The North East 250: Castles, Whisky, and a Cyclist’s Dream Route

Pre-fab holidays and paint-by-numbers travel itineraries are going the way of the dodo, and to me, at least, it’s about time. Rising in its stead are regional routes that act as overarching frameworks within which you can build your ideal Scottish trip. The North Coast 500 is the most high-profile example of this, yet hot on it heels is the North East 250. As the name suggests, it is a 250-mile route taking you through Scotland’s north east, a vast area comprising the drama of the Cairngorms, the idyllic fields of Moray, the craggy coasts of Aberdeenshire and the meandering river valleys of Speyside.

 

Queen Victoria's Viewpoint

 

The idea of the North East 250 is to use the route as a starting point to explore the region – there is no obligation to follow particular roads, or to stop at predetermined destinations. This means an endless array of options, from outdoor activities and whisky tastings to castle hunting and, who are we kidding, more whisky, in an area as diverse as it is expansive. Over two days (May 10-11) I tackled the western portion of the North East 250 from Tomintoul in the south to Fochabers in the north. Alongside me were three other Scottish travel bloggers under the umbrella of the Scotlanders, all of whom took on a different art of the route. If you enjoy this post I strongly encourage you to check out theirs, as we all have our own emphases – as you’ll know I fall firmly on the history side, while others prioritised the great outdoors and family-friendly activities. They are Neil (@travelwithakilt), Sonja (@MigratingMiss), and Kim (@kimgrantphotography).

 

As with all of my travels throughout Scotland I undertook my portion of the North East 250 by a combination of public transport – in this case, a train from and back to Edinburgh – and cycling. I was pleasantly surprised by the cycling conditions here. The route was at times challenging but never overly so, and cycling in the area is greatly aided by the Speyside Way, a beautiful and quiet walking and cycling route that, aptly, follows the River Spey through a great swathe of the region. There are plenty of rest stops and service stations along the way, and I found that the miles flew by aided by the scenery and occasional waft of whisky emanating from the many distilleries en route. Over two days I cycled approximately 65 miles, starting from Tomintoul and ending at Elgin by way of Glenlivet, Ballindalloch, Craigellachie, Dufftown, Rothes, and Fochabers. In my experience not all areas of Scotland are ideal for cycling, but in this case I can wholeheartedly recommend it as an eco-friendly way of availing of the area’s many attractions.

 

 

CASTLE HUNTING

 

There are several hundred castles in the area encircled by the North East 250, ranging from crumbling ruins in forgotten fields to grand baronial chateaux and mighty fortresses bristling with the panoply of war. The relative wealth of the northeast, due in large part to its fertile farmland, allowed its local lairds to raise castles in staggering numbers and varieties. Meanwhile the constant clan feuds between the likes of the Grants and the MacDonalds or Camerons meant that towers were laid waste as often as they were built, resulting in many of the area’s castles being composed of fragments from various centuries and sporting tales of treachery, destruction, and renewal.

 

Rothes Castle

 

Let’s start from the ruins and work our way up towards the comfort scale. Rothes Castle stands on a hill above the village of the same name between Craigellachie and Fochabers. This was clearly a place of strength, and an information panel with a reconstruction shows it in its full might. All that now survives is a single wall and traces of surrounding earthworks. However, Rothes was once significant enough that Edward I, ‘Hammer of the Scots’, saw fit to use it while travelling through the north east collecting pledges of submission from Scottish lairds in the wake of his crushing victory at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296. It was said that while Edward proceeded through Scotland, travelling from the Borders to Inverness, only once was he forced to sleep ‘under canvas’ rather than under the roof of a castle.

 

Drumin Castle, within sniffing distance of the distillery at Glenlivet, is a significant step up – quite literally, as a steep but well-maintained zig-zag path leads up to it from a small car park. Drumin fell within the domain of Alexander Stewart, the ‘Wolf of Badenoch’ who infamously torched Elgin Cathedral to spite the church when they denied him the right to divorce. The castle is incredibly distinctive, with the appearance of having been sliced almost perfectly in half as though it were a cross-section model of the kind you might find in a local museum. 

 

Drumin Castle

 

One of the mightiest castles along the western flank of the North East 250 is undoubtedly Balvenie Castle in the heart of Dufftown. Its enclosing wall dates to the late 12th century, making it one of the region’s oldest surviving castles. Balvenie was a stronghold of the Comyns. That family is now best remembered as Robert Bruce’s main rivals for the throne, and yet before that definitive struggle they were arguably the greatest champions of Scotland, defending the nation from English as well as Norse invaders from the fields of the Lothians to the mountain passes of Lochaber. This was their ancestral home, at least since the family came to the British Isles in the first instance alongside William the Conqueror and his Norman knights.

