Only seagulls will hear you scream: With its spectacular castles, stark coastline and oil-related wealth, north-east Scotland has more to offer than wind and rain, says Simon Calder

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The Independent Travel
GOLDEN beaches, fairy-tale castles and good whisky: north-east Scotland sounds a dream destination. But when you step off the train at Aberdeen you seem to have arrived in a particularly dismal corner of Norway. The outlook is bleak: grey walls merge with slates which blend with the heavy sky, itself joined seamlessly to the steely North Sea. The tourist board admits the climate is a problem. But even through a haze of precipitation the city and its surroundings reward a visit. No other British city is so perfectly framed: the seashore to the east is punctured by the river Don to the north and the Dee to the south, and the twin valleys snake inland to meadows and mountains.

You cannot fault the tourist board for effort. It recommends a harbourside walk which seems of interest chiefly to devotees of oil support vessels. The wet and wretched way along the quayside is like a stroll through the set of a gloomy Sixties kitchen-sink film. The walk ends with an intriguing twist, however, at the 'model village' of Footdee. This 19th-century experiment in urban planning huddles on a spit of land at the entrance to the harbour. It is a low, gaunt quadrangle of cottages built to provide decent housing for fishermen. The terraces form a rudimentary fortress, braced against the worst the sea can wreak. The tiniest homes in this venerable housing estate are post-war prefabs, some derelict but others decorated with infinite pride.

Aberdeen is not widely thought of as a seaside resort, yet it does a creditable impression of one. A golden beach arcs around the city, the water warmed, so the locals say, by a convenient eddy in the Gulf Stream. In the middle of the promenade sits Codona's amusement park, with all the unsophisticated fun of a pre-Disney fair. To the manic children manoeuvring dodgems, appearances matter less than thrills.

In other respects Aberdeen is well-to-do, with glitzy shopping malls offering countless ways to offload disposable income. Exploitation of hydrocarbons makes it the country's wealthiest provincial city. Aberdeen is the general store and transport terminal for North Sea oil and gas operations, Texas transplanted to the top right-hand corner of Britain. It has the country's busiest heliport and more than its fair share of hi-tech offices and high-performance cars. Yet Aberdeen's wealth is not fuelled entirely by oil. The first company in Britain - the Shore Porters' Society - was formed here in 1498 and has survived half a millennium of boom, bust and fluctuating interest rates.

The oil connection has helped to enrich the city's cultural life. This week, as well as the Scottish Ballet performing Romeo and Juliet in the elegant surroundings of His Majesty's Theatre, a retrospective of the work of Robert Doisneau, the 80-year-old French black-and-white photographer, opens at the Art Gallery.

Doisneau would find plenty of monochromatic material in Aberdeen. Yet in the city centre you soon discover that granite is not exclusively grey. Union Street is speckled by pale pinks, reds and blues, pastel imitations of the roses that enliven the city's many parks. And even the most ordinary buildings are adorned with delightful micro-architectural touches such as graceful corbels and funny little towers. Castlegate is guarded by the outrageous turrets of the Salvation Army. The heart of the city is marked by the Mercat Cross, which bears the images of 10 Stewart monarchs, ending with Mary Queen of Scots.

A market is held here from Thursday to Saturday, selling a range of produce which is staggering for somewhere on the same latitude as Sitka, Alaska. The Grampian region has the busiest fishing port and the choicest beef in Britain, and you can eat extremely well. Even half-way along what could be the last road in Britain - the B999 - you can find a fine bistro.

A separate city coexists with the newer, 19th-century part. Old Aberdeen is the original settlement, a calm and pretty area with cobbled streets and enchanting nooks. Academics have an unerring skill for locating themselves in the most pleasant part of any city, and the dons of Donside are no exception. Aberdeen University has taken over this leafy quarter, and one department has even made its home in the former brewery.

The two stout towers of St Machar's Cathedral, on the site of an ancient Celtic church, preside over the entrance to Seaton Park. Here a dramatic riverside walk winds around to the Brig o'Balgownie, a 13th-century bridge which Lord Byron crossed. He describes looking down to the dark waters of the Don, 'a pool of bewitchment'. So tranquil is the setting that emerging from it into a suburban housing estate is all the more shocking. Aberdeen conceals its charm amid the commonplace.

Today's byway across the Brig was once the main route north along the coast, leading past awesome natural and man-made phenomena. The most terrifying is 15 miles north of Aberdeen. A signpost points to the 'Bullers of Buchan', and a footpath lures you past a cottage called Breathing Space to the rim of a 200ft (62m) chasm. At the bottom, the seas foam through a natural archway like a cauldron. Watch your footing - only the seagulls would hear you scream.

Just along the coast, Slains Castle is a terrifying pile which is slowly disintegrating on the edge of a precipice. Once it was a retreat for the rich and famous. Bram Stoker was a guest, and the doomy setting inspired him to write Dracula. Finding the castle is a problem. First locate Main Street in Cruden Bay, tricky because it is neither main nor much of a street. At its conclusion a car park marks the start of a path which leads to this spectacular castle. Given the decades of exposure, it is surprising that so much of Slains has survived to provide an eerie ornament for the battered shore. I swear I saw a bat flapping through the roofless corridors.

