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Today's Ellon is bypassed by the main A90 road north from Aberdeen as it makes its way north to Peterhead and Fraserburgh. It wasn't always so. Until modern times the lowest crossing point of the River Ythan, whose sandy estuary bites into the North Sea coast of Aberdeenshire, lay five miles inland from the coast at Ellon.
This gave Ellon one of the most strategically significant locations in Aberdeenshire and there is evidence that as early as 400BC there was a small settlement associated with the ford across the Ythan here. Most sources agreed that the name Ellon derived from the Gaelic Eilean, and it is tempting to wonder whether this initial settlement was on an island in the river rather than in its north bank, like today's town.
Ellon's strategic location means that the Roman army probably passed through en route to their victory at the Battle of Mons Graupius in AD84, assuming the battle took place, as many believe in Northern Aberdeenshire or Moray.
By the early medieval period Ellon had become the main seat of power for Buchan, first during the Pictish era then as the Mormaerdom and later the Earldom of Buchan. During the 1100s a Cistercian abbey was established here under the control of Kinloss Abbey in Moray. By the 1200s, power in the area was in the hands of the Comyn family, one of the most powerful in Scotland. In what was often in practice a semi-independent province of Scotland, justice was meted out from the lord's stronghold, a castle built on a mound or moothill on the north side of the river. This probably took the form of a motte and bailey wooden castle, and the mound it stood on could well have been like the one that survives today in Inverurie.
In the virtual civil war that took place between the Comyns and Robert the Bruce in 1308, the "Harrying of Buchan" led to widespread destruction in Buchan, and Ellon appears to have been totally destroyed. The mound or moothill itself was destroyed to make way for the building of the turnpike road to Peterhead in 1799. Although the town that stood here in 1308 was destroyed, the importance of the crossing over the River Ythan remained, and Ellon was quickly rebuilt.
The centuries that followed were no less troubled, and castles sprung up in Ellon itself and at Esslemont, three miles to the west. Neither has survived well. The shell of Ellon Castle can be seen from parts of the town, and is especially striking in views from the south west across the River Ythan. But it is inaccessible to the public and only a shadow of the grand residence that stood here following a major rebuilding programme in 1782. The Castle of Esslemont now also stands as a shell just north of the A920, having been abandoned in favour of a nearby mansion in 1769.
By the 1850s Ellon had grown to become a town with five churches, three inns, three banks, and a post office. It also had a large selection of shops, and held markets every fortnight. The railway arrived in 1861, when Ellon acquired a station on the line linking Aberdeen to Peterhead and Fraserburgh. It later became a railway junction when a lined opened to Boddam. The branch line closed by 1950 and the main line closed to passengers in 1969.
Being only 15 miles north of Aberdeen, Ellon was ideally placed to benefit from the oil boom that started in the 1970s, and it has grown dramatically over the decades since. Despite this, it remains an attractive and interesting town with more than its share of history: and it is well worth the minor detour from the A90.