 

 

For me, the castellated highlight of my trip was Ballindalloch Castle. I had previously popped by Ballindalloch back around 2016 thinking that it was off-limits to the public, so in that instance I snapped a few pictures before cycling away. This could not be further from the truth. To my delight, Ballindalloch is not only open to the public to tour but the ethos of its current Laird, Guy Macpherson-Grant, is defined by a sense of openness and responsibility to the local area with an unmistakable flourish of playfulness.

 

History buffs can relish the castle itself, which has late 16th century origins and innumerable architectural highlights, one of my favourites being the heraldic panel above the modern entrance which reads ‘Touch Not The Cat Bot A Glove’, effectively meaning ‘don’t mess with the Macphersons without serious protection’. I love a good feisty house motto! What began as a 16th century towerhouse was expanded through successive generations of Grants and Macpherson-Grants into the courtyard complex on display today, and this leads to another point that makes Ballindalloch remarkable – it is still the home of the same family who first raised it. Guy described his castle as a piece of ‘living heritage’, where people can see not just artefacts and curiosities of times gone by but insights into modern castle life.

 

 

Kids, meanwhile, can entertain themselves for ages on the extensive grounds, which includes a grass labyrinth, a massive play area, and cute companions including donkeys, Shetland ponies, and even a golden llama grazing in enclosures. During my visit the castle was being prepared for a charity event for the benefit of Macmillan Cancer Support, and I cannot express enough how much I wish Scotland’s other privately owned castles put themselves at the service of the public in the way that Ballindalloch does.     

 

Finally, at the most rarefied end of the spectrum, is Gordon Castle in Fochabers near the mouth of the River Spey. Unfortunately the castle itself is not available to tour, being only available for exclusive hires, so the focus of a visit there is very much on the walled garden. The building we see today is technically not a castle but a chateau, the distinction being that a chateau has no defensive features, however one fragment of the original Gordon Castle – historically known as the Bog of Gight – does survive. Luckily I have a personal connection to Gordon Castle so have seen photos of areas usually off limits to the public – my partner was their in-house designer for a year and designed the label for a variety of the products that originate form the castle’s walled garden, including their very successful line of gin which I have extensively sampled in an entirely selfless effort to support her work.     

 

 

BRIDGES, SECRET PLACES & HERITAGE CENTRES

 

Of course it’s not all about castles. The North East 250 covers an area replete with beautiful packhorse bridges, landscapes once criss-crossed by illicit whisky distillers and the government agents who hunted them, and the legacy of religious reformation and the Jacobite Risings.
One of the most interesting and contemplative sites I visited was at the ‘secret’ College of Scalan, hidden away in the high hills a few miles outside Tomintoul. Scalan was the only place in Scotland during the 18th century where Catholic priests – often with Jacobite tendencies – were trained, known as ‘heather priests’. Redcoats marched through on several occasions, but the its isolated location and the sympathies of many amongst the local population gave them fair warning more often than not. You simply let yourself in to the main building – there is no steward or ticket office, only the solitude of your own thoughts. Sheep graze through the ruins of old structures, birds caw overhead, and as the mist drew across the Braes of Glenlivet it felt to me as though this is still a place of secrets.

 

 

The rivers of the north east, such as the Livet, Avon, and the great Spey itself, are the lifeblood of the region, not to mention the foremost ingredient in Speyside’s world famous whiskies. Across these rivers and springs from which the uisge-beatha (Scots Gaelic for ‘water of life’) is drawn span several incredibly picturesque bridges. Some are from the age when the rail lines forged new routes into the Highlands, while others are older and harken to a time when packhorses were the primary means of inland transport.

 

Starting in the south at Tomintoul and working your way north towards Fochabers, some of my favourites include the Old Bridge of Avon outside Tomintoul, the Old Bridge of Livet in Glenlivet, another bridge called the Old Bridge of Avon but this time at Ballindalloch, and the Craigellachie Bridge spanning the River Spey. Paddle boarders were going back and forth underneath the latter, and all of them offer a fine place to stop for a traveling picnic or photo shoot.

 

 

Whenever you want to come to grips with the history of an area, always visit the local museums and heritage centres. I never would have known about many of the amazing historic sites that I have visited over the years, or just as importantly about the stories behind them, if not for doing this as standard practice on all of my trips. On this stretch of the North East 250 that means a visit to the Tomintoul and Glenlivet Discovery Centre in Tomintoul. The Centre combines traditional exhibitions about daily life in this part of the Cairngorms with interactives including a new virtual reality experience. It is also an essential hub for information regarding sightseeing and services in the area, in addition to being a clearly beloved part of the community – during my brief visit several locals popped in to say hello and have a gander, and part of the Centre is used for local photography displays, workshops, and cultural events.

