IT’S said that the villages of the Moray coast are amongst the sunniest in Scotland. Even in the midst of winter’s dreary gloom seaside villages like Findhorn and Hopeman, Findochty and Cullen are often bathed in golden winter light. That’s probably why the Moray coast became such a popular holiday destination for Victorian visitors, many of whom described their surprise at the mild climate and early harvests of north-east Scotland.
Figures from the Met Office show that between November and March, you’re likely to experience more sunshine in Moray than in London and suffer less rainfall than the English average. Kinloss, for example, has an average annual rainfall of 624mm – compare that to Eastbourne on the south coast of the UK with 790mm of rain. While not quite the Malaga of the North such promise was enough to tempt us east from our home in Badenoch through weeping mist and near freezing temperatures. By the time we reached Elgin patches of blue were appearing in the sky and when we eventually started walking west from Cullen I was wishing I had packed some sunglasses.
It was hard to believe. Only days earlier the hills were white and I had difficulty even getting my car out of the drive because of the depth of fresh snow. Less than twelve hours later, after a night of torrential rain and gale force winds, the snow had vanished, the Spey had flooded its banks and its entire flood plain around Kingussie and Newtonmore resembled an inland sea, complete with white-horse waves.
By the time Friday arrived the winds were still whipping the high tops and I didn’t much fancy the buffeting and risky river crossings a weekend in the hills would entail, given that most little hill streams would now be frothing, roaring torrents. In the face of such hill hazards we fled to the coast where, at least, the seas were real, the waves were spectacular and, we hoped, Moray would live up to its reputation for winter sunshine.
With its 44 miles/70 km of beach walking, coastal paths, quiet roads and old railways and its views from coves, beaches and skerries across the vastness of the Moray Firth towards the hills of Sutherland the Moray Coast Trail is one of Scotland’s best kept secrets. A waymarked route meanders west from the little harbour village of Cullen to the historic town of Forres and for some of the way it follows the line of the disused Aberdeen to Inverness railway line. That, at least, ensures some flat walking, a total contrast to our usual diet of hillbashing.
It might have been appropriate to begin our three-day sojourn along the Moray coast with a bellyfull of Cullen Skink but try as we may we couldn’t find anywhere that sold it! It was slightly ironic that the wholesome fish soup (smoked haddock, tatties and onions) that’s become a trendy dish in the posh eateries of Glasgow and Edinburgh wasn’t available here in the town of its birth. I’ve always been curious about the origins of the name ‘skink’ but a lady in the shop suggested it came from the Gaelic word for ‘essence’. I guess Cullen Skink sounds better than Cullen Essence…
The settlement of Cullen was established by the twelfth century and a church was built in 1236. A burgeoning textile industry brought prosperity to the town in the 1700’s but like most of its neighbouring villages it was the herring boom that brought the main period of growth in the 1800’s and you just can’t escape the fishing heritage of this part of Scotland’s coast. We were heading for Buckie, a town formed by the coming together of a series of once separate fishing villages – Buckpool, Easter Buckie, Yardie, Ianstown, Gordonsburgh and Portressie. The buildings jostle round the harbour and along the coast, as befits the fishing and shipbuilding heritage of the town – in 1913 the largest steam drifter fleet in Scotland was based here.
The route to Buckie follows the coast through Portknockie and Findochty, (try finichty) two more settlements that grew along with the herring industry. Walking through the narrow streets with the windowless gable ends of the houses turned towards the sea it was tempting to draw comparisons with the fishing villages of Devon and Cornwall – we half expected to hear the rhythms of a sea shanty or the call of a fisherwife and wondered how many men had walked through these doors, never to return from the storms of the sea. Findochty’s whitewashed church, like an ancient patriarch overseeing the village and the sea, reminds us of the traditional links between these seagoing communities, the dangers of the sea, and a protective faith – Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave, Who biddest the mighty ocean deep, Its own appointed limits keep; Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea!
Today, the boats in the harbours of both Portknockie and Findochty are predominantly pleasure craft but there’s little other sense of tourism here. These are villages caught in time, oozing character, charming in their rugged simplicity. Long may they remain so…
Away from the villages this stretch of coastline west of Cullen is particularly wild – the cliffs are rent and splintered and toppled into the sea. Caves, arches and sea stacks have evolved in the steeply folded Cullen quartzite rocks, the same rock that forms the shapely Bin of Cullen to the south of Portknockie. The rocks are ancient, some 650 million years old, originally layers of sandstone that formed in shallow seas and were subsequently folded and hardened by the pressures of volcanic activity to form quartzite.
