LAST week, I made my way back up to Scotland from London to resume where I had previously paused my perambulatory pastime. That, you may recall, was in Lossiemouth, which lies an inconvenient six miles or so from the nearest rail link, thanks to the likes of Dr Richard Beeching. This being so, I returned to Lossiemouth in a roundabout way by first spending a night in Inverness (where I had dinner with a friend who recently moved there) and then caught the first train to Elgin in the morning. It seemed like a plan. And it was.
Elgin Railway Station
I alighted at Elgin Railway Station (opened in 1858 by the Highland Railway) just as dawn had broken. This allowed me to make my way across the town in rapidly brightening light, at least some of which had a delicate pink tinge to the east. To the west, the sky lacked any rosy hues but more than made up for it by beautifully highlighting the majestic manner in which the main tower and roof of Elgin Cathedral weren’t silhouetted on account of having gone.
Elgin Cathedral was established in 1224 to replace that of nearby Spynie as the seat of the Bishop of Moray.
It caught fire in 1270, needing much rebuilding. It burnt again in 1390, although this time it was deliberate, being the handiwork of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan (1343-1394) – also known as the Wolf of Badenoch – who was unhappy with the bishop of the day, Alexander Bur (d. 1397). Subsequent repairs were made with inferior stone, leading to the collapse of its central tower in 1506, which took 32 years to rebuild.
The cathedral was thus back in good condition just in time for the Protestant Reformation, which in 1568 saw its lead stripped and then its interior ransacked by Scottish Covenanters and English Cromwellian troops alike, about a century later. The central tower fell down again in 1711, taking as much of the rest of the building with it as it was able. Because what kind of cathedral tower doesn’t have a flair for drama?
Putting the cathedral behind me, I quickly crossed Elgin and found my way back to the footpath that now occupies the alignment of the old Lossiemouth branch line. This seemed far quicker to traverse in daylight than it had when heading south by torchlight, and in no time at all I soon espied Spynie Palace. This castle had served as the home of the Bishops of Moray and a church in its grounds had been the cathedral before Elgin.
Spynie became the home of the Bishop of Moray from about 1206, though was not always occupied. It was briefly seized by the Wolf of Badenoch in 1390 but his brother, Robert III (1337-1406) gave it back to the church; the Wolf’s adversary, Bishop Alexander Bur, died there in 1397.
It was besieged by a Covenanter army in 1638 when the Church of Scotland did away with bishops for the first time, but Bishop John Guthrie surrendered pretty much immediately. Charles I then gave it to the Earl of Moray but, in 1662, it returned to the church when it went back to having bishops.
Its final occupant, Bishop William Hay, was evicted from it after failing to swear an oath of allegiance to William and Mary in 1689. The following year, the Church of Scotland scrapped bishops again and the palace remained empty thereafter, its fittings and stonework were quickly plundered.
Return to Start
Sometime around two hours after dawn, I emerged from the path into the heart of Lossiemouth (Inbhir Losaidh) and made may way towards the harbour, passing on the way the hotel at which my previous walk had ended. I was now, after just shy of six non-counting miles, back at the start of my day’s walk.
I delayed my departure slightly by taking a look at Lossiemouth Marina, which nestles within the East Basin of its harbour. I don’t know a huge amount about marinas but it certainly looked like one to me. A small one, admittedly, suitably only for small boats, but a marina nonetheless.
The marina pontoon was installed in 1990, breathing life back into a harbour that had once served 106 fishing boats. The East Basin had been opened in 1839, the first phase of a harbour-constructing scheme to replace an older, unreliable shallow harbour in the mouth of the River Lossie.
The East Basin was an immediate success and soon became crowded leading to a second phase of construction in 1857, which built Lossiemouth’s West Basin.
Both basins opened into a communal outer harbour, through which they accessed the sea.
