Bounded by the highest mountains in Britain, the majestic River Dee winds its way through some of Scotland’s most celebrated scenery. From its source in the shadow of Ben Macdui and Braeriach high in the Cairngorm mountains, the Dee cascades over waterfalls and meanders through the remnants of the ancient Caledonian Forest before making its way to Aberdeen and the North Sea.
There is no better way to discover the wildlife, architecture and history of this area of Scotland than to walk. Whatever your ability – walking at high or low level, following tough terrain or level paths – the 25 routes in this guide offer something for everyone.
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Rivers have been at the centre of Scottish life for thousands of years. For the earliest settlers a river meant survival – a source of food, drinking water and transport.
Over the centuries villages, towns and all of Scotland’s cities have grown and developed along the banks of a river. From the Industrial Revolution, when Scotland was one of the manufacturing powerhouses of Europe, until the long decline of heavy industry in the 20th century, rivers were integral to Scotland’s economic development. As towns and cities attempt to reinvent themselves in the wake of that decline, rivers and riverbanks are crucial to regeneration, providing key destinations for residential developments, offices, leisure and recreation.
Water activities such as rowing, sailing, kayaking, canyoning and fishing are increasingly popular, and wildlife is making a comeback as the environment begins to recover from pollution. From source to sea, a river passes through a variety of landscapes – from mountains to hills, towns to cities, countryside to concrete – and the best way to discover the scenery, wildlife, architecture and history is to walk. The increasing numbers of paths and walkways along riverbanks present plenty of opportunities to explore. Whatever your ability – walking at high or low level, tackling tough terrain or a simple route – this series offers something for everyone.
The River Dee
‘Every year my heart becomes more fixed in this dear paradise’. Queen Victoria wrote these words about her beloved Deeside, and her name has become synonymous with the region ever since she first visited in 1842. A few years later Queen Victoria and Prince Albert purchased Balmoral Castle – and the River Dee and the truly awe-inspiring landscape it flows through was put on the international map. Thousands of tourists flock here every year from all corners of the globe for the scenery, wildlife and history. It is a landscape of extremes, offering a wonderful range of walks. The River Dee is bounded by some of the highest mountains in Britain, where conditions can turn from benign to ferocious in an instant, providing some of the most testing but invigorating walking environments to be found.
The River Dee plummets from the mountain slopes, then decelerates as the landscape softens and the gradient eases, but continues to provide walking terrain that is never less than inspiring before culminating at Aberdeen. The 25 routes in this guidebook have been chosen to illustrate the varied landscapes, and thus the diversity of walking, to be found on and near the banks of the River Dee as it travels from source to sea. Many of these routes are circular to take in the best of the scenery in the area around each stage of the river's journey and to explore some of the most interesting towns and villages that have sprung up along its banks. The walks also highlight the wildlife, architecture and history to be found along the way.
On its 87-mile passage from the wilds of the Cairngorm plateau to bustling Aberdeen, the River Dee travels through an iconic mountain landscape. It has the highest source of any river in the British Isles – beginning almost 4000ft above sea level at the springs of the Wells of Dee, which sit beneath the mountain summits of Braeriach and Cairn Toul, respectively the third and fourth highest mountains in Britain, before dropping over dramatic cliffs to depart from the plateau at the Falls of Dee. Across the famous Lairig Ghru mountain pass to the northeast a number of watercourses descend from the slopes of Braeriach and Ben Macdui into the Pools of Dee, the waters flowing south to join the infant Dee below the slopes of Ben Macdui. After the Chest of Dee waterfalls, the river swings more decisively eastwards for the remainder of its journey, gathering force as it is quickly joined by a number of its main tributaries. On the way, it tumbles down gorges, through remnants of the great Caledonian Pine Forest and other ancient woodland, along lochs and through historic towns and villages such as Braemar, Crathie, Ballater and Banchory to reach the North Sea at Aberdeen. The Dee is the fifth longest river in Scotland and the 14th longest in Britain.
A significant role in shaping the River Dee has been played by the Cairngorms. Some 10,000 years ago, during the last ice age, glaciation scoured the glens and pushed the land above the 600m mark, forming what is called the montane zone, which provides a harsh but pivotal habitat for a unique collection of flora and fauna. A snow reservoir provides the Dee with a source of fresh, clean water allowing trout and salmon to thrive and also creates a vital home for the globally endangered freshwater pearl mussel. The river is internationally famous for its trout and salmon fishing, contributing several million pounds annually to the local economy. Away from the big, brutish mountains of the Cairngorms, hills such as Bennachie, Morrone and Scolty Hill line the River Dee, a little more accessible but nonetheless affording exceptional panoramas from their summits. The neighbouring lochs, estates, castles, grounds and rivers – the Lui, Muick and Tanar are some of the Dee’s main tributaries – offer superb walking.
