Robert the Bruce’s gift still being unwrapped: Outlaw King castle just one of the many gems in Huntly

Huntly Castle (Getty Images)
Huntly Castle (Getty Images)

THE wind whips the heather and a low-lying mist clings to a tumble of stones that were once a busy croft.

Long extinguished is the glow of the fire from behind its tiny windows, as are the voices of children who hid among the peat hags.

Abandoned for more than 100 years, this wee croft is one of many in these hilly, barren moors that make up The Cabrach near Huntly in Aberdeenshire.

It feels like the loneliest place on earth.

Yet the ruins that pepper this triangle of wild land bounded by Dufftown, Rhynie and Lumsden are not the result of a depression, or changes to land policy or even poor farming.

They are what a historian once dubbed the biggest war memorial in Europe.

In 1914 the tough, young men who worked the rugged and unforgiving land went off in droves to fight in the Great War.

They believed promises they would be home by Christmas; most never returned. But they are remembered by the tiny upland community which in 2015 erected a cairn in their honour.

Huntly and its environs are a fascinating part of north-east Scotland, much less visited than the tourist haunts of the Trossachs, Edinburgh or the west coast. And yet it has so much to offer.

In the hills walkers can make the three-mile circular trek that is the Buck of Cabrach in about two hours with amazing views at every turn.

The area is breathtakingly beautiful and brimming with history. Former Prime Minster David Cameron’s family hail from Glass and the country pile of Blairmore, just 11 miles away (today a Christian retreat).

And historic Leith Hall, circa 1650, is just 20 minutes away by car. It was home to 10 generations of the Leith-Hay family who lived there until just after the Second World War.

They donated the house and its grand contents to the National Trust for Scotland, making it one of the organisation’s most complete collections. Leith Hall also has the highest altitude garden run by the Trust, at 186m above sea level with a vista to die for.

Leith Hall (Alamy)

Huntly Castle – once known as The Peel of Strathbogie – was built by the Earls of Fife. But they lost their lands after taking the losing side at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Victorious Robert the Bruce – the subject of a new big-budget film, Outlaw King – then gifted Strathbogie to Sir Adam Gordon, who also fought alongside William Wallace.

It was he who reportedly renamed it “Huntly”. Generations later his descendants went on to raise the Gordon Highlanders regiment.

Our kids can’t believe their luck and run around the ruin with wooden swords battling over who will be “The Bruce” and who is left to play the “Fifes”. We can only tease them away with promises of a visit to the fabulous play park close by and a famous Rizza’s ice cream – made in the town – and enjoyed down by the River Deveron.

In summer the water is shallow and warm enough for the little ones to paddle while their families picnic or barbecue close by.

Today, though, our kids have their eye on the Huntly Nordic and Outdoor Centre, Britain’s only purpose-built all-weather cross-country skiing centre. Run by Aberdeenshire Council and upgraded with grants from the Big Lottery in 2004, it caters for all ages and experience levels.

It also offers reasonably priced tubing sessions.

Watching our wee ones hurtle down a matted slope on giant rubber rings was such fun we had to try it for ourselves.

There are a number of hotels and guest houses in the area, while Huntly Castle Caravan Park is set in 15 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds not far from the town centre.

But for those looking for something just a bit different, The Barley Bothy at nearby Drumblade is a glamper’s paradise.

Its shabby chic interior has two king-sized box beds, a flushing loo, hot and cold running water and a luxurious roll top bath with stargazing windows above. Heaven!

The facts

The Barley Bothy costs from £190 for two guests for a minimum two-night midweek stay. Call 07973 264003 or visit boutiquefarmbothies.co.uk

Huntly Castle Caravan Park holiday homes start at £210 for a short stay. Call 01466 794999 or visit huntlycastle.co.uk

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