Turning around, I took a meandering route through Lossiemouth, partly in a successful effort to find a shop that was open so early and partly to see a particular building on the High Street, namely this one:
Lossiemouth Library was opened in 1904 and is the oldest library building in Moray still being used for its original purpose. It’s creation was partly-funded by a grant from the Carnegie Fund, which had been established by the Scottish-American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) for exactly that sort of thing. It also raised funds via local measures including a bazaar opened by a Russian princess! By marriage, anyway…
Fanny Fleetwood Wilson
Frances ‘Fanny’ Fleetwood Wilson (1850-1919) was an English industrial heiress by birth who married Prince Alexis Sergeyevich Dolgoruky (1846-1915), a member of an ancient noble family that was long accustomed to holding positions of power in the Tsar’s court. Fanny’s father had connections had to nearby Portsoy and she liked to take an interest in local things, such as the library funding bazaar.
The princely House of Dolgorukov (or Dolgoruky) into which Fanny married is a cadet branch of the House of Obolensky, from which it inherits some elements of its arms such as the Archangel Michael, representing Kiev, and the black eagle of Chernigov. Both these places are in modern Ukraine and reflect the violent expansion of Muscovy in the Late Middle Ages.
At the library’s official opening, they invited a local rising star within the Labour Party to speak. Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937) had been one of the three principal founders of the party in 1900 and would become its leader in 1911 and then prime minister in 1924. He was born and raised in Lossiemouth.
Lossiemouth War Memorial
I now found myself wandering back towards the mouth of the River Lossie. At this point, the bulk of the town was up above my head, separated from the shoreline by a low cliff, which served as a canvas for the town’s war memorial.
Unveiled in 1922, it was by no means the most attractive war memorial that I’ve laid eyes on but its seated male figure, representing Peace and Victory, does win points for not simply being another cross.
East Beach Bridge
By now, I had been in Lossiemouth for easily half an hour and had done nothing more than describe a small and wobbly circle within it. If I really wanted to get going on my walk for the day, I needed to cross the River Lossie to the glorious patch of sand that was Lossiemouth’s East Beach. Fortunately, both a handy informative map sign and my Ordnance Survey map were confident that this would be easy…
Those forlorn sticks are the supporting pillars of the second East Beach Bridge, opened in 1918 because the first bridge (built 1908) was proving obstructive to fishing boats that were still stubbornly using the old harbour (the use of the river mouth as a harbour dates back to at least the days of Bishop Alexander Bur).
The second East Beach Bridge valiantly served its connective purpose until 2019, when it was found to be unsafe and closed. My map and the town’s were, of course, both out of date.
The Third Bridge
The closure of the footbridge was wildly unpopular, not least because it was crossed by over 200,000 people per annum, whose passing trade contributed up to £1.5 m to the local economy. Not replacing it was therefore not an option.
Efforts to replace it encountered an initial hiccup when it was discovered that it didn’t actually belong to Moray Council as had been assumed, but had been forfeited to the Crown upon the dissolution of the Old Harbour Board. Fortunately, the Crown Estate wanted no part of being responsible for its repair or maintenance and was more than happy to transfer it.
The Scottish Government supplied £1.8 m for design and construction of a new bridge, with the work carried out by Beaver Bridges of Glasgow. Ongoing maintenance will be Moray Council’s problem (much to the Crown Estate’s relief).
The third East Beach Bridge opened at the end of May 2022, so I’d seen it on my last trip, though hadn’t really noticed it. I noticed it now, though, as I crossed the River Lossie on it. On the far side was an expanse of sand and a new adventure beginning in earnest…
Actually, it wasn’t that tough a call, insofar as I’d already made it. My hotel for the night was already booked in Cullen and loafing about all day on the beach wouldn’t get me any closer to it. Nope, it was time to get going…
Moray Coastal Trail
I set off following a path through the dunes that backed the beach. Initially, this undulated a bit then moved off them to sit at their feet, separating them from the beach. The latter, meanwhile, grew increasingly pebbly until the glorious sand was replaced by a vast vista of shingle.
