miles to the south it passes the magnificent Craigievar Castle, cared for by the National Trust for Scotland and open to the public. Further on the road passes through the village of Lumphanan. Half a mile along minor roads to the west is the Peel of Lumphanan, a defensive structure dating back to the early 1200s. The last staging post on the tour is the village of Torphins, which you pass through en route to Banchory. It would be a shame to mention Banchory without noting the presence two miles to its east of another outstanding castle cared for by the NTS, Crathes Castle.