Photography in N E Scotland

Photography in North East Scotland

Apart from being my birthplace and home for most of my life, the North East of Scotland is the area I have photographed most thoroughly and have explored over the past 25 years of being a freelance photographer with my main interest being landscape photography and operating a stock photo library. I started putting my work onto Alamy in 2002 and in hindsight should have perhaps established my own library, Crooktree.com much sooner than the summer of 2010 and although I have started still have a long way to go.

Mission Statement on my Photography

My photography collection falls primarily into two main areas – Aberdeenshire and Morayshire with the former having by far the largest input. My Northern and West Coast Scottish material is now very dated 1995 and thereabout so hence being Royalty Free, and was gathered as part of a commission for AA Publishing for the Ordnance Survey Guide to the Highlands and Islands. My Aberdeenshire published work covers a wide range of material over the years from books, postcards, calendars to local government area brochures. Some of the books were self published under Crooktree Images, but my first commissioned work was a B&W white photography and text book called Grampian for Alan Sutton Publishing followed through to recent commissions for Aberdeen Journals; colour books of Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire and Royal Deeside.

Other specific areas in which my work is used includes the occasional front cover photos, many with Birlinn Publishing titles, calendars, postcards, commercial brochures, and guide books, such as the current colour one of Dunnottar Castle. This sort of published work continues to be sourced from my library and encourages me to chase down new views, refresh old ones and always stimulates my interest in trying to see the ever changing countryside in new ways.

New camera equipment has also had a major influence on my style and evolving approach to photography. In the early days the bulk of my work was on medium format transparency [645 format] and given the speed of fine grained film such as RDP or Velvia [always a Fuji man], using polarising filter for maximum saturation meant a tripod was always an absolute companion and small apertures for best depth of field influenced your mobility and style of photography. It also developed a sense of patience and anticipation – a ¼ second shutter speed waiting for the breeze to settle over the floral display at the June Border at Crathes Castle is a very different discipline to a hand held DSLR at 300th second exposure and free of a tripod with the same f11 aperture. Ultra wide lenses like my Nikon 16-35mm draw you into a very different world of composition, with strong dominant foregrounds although the basic structure of my photography has not essentially changed.

I view myself as a conventional representational photographer as I view much of my work being used for recording a view or building in a strictly ordinary sense rather than in an artier, abstract way. I work with an essential truthfulness, no great hidden profound message in my work – what you see is what you get. If there is any creative or unusual element in my work then it is Nature – the weather conditions prevailing, especially clouds which I adore. There is for me nothing more beautiful than a colourful sunrise or sunset, the sparkling river tumbling over rocks, a field of straw bales set against huge billowing clouds or the waves crashing against rocks catching late evening sunlight.

If there is a ‘wow’ factor in my work then it is the natural conditions prevailing that give it – my job is to record accurately what I see and to make sure the technical elements such as correct exposure, suitable depth of field, sharp focus, no camera shake etc are all as they should be. Get the basics right and most people taking a photograph have it in them to produce a good record of the event or view that inspired them to take the photograph in the first place. Yes there are some compositional techniques that help to make a 3 dimensional view of the world appear accurately recorded in the 2 dimensional world of photographic reproduction on the computer screen or flat print but they can be learned and practiced. It does not matter how wonderful your photograph might have been as an intuitive concept when you saw it, if you do not hold your camera still, get the focusing wrong or especially mess up the exposure then it counts for nothing and even more so in digital photography.

I am loath to use correction filters and never use filters to enhance or change the colours e.g. sepia clouds just because it is a grey day and otherwise uninteresting; HDR is fine as far as it goes but for me the question must be, is it a truthful rendition; if not, then it is Art and that is not what I am about. Corrections in post production using such as Photoshop are valid but only as far as bringing a recorded image to its natural correctness and removing perhaps a plastic bag caught on a branch over hanging a stream unless I want to have a photograph of litter. I would not remove telephone poles or fields of silage bags in the back drop to a view – if you buy a calendar or postcard it must reflect what you would normally see; electric pylons and wind turbines exist on our landscapes, so it my skill that includes them and makes a photograph that works.