The path itself remained sandy underfoot, though, and I was glad of that. As I’ve said before, walking on shingle is about as much as fun as stuffing wasps up your nose.
Skirting the Edge
As I progressed eastwards, the vegetation on the dunes became increasingly more substantial than marram grass until, about a mile onwards from the bridge, it was undeniably coniferous woodland on my landward side. This was Lossie Forest and, when I first saw it and its trails upon my map, I had rather assumed that I would be in for another woodland wander like that I had recently experienced in Culbin and Roseisle Forests. But not so. The path resolutely skirted the very edge of the forest, so that, while it might see trees, it never ventured amongst them. Meanwhile, a pronounced rise in the beach between me and the shore meant that I could not even see the sea, although I could still hear it dashing itself onto the shingle.
‘Rather it than me,’ I thought, briefly interrupting my ongoing inner reverie on intranasal vespine insertion.
Just short of three miles from East Beach Bridge, I encountered some evidence that, while the path wasn’t keen to take me into Lossie Forest, someone had gone to a lot of effort to keep certain others out of it. A line of WW2 anti-tank cubes had emerged from Lossie Forest to accompany the path eastwards, and it stretched on ahead as far as I could see.
It stretched, in fact, for just under four miles, punctuated by pillboxes at quarter-mile intervals.
As I cheerfully continued eastwards I was indeed unmenaced by Tiger tanks and their ilk. Nor was I troubled by the shingle upon which I’d wasted so much mental energy. Instead, my main threat was something else indicated in that previous photo, namely the silent but definite danger of sustained solar radiation.
In short I was hot, and on the cusp of getting sunburnt.
Now, no one as pale as I am goes walking in even intermittent sunshine without taking precautions unless – or even if – they are a blithering idiot. I paused at a point where the path and the anti-tank line crossed over and, crouching in the shadow of a pillbox, I liberally applied sunscreen and cooled my brow with cold water and a flannel. Sunburn and heatstroke were thus both kept at bay.
Walking the Line
For the next mile and a third, I found myself on the outside of the anti-tank line, a sacrificial sentry whose demise would inform the pillbox occupants that a German invasion was in progress. Except, of course, that particular threat, and indeed the defenders against it, were all eighty years in the past.
As I passed along the line, I regarded the cubes – mostly still upright, a few fallen here and there – and considered their dimensions and their spacing. It was, I concluded, as if someone had attempted the biggest, heaviest and least successful domino topple ever.
Binn Hill Firing Range
The observant reader will have noticed that that last photo was taken from behind the anti-tank line, not in front of it. It was, in fact, taken at the point where the path reached the Binn Hill Firing Range and the Moray Coastal Trail diverged inland to use its access road. A footpath continued beside anti-tank line, in case I should want to shun the coastal trail but I was more than happy to follow the helpful waymarks. I thus passed beneath one of the range’s empty observation towers.
The access road was basically just a broad track. It carried me past some low, shed-like buildings and then onwards and eastwards towards Kingston on Spey. The leg of my journey beside Lossie Forest was now over.
Kingston & Garmouth
Kingston on Spey
If I was sad to leave Lossie Forest behind, my disappointment was tempered by two considerations. The first was that I’d hardly seen it anyway and the second was that I was now entering somewhere new, which is always exciting.
Dodsworth & Osborne
This specific somewhere new was the village of Kingston on Spey, usually shortened to just ‘Kingston’. It was founded in 1784 by timber merchant Ralph Dodsworth (d. 1796) of York and shipbuilder William Osborne of Kingston-upon-Hull, who had just bought Glenmore Forest from the Duke of Gordon. The village thrived and quickly became a local centre for shipbuilding and timber export, an industrial centre that its modern ‘sleepy village’ appearance gives little hint of.
I may have gently mocked Kingston for its lack of excitement but that was not entirely fair. In 1829, it experienced sudden, unexpected and catastrophic excitement when almost all of its buildings were swept away in a flood now known to history as the Muckle Spate.
