Situated on the north-east coast of Scotland, Aberdeenshire is a place of extremes. On one hand, there’s its identity as the ‘Oil Capital of Europe’, its industrial architecture and workforce carving out a space for the Scottish city on the world stage. On the other hand, Aberdeenshire features beautiful coastlines, gentle seaside towns, rugged cliffs and sandy bays, and is dotted with centuries-old distilleries, sweeping parklands and winding rivers.
Nestled amongst both the industrial and rural parts of Aberdeenshire are a number of fascinating historical sites. For those with an interest in religious architecture, St. Machars, the oldest building in Aberdeen in active use, dates to the 12th century and is rumoured to have William Wallace’s arm buried in its walls. Nearby, the mighty Balmoral Castle is internationally renowned as a royal residence and is sometimes open to the curious public. Museums such as the Aberdeen Maritime Museum and Tolbooth Museum also offer an insight into the lives of Aberdeenshire’s residents, both working on land or sailing the high seas.
Here’s our pick of 10 fantastic historical sites in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire.
1. St Machar's Cathedral
Dating to the 12th century, St. Machar’s Cathedral is the oldest building in Aberdeen in active use. Located north of the city centre in the former burgh of Old Aberdeen, it is technically no longer a cathedral but a kirk, since there’s not been a bishop there since 1690. It has witnessed its fair share of history. After William Wallace was executed in 1305, his body was cut up and sent to different corners of the country as a warning to other dissenters. His arm was sent to Aberdeen, and it is said that it is buried in the walls of the cathedral.
The church is still in active use as a place of worship and features a unique heraldic ceiling and fortified west front. Significant restoration has been conducted on St. Machars meaning that it is now a fantastic spot for history enthusiasts to visit.
2. Craigievar Castle
Built in the Scottish Baronial style in around 1576, Craigievar Castle is a spellbinding pink castle that is said to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle. The iconic tower house is amongst the best-preserved and most loved in Scotland, its exterior virtually unchanged since William Forbes completed it in around 1626.
A family home until the 1960s, the upper floors haven’t been fitted with artificial light, meaning the historical artefacts can be viewed exactly as they would have been originally. It is a popular visitor attraction.
3. Dunnottar Castle
Dunnottar Castle is a ruined medieval fortress located upon a picturesque rocky headland south of Stonehaven. The surviving buildings largely date from the 15th and 16th centuries, but the site is thought to have been fortified as long ago as the Early Middle Ages. Owing to its strategic position, Dunnottar played a significant role in the 18th-century Jacobite risings.
The castle is best known for being the place where the Scottish crown jewels were hidden from Oliver Cromwell’s invading army in the 17th century. The ruins were re-fortified in the 20th century and are now a hugely popular attraction for both history and nature lovers.
4. Tolbooth Museum
Located on the scenic harbourfront, the Tolbooth Museum is the oldest building in Stonehaven. It is thought to have been founded by George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal (c. 1553-1623) as a storehouse during the construction of nearby Dunnottar Castle. In 1600, it was made an official administrative centre for Stonehaven. After 1624, the town business functions were conducted on the top level of the Stonehaven Tolbooth, while the ground floor was used as a prison. Later used again as a store, it fell into disrepair in the 1950s.
In 1963, following refurbishment the building was officially re-opened, and in 1975 the upper floor was converted into a museum which details Stonehaven’s heritage. Entry is free, and particular highlights include an original cell door, the Inverbervie stocks and a punishment device called the Crank.
5. Torry Battery
Situated near Torry, the Torry Battery is an artillery battery which has overlooked the city’s harbour since 1860. It was originally constructed for nine guns with a defensible barracks at the rear. In 1881, the battery mounted 10-inch Smooth bore guns and five 68-Pounder Smooth bore guns, then was adapted to hold two 6-inch Breech Loading guns by 1906.
Both guns were operational during World War One, and the Torry Battery was also used as a defensive site during World War Two. Finally decommissioned in 1956, it is now a scheduled monument and popular attraction.
Balmoral Castle has been the official Highlands home of the British royal family since the reign of Queen Victoria, and today welcomes visitors to view some of its eminent history first-hand. Having fallen in love with the Highlands after their first visit in 1842, it was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who first bought the lease to Balmoral in 1848, despite having never visited the site itself. Finding the existing castle too small however, they commissioned Aberdeen architect William Smith to build a completely new structure some 100 yards from the original. Prince Albert himself had a role in the design process, taking a particular interest in its turrets and windows, and the Balmoral Castle we see today was built between 1853 and 1856.
Today Balmoral Castle remains the private residence of the British Royal family, and as such many of their private rooms are closed to the public. Between April and July however, some of Balmoral is open for visitors. The highlight of the site is the Castle Ballroom, a magnificent hall adorned with portraits, silver statues, and Minton China still used to host dances by the Royals each year.
7. Aberdeen Maritime Museum
Situated close to Aberdeen’s busy harbour on the historic Shiprow, Aberdeen Maritime Museum tells the story of Aberdeen’s long and often dramatic relationship with the sea, from the early days of fishing, trading and shipbuilding right up to the discovery of North Sea Oil and Aberdeen’s part in the energy industry. The museum is located in the 16th century Provost Ross’ House.
Highlights of the rich and varied collection, which spans four floors, include ship models from the 17th century, whalers harpoons, medieval imported goods and the entire deck of an historic steamer.
8. Gordon Highlanders Museum
The Gordon Highlanders Museum celebrates the story of the Gordon Highlanders regiment, which originated in 1794 and was eventually amalgamated into a new larger unit of the British Army in 1994. A five star tourist board attraction, it is located in a 19th century house which was lived in by the Scottish artist Sir George Reid from 1867.
It was acquired by the War Office in 1960 before eventually being opened as a museum in 1997. The museum contains historical artefacts such as regimental silverware, weapons and guns, a replica World War One trench and an exhibition space. Works by the artist Sir George Reid are also on display.
9. Castle Fraser
Castle Fraser in Aberdeenshire is perhaps the ultimate example of a Renaissance dwelling of the nobility of Scotland. It was founded in 1575 by Michael Fraser on an earlier castle, and completed in 1636. It was built on a Z-plan – a central hall building with diagonally opposed towers – with a pair of service wings enclosing a courtyard.
It was remodelled in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and eventually sold by the last Fraser in 1921. Today, visitors can visit Castle Fraser, which is one of the largest tower houses in Scotland, and enjoy features such as the Laird’s Lug, hidden trapdoors and even a spy hole. Family treasures also include a Raeburn portrait.
10. Fyvie Castle
Fyvie Castle was originally a royal lodge to which a curtain wall was added. William the Lion used Fyvie to hold Parliament in 1214, and a succession of royal visitors followed such as Alexander II, Edward I of England and Robert the Bruce. In 1380, Fyvie was sold to the Preston family, who built the oldest surviving part of the current castle. Over the following decades, more was added to the building, and in 1885, steel tycoon Alexander Forbes-Leith purchased Fyvie and extensively remodelled it.
Today, the castle is a popular attraction, featuring a rich portrait collection – including one of the largest collections of Raeburns in the world – fine furniture, tapestries, arms and armour. The 18th century walled garden outside is full of Scottish fruits and vegetables, while Fyvie Loch is a picturesque landscape that supports a wealth of wildlife.