The above is the philosophy that inspires me and I hope is expressed in my photography and in the collection of photographs I have on Crooktree.com.

The North East of Scotland

Some thoughts on the North East of Scotland as a photography base and probably the first one that comes to mind is it is not perhaps the iconic sense of Scotland that most would visually associate with the country. For most the visual image of Scotland will be the sea lochs of the West Coast, rugged mountains with a backdrop of the sea and sunsets over them whereas the sunsets in the North East are over the inland areas although our sunrises are over the sea.

The Mearns and principal Rivers into Aberdeen

The North East does however have some substantial mountains including the Grampians and a major slice of the Cairngorms and Royal Deeside has the dominant outline of Lochnagar, the fourth highest mountain in Britain. Smaller but with unique outlines such as Clachnaben with its tor or The Devil’s Bite, passed by many heading inland over the Cairn O’Mount at 1300ft as they head from The Mearns, via Fettercairn and the Clattering Brig to Banchory or Aboyne on the River Dee. Another such hill viewed from many parts of Mar and Donside is Bennachie, near Inverurie with its distinct vitrified fort top, reminding the traveller of the ancient history of the area and its occupation back into the times of the Picts and it maybe even witnessed the battle of Mons Graupius with the Roman Legions.

The Aberdeenshire coast south of Aberdeen is also rich with wonderful sandy beaches such as St Cyrus, numerous small fishing villages such as Johnshaven or Catterline and of course famous ruins such as Dunnottar Castle, rich in folklore and historical fact, being part of the bloody history of Scotland over the past 1000 years.

The flat fertile farmland of The Mearns stretching north of Edzell through Laurencekirk to Stonehaven, or along the coast through the Royal Burgh of Inverbervie, and beyond is divided by the Grampians for the harder farming of the hill farms that border the Rivers Dee and Don and stretch along the Deveron to the North coast at Banff.


Central to the organisation of Aberdeenshire is the City of Aberdeen, the Granite or Silver City and in the past few decades, with its traditional wealth base of fishing, granite quarrying, forestry and agriculture superseded by North Sea Oil, is the Oil Capital of Europe. Although fishing is now but a small a part of the harbour’s activities it is still a busy port servicing the oil industry and providing major ferry services to the Orkney and Shetland Islands and a gradual expansion as a cruise liner stopover as well. The City has one of the oldest University’s in Scotland and a large mix of old buildings such as Provost Skene House, or Wallace Tower and more modern architecture from Victorian wealth expressed in the iconic silver grey granite in such as HM Theatre, Marischal College, Cowdray Hall, or the huge granite and bronze statue of William Wallace and much of the west end residential area.

Current modern buildings such as the Sick Children’s hospital at the ARI or modern office blocks and shopping centres also are illustrative of it’s long past and evolution into the 21st Century although the traditional granite is less used a building material these days but Aberdeen has a legacy from those days of granite, the gigantic hole called Rubislaw Quarry. Like any major conurbation, it has all the services of railway, airport, hospitals, theatres, and shopping centres, public parks such as Union Terrace Gardens, Duthie, Hazlehead, Seaton, Victoria and Johnston Gardens, often being a winner in Britain in Bloom adjudications and is renowned for its extensive promenade and sandy beach.

