The Polish-American philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski once said that "the map is not the territory". As far as I'm concerned, he might have been talking about rural Aberdeenshire. How hard can it be to find a large, pink castle among the wide-open Grampian foothills in Scotland's castle country? This region is dense with medieval fortresses and majestic tower houses, so it makes sense that Britain's first official Castle Trail has been launched here. If only I could follow it...
Aberdeenshire can boast hundreds of castles – including Balmoral – but the Castle Trail highlights 14 specific destinations, between Banchory in the south and Elgin to the north. One of these is Craigievar, a 17th-century baronial pile whose exact location eludes me as I follow the dipping, winding B-roads with only blithe optimism, rather than a sat-nav device, as my guide. It's been 20 minutes since the sign for Craigievar, with its blue Castle Trail logo, advised me to turn off at Torpins. Now, after several miles and no road signs whatsoever, the car is bumping along a cart track, beside ditches filled with snow and lined by daffodils in full bloom.
Suddenly, Craigievar looms into view. Surrounded by beautiful beech woods, this seven-storey fortified castle prettily crowned by turrets, gargoyles and corbelling is open to visitors, who come to admire its exquisite plasterwork ceilings, Raeburn portraits, and the Stuart coat of arms in the Great Hall. The castle closed in 2007 so that its exterior could acquire a new coat of harling – the traditional lime render that protects stonework from harsh Scottish weather, coloured by natural earth pigments.
Prior to the renovation, Craigievar's walls were terracotta-hued, but architectural historians say the new, slightly startling pink surface is closer to the original colour, even if it does look Disney-like amid the windswept brown-and-green landscape. Coach tours aren't allowed at this unspoilt estate, so you'll rarely find it crowded – assuming you can find it in the first place, that is.
Another hidden gem on the Castle Trail – but harder to miss – is Drum, 10 miles from Aberdeen and overlooking the River Dee. This was the seat of Clan Irvine for 24 generations (the land was granted to William de Irwyn by Robert the Bruce in 1324 and remained the family home until 1975). It's a charming miniature castle, comprising a medieval tower and an early 17th-century mansion, with Victorian flourishes added on.
Attractions include a farmland walk, buzzards and the occasional Red Kite wheeling overhead, and woods of ancient oaks, Scots pine and birch – but its real jewel is the Garden of Historic Roses. This is an elegant walled garden divided into quadrants representing the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries; it is at its best in June and July. The heady scents of the older breeds and the magnificent flowering of the more modern ones are set off by herbs, shrubs and herbaceous perennial.
On now to nearby Crathes, just four miles west of Drum. Approached via Royal Deeside's ancient woodlands, Crathes looks intimidating, with rough, harled granite walls looming high, but pass through the well-preserved 16th-century tower house's front door and it's positively cosy. Beyond a low passage cut through a 5ft-thick wall leading off the entrance hall is the lovely vaulted kitchen, warmed by a Stirlingshire-built coal-fired range. From here, I climb a stone turnpike stair up through the High Hall, the Stair Chamber and the Room of Nine Nobles, with its wonderful Scottish Renaissance painted ceiling, to the Family Room – which is where Crathes really comes to life.
The current clan head, Jamie Burnett, lives in a house on the estate – his grandparents having gifted the castle to the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) in 1952 – and has made the Family Room his personal project. He rotates artefacts both ancient and modern, from books and baby shoes to wedding photographs and press cuttings relating to more recent family events. They're a fairly glamorous family, too, so there's a touch of Hello! magazine about it all.
Crathes is also notable for its stunning formal garden, where a wrought-iron bench built around the gnarled trunk of a laurel tree has provided generations of family and visitors with a peaceful, shady retreat on those rare days when Aberdeenshire is bathed in sunshine.
Manager Gareth Clingan says Crathes is very much about families, but not only the one that has lived here since the 1320s. "The NTS is having to adapt," he says, in order to keep visitor numbers up. For this reason they're allowing a Go Ape! adventure playground to open here soon. The spacious, glass-walled courtyard café is already geared up for parents and children, with well-spaced tables, ramps for buggies, and a wide choice of food and drink, with plenty of organic and fairtrade labels. Even ancient castles have to move with the times.
* See visitscotland.com for a numbered map of Scotland's Castle Trail, contact details and opening times