The coastline turns a corner to reveal a genuine film set. Bill Forsyth shot Local Hero at the impossibly pretty fishing port of Pennan, a string of houses parked on the shore. The movie tells of a dastardly plan by a Texan oil corporation to turn the bay into 'the petrochemical capital of the free world', and the subsequent triumph of charm over commerce. Pennan shows little sign of allowing the 20th century to intrude. The cliff face leaves no room for back gardens, so everyone's washing adorns the beach. You can mimic art by drinking McEwan's Export at what was Denis Lawson's pub in the film or calling Houston from Furness 261, the bright red telephone box on the shore which is now a protected historical monument.

Given the rugged coast of Grampian, it is all the more remarkable that inland is a tapestry of broad meadows. A scheduled steam-train service chuffs through the gentle glens from Aberdeen to Elgin, delighting enthusiasts and children but terrifying wildlife which scampers away from the tracks. At Elgin, the Northern Belle unloads its odd cargo of (largely train-spotting) passengers. This might be a modest market town, but a huge ruined cathedral confers city status.

A bus waits to take trippers through the Glen of Rothes to Dufftown, ringed by seven hills and the same number of distilleries. (If you want to know the story of malt whisky, it is told effectively at Glen Fiddich.)

Castle lovers are also well-served in north-east Scotland. Originally a chain of fortresses was essential to protect the Scottish court as it perambulated around the Highlands. Later, however, castles had little to do with defensive fortifications and a lot to do with impressing the neighbours. Scotland's castles are more like French chateaux, demonstrative rather than defensive. The only kind of warfare at which these desirable residences would have excelled was the psychological variety.

To outdo the gentry down the road, the more turrets the better. Fyvie Castle sprouts five curious steeples, one for each of the families which lived there from the 14th to the 20th centuries. Ten years ago Sir Andrew Forbes-Leith sold the huge ochre mansion to the National Trust of Scotland, complete with fixtures and fittings. The interior is decorated with Flemish tapestry and Delft tiles, and the master's study has bells to summon the private secretary or to order titbits from the pantry. Now the exquisite dining room is used for corporate entertaining by oil companies.

Craigievar Castle looks as though a whisky-fuddled architect was given free rein. This pinkwashed structure defies the rolling hills which surround it, flaunting Gaudi-esque curves and a collection of random turrets. The best feature is the top floor, a perfectly converted loft with room for children to play, and crannies for grannies to escape the mayhem.

By the time you reach Crathes, all the castles of the Dee have merged into a single, tall-turreted baronial home. Crathes' castle fits easily into the mould. What distinguishes it is the delightful 17th-century walled garden, though many of the flowers are bedraggled by the driving rain. Holding up best are the Crathes roses, hardy pink blooms named after the castle, and some over-the-top topiary.

The highest peak in Grampian is Bennachie, whose 1,733ft (541m) summit is the top of a wrinkled ridge rather than a neat cone. A picturesque lane, called the Lord's Throat by the locals, winds around the foot of the mountain with stunning vistas at every turn. South of it is the Queen's View, a regal panorama across the plains to the Highlands. Queen Victoria wrote to her uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, that the scenery was 'the finest almost I have seen'. She was not just comparing it favourably with Belgium. Given the pick of the kingdom, royalty chose Deeside, the lovely green valley carving a lively course through the countryside.

Balmoral is a disappointment, since the public and media are excluded from both the castle and village while the Royal Family is in residence. Even with a long lens, royal-watchers see little of Her Majesty's holiday home. The paparazzi camped out at the entrance to Balmoral are missing some highly photogenic scenery. The Queen's back garden is Glen Muick, a suitably majestic slab of Scotland with heather-clad mountainsides and shimmering water stretching to infinity. The valley is a wildlife reserve, populated by deer and the odd red squirrel.

The community benefits from royal patronage, with the local baker and garage able to display royal warrants. One establishment which fails to advertise its royal credentials is Crathie Kirk, across the river Dee. Queen Victoria opened this simple granite church in 1895 (much of it paid for by the proceeds of a bazaar at Balmoral) and members of the present Royal Family attend services here. They also patronise the Gathering each September at Braemar, 10 miles upriver.

The clans are returning from New Caledonia, Nova Scotia and New Zealand for next Saturday's festivities. Gatherings began in the 11th century, and the Braemar Royal Highland Society has organised annual games for 175 years. The sports grew up among tradesmen: hammer-throwing, for example, arose from games between rival blacksmiths. Other events include putting the heavy stone and - confirming Sassenach stereotypes - tossing the caber. Spotting members of the Royal Family is likely to be a more popular sport next weekend when the Windsors emerge from Balmoral to enjoy the games and endure the paparazzi.

FACT FILE

British Airways, Dan Air and Air UK all have flights into Aberdeen. Catch bus 27 to the rail station in the city centre. I stayed at the Brentwood (0224 595440) which has a weekend rate of pounds 38 double. Out of town, the Muffin and Crumpet (06513 2210) is an imaginative bistro in the small village of Udny Station on the B999. The Aberdeen Tourist Board is on 0224 632727 and Aberdeen's What's On Line is 0224 636363.

(Photograph omitted)

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