A huge thunderstorm had dumped an unprecedented volume of rainwater onto the Cairngorms, swelling its streams and rivers into full spate in the form of a terrifying flash flood. The rivers Nairn. Findhorn, Lossie and Spey were all affected and, while they killed less than ten people between them, the raging rivers destroyed a combined total of 60 houses and 22 bridges and made 600 families homeless.
The Moray Coastal Trail merely brushed the western end of Kingston before heading south and cutting across a field. This is, I am sure, a fine route to take but I chose not to. I preferred to stay on the road through the village, seeing more of it, and then to join the B9015 as it hugged the edge of the Spey Estuary, running alongside a couple of its tidal creeks.
This was generally quite lovely and the road was flanked in places by blooming wild flowers, whose beauty brought tears to my eyes.
I entered Garmouth (Geàrr Magh, ‘narrow plain’) via a different direction from that expected by the Moray Coastal Trail but our routes merged back together soon enough. Just a few steps onward from where that occurred, I espied a plaque that indicated more illustrious feet than mine had walked these streets in the past. For Garmouth is where Charles II made his landing in 1650 upon his return from exile in France.
In the house to which the plaque is attached, he grudgingly acceded to Scottish demands that he sign the Solemn League & Covenant, guaranteeing the Church of Scotland to be Protestant and Presbyterian (i.e., no bishops).
Charles was subsequently crowned as King of Scotland at Scone Abbey in 1651, immediately prompting an invasion by Cromwellian England, which chased Charles back to France. He would eventually be restored to both thrones – Scotland and England – in 1660.
Tea & Cake
As I threaded my way southwards through the narrow streets of Garmouth, I found myself hoping that there would be either a village shop or a café or both. A café there was indeed and my expression of joy and relief must have been plain to see as an elderly woman emerging from it assured me that the coffee was good and the cake quite restorative. Naturally, I put that to the test.
About half an hour later, I emerged from the café every bit as restored as had been promised to me. I didn’t have much of Garmouth left to pass through but what there was I enjoyed, as I made my way southeastwards along Church Road. Adjoining this street in a residential ‘U’-shape is Lemanfield Crescent, although it doesn’t quite connect at its eastern end. There, providing a pretty, though insubstantial barrier, was this verge with its display of daffodils:
Spey Viaduct Walk
I followed Church Road for just an eighth of a mile before turning off onto a suspiciously straight, level and well-defined footpath, the Spey Viaduct Walk. If its gentle grade and appearance hadn’t given the game away, its name certainly did, for this was the former alignment of the Moray Coast Railway, opened in 1886 by the Great North of Scotland Railway and closed in 1969 courtesy of the Beeching Axe.
The viaduct conveyed me safely over the River Spey (Uisge Spè), famous for its Speyside whisky distilleries and for wiping Kingston off the map during the Muckle Spate. Even when not in spate, it is the UK’s fastest-flowing river, with a mean flow of 52 feet per second (just shy of 16 m/s) and I did think, as I passed over it, that it was going surprisingly fast.
Once across the River Spey, I abandoned the Spey Viaduct Walk in favour of the northern end of another footpath, the Speyside Way.
This long-distance footpath was first opened in 1981 and repeatedly extended, attaining its current 85-mile configuration in 2020. The extensions were generally southwards, so I would now be walking one of its oldest parts. It mostly follows, as its name suggests, the meandering path of the Spey but I had less than a mile of that before it would hit the coast. Fortunately for me, the Speyside Way would then head east, along the coast, to Buckie, which is where I wanted to go…
Avoiding the largest muddy puddles, I followed the Speyside Way northwards to the settlement of Spey Bay, which faces out onto the bay of the same name. More specifically, it carried me to Tugnet, now the western extremity of that village but actually the original settlement, growing out of a salmon-fishing station established by the Gordon Estate sometime around the 1780s.
