Moray Distilleries, Castles and Museums – I recently shared how family friendly Moray Speyside is, with its miles of sandy beaches and colourful attractions. But there’s rich history in the region too – from fashion/textiles, ruins and fishing, to food and drink – trust me, sampling whisky is a valid history lesson up here :-). Affiliate Links/AD – with Visit Moray Speyside
FREE – History doesn’t just mean castles, it can also mean cashmere! Dip into Johnston’s of Elgin, established in 1797. As you browse the cashmere, lambswool and angora, you’ll discover that history can be very dapper and colourful indeed. When we visited in Sept 2020 the mill tours were suspended but you could explore the Visitor Centre and shops, plus book a table at Weaver’s Restaurant for a coffee or meal. Beautiful homewares, clothing and accessories successfully combine history with shopping!
Whisky – Moray Distilleries, Castles and Museums
Whisky is the lifeblood of Speyside, a core part of the area’s cultural history. Discover its story and its many flavours on a (childfree) tour of the region. [If you don’t want to drive one option is to look up Moray Firth Tours who will do all the work for you.]
Elgin – After Johnston’s of Elgin we visited Glen Moray, also in Elgin. Whilst its distillery tours weren’t running when we visited in Sept 2020, we sat down for a whisky tasting/whisky flight in its visitor centre/whisky shop. A very chilled and reasonable experience, with prices starting around £15. Soft drinks and lunches available too.
Craigellachie – If you like your whisky history modern and bold then drop by the shiny and new Macallan Bar in Craigellachie to try a dram (reopens 26 September 2020). Keep an eye on their website to check the latest tours/experiences. Nearby you’ll find the Speyside Cooperage, established in 1947 and handcrafting whisky barrels to this day. Whilst in the area take a peak at the Craigellachie Bridge, built by Thomas Telford in the early 19th century.
If you’re seeking a hotel with an exceptional whisky bar then book a room in the Craigellachie. Quietly unassuming from the outside, it has chic and indulgent interiors.
Dufftown – Dufftown is the heart of whisky country boasting a cluster of renowned distilleries, including the globally celebrated Glenfiddich.
Benromach Distillery’s 5-star visitor centre and Dallas Dhu Distillery (the latter run by Historic Environment Scotland) both near Forres, were closed at the time of writing but check their websites for the latest news. Keep an eye on Dufftown Whisky Museum for a shot of whisky history. And Strathisla in Keith is another beauty, open at weekends only at the time of writing.
Castles, Ruins & Towers –Moray Distilleries, Castles and Museums
Elgin Cathedral – We spent our first day of history hunting in Elgin, and the cathedral was our very first stop. What an impressive first impression.
Building of this elegant cathedral began in 1224. It was set alight by ‘Wolf of Badenoch’ in 1390, and its swift decline began after the Reformation as the roof and central tower fell. Thankfully a romantic ruin gained appeal in the 18th century. Today the site is run by Historic Environment Scotland, who share the quirky fact that the cathedral is home to Scotland’s tallest gravestone, at 5m high. [The nearby Elgin Museum boasts the fact that it’s the oldest independent museum in Scotland, currently home to around 36,000 artefacts.].
Prebook cathedral tickets online to secure a slot – around £9 an adult. The visitor experience isn’t particularly hampered by Covid-19 – visitors can wander around all the exteriors and within the interiors (one household at a time, wearing a mask) except to the very top of the tower/viewpoint.
FREE – Duffus Castle, nr Elgin – After our whisky tasting at Glen Moray we explored the atmospheric ruins of Duffus Castle. Although it’s run by Historic Scotland the castle was completely free to visit, and provided an excellently atmospheric place to socially distance, whatever your age.
Ballindalloch Castle – When we visited a few years ago we were able to explore the grounds and Walled Garden, dine in the very relaxed tearoom, tour the castle (which feels very homely), spend AGES in the playground, and drop by the gift shop. Read our full review here.
