I'd always wanted to go to the Stonehaven Beer Festival so when presented with the chance of a few days in Stonehaven (which happened to coincide with the Beer Festival, ha!) I jumped at the opportunity. This would also allow me to re-acquaint myself with one the best pubs in Scotland, The Marine Hotel, and in addition have a look around the ruins of Dunnottar Castle on the outskirts of the town.
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We had rented a ground-floor apartment at the very end of Stonehaven High Street, almost on the entrance of the harbour with greats views of the waterfront. And yes, that is someone playing with their dog down on the sands of the harbour; it was a very low tide early in the morning.
Just along the waterfront are 2 great pubs, The Ship Inn (this week serving Highland Island Hopping & Inveralmond Ossian) with the large adjoining Captain's Table restaurant...
...and slightly further along the fabulous Marine Hotel.
Inside The Marine there's a large comfy lounge area to the right-side downstairs and a more formal restaurant upstairs, but I don't think I ever managed to get further than the welcoming bar of The Marine, and over the course of a number of days spent quite a bit of time chatting away to the bar-staff, some of the regulars and also the owner Robert Lindsay (when he was relaxing at the end of a busy day).
The have a selection of 6 casks beers (mostly Scottish), 6 keg beers (local, UK & Belgian) and a quite amazing number of Belgian bottles (200+) presented in a well bound, lovingly described beer menu/folder. And who says keg beers have to be expensive - I was able to have a 1/2 of the spicy rye, seriously murky (in a good way) 6.3% Buxton High Tor for all of £1.70.
As of March this year their associated on-site microbrewery Six° North (tag line 'The Belgian Brewers of Scotland') has been operating from just behind The Marine Hotel. From one particular aspect I'd not chosen a good time to visit; Robert and his staff were so busy organising the Beer Festival that there was no way I could even have a quick look around the brewery - hopefully I'll manage this next time. In The Marine they were selling 1 cask beer (Old School), 2 keg beers (Wanderlust Wheat & Four Saisons) and 4 of their bottled beers, with the only one I hadn't had before being the Jang Shi (or Zombie) - completely dead flat, spicy with an almost ginger after-taste and very nice indeed. I wasn't 100% sure that Belgian-inspired beers would work properly or even sell in Scotland, but based on the beers I've had so far from Six° North I'm more than happy to have been proved wrong.
From The Marine and the harbour area it's a lovely walk along the North Sea beach-front, across the bridge over the Carron Water and further along the esplanade to a series of shops just before the indoor swimming pool (closed for the winter, it would definitely have been frozen solid this week) & the caravan park. Here are Aunty Betty's Ice Cream/Sweet/Coffee Shop and also The Bay Fish & Chip shop, winner of the National Fish and Chip Award 2013 (OK, this picture was taken the morning after as I jogged past).
The non potato-based parts of your takeaway supper are cooked to order here and once ready it was a matter of adding the various mushy peas, tartre sauce etc... and then legging it back to the apartment as fast as possible. The chips in my Haddock Supper were good (I've probably had better from, for instance, the Anstruther Fish Bar), but the batter on my haddock was absolutely superb - light, tasty, slightly spicy; I definitely can see how they win so many awards.
Whilst we were in Stonehaven we wanted to visit the sprawling ruins of Dunnottar Castle (used as a location when filming Hamlet starring Mel Gibson). A slight worry was that their web-site had indicated that the castle was closed for cliff-side repairs but would re-open on the Friday of our visit, however on Thursday they posted a further update indicating that the repairs were going to be more extensive than previously expected and that they wouldn't now open until the 18th November. This was somewhat disappointing, but it certainly didn't put me off having a walk to the castle one sunny afternoon. The signposted path took me past The Marine and through a short alleyway to the cliff-side path. This climbed pretty steeply but did give me great views of Stonehaven harbour, the sweep of the beach and further out to the ness beyond.
On the top of the cliff face, slightly inland is Stonehaven War Memorial, fairly unique, I think, in that it's not in the centre of the town and also that there are some iron seats in the centre of the memorial.
At the end of the afternoon the shadows from the memorial almost reach into the sea; I assume it was all planned that way.
By now I was able to get glimpses of Dunnottar Castle and it certainly is well positioned to repel any possible attack from land or from sea with sets of rocks ready to engulf any ships blown by the wind or waves.
And as I got closer to the castle I could see both the almost vertical cliffs on the sea-ward sides of the castle and also the huge dip in front of the only land-ward entrance; obviously a very difficult stretch of ground to cross without being seen. I could see why the Scottish Crown Jewels were moved here in the times of Oliver Cromwell (and then smuggled out undetected one stormy night). Although the castle was closed it was definitely still a worthwhile visit to take in the remoteness and inaccessibility of the fortess site.
Obviously a number of Stonehaven-based places & businesses make use of the well-known Dunnottar name with one of these being the excellent Dunnottar Wines which sells and actively promotes a great choice of interesting beer (there's also a sister shop, Deeside Drinks Emporium, 10 miles or so inland in Banchory). Here I managed to snag a Deeside Brewery Imperial Stout (some of the first batch of these were bottled in swing-top bottles and became infected, this 500ml batch seems fine and I'm really looking forward to it) and also a couple of bottles from the new Lerwick Brewing Company based in the Shetlands. The lager (not shown) happens to be called 60 Degrees North, an (interesting!) play on Six° North perhaps (especially when one of the owners lives in Stonehaven!). I'll have to honest and say that both of the Lerwick beers didn't really live up to expectations (especially the lager which was way too sweet IMHO), but then I assume this was one of the first batches to hit the mainland - hopefully they'll improve as time goes on.
And now onto the main event. The Stonehaven Beer Festival was due to open in Stonehaven Town Hall at 5:00pm on Thursday; this was the queue at ~4:45pm when I joined it and then a lot of people seemed to come out of the back-streets of Stonehaven to join the queue after me.
Last year they had tried (and I think succeeded) to get a cask of beer from every brewery in Scotland that was brewing commercially (that included dry-hopping a cask of Tennent's and pouring countless bottles of Innis & Gunn into a pin), but this year they had changed the format somewhat. There would still be a majority of cask beers from Scotland (this section of the bar was dubbed Due North), but there would also be a number of cask beers from the rest of the UK, and also a number of kegged beers from Scotland (mostly from Six° North) & the rest of the UK (dubbed Due South).
In addition there was still a Belgian Bar upstairs with a number of draught taps but mostly an incredible number of Belgian bottled beers. Don't worry after about an hour or so this place was packed but the volunteer staff were great, there was never a problem getting served.
Some of the kegged beers was being driven from compressor/coolers, this included Alechemy Rye O'Rye and the festival special A Song for the Dying (a high-abv spicy Saison), brewed by Six° North and named after a book by local author Stuart MacBride, who officially open the Festival at approx. 6pm on the Thursday.
There were *a lot* of very good beers here, kudos to Robert Lindsay for gathering such a impressive selection, however my favourite was probably this American IPA, Valentina, from Out There Brewing of Newcastle. A lovely incredibly well-balanced IPA from a brewery that's been going for less than a year, we certainly live in interesting times.
And as a night-cap the choice between these 2 was pretty difficult. Either a dark-chocolate/coffee Imperial Stout or a 4-year old plum-sweet viscous Barley Wine (I'm wondering if this was the aged Thornbridge/Dark Star Coalition). It won't be a complete surprise that I tried both, with the Thornbridge Barley Wine just shading it and I must admit I certainly slept well that night.