|Distance:||56.1 miles (90.3 km)|
|Meets:||A93, A944, A941, A96, A920, A98, A953|
|Former Number(s):||B9119, A96|
|Old route now:||B9119|
|Route outline (key)|
The A97 is the twisty, scenic route from Royal Deeside to Deveronvale through the Gordon countryside and the valley of the River Bogie. If any or all of these names seem unfamiliar to you, then it gives you twice as much reason to ask why a road from Dinnet to Banff via Huntly gets to sport an important number like A97. There is no obvious answer to this question; the combined population of all settlements on the A97 is about ten thousand, and while the Banff area still boasts fishing and shipbuilding, why would traffic from there be going inland to the sparsely populated Grampians? There is some possible salvation in terms of whisky distilleries and castles en route. Nonetheless, every other A9x road was a primary route at some point in its life (many of them still are) with the sole exception of the A97.
Dinnet - Huntly
Anyway, a route there is and to cover it one starts (or ends) in the village of Dinnet, east of Ballater. The road immediately climbs out of the Dee valley, and shows that it's going to be a challenge to drive with some tight bends and narrow stretches. To be fair, these are well signposted (the A97 does have a poor safety record) and you would do well to heed each and every one; a warning sign definitely means a gear drop to make the turn safely, chevron boards probably two. Logie Coldstone, decked out in unmistakable Aberdeenshire granite, is the first settlement encountered at roughly the five-mile mark, sitting on the Logie Burn at one of the sharper bends on the route. The incessant curvature, both horizontal and vertical, continue well into the burns and lochs above the village and the sightlines are further reduced by the wooded landscape. Despite the fact that this is the toughest part of the route geographically, the aid of the warning signs is removed at around this point forcing the driver to fend for themselves.
At the highest point in the valley of the Deskry Water the A97 performs curiously, becoming its own long-way-around-route. By doubling back on itself to fall into line with the River Don, it adds almost four miles compared to the direct road via Towie. From a solely motoring perspective this is strange, especially given the ungainly TOTSO right at the A944 junction, but take the short cut and you will miss out on the extremely handsome Bridge of Buchaam over the Don in the shadow of Ben Newe. The Don and A97 are a valley apart for a bit, with the road taking the hard line up through Kildrummy; the switchback at Greenstyle Farm requiring acute attention. After Kildrummy there is a welcome flat section into Mossat and a T-junction where the A97 TOTSOs left and the duplexing A944 with its friend the River Don can leave for Aberdeen by turning right.
In relative terms, the towns get bigger from here on in, and Lumsden is just a short and straightforward drive further north. On this relatively flat plain the A97 can plough a straighter path up to the Water of Bogie crossing. The road will follow the river valleys for much of its length now, and both share a route via the old Pictish stronghold of Rhynie, where one can turn off for the A941 due west to nowhere soon but eventually Elgin and Lossiemouth. There are ten more miles between Rhynie and the A97's biggest destination Huntly, which resemble closely the first ten miles from Dinnet north; windy but again well-signposted, very little urban interruption, and relatively flat. Strathbogie is even broad and level enough to support the railway between Aberdeen and Inverness which runs parallel to, but is much better engineered than, the road.
Huntly - Aberchirder
All of a sudden, here's Huntly and we're about to cross the thoroughly modern A96 bypass at a roundabout, ending rural life with a thump. The A97 will now add to its litany of curiousness by refusing to multiplex with the A96 and instead run on its own into town from the south and back out to the east, stealing some of the pre-bypass A96, via an abrupt right turn at the central square and onto the narrow (and therefore one-way) Duke Street; traffic heading the other way is left to fend for itself. It's a weird situation, doubly so because the classification of the route is barely supported by signage in town; arguably it serves only to let the A920 butt-end on to another A-road but both could just as easily be curtailed to the A96. Just like on Donside, there is a bridge (over the River Bogie) that the lengthier route graces, but this one is nowhere near as grand. So, after some sharp bends just after the railway bridge the A97 runs back to the A96 at the east of town and now decides it needs that road's help to get on its way. However, it separates a second time after about 500 yards!
After that, it's a relief to see the A97 making its own way north again. The run from here up to Aberchirder is a much easier drive, the curve radii are much larger and it becomes feasible to maintain the National Speed Limit. There are still troublesome parts, such as the Bridge of Marnoch over the River Deveron which is probably not wide enough for two 4x4s to pass (perform this experiment at your peril). The Deveron will be the new companion all the way to the end, having swallowed up the Bogie, and more pleasant rolling hills must have enticed the creation of Aberchirder in this area, an attractive planned settlement albeit of the 18th century variety. The grid street layout is more suggestive of the States than of Deveronvale, although this has been done elsewhere in this country (for a bigger example, see Helensburgh). Given the intentional nature of the town's design it is only built up to the north of the road; the A97 is even called South Street here. I suppose it's the closest the A97 will ever come to a bypass of its own.
Aberchirder - Banff
Although the signage submits the decreasing distance to our final destination of Banff regularly, the hills continue to roll and the coast never seems to come into view. Even at the gateway into town when the limit drops to 30 the road continues uphill into some very typical new-build suburban areas. Banff's twin claims to fame are its history of sculpture – designers' offices and the Sculpture Park line the A97 – and fishing with boats sailing from its still well-used harbour; however the A97 seems to end a few streets back from the mouth of the Deveron and the Moray coast on the High Street at a T-junction with the A98.
The "seems to end" confusion in the sentence above comes courtesy of some mapping and signing discrepancy. When the A98 completes Banff High Street and TOTSOs westward towards Portsoy, the A97 actually re-emerges and carries the straight-ahead route up North Castle Street and into the harbour. No sign suggests the route number is carried forward any more; mapping evidence offers a split opinion at best. The road is certainly registered in historic maps well into the sixties, but the Ordnance Survey and Aberdeenshire Council's road list confirm the classification remains. They also confirm that at the harbour, it meets the almost invisible A953 which runs for another 300 yards down the quayside. The change of number seems confusing; the allocation of another number for an incredibly short route is strange today but a legacy of the importance of the harbour, even if the A97 does not continue beyond its junction with that road.
Although the A97 follows almost precisely the route it did in 1923 – save for the rejigging in Huntly due to the A96 bypass – there is a historical tale to tell.
Shortly after classification, the southern end of the A97 was transported westwards to take over a previously unclassified road to Cambus o’ May, with the road running via what is now the B9119 via Mill of Logie up to Ordie. The B9119 still remains the faster route when heading from Braemar/Ballater to the north, so it seemed fitting that the A97 would resume the longer route. The two roads swapped roles some time in the 1980s, as they are still shown on their older routes on the 1979 OS Routemaster map, and so the B9119 and A97 replaced one another.