Tugnet sits right upon the mouth of the Spey and, as might be expected, William Roy showed nothing there in his military survey map of circa 1750, while the OS 1st edition of 1870 shows several buildings including its ice house. It also shows a public ferry crossing the Spey right at its mouth, a service which had vanished by the time the 2nd edition was published in 1900.
The Ice house used by the fishermen still stands, or at least its second incarnation (erected 1830) still does; the original having been taken out by the Muckle Spate the previous year. It is the largest surviving ice house in the UK and it served a vital purpose in those pre-refrigerator days, providing the only means by which fish could be kept fresh for shipping to market. Today, it is owned by the Scottish Dolphin Centre.
In addition to the ice house, a manager’s house, storehouse and boiling house – the latter dated 1783 – all survive from the salmon station’s heyday, when it employed 150 people.
From the Ice House, the Speyside Way carried me through Spey Bay and onto a path through what is now about a mile of coniferous woodland but was still shown as dunes on maps up to at least the 1970s. This area is just labelled on old maps as ‘the Links,’ linkland being the Scottish name for undulating grassy dune terrain.
Having seen only a mile of it when glancing at my own map, I found myself surprised at how much of it I felt like I was traversing. Even with a meandering path, it wasn’t more than a mile and a third but it felt far longer and nicely scratched that ‘woodland walk’ itch that Lossie Forest had left unsatisfied.
Burn of Tynet
At the end of the woods, the Speyside Way emerged from the trees to join a farm track heading south for all of about a hundred metres, enabling it to pick up the alignment of the old Moray Coast Railway. This then carried me just shy of one pleasingly straight and level mile eastwards, crossing on its way the Burn of Tynet and thus the old county boundary between Moray and Banffshire.
The Speyside Way passed under a road bridge and then swung left to join the road it had crossed under; east of this point, the railway alignment was impenetrably vegetated. Since ensnaring myself in a gorse bush played no part in my plans for the day, I felt my only course of action was to follow the footpath as indicated. The road curved north to become the seafront of Portgordon or, more specifically, its western end, Porttannachy.
Portgordon owes its existence to fishing boat politics and rival ports. Nearby Buckie had risen to prominence by 1793 but its growth was constrained by both geography and disputes between the three principal fishing fleet owners. One of those was Alexander Gordon (1743-1827), 4th Duke of Gordon, who in 1797 built himself a new harbour at what had hitherto been the tiny hamlet of Gollachy. This now forms the eastern end of Portgordon (he named the new port after himself, because you can, when you’re a duke).
Porttannachy was founded in the early 1800s by Patrick Stewart of Tannachy and Auchlunkart (c. 1780-1844) with the original name Seatown of Tannachy. It doesn’t appear to ever have had its own harbour but instead existed to take advantage of Portgordon’s. Essentially, Patrick saw an opportunity and jumped on the Duke’s bandwagon.
The duke’s original harbour of 1797 was built with wooden piers, which was a good start but not destined to last forever. By the 1860s, they had deteriorated badly and this, combined with more boats than intended, meant that significant rebuilding was required.
The Harbour Committee turned to Charles Gordon-Lennox (1818-1903), 6th Duke of Richmond, for help, which seems like an odd choice at first glance. But while he was English, his ancestry was Scottish and he would also be created the new 1st Duke of Gordon in 1876 as an additional title (the original line of Dukes of Gordon had died out in 1836).
Opened in 1874, the new harbour enclosed 3 acres and incorporated cranes for easier unloading of catches. This served into the 20th century, with a bit of dredging in 1906 to stop it from silting up. It remained in the ownership of the Dukes of Richmond (and Gordon) until 1935, when crippling death duties saw it pass to the Crown Estate. The Crown Estate closed it to commercial use in 1947, after which it slipped into disrepair…
Operation Famous Grouse
The silt-filled, sea-breached, sad remnant of the harbour received a rescue in the late 1980s, when grants and military assistance both became available. Between 1985 and 1989, the 69th Gurkha Independent Field Squadron rebuilt the harbour in an operation they mischievously named Operation Famous Grouse.