All that activity, and the subsequent weathering by tide and wind, has created the unusual feature of Bow Fiddle Rock, its shape the result of wave action wearing away at different rates on the layers of rock that now offer a home to herring gulls, great black-backed and lesser black-backed gulls. Fulmars are a common sight here, and all along this coast, as are gannets diving for fish in the sea or cormorants and shags sitting like rows of sentries on the rocks. There is certainly no shortage of gulls hereabouts – and the locals use their own Doric-based word for them, ‘pules’.
Once through the streets of Buckie a series of woodland and farm tracks carried us to the impressive viaduct over the River Spey near its mouth at Spey Bay. Beyond it a path that wound through marram grass sand dunes took us to a long beach walk to Lossiemouth. Sadly, like many north-east ports, Lossiemouth, a Victorian spa town, has been a victim of fishing’s fluctuating fortunes and the harbour, which would once have been jam-packed cheek by jowl with the boats of the herring industry, is now mainly a marina. Add to that the proposed closure of the RAF bases at Lossiemouth and Kinloss and you can’t help but wonder what the next turn of the wheel will hold for this coastal region of Moray?
Heading west from Lossiemouth, just before Covesea, the cliffs rise some 70 metres above the shore and the Moray Coast Trail runs along its edge. The sandstone of these cliffs was apparently formed some 250 million years ago under desert conditions – it’s said you can see the footprints of Cynodont pre-dinosaur reptiles in some exposed areas.
Below Gow’s Castle near Covesea we took to the beach where the trail carried us towards Covesea Lighthouse before heading along the cliff tops and through the early flowering gorse to Hopeman, where a line of brightly painted beach huts reminded us of the seaside holiday heritage of this part of the coast.
During our three-day weekend the weather gods remained fairly consistent in smiling on Moray. Only the section between Hopeman and Burghead gave us any cause for concern. The sea breeze picked up considerably but whereas strong wind can be life threatening on a three-thousand foot mountain, down here at sea level gale force winds are merely an inconvenience, although they do add to the spectacle of crashing waves and ten foot high surf. We stopped just short of Hopeman harbour and were mesmerized by the rhythmic pounding as wave upon wave crashed into the harbour wall, sending foam and spray fifty feet into the air. It certainly wasn’t a day for being on a mountain top – or at sea in a boat! The old railway route south of Hopeman runs close to the sea and its jagged skerries so you get a real sense of the power of the waves as they surge and crash into the cliffs.
Burghead brought back some mixed emotions for me – in the sixties I was packed off to the Moray Sea School at Burghead, where cold showers and early morning runs were the order of the day. That was all in the name of Outward Bound. Changed days – more recently I stayed the night in Eskdale Outdward Bound in the Lake District and I couldn’t believe the hotel-like comfort of the place. Are our youngsters being mollycoddled nowadays or did the cold showers and early morning runs of the Moray Sea school help build the bedrock of a lifetime in the outdoors? Who knows, but I do look back on those days with some fondness, although I gave up cold showers a long, long time ago…
Burghead is a quiet little place these days but was once the capital of the Northern Picts and cradle of the Scottish kings. Did you know that MacBeth was apparently born near here? Or that his predecessor, Duncan, was killed at the Battle of Burghead? We trekked in the footsteps of ancient kings!
The sun burst through the clouds again as we tramped south from Burghead along the 7-mile curve of the beach, following the line of one of the largest dune systems in Britain. The designated route of the Moray Coast Trail actually follows a series of footpaths and trails through the forests of Roseisle but the temptation of a long beach stroll, with the pounding waves on one side and the wind surf of the trees on the other was too much to resist – with the rolling movement of the sea and the sound of the wind it was like walking to the rhythms of an oceanic overture.
Our musical interlude was swept away by the roar of Tornados as we passed the base at Kinloss and approached Findhorn, the one-time New Age capital of Scotland. The booming soundtrack of the North Sea was replaced by the meditative quality of pan pipes as we relaxed in the café at Findhorn Foundation’s Universal Hall, girding our loins for the final stretch of cycle paths and minor roads to journey’s end at Forres and the drive back home into winter again.