Deeside and Donside

Moving away from the City the major towns are Stonehaven to the south, gateway to the Mearns, connected to its old rival Banchory in the ancient District of Kincardine by The Slug road. Leaving Aberdeen along the River Dee, through suburbs of the city but once distinctly separate in identity you pass through Cults, Milltimber and Peterculter to Drumoak, near to the National Trust’s Drum Castle. Before arriving at the next town of Banchory you pass Crathes with its Castle, one of the most visited Trust properties in Scotland and can also see a revival of part of the Victorian railway legacy, the line from Aberdeen to Ballater axed as part of the Beeching era. The railway line affected much of Deeside and to a major degree shaped many parts of the Dee Valley through Banchory, to Torphins and Lumphanan, past Aboyne to Ballater via Dinnet and the Cambus O’May. Many of these old remains of the railway line have been used to form much of the gradually evolving Deeside Way, a cycle and walk way from Aberdeen to Ballater.

Royal Deeside came with its association originally with Queen Victorian and Prince Albert and their starting of an annual holiday to the Royal Castle at Balmoral, west of Ballater on the road to Braemar along the River Dee. This tradition was continued to the present day by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and still is a major reason for much of the attraction of this part of Scotland for visitors from around the globe. The River Dee is very different in its landscaping to its sister river the Don running eastwards to the north and entering the North Sea just north of the City of Aberdeen, although part of it, whereas the Dee joins the sea as part of Aberdeen’s harbour complex by Torry to the south of the city centre proper.

The landscaping of the Dee is partly natural but also determined by the fishing and forestry estates bordering the river and by the steepness of the associated hills along its western start. The Don tends to be a flatter watercourse and once it leaves the hills near Delnadamph Lodge and into Strathdon it moves into more farming country and is perhaps less picturesque than the Dee along much of its length. There are some beautiful spots passed of course such as under Poldullie Bridge before winding past Strathdon, further on near Towie and the Mill of Brux and by the Bridge of Alford. Another place is passing the Forest enterprise walking area at Paradise Woods and watched over by a brooding Bennachie, giving colourful spring daffodil displays or the rich reddish browns of beeches in autumn at Inverurie or passing a quiet corner of beech covered steep banks at Cothall and finally flowing under the delightfully arched Brig of Balgownie before entering the sea at Donmouth.

The River Dee starts in the Cairngorms, gushing through for its first public display of power at the Linn of Dee before it sets off through heather moor and forests past Braemar, under the historic military bridge at Invercauld, a symbol along with Braemar Castle of the unsuccessful rebellions by the Scottish Clans in the 1700’s before passing Ballochbuie Forest with ancient Caledonian Pines to Balmoral Castle. Appears conveniently in full flow at Ballater and determines much of the character of both the South and North Deeside Roads until it reaches Aboyne. The best views of the River east of Ballater are at Cambus O’May with the elaborate footbridge over the river and next to a charming wooden railway halt and part of the Deeside Way. Beyond Dinnet the best views of the river are at the Dinnet road bridge onto the South Deeside Road and then further downstream just beyond the modern sawmill at Burnroot and after the Bridge of Ess, which is at the entrance to Glen Tanar, there is flitting glimpse past huge Scots pine upstream with the backdrop of the Hill of Morven adjacent to the Craigendinnie Estate gates. At Aboyne again off the south side by the road bridge is Deeside’s answer to an English riverside pub, the Boat Inn.

Passing along the north of the river we then pass Dess and Kincardine O’Neil, the latter claiming to be Deeside’s oldest village and certainly it has one of the oldest ruined Kirk’s, and viewing the River from a new viewpoint constructed just east of the village, thanks to the creation of the Deeside Way and the generosity of the local Laird in allowing it to use parts of his riverside fields west of the Potarch Bridge. The riverbanks on the north side of this bridge is one of the most popular picnic and swimming areas on hot summer weekends, is one of the many salmon fishing beats along the whole length of the river, has a hotel/restaurant nearby of the same name.

Crossing the bridge offers a link south from Deeside either via the Shooting Greens and Feughside to the Cairn O’Mount for which turn left at the hotel.