The landscape and weather have also been critical in determining the extraordinary variety of wildlife that lives in and around the River Dee, a list that includes otter, water vole, golden eagle, osprey, dotterel, ptarmigan, pine marten, red deer, red squirrels and the Scottish crossbill (the only bird unique to Britain).
The meaning of ‘Dee’ is complex: the derivation from its Gaelic name Dé is ‘god’, whilst its Celtic origin is from Deva, or ‘female divinity’, a meaning shared with Aberdeenshire’s other great river, The Don. This close correlation with a divine status would have been central to the beliefs of the early inhabitants.
The earliest Stone Age and Neolithic settlers began to utilise the River Dee and its environs, although not the Cairngorm plateau, some 6000 years ago: the river was used for transport and food.
Archaeological evidence survives along the River Dee in the form of Neolithic chambered cairns and stone circles, as well as Iron Age settlements and Pictish forts found near the likes of Loch Kinord and Mither Tap on Bennachie. Angus MacFergus, who was the King of the Picts between 731 and 761AD, also had a stronghold at Braemar. Unlike their brief tenure in the flatter terrain south of the Forth and Clyde Estuaries, the Romans had even less success in establishing themselves in the North East of Scotland. There was Roman activity in the region between 81 and 138AD , and they crossed the River Dee at the junction with the River Clunie, whilst the Vacomagi tribe, who spoke a language similar to Welsh, inhabited the western fringes of the river near Braemar.
But it was the Picts who were most successful in laying down roots in the region and, along with the Gaels, were the dominant race in the North East – they would have represented a formidable force against any Roman advance. It was the Romans who purportedly named the Picts, meaning ‘the Painted People’, alluding to the face paint the Picts sometimes wore. Kenneth MacAlpin eventually merged the Picts and the Gaels in 843AD, and many of the subsequent hill and place names along the River Dee reflect both languages. Aber translates from Pictish as ‘mouth of the river’, and so Aberdeen and Abergeldie (the River Geldie flows into the Dee) have their roots in the Pictish language. Gaelic can be found in names such as Ben Macdui, Clachnaben, Ballater and Banchory.
Little is known about Deeside from this period until the Picts converted to Christianity around 700-900AD, and over the next few centuries St Ternan, St Manire and St Machar established churches along the length of the river.
It was the arrival of Queen Victoria, which propelled Deeside – or Royal Deeside as it subsequently became known – into the place for wealthy Victorians to spend their holidays. The arrival of the railway between 1853 and 1866 not only allowed the well-heeled to holiday with family and servants, but enabled the less well-off to spend time in Royal Deeside. Many of the Victorian buildings in towns such as Ballater and Banchory were constructed during this tourist boom. Ballater Railway Station was the terminus for the Deeside line, as Queen Victoria did not want the railway to continue to Braemar, where she felt it would run too close to her home. Horse-drawn carriages transported royal residents and their guests – including the Czar of Russia in 1896 – the few miles to Balmoral. Better roads and accessibility also allowed the Cairngorm plateau to be explored properly for the first time, with hillwalking and mountaineering becoming extremely popular from the Victorian era onwards. The last passenger train pulled out of Ballater Station in 1966, but the Royal Deeside Line is currently being restored, with a short section of the line already open. Royal Deeside remains incredibly popular with tourists, and the British monarchy still use Balmoral Castle as their official summer residence.
Tourism has certainly brought prosperity to the people and places along the River Dee, but nothing has had such a profound effect on the local economy as the discovery of oil off the Aberdeenshire coast in the early 1970s. Aberdeen became known as the ‘Oil Capital of Europe’, and it is estimated that the number of jobs created in and around Aberdeen by the energy industry exceeds half a million. Over the last 30 years, the population of Aberdeen City and Shire has risen from 55,000 to nearly 460,000, and much of this is due to the energy sector. Peak production for oil will reach its limit over the next few decades but Aberdeen is busy re-inventing itself as the renewable energy capital of Europe. Oil is not Aberdeen’s first big industry. Granite has been used to striking effect in many of the city’s buildings – hence the name, the Granite City – and the quarrying of it has taken place for several centuries, whilst both fishing and shipbuilding grew from the 15th century onwards. Strong trade links were formed with Germany and the Baltic region, particularly through the export of wool, and during the late 19th century more than 200 fishing boats were based here. Aberdeen Harbour is regularly referred to as the oldest business in Britain, and it still accounts for 11,000 jobs today. Aberdeen is a beautiful city to walk around, its history and architecture on a par with any of Britain’s finest cities.