While harbour-repairing might be the full extent of Portgordon’s military history, the village has an unexpected tale of WW2 espionage in its past. In 1940, A German flying boat dropped off secret agents Vera Eriksen, Karl Drücke and Werner Walti off the Banffshire coast to row ashore in the dead of night in a dinghy. Their mission was to spy out British airfields in advance of Operation Sea Lion (the planned German invasion of Britain).
So far so good, but when Eriksen and Drücke made their way to Portgordon station at 07:30 the following morning, station porter John Geddes found their smart, wet clothes and thick accents a tad suspicious. Trying to pay for their tickets with way too large a denomination banknote didn’t help, either, nor did not actually knowing what station they were at.
Geddes kept them talking while stationmaster John Donald telephoned PC Robert Grieve, rousing him from his slumber. The pair were then arrested.
The Price of Failure
Walti had gone to a different station – Buckpool in neighbouring Buckie – and made it as far as Edinburgh before his own set of similarly egregious errors raised suspicion and saw him caught. The German military intelligence organisation, the Abwehr, was consistently almost comically inept throughout WW2.
Following their arrests, Drücke and Walti were both executed at Wandsworth Prison on August 6, 1941. Eriksen was never charged and disappeared off the records, suggesting very strongly that she became a double agent, working for Britain. A Vera von Wedel, one of her known aliases, died in Hamburg in 1946.
After heading east through Gollachy (the eastern half of Portgordon), the Speyside Way turned into a footpath that ran close beside, but not actually touching, the A990 coast road to Buckie. It made for a fairly pleasant stroll along the seafront.
About a mile and a quarter from Portgordon Harbour I reached the western edge of Buckie (Bucaidh), namely its suburb of Buckpool, formerly a separate village. There, the path joined the A990 properly but I stepped off it to rest upon a handy bench overlooking a view of the sea.
I gave my legs a good chance to recover from the walking and my eyes a good chance to soak in the sight of the sea. Eventually, though, I had to keep going and follow the Speyside Way as it, in turn, followed the A990, which was also Buckpool Main Street.
Buckpool Harbour Park
Buckpool used to have a harbour, built in 1857 by Sir Robert Gordon of Cluny but it suffered from silting and the larger Cluny Harbour was built in Buckie in 1877. In the 1970s, Buckpool Harbour was infilled and turned into a park (Buckpool Harbour Park), which now marks one end of the Speyside Way.
On reaching Buckpool Harbour Park, I had now run out of Speyside Way but that was okay because it had been running concurrent with the Moray Coastal Trail, which continued on to Cullen (although historically part of Banffshire and still treated as such for lieutenancy and land registration, for most administration purposes Buckie and its neighbours fall under the Moray council area today).
As I followed the Moray Coastal Trail around, Main Street turned into Bridge Place, Yardie and Baron Street. All of these were mostly lined by more of the same stone cottages, with a one-and-a-half storey construction (i.e. a full ground floor but upstairs is basically an attic with windows protruding from the sloping roof). Now, I had no problem with this; I find them aesthetically pleasing. But, at the corner of Baron Street and Bank Street, I encountered a building of far greater faded glory:
Erected sometime around 1890, when S.C. Esslemont and Son, drapers, announced their opening in the local press, the Simpson Building was built for John Simpson, a shoemaker and leather merchant who would go on to be Provost (i.e., mayor) of Buckie circa 1901. It comprised a tenement (block of flats) atop shops but, with its distinctive corner turret and other architectural flourishes, it certainly proclaimed wealth and success.
Its use as a draper’s shop seems to have been popular over the years as Esslemont and Son were followed in the late 1920s and early 1930s by Misses A & C Mitchell, drapers and hairdressers. I don’t know what it was in more recent years – the faded remnants of one sign says ‘specialists’ but of what is no longer legible. It has been boarded up and empty since at least 2008 and probably longer. One must buy one’s drapery elsewhere.