Continuing straight on past the hotel offers a direct route to the South Deeside Road with a right hand backtrack to Aboyne or left via Ballogie across to Feughside past a Pictish war memorial on one side of the road at Corsedarder or a modern one on the other side. Nearby in the woods is an even older relic of our ancient past, a pre-historic Long Cairn dating back to 4000BC or more. Feughside, through the village of Finzean offers entry into a delightful silver birch wooded area called the Forest of Birse ending in a dead end but passing its famous wooden Bucket Mill powered by a water wheel.

The River Dee is then accessible again at Banchory along its northern banks bordering Banchory Golf Course or seen from the road bridge heading south either to the Cairn O’Mount or eastwards over the Feugh Bridge with the famous salmon leaping falls and then follow the main road again to Aberdeen via Crathes and Maryculter. Turning right just over the Feugh Bridge offers a rural run vaguely southwards to join the road to Blairydrine and Stonehaven but passing the Mulloch Forest and three sets of Recumbent Stone Circles, Eslie the Lessler to the north, the Eslie Greater and the Nine Staines or Garrol Wood, the most accessible tucked into the edge of a commercial forest just to the east of the Mulloch Forest carpark.

The Ancient Past

Talking of Stone Circles, well that is one thing Aberdeenshire can claim to have plenty of and part from those mentioned above the other and probably the best preserved on Deeside is at Tomnaverie near Tarland – take the Coull Road, a right hand turn leaving Aboyne town centre westwards before you reach the community centre, follow the road to Tarland and long before you reach the village you will see a well signed carpark area with disabled access although you have a small hill to climb to reach the circle. Partly restored and excavated in recent years by Reading University it is has an information board, sits on a spectacular viewpoint looking through the flankers to Lochnagar and overlooking the countryside giving a sense of its purpose and importance to its creators some 4000 years ago.

For those visiting Deeside only then it is perhaps the ideal site to get a handle on these Bronze Age remains and the very distinctive Recumbent Stone Circles unique to the North East of Scotland.

There are many others around; couple of recumbent’s near Portlethen just south of Aberdeen, circles of stones at Cullerlie near Garlogie and at Glassel on the back road from Torphins to Banchory. More recumbent stone circles near Deeside are at Sunhoney Farm near Echt, and further west and very accessible is the one inside the kirkyard at Mid Mar Church. Heading further north into Donside a circle can be seen in fields on the Dunecht to Craigearn road adjacent to the rear of Castle Fraser near Kemnay but two very accessible and important ones are Easter Aquhorthies just to the west of Inverurie and a large set at Loanhead of Daviot, north of Inverurie. There are other circles dotted around, many in poor states of repair e.g. Kirkton of Bourtie, with others certainly worth visiting such as Strichen, Aikey Brae or Cothiemuir but far out of the way for the casual visitor to the North East.

Other ancient relics abound such as the various Pictish carved stones, many often in kirkyards or others in fields such as Rhynie, Picardy Stone near Insch, the Maidenstone easily visited by the Pitcaple to Garioch road, the Brandsbutt Stone in Inverurie with Pictish Ogam Script or the Henge and exquisite Pictish carving at Crichie, just near the filling station at Elphinstone. Souterrain or Earthhouse at Culsh near Tarland is easily accessed and dotted around the region are hut circles and many single standing stones, maybe all that remains of earlier circles.

North of Aberdeen

The Coast

North of the Don is Buchan with its rolling landscape and fair share of long stretches of sandy coastline from Balmedie past Mennie with the controversial golf course development of recent years to Cruden Bay, at the outlet of the Ythan, Sands of Forvie by Newburgh and the mysterious ruin of Slains Castle with its Dracula connection. Attractive fishing hamlets such as Collieston and some like Whinnyfold are tucked into coves under huge cliffs in which the sea has created fascinating rock formations such as the Buller’s of Buchan.  

