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Scotland’s Top Architecture: Aberdeenshire

Did you know Aberdeen is home to one of Scotland’s oldest universities, and Aberdeenshire was once the centre of the ancient Pict kingdom?

For a memorable day out, discover the fascinating history of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire through its listed buildings and ancient monuments! These architectural gems have incredible stories to tell about the evolution of Scotland.

Easter Aquhorthies Stone Circle, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire

Time period: Stone Age

Stone circles were built across Scotland in the Stone Age, around 3000 BC, and were clearly used as sacred sites. Although today we can only wonder at the people who made them, the full meaning of their design, and the rituals and beliefs that went along with them!

Around 10% of stone circles recorded in Britain can be found in Aberdeenshire, and the region even boasts its own unique style of circle – the Recumbent Stone Circle.

The Easter Aquhorthies Stone Circle can be found at a quite rural location near Inverurie, and is one of the best-preserved examples of a Recumbent Stone Circle with its full complement of stones intact. It has 9 stones in a circle, with a large monolith stone off to the side, which is flanked by a standing stone at each end.

The name Aquhorthies derives from a Scottish Gaelic word meaning “field of prayer” – and it’s the perfect place to get up close to such an incredible piece of our oldest history, where you can soak up the historic atmosphere in beautiful tranquillity.

See the VisitAberdeenshire Stone Circles Trail for more sites to visit.

Kincord Cross Pictish Stone, Kinord, Aberdeenshire

Time period: Iron Age and Early Medieval

Pictish stones are different from standing stones. They feature carved designs and were made by the Celtic people of the Pict kingdom, who lived in the north and east of Scotland from the Iron Age (750 BC) into the early Medieval period (843 AD).

Around 20% of all Pictish stones recorded in Scotland can be found in Aberdeenshire as the area was a historic stronghold for the Picts.

The Kinord Cross Pictish Stone can be found in the beautiful Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve at the edge of the Cairngorms National Park. It features an ornate Celtic cross which occupies almost the whole surface of the slab. It’s actually a Pictish Christian monument from the end of their era, when the older culture gave way to new Christian influences. Around the time this stone was made, the Picts and Gaels joined forces against Viking invaders and the old Kingdom of Alba was born!

See the VisitAberdeenshire Pictish Stones Trail for more sites to visit.  You could also climb Bennachie, near Inverurie, to discover the remnants of a Pict fort at the top.

Findlater Castle, Portsoy, Aberdeenshire

Time period: Medieval to Royal House of Stuart

The ruins of Findlater Castle are a hidden gem that is sure to capture the imagination. Perched on a cliff that projects out into the sea, similar to Dunnottar Castle but on a smaller scale, this quiet and secluded site is between the historic fishing villages of Cullen and Portsoy.  The name gives a clue to the Viking influence in the area, ‘fyn’ meaning white and ‘leitr’ cliff.

A castle is known to have sat on the site since 1246, just before the Wars of Independence, although the remains seen today are dated to around 1450, when the House of Stuart sat on the Scottish throne. The castle was originally used in defence against Norwegian invaders, although Mary Queen of Scots later attacked it when the resident Gordon family rebelled.

Brown tourist signs direct you from the A98 to a parking area at a farm, Barnyards of Findlater, and from here it is a half-mile walk to the cliffs on a good grassy path.

You may also enjoy the cliff-side ruins of Slains Castle near the village Cruden Bay, and Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven.

St Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen

Time period: Medieval, Wars of Independence, Royal House of Stuart

St Machar’s Cathedral sits north of King’s College within Old Aberdeen. Did you know you can trace its origins back to an ancient Pict religious site, when Christianity first came to our shores?

Saint Machar was a Bishop who originally came from Ireland and was thought to have previously been a nobleman. He travelled to the Isle of Iona with Columba who founded Iona Abbey, preached in Mull, and later ministered to the Picts around Aberdeen.

The original Norman cathedral was built by 1165, yet has been damaged and added to over the many years. It was extended during the Wars of Independence, which caused disruption to its progress, then was almost completely demolished and rebuilt in the late 1300s. Further work took place in the 1400s and 1500s, including the addition of the heraldic ceiling and spires.

It is widely rumoured that Sir William Wallace’s arm, which was sent to Aberdeen after he was hung, drawn and quartered by the English in 1305, was taken and secretly buried within the cathedral.

The historic atmosphere of the building is palpable. Take in the cathedral’s beautiful features, which include a wooden heraldic ceiling, large stained-glass windows, incredible stone carvings, spires and tower heads. Entry is free.

Kings College, Aberdeen

Time period: Royal House of Stuart

King’s College is the original home to the University of Aberdeen, founded under a Papal Bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1495, while Scotland was still a Catholic nation under the royal House of Stuart. It is Scotland’s second oldest university, after the University of St Andrews, and the fifth oldest in the UK.

Made from durable grey granite as is typical for the city, the beautiful crown-like structure that is incorporated into the architecture is thought to have been in support of the Scottish crown’s imperial authority within Scotland.

Today, the building forms part of the Old Aberdeen campus and remains at the symbolic centre of the ever-growing university. It still has an important educational function, with Divinity, History of Art and Religious Studies all taught here. Its rear grounds are used as a sports pavilion.

The Chapel is open to visitors from Monday to Friday, 10am – 3:30pm. You can also enjoy a stroll around the charming cobbled streets of Old Aberdeen where the college is situated.