Moving onward from the Simpson Building into Bank Street, through Low Street (where John Simpson had previously held premises) and then into Commercial Road, I found my surroundings changing to match the street’s latest moniker. Warehouses and industrial units now flanked the street, which carried me to Cluny Harbour.
This was the harbour, built in 1877, that superseded the silt-choked Buckpool Harbour and it cost John Gordon of Cluny £60 k to build it. It was evidently well worth it though, as Buckie’s fishing fleet increased from 145 boats in 1842 to 333 boats by 1881.
RNLB William Blannin
Cluny Harbour has no less than five basins and moored within the innermost was this:
A 41-tonne, self-righting Severn Class lifeboat of the RNLI, this is RNLB William Blannin. Launched in 2003, she is 17 m long and can zip along at a respectable 25 kts with a call-out range of 50 miles. The RNLI has 44 such lifeboats currently in service, out of a total of 46 built since 1996, and is preparing to embark on a refit and improvement program to extend their service lives by another 25 years.
Opposite the eastern end of Cluny Harbour was the boat-building facility of Macduff Shipyards, acquired by them in 2017 but originally founded in 1903. As Buckie Shipyard Ltd, it went bankrupt in 2013 but was resurrected by Macduff’s purchase four years later.
Macduff Shipyards is one of four core business divisions of a wider Macduff Group, founded in 1940 and mostly based in Aberdeenshire.
I believe that in addition to acquiring Buckie Shipyard’s remaining assets, Macduff also rehired at least some of those who were laid off when Buckie Shipyard went under.
With Cluny Harbour behind me, I followed the Moray Coastal Trail along the A990 and through Buckie’s eastern suburbs of Ianstown and Portessie. Just beyond the latter, overlooking Strathlene Sands, the path parted company with the A-road. While the latter passed south of Strathlene Golf Club, the footpath went north, skirting around the edge of the golf course and squeezing between it and the sea.
From close to the Strathlene clubhouse, I stood and gazed upon Craigenroan (‘seal rock’), a tidal skerry allegedly popular with grey seals. Not that I could see any.
Findochty & Portknockie
Perhaps because I was preoccupied with trying to quantify the two competing disappointments, but mostly because the path became unclear, and definitely not because I’m a blithering idiot, I somehow got lost in the golf course itself, trying to find my way out and into Findochty. This definitely tipped the golf course into ‘most annoying’ category but did afford me this excellent view of where I was trying to get down to:
The way down, of course was quite easy and obvious once I’d found it and, feeling slightly foolish, I began to make my way down into the village. Though first mentioned in records as early as 1440, the fishing village of Findochty really dates from 1716 when 13 fishermen were contracted from Fraserburgh by the Ord Family, who had come to hold the estate. This date serves as a suitable anchor point for the rest of its local history.
Findochty had a castle at one time, though the golf course had kept me away from its ruins. It was built by the Gordons but acquired by the Ords in 1568 and then abandoned by them by 1794. Although a scheduled monument, the ruin stands within a working farm – Mains of Findochty – and so access to it is generally unavailable. I couldn’t have seen it close up, even had Strathlene Golf Club not been in the way.
Abandonment (Industrial & Otherwise)
Findochty seemed a pleasant enough place, consisting largely of cottages. It also seemed very quiet.
Today, its harbour sees mostly pleasure craft and its fishing heyday ended earlier than most, brought about not by the decline of the herring industry but by its boom. Findochty’s fishing fortunes began to fade in 1877, with the opening of the larger and better-equipped Cluny Harbour in Buckie and a good number of its fishermen had abandoned it by 1890.
I threaded my way through its picturesque streets and then, like its fishermen, I abandoned it too.
Findochty & Portknockie Path
Leading eastwards out of Findochty was a broad and well-defined footpath that clung mostly to the coastline but at one point almost – but not quite – occupied the old Moray Coast Railway alignment. This path was a delight to walk and its views of the sea, framed by flowering gorse, made an excellent distraction from the clouds that were now louring overhead.