Northwards are the major fishing towns of Peterhead and Fraserburgh, with Kinnaird Lighthouse Museum, and a wealth of fishing hamlets from St Combs to Rosehearty and those tucked into coves and under steep cliffs such as Pennan with its link as one of the locations for the film Local Hero, Gardenstown and Crovie. The North Sea coast blends into the Moray Firth and Aberdeenshire into Morayshire from Banff through to Nairn, ancient history maybe at Burghead a major Pictish port to the modern symbols of today’s military needs, the RAF bases of Kinloss and Lossiemouth.

The Moray coast is also rich with places to visit including Portsoy famous for its marble and annual boat festival, Fordyce, Cullen with a huge railway viaduct no longer in use but symbol of the early days of an extended railway network throughout the region, Portknockie and its iconic rock formation the sea called Bow Fiddle. Now into Morayshire other attractions are on offer such as Findhorn Bay, its sandy beaches and sheltered anchorage for sailing boats. Inland we have Elgin with exquisite ruined Cathedral, ruined castles such as Duffus, early religious ruins at Kinloss or Spynie Palace, Pluscarden Abbey or daffodils at Brodie Castle followed by the colourful summer flower displays at Forres also with its spectacular Pictish 9th Century Cross Slab, the Sueno Stone.

Moving southwards and inland there is a wide range of landscapes from commercial forestry, moorland across the Cabrach, hill farming along the early part of the River Deveron, ruined castles of Balvenie and Auchindoun at Dufftown, distilleries to visit galore, mountains such as Ben Rinnes, the famous Speyside Way walk with its salmon fishing river most picturesque in autumnal gold or the engineering style of the Craigellachie Bridge built by Telford. Another travel option from Dufftown is to take the Granton-on-Spey road and travel southwards, back into Aberdeenshire through via the Lecht ski centre to Cockbridge, passing Corgarff Castle and into Gairnside to Ballater travelling over high hill road through rugged heather moorland but into the delights of Deeside. However head off eastwards from Dufftown to Huntly you have further options to explore Aberdeenshire with the most picturesque taking the Alford road past Rhynie and the Tap O’Noth with vitrified Pictish fortress or the nearby delightful but ruined church at Auchindoir on the Cabrach road. Branch off westwards to Strathdon and visit Kildrummy Castle and the nearby Castle Hotel & Gardens heading along this historical road to Glenbuchat, its Glen and Castle or see the ancient motte at Bellabeg and the regularly disappearing road sign to Lost.

Coming back in the Alford direction you have the options of heading south from there to Deeside through the Province of Mar and visit the fairy tale castle of Craigievar now resplendent in fresh pink harling or eastwards towards the hinterland of Bennachie flowing the River Don past Cothiemuir Recumbent Stone Circle at Keig, along the windy Lord’s Throat road to Paradise Woods and onto Monymusk.

This brings us full circle back into the northern of part Aberdeenshire with colourfully names districts such as Strathbogie and Formartine and centred around Inverurie on the River Don. In this area we perhaps now have more farming and settlement expansion but it still has a wealth of history with castles such as Castle Fraser, Tolquhon and northwards to Fyvie and Delgatie near Turriff, plenty of stone circles as already mentioned and a landscape, more subtle and rolling suited perhaps to the large wind turbines catching a late evening sunshine against stormy cloud background than such things might be in Deeside.

This is by no means an exhaustion of the places and things to see in Aberdeenshire but although perhaps not the spectacularly rugged mountain landscape of the West Coast it has a huge variety of landscape, both natural rural countryside to some degree man effected through farmland and forestry with not just swathes of commercial plantations but a wide spread of different trees from beech, silver beech to huge Scots pines.

It is also like many places an ever changing landscape, with seasonal variations with the snows of winter exchanged for the delightfully colourful May and June blossom of gorse, broom, gean and hawthorn. The fresh summer greens give way to the autumn gold of silver birch, beech, larch and oak while the drab browns of early winter are balanced by the quickly darkening evenings and glens cloaked with mist shrouding the twinkling of distant farm lights before dark nights might offer the dancing beauty of the Aurora Borealis.

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