Formartine and Buchan Way
Distance: 53 miles (85 km)
Time: 4 days
Surface: Rail Trail
The first stretches of the Formartine and Buchan rail line were laid through the farmlands north of Aberdeen in 1861, when a 29-mile section was built linking Dyce with the town of Mintlaw so that local farmers could more efficiently get their produce and livestock to market. The line proved so popular that the following year a 13-mile extension was opened to Peterhead – a port town since the 16th century and the easternmost point of mainland Scotland – and in 1865 a further section was laid to Fraserburgh on the Buchan Coast. The lines would continue to serve the farming communities and fishing ports north of Aberdeen until the 1960s, when Richard Beeching, the chairman of British Railways, in an age of increasing competition from road transport, wrote two landmark reports targeting over 2,300 stations and 5,000 miles of rail lines for closure. Not all of his suggestions were implemented, but most were, including the Peterhead and Fraserburgh lines, although both continued to carry freight into the 1970s. Beeching always insisted it was ‘surgery, not mad chopping’, but the fact is that the Scottish rail network was cut asunder by what came to be known as the ‘Beeching Axe’. And it would never be the same again.
What was bad news for rail transport, however, proved to be, in time, very good news for walkers, especially those who prefer a flat, easy ramble to energy-sapping ascents.
And that is why rail line conversions hold such enormous appeal. There were limits to the climbing capacity of steam locomotives. When gradients are too steep, wheels ‘spin’ on the track due to insufficient adhesion. So you know that an old railway line isn’t going to harbour any real ups or downs. The walking is easy on the Formartine and Buchan Way, but not just on the feet. It’s easy on the eye, too.
This lovely rails-to-trails conversion, now an official long distance footpath also open to cyclists and even horse riders providing they have a permit, opened in the early 1990s and extends from Dyce on the outskirts of Aberdeen north to Peterhead and Fraserburgh. It is, not surprisingly perhaps, a straightforward route passing through the towns of Newmachar, Udny, Ellon, Auchnagatt, and Maud – where the route branches off to the north through Strichen and Lonny to Fraserburgh, and to Peterhead in the east via Old Deer and Mintlaw.
Leaving Dyce you pass over the River Don through farmlands and an old rail cutting at Newmachar then on to a landscape of rolling hills, pastures, and fields of gorse that are ablaze with yellow, and pink rosebay willowherb in summer. Once through Udny the way opens up to cyclists and horse riders as it passes through fields of grazing sheep and past a wind farm before joining a lovely riverside path along the River Ythan taking us into Ellon in the heart of the ancient region of Formartine. Passing under a bridge at Ward Head and through another cutting the views now extend over broad, rich farmlands and on to the lovely old Mill of Elrick which, though now minus its water wheel, still presents a lovely picture with its original stone buildings. A couple of muddy farm tracks are crossed and there’s a patch of woodland plantation called – somewhat optirnistically the Grampian Forest, but otherwise you continue into Maud, and then there’s a choice you need to make: either go via Strichen north to Fraserburgh, or to Longside and east to Peterhead.
If Fraserburgh is your goal you can get there in a day, but stock up supplies in Strichen first as there’s nothing ahead of you in the way of shops. Before you leave Strichen, allow time to visit the Strichen Stone Circle, a megalithic stone circle destroyed in 1830 and reconstructed in 1960. The trail north of Strichen doubles these days as a farm track used by local farmers. A loch near Newton Wood makes a good rest stop, and overlooking Strichen is the Mormond Hill White Horse, thought to have been cut in the late 1790s by a local officer whose horse was shot out from under him in a battle with the Dutch in 1794. A series of platforms, bridges and linesman’s huts are passed and then Fraserburgh Bay and its bustling working harbor – Europe’s largest shellfish port – finally comes into view.
Should Peterhead be your destination, you will head out to Bridgend, then past the crumbling walls that are all that remain of the Cistercian monastery of Deer Abbey, founded in 1219. If so inclined and not pressed for time you can take a detour into the charming town of Old Deer, with its main street-Abbey Street- a lovely blend of l8th- and 19th-century buildings. Back on the Way you go through woodlands and down the centre of Mintlaw before an expanse of wide, flat farmland – with the old rail line, your unmistakable guide, all but disappearing in a straight line ahead of you – takes you into Peterhead.
The Formartine and Buchan Way not only provides a rural retreat for walkers – as well as containing many sections that are wheelchair accessible – it has also become an important corridor for wildlife including foxes, deer, badgers, weasels, partridges and pheasant. It links secluded forests and marshlands, and continues to breathe new life into a tiny and easily overlooked corner of rural Scotland.