The clouds darkened as I passed around Tronach Head and dumped their contents as I entered Portknockie (Port Chnocaidh, ‘hilly port’). Having earlier faced possible sunburn and heatstroke, I now found myself scrabbling to retrieve my cagoule from my bag. Chilled and dampened, I ambled through its almost deserted streets (most others had had the sense to go in when it started raining).
Portknockie was founded in 1677 by a group of fishermen from Cullen and grew into a herring fishing port in its own right. It became a bustling community and boasted some 48 shops in the 1920s , though in 2023 I was excited just to find one. Despite being quite close to my destination now, I replenished my supply of water and snacks – cold, damp weather makes me peckish.
I had three possible choices onwards from Portknockie, though two were so close to each other as to be almost the same choice and the third one was just objectively wrong. These were:
- The Moray Coastal Trail, which rounded Portknockie’s headland and then ran along the shore just above Cullen Sands.
- A cycle path following the old railway alignment, close to but slightly higher than the footpath
- The road. Specifically, the A942, which veered westwards out of Portknockie and then joined the terrifyingly busy A98.
I glanced briefly at my map outside Portknockie’s shop but probably too briefly as I was trying to keep it from the rain. I had seen that my destination – the Cullen Bay Hotel – lay about half a mile west of Cullen and I became concerned that I might not be able to access it from either footpath or cycle path. The spectre of being able to wave at it but not get there without a mile detour into Cullen and back out again on the A98 now raised itself. That sounded frustrating and I was ready to sit down now; I didn’t want to walk longer in the rain if I didn’t have to.
And so I made the worst choice – to get there by A-road anyway, except from the west. This actually made it further and would require dodging traffic. In retrospect, I have no idea what led me to make that decision. A mad rush of sugar to the brain from wolfing down chocolate, perhaps?
The A942 was thankfully quiet as I plodded damply along its edge. The same could not be said of the A98, on which traffic was heavy and fast, and I began to doubt the sanity of my choice as I approached it.
To my immense relief, when I reached the A98 I found that it – unlike the A942 – had a pedestrian pavement. This didn’t make walking beside it pleasant exactly, what with the vehicular noise and the splashing, but it did mean that it wasn’t suicidal, which had been a growing worry.
If nothing else, having surfaced pavement made the going pretty quick and, even though the road route had added about half a mile distance compared to the cycle path, I was soon standing outside the Cullen Bay Hotel. Naturally, that’s the very moment that the rain stopped.
It was also pretty obvious on arrival that of course the cycle and foot paths both provided access to the hotel. I mean, why wouldn’t they? It’s an obvious need. So obvious, in fact, as to be clearly indicated on my OS map, as I would have noticed, had I actually looked at it properly. Oh well, no harm done, I suppose.
Cullen Bay Hotel
The Cullen Bay Hotel was established in 1924 and stands on the site of Farskane, a farmhouse dating from 1677 that had been occupied by a Gordon cadet branch.
As can be seen from the map, it stands some way from the actual village of Cullen (Inbhir Cuilinn) and there are good reasons for that. One is simply that Farskane Cottage (as it had by then become) made an excellent site for hotel conversion but another has to do with licensing laws. In the 1920s, Cullen was firmly in the grip of the Temperance movement and not at all inclined to granting licenses for the sale of alcohol. Farskane Cottage was conveniently just outside the parish boundary and Portknockie was presumably more liberal in its views.
I am pleased to say that it still serves alcohol 99 years later, and also furnished me with an excellent meal which may have involved Cullen skink (I mean, how can you stay in Cullen and not eat Cullen skink? Besides, it’s delicious).
And so, to Rest
Food, drink and a rest were just what I needed, along with a good night’s sleep. This was only the first day of a six-day trip, so I’d be up and walking again first thing tomorrow…
This time: 22½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,241½ miles