If I Were to Visit Aberdeen, part 1 (Balmedie Beach)

Exploring the best places in nature around the world.

Upon first glance, Aberdeen, Scotland doesn’t look like a place a nature fanatic would like to visit. It’s called the “Granite City,” the “Grey City,” and the “Silver City” — nicknames that don’t necessarily scream the greens and blues of a nature lover’s dream.

Aberdeen scotland

Don’t get me wrong, this place is really pretty. As a fantasy geek, I find it has a certain medieval charm to it that draws me in. After all, it is over 1,000 years old. If I had a separate blog about medieval history, Aberdeen would definitely be on it.

Aberdeen medieval charm

Nevertheless, I am determined to find out where a true nature fanatic would go if one wanted to visit. I checked a few travel sites, and apparently the most popular “natural” places to go in Aberdeen are a couple of their gardens. Gardens aren’t my thing, because I go to a place to visit the unique landscapes, plants, and wildlife that are native to that specific area. I’m not interested in travelling to a place like Scotland to see, for example, tropical plants native to Arizona — like they have at Aberdeen’s number 1 ranked Duthie Park Winter Gardens.

Duthie Park Winter Garden

I’m sure it’s very enjoyable, but I can visit my local botanical gardens in Washington, DC for this. Plus, I would want to be outside.

Again, please don’t get me wrong. Grey buildings aside, Aberdeen has some of the most beautiful gardens on the planet — or at least the in the UK anyway. The city won the Britain in Bloom contest a record breaking 11 times! If you enjoy looking at well manicured lawns and organized flower beds, then these spectacular gardens are right up your alley.

Aberdeen Britain in Bloom

They really are beautiful, though they’re not what I would call “natural,” which is what I’m on the hunt for.

Since Aberdeen is on the coast, they might have beaches, right? (Beaches are my favorite.) Before I could look up what’s called “City Beach,” I stumbled upon “Balmedie Beach,” and it looked very promising.

Balmedie Beach 1

Eight and a half miles north of Aberdeen are the sands of Balmedie Beach which stretch 14 miles from the mouth of the Don in Aberdeen to the mouth of the Ythan in Newburgh. The dunes there are called “the finest dune system in Europe.” When I first read this, I didn’t exactly know what they meant, because it looked like a pretty standard North Carolina beach to me. Still, I’d visit. I love beaches.

Then I read this quote: “Kept in place by nothing more than marram grass, these huge sand-mountains are a small Sahara (??) — shifting and sighing deeply, beautifully, alien.”

Color me intrigued!

First, I set out to discover whether or not these dunes really are big enough to be called “sand mountains.”

Balmedie Beach 2


Okay, so yeah, this is pretty big.  I’ve been to lots of beaches in the US, and I have never run across actual beach dunes that are this big. I mean, look at this thing! It’s like a rock wall and slide all in one! I can imagine kids (and me) completely ignoring the waters of the beach, which are immediately behind them, in favor of this natural playground.

Balmedie Beach 10

Since this beach is on the North Sea, I can also imagine how cold the waters must be. I don’t care what time of year it is; I can almost guarantee these waters are always freezing. I can’t even find warm ocean water during the summer in New Jersey, so I doubt the North Sea is any warmer. (I just checked, the average high water temp on Balmedie Beach in summer is only 55 degrees.) But I’m sure it’s breath-taking to view from the top of the dunes.

Balmedie Beach 11

Second, I wanted to know what they meant by “small Sahara.”

And I found it. It turns out, when you’re done scaling the cliffs of the dunes, this is what it looks like when you get to the top:

Balmedie Beach 7

This is absolutely nuts! The hilly sand and marram grasses seem to go on forever! It’s like a whole new world up there! Okay, this is no longer what I would called a “standard beach.”

Though it looks like it, this is not a desert. This is still just part of the beach. To prove that it’s not a desert, both the Dan River and the Ythan River, which straddle either side of Balmedie (only a few miles away), each create rich wetland habitats in their own right. Also, the average annual humidity in Aberdeen is over 80% year round. And think about it, have you ever heard of a desert in Scotland? No? That’s because there aren’t any. Moving on —

I went on to read about kids playing hide-n-seek within these dunes, and in some cases, smaller children literally getting themselves lost. I read about young couples finding secluded areas behind hills in order enjoy some private intimate time with each other. And I read about how the sand there seems to stick to the skin much more easily than on other beaches. I can’t vouch for how true that is, but those last two discoveries aren’t very compatible with each other. (Tip: Keep your pants on.)

Third, the “shifting sands” part of the quote I almost ignored, until I found out that hundreds of years of  history come and go all over the place due to these shifts.

Balmedie Beach 8

World War II bunkers (or pill boxes) are still there on the dunes — some whole, some in pieces. The army blew most of them up after the war, but some still remain. They originally sat on top of the dunes, but they move over time with the shifting of the sands. Big storms are known to completely cover some up while at the same time reveal others that had once been buried in another storm decades prior. That’s kind of eerie and cool all at once.

Lastly, I found a fairly intriguing story involving Balmedie’s beautiful sand dunes.

The dunes of Balmedie are considered in Scotland as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and because of which, should be protected. That’s awesome, but that’s not the intriguing part. In 2006, acres upon acres of the dunes were stabilized, sterilized, bulldozed, and flattened so that Donald Trump could build what he calls “The greatest golf course in the world.”

Trump lured the Scottish government into destroying a large part of their own protected, precious dunes by promising to create 6,000 jobs for them. As of 2016, the jobs have yet to materialize — but the golf course has.

Balmedie Beach 12

If you’re interested, there’s a very detailed story here documenting what is called “the lack of regard for both local livelihoods and the environment in exchange for money.”

Fortunately for most, but not all, a majority of the dunes are still in tact. Like I mentioned earlier, Balmedie stretches for 14 miles, and, golf course aside, it’s a perfect place for a true nature fanatic to visit.

“These dunes are the jewels in the crown of our national history. The equivalent of our rainforests.” — Dr. Jim Hansom, Geomorphologist, University of Glasgow.

Yes! If I were to visit Aberdeen, Scotland, I’d make sure to see Balmedie Beach.

Now, let me find where else I would want to visit in and around the Granite City…

See also:
If I Were to Visit Aberdeen, part 2 (Linn o’ Dee)
Scotland – East Coast

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