Right now (Sept 2020) the gardens, playground, and takeaway from the tearoom are available, so there’s still a fair amount to see and do on a fine day. The castle boasts a distillery and it also features on the Aberdeen-Angus trail.
Auchindoun, nr Dufftown – If you prefer atmospheric ruins take an atmospheric hike to Auchindoun. Now under the stewardship of Historic Environment Scotland, it was once the property of notorious Sir Adam Gordon, whose claim to fame was the murder of all the occupants of Corgarff Castle. The burning of Auchindoun was revenge for these brutal murders.
FREE – Nelson Tower, Forres – For a cool viewpoint, walk up to Nelson Tower. The tower is unusual because it was built by public subscription after the death of Lord Admiral Nelson equipped with two four-pounder cannons at the front door! Today the site is run by local volunteers. It offers a very tranquil walk through the forests of Cluny Hill.
Brodie Castle – This turreted dramatic castle has been the ancestral home of the Brodie clan for over 400 years. Although the castle itself remains closed till 2021, take the opportunity to explore the grounds for free. They are open daily, and in Spring they’re renowned for over 400 species of daffodil in bloom. (If you do have wee ones, take a peak at the castle’s Playful Garden.)
FREE – Pluscarden Abbey – This community of Catholic Benedictine monks occupy the only medieval British monastery still being used for its original purpose. Dating back to 1230, it’s possible to visit the abbey (free of charge). The abbey welcomes visitors, holds mass, and runs monastic retreats.
Other ruins and castles to consider are Findlater and Spynie Castle.
Gardens & Estates
FREE – Randolph’s Leap – On day two we drove to Logie Steading – a very cool collection of art galleries, farm shop, small garden centre, bookshop, playground, whisky/wine shop, cafe, and a heritage centre that explained the history of the Findhorn River in easy to understand chunks. From the Steading, hike along the dramatic and hugely powerful river to reach Randolph’s Leap. Bizarrely, it wasn’t Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray who leapt across the swirling waters, but Alastair Cumming who jumped to escape the Earl and certain death. This walk features sheer drops to a powerful river, so not appropriate for wee ones.
Glenlivet Estate offers excellent mountain biking trails and country walks but it’s also a history buff’s dream destination. The Battle of Glenlivet occurred here, a religious struggle between Presbyterians and Catholics in the later part of the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s also home to an old mine, a mysterious underground chamber, and take an isolated 1km trek from the Carrachs car park to reach Scalan. Scalan was a very secluded seminary offering shelter for persecuted 18th Century Catholics. Over 100 priests were secretly trained here.
Lastly, the estate covers Tomintoul, built by the 4th Duke of Gordon. Situated at 234m above sea level, Tomintoul is renowned as the highest village in the Highlands so it’s popular with photographers and artists.
Gordon Castle Walled Garden – At almost eight acres in size this walled garden is one of the largest kitchen gardens in Britain. It’s also one of the oldest, with evidence of a walled garden dating back to the 17th century. The garden was built in its present form in 1803. The garden, grounds, cafe and natural play area have all reopened. Read a full review here.
To be fair, a great way to experience the history of the area is to simply walk around the traditional fishing villages such as Cullen, and try local fare such as Cullen Skink – discover a chilled family walk and local attractions here. Or attend a unique event such as the Burning of the Clavie, a fire festival that welcomes in the New Year on 11 January – discover the full background here.
Where to Stay
For historic, spooky, comfortable and cosy accommodation, book into Macbeth’s Hillock glamping pods near Forres. This hillock is said to be the site where Macbeth met the three witches who prophesied his doom. On a clear night the stars overhead are breathtaking. Read a full review here.
From grand castles to coastal villages the history in Moray Speyside is as varied as it is colourful.
[For local heritage museums consider Falconer Museum in Forres,the Fishing Heritage Museum in Buckie, Fochabers Folk Museum and Heritage Centre. Do to the ever changing nature of Covid-19 please check attractions are actually open, check local restrictions, pre-book tickets as required, and check each historic sight’s ‘new normal’ before setting off.]