Crathes Castle, Crathes, Aberdeenshire

Time period: Royal House of Stuart

The beautiful Crathes estate in Royal Deeside was gifted to the Burnett of Leys family in 1323 by King Robert the Bruce. The family originally built a crannog in a boggy area of the estate, which is a wooden fortress on stilts over water. Building of Crathes Castle didn’t begin until 1553 and was delayed due to political turmoil during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots – but was finally completed in 1596.

The castle is built in a traditional tower house style, with ornamental turrets and towers. Maintained in its original condition, it contains a significant collection of portraits and Scottish renaissance painted ceilings can be seen in several of the rooms. Outside, it has 530 acres of woodland and fields to explore, including formal gardens, and a pretty bog area and stream which has wooden walk ways.

Did you know that excavations near the castle uncovered a series of pits, believed to date from about 10,000 years ago, which are understood to be a Mesolithic calendar?

You may also enjoy Balmoral Castle near Braemar, Fyvie Castle near Turriff, and Craigievar Castle near Alford.

Duff House, Banff, Aberdeenshire

Time period: Jacobite risings and Industrial Revolution

Duff House is a baroque style mansion built in 1740 by William Duff, the 1st Earl Fife and Viscount Macduff, around the time of the final Jacobite risings and just as the industrial revolution prepared to take off. The Duff family steered away from any Jacobite involvement, and the Earl benefited from his position as a landowner and politician who sat in the House of Commons.

The house was a hugely expensive project, built at a time when Scottish lords were abandoning old castles in favour of spacious and comfortable houses, used as status symbols to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ in opulent Georgian Britain! Duff and his architect, William Adam, fell out over money so the curved east and west wings of the original plan were never built! However, it remains an impressive and beautiful house none the less.

William Adam’s tremendous vision includes an elaborate masonry, six staircases and a great salon. It also houses a significant art collection. Visit the restored house to learn about its many stories, and enjoy a wander through the landscaped grounds, set out with carriage drives and ornamental follies.

You may also enjoy Haddo House near the town of Ellon, and Leith Hall near Huntly.

Pennan Village, Aberdeenshire

Time period: Highland Clearances and Industrial Revolution

Pennan is as charming a traditional fishing village as you can find in Scotland, nestled at the foot of an overhanging sheer cliff-face. It has a row of colourful cottages, built gable-end facing the sea in the traditional style that helped provide shelter from North Sea winds, and a quaint old harbour pier.

There’s been a village here since the 1700s, and the listed cottages are circa the 1800s. A historic account from 1855 tells a story of 129 men and boys living here with their families, sailing a fleet of 40 fishing boasts. Displaced Highlanders during the Highland Clearances of 1780 – 1854 populated small fishing villages like these, as they were forced from their farms to make way for pastoral sheep farming. As boats became bigger the harbour fell out of mainstream use, however small fishing and pleasure boats do still use the little harbour today.

Pennan’s most famous ‘building’ is a less conventional structure – a traditional red telephone box! Pennan was used as the backdrop to Bill Forsyth’s movie blockbuster, Local Hero, and the payphone was given listed building status afterwards, thanks to its starring role. Oil executive Mac would use it to connect to his Texas HQ, and drop his coins in when he heard the pips!

Why not dine at The Pennan Inn, which also featured in the film, while you’re visiting?

Leaving your car at the top of the hill and walking down is advisable, due to limited space for parking.

You may also like the traditional fishing villages of nearby Gardenstown, Boddam near Peterhead where you can see rare pink granite buildings, or Footdee beside Aberdeen Harbour.

Bride of Feugh, Banchory, Aberdeenshire

Time period: Industrial Revolution

The romantic old Bridge of Feugh spans the Water of Feugh, just before it meets the larger River Dee at the beautiful Falls of Feugh. It was built in 1790 to provide better access into the historic market town of Banchory from the south side of the River Dee.

Heavy investment was made in infrastructure during the industrialisation period, including railways such as The Royal Deeside Railway and heritage steam train from the 1850s, which can be seen at nearby Crathes.

The original Toll House on the west side of the bridge is still there, now converted to a house. In the early 1960’s, a pedestrian footbridge was erected between the falls and the old bridge to provide a viewing platform.

The Falls of Feugh are a must-see while visiting – an impressive waterfall cascade providing an 18-feet drop into the deep basin below. It provides a challenging barrier to the Atlantic salmon making their way up to spawning grounds between February and October, and the bridge is an ideal spot to watch them leaping!

See the VisitAberdeenshire Historic Bridges Trail for more bridges to visit.

Sir Duncan Rice Library, Aberdeen

Time period: Contemporary

A stunning example of modern Aberdeen today, The Sir Duncan Rice Library was officially opened on 24th September 2012 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. It sits nearby Old Aberdeen on the University of Aberdeen’s campus.

The building was designed by Danish architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen, conceived to mark the ice and light of the north. The striking design concept was to provide “a meeting place and a cultural centre for the university and the wider Aberdeen community”.

The building is open to the wider public, and you can enjoy spaces inside that are as beautiful as the glass exterior, including a unique central foyer with an asymmetric circular staircase that spans the height of the building.

Why not learn more about Aberdeenshire, see 12 hidden gems in Aberdeen to visit, or discover more fascinating architecture in Scotland?