 

 

 

A TASTE OF THE NORTH EAST

 

One thing immediately comes to mind as I sit down to write this section – the indescribably delicious meal of mushrooms and cheese on toast that I feasted on at Gordon Castle and Walled Garden cafe. For any foodies doing the North East 250 the Walled Garden is a must-see, not least because wherever possible ingredients are sourced from the Walled Garden which you can look out upon while dining on the fruit of its soils. Once restored fully the Walled Garden will be the largest of its kind in Scotland. The botanicals that infuse Gordon Castle’s distinguished gin, for instance, come from the garden, and every effort is made to work with local suppliers on everything from beer to barley. While I didn’t have a single meal during this trip that was anything less than tasty, my lunch at the Walled Garden cafe is easily the most memorable morsel.

 

 

Sometimes you just need a good ol’ pub meal, and I found a very satisfying one at The Glenavon in Tomintoul, one of several places to eat in the village. For a more upscale pub dining experience head to The Highlander Inn in Craigellachie, which retains the atmosphere of a Highland pub with the culinary quality of a big city bistro.

 
When it comes to whisky, one of the main draws for people to visit Scotland’s northeast, there is no place more fitting than the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul. Ok, so it’s not actually a castle, but I’m willing to forgive that for the more than 600 bottles of specially selected whisky that stock its shelves. Sam and Scott, the Whisky Castle’s owners, walked me through the history of the water of life and indulged me in a tasting or two…or three…and it was clear to me that they care deeply about their craft and take a real pride in sharing the story of whisky with their visitors. It’s a popular and bustling wee spot, no doubt aided by the samples on offer and the exceptionally rare bottles in stock as well as the adjoining cafe where I fuelled up prior to setting out on my first day on the road. Whether you’re a whisky connoisseur or have never had a sip, the Whisky Castle is a vital port of call on the North East 250.

 

Whisky Castle tasting

 

 

Every whisky fan knows that the barrel is just as important for the creation of a quality whisky as the barley, so if you’re interested in the production process the Speyside Cooperage is a must-see. Here the centuries-old art of barrel making is on full and proud display. Although it was closed on the day I was in the area, visitors are able to see coopers at work using skills and techniques that their 18th century counterparts would still recognise instantly.

 

 

 

ACCOMMODATION

 

Accommodation books up quickly so be sure to leave plenty of time for planning. Luckily there is a wide range available to visitors, ranging from self-catered hostels and B&Bs to pampered hotel holidays. I err towards the former end of the scale. As an active solo traveller I don’t tend to linger long in accommodation, but nonetheless having a cosy base to return to after a hard day pedalling up and down the hills makes all the difference.

I was delighted with my stay at The Smugglers Hostel in Tomintoul, which combines accessibility with comfort, a make-yourself-at-home attitude, and a friendly welcome from its owner, Kenny, who told me that the building used to be a school house. The crowd here errs towards the young and active, but all sorts ranging from motorcyclists to bird watchers coming from all over the world have availed of The Smugglers Hostel. It was just right for me, and I don’t hesitate in recommending it for the independently-minded traveller.

 

 

My second night was spent at the Bridge View B&B in Craigellachie, and it felt like coming home to grandma’s house (though the decor was anything but dated). I didn’t have time to avail of everything on offer, but a big, comfy bed, tasty breakfast, deep bathtub and playful decor made it a welcoming place to stay. The location is perfect, too, located just 15 minutes’ walk from the Speyside Cooperage and at the top of a flight of stairs leading directly down to Craigellachie’s main street where you’ll find pubs, restaurants, and beautiful views over the River Spey. The Bridge View is one of a group of cottages and self-catered locations run by Bev and Campbell Croy in town, with other options including the Telford View and the Bonnie View. Though I was alone on my trip, I could see the Bridge View in particular making for a romantic spot for couples, too.

 

 

Disclaimer

This post is part of a campaign organised by the North East 250 to promote the route’s attractions. Myself and the Scotlanders travel blogging collective were hired to showcase what is has to offer. Prior to this campaign I had actually travelled along much of the route independently simply for the joy of it, and would gladly do so again. Accommodation and meals were provided for us, often complimentarily as part of this awareness campaign. I am indebted and thankful to those who made their services available and to the North East 250 for arranging this campaign. Visit northeast250.com for all the information and inspiration you’ll need to make the most of Scotland’s north east.