It provides a fitting journey’s end for the magnificent River Dee. The urban and coastal setting of Aberdeen sits in sharp contrast to the mountainous and rural scenery along much of the river’s length, and simply emphasises the incredible diversity of landscape it flows through.
How to use this guide
The 25 routes in this guidebook run geographically from the Upper Dee and the area around the river’s source to the Lower Dee at Aberdeen where it empties into the sea. Wherever possible, the start/finish for each walk is easily accessible by public transport and, if not, there is car parking nearby. The majority of the walks are also easily reached from the villages and towns along the length of the River Dee, with access to shops, places to eat, accommodation and public toilets. Each route begins with an introduction detailing the terrain walked, the start/finish point (and relevant grid reference), the distance covered, the average time to walk the route and the relevant Ordnance Survey (OS) map. Public transport information is also detailed, although this may change from time to time and should be checked before commencing any of the walks in this guide (travelinescotland.com). A sketch map shows the main topographical details of the area and the route. The map is intended only to give the reader an idea of the terrain, and should not be followed for navigation – the relevant OS map should be used for this purpose. Every route has an estimated round-trip time. This is for rough guidance only and should help in planning, especially when daylight hours are limited. In winter, or after heavy rain, extra time should also be added for difficult conditions underfoot.
Risks and how to avoid them
Some of the routes in this guidebook are challenging hillwalks whilst others cover remoter terrain. The weather in Scotland can change suddenly, reducing visibility to only a few yards. Winter walking brings distinct challenges, particularly the limited daylight hours and the temperature – over higher ground, temperatures can fall well below freezing. Please take this into consideration before commencing any of the walks in this guide. Preparation for a walk should begin well before you set out, and your choice of route should reflect your fitness, the conditions underfoot and the regional weather forecasts.
None of the hillwalks in this guide should be attempted without the relevant OS Map or equivalent at 1:50,000 (or 1:25,000) and a compass.
Even in summer, warm, waterproof clothing is advisable and footwear that is comfortable and supportive with good grips is a must. Don’t underestimate how much food and water you need and remember to take any medication required, including reserves in case of illness or delay. Do not rely on receiving a mobile phone signal when out walking, particularly away from built-up areas. Many walkers in the Cairngorms also carry a whistle, first aid kit and survival bag. It is a good idea to leave a route description with a friend or relative in case of emergency. If walking as part of a group, make sure your companions are aware of any medical conditions and how to deal with problems that may occur. There is a route for almost all levels of fitness in this guide, but it is important to know your limitations. Even for an experienced walker, colds, aches and pains can turn an easy walk into an ordeal. These routes assume some knowledge of navigation with map and compass, though these skills are not difficult to learn. Use of Global Positioning System (GPS) devices is becoming more common, but, while GPS can help pinpoint your location on the map in zero visibility, it cannot tell you where to go next and, like a mobile phone, should not be relied upon.
Only a few walks in this guide cross hill or mountain terrain and in winter it is recommended that you take an ice axe and crampons – and know how to use them – on these. Such skills will improve confidence and the ease with which such a route can be completed. They will also help you to avoid or escape potentially dangerous areas if you lose your way. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland provides training and information (mcofs.org.uk). However, for most of these routes proficiency in walking and navigation is sufficient.
Until the Land Reform (Scotland) Act was introduced in 2003, the ‘right to roam’ in Scotland was a result of continued negotiations between government bodies, interest groups and landowners. In many respects, the Act simply reinforces the strong tradition of public access to the countryside of Scotland for recreational purposes. However, a key difference is that under the Act the right of access depends on whether it is exercised responsibly. Landowners also have an obligation not to unreasonably prevent or deter those seeking access. The responsibilities of the public and land managers are set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (outdooraccess-scotland.com). The walks within this guidebook cross land that is only fully accessible due to the co-operation of landowners, local councils and residents. Some of the routes pass through farms, golf courses and streets, and near people’s homes and gardens. Cyclists and horse riders often use the paths and tracks, and anglers and canoeists may use the river and riverbanks. Consideration for others should be taken into account at all times and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code must be followed. At certain times of the year special restrictions are implemented at low level and on the hills, and these should be respected. These often concern farming, shooting and forest activities: if you are in any doubt ask. Signs are usually posted at popular access points with details: there should be no presumption of a right of access to all places at all times. The right of access does not extend to the use of motor vehicles on private or estate roads.