MID-April, I awoke in my hotel room, about half a mile west of Cullen (Inbhir Cuilinn) proper, ready to begin my second day of a six-day walking trip. This would be a shorter walk than the day before, at about sixteen miles, and would take me through Cullen itself and onwards to Banff. That’s the original Scottish Banff, of course, not the Canadian one, which would be a far longer and more challenging walk, what with the ocean and all.
Cullen Bay Hotel
A glance out of my hotel room window showed me three things. Firstly, the weather was glorious, so sunscreen would be the order of the day.
Secondly, accessing both the Portknockie-Cullen cycle path and the final half-mile of the Cullen Coastal Trail would be no problem (my road detour at the end of the previous day had been entirely unnecessary).
And, thirdly, the hotel was trying to confuse me with its history, thanks to a coat of arms and a date set into the wall at one end of it.
Such research as I had done had led me to understand that the Cullen Bay Hotel was created out of Farskane House, a farmhouse belonging to a cadet branch of Clan Gordon (known, inevitably, as ‘Gordon of Farskane’), and that the house dated from 1677.
Well, the date matched exactly, so that was good, but the coat of arms was perplexing. The arms of Gordon are three boars’ heads, so I expected some variation on that – although such arms are personal and belong only to the clan chief, Lord Lyon King of Arms (Scotland’s chief herald) has a complex system of adding alterations for other branches that develop; this is known as matriculation.
The arms displayed on the side of the hotel (on a part of the building that had once been Farskane House) were showing a different set of arms altogether, under the initials ‘EH.’ These arms, it turns out, are those of Hamilton:
The first and fourth quarters show the three ermine cinquefoils (i.e., five-petalled potentilla flowers) upon red of Clan Hamilton, while the second and third show the red-flagged black lymphad (i.e., galley) upon white of Arran – the Dukes of Hamilton are also the Earls of Arran.
This sent me down a rabbit hole of further, largely fruitless, research. William Gordon, 1st laird of Farskane (c. 1620-1692) acquired the estate in 1668 from a distant relative, Henry Gordon, 2nd of Glassaugh (b. c. 1625), so there’s no sign of it ever having been in Hamilton hands.
The answer might lie in William Gordon’s wife, who was unnamed in the documents I found but who was named as Elizabeth Hamilton in a genealogy I found online. Unfortunately, as it did not list its sources, I could not tell if its author knew something omitted from elsewhere, or if he’d simply taken a wild guess as to what ‘EH’ stood for. He had Elizabeth as an otherwise undocumented daughter of William Douglas-Hamilton (1634-1694), Duke of Hamilton, who had either eleven or thirteen documented children (sources vary).
It’s not inconceivable that Hamilton had another daughter, although why he would marry her off to a relative nobody isn’t clear. It would help explain why William Gordon put the Hamilton arms on his new house though, if his wife’s background were more prestigious than his own.
Pondering this architectural perplexity, I made my way downstairs to fuel myself up for the day’s walking with a cooked breakfast. This I accomplished and, being the only breakfaster present at that moment, I found myself talking to a cheerful Hotel Breakfast Lady about what a nice day it was and what were my plans for the day?
When I said that I would be walking to Banff, I received an enthusiastic endorsement of the coast path out of Cullen, with the further elaboration that it involved a flight of steps up and over a hill. This news I received with open-minded caution as, with my terrible head for heights, such steps might be a godsend or a terror, depending very much on circumstance…
As the crow flies, the distance between Cullen and Banff is only about eleven miles but the undulations of the coast and my choice of route promised to add another five miles to that. In any event, for all that my clothing is almost uniformly black, I am not actually a crow and cannot fly. I would be needing a path to follow on the ground. Or a track.
The Moray Coast Railway was opened in 1886 as part of the Great North of Scotland Railway (GNoSR). It connected Elgin to Portsoy for 82 years before falling victim to the Beeching Axe in 1968. This was bad news for anyone who wanted to take the train to Cullen or Portsoy but good news for me as it gave me a broad, well-defined and level path on which to make way into Cullen proper. And, because the surrounding terrain was not nearly so level, it also gave some remarkable views thanks to the Cullen Viaduct.
The viaduct took two years to build, overseen by the GNoSR’s chief engineer, Patrick M Barnett (1837-1915). Ideally, it wouldn’t have been necessary to build it at all; the GNoSR’s preferred alignment would have been to run further inland, closer to Old Cullen, but the Earl of Seafield – who owned Cullen House – was adamant that it would not be allowed to encroach upon his estate. A detour around the Seafield Estate grounds, and a series of costly viaducts, were thus required.
The Seafield estates of Cullen and neighbouring Findlater belonged to the Ogilvy family, which had merged with Clan Grant to become the Olgilvy-Grants by the time of the railway refusal. The Earls of Seafield are thus currently also the chiefs of Clan Grant but are not the chiefs of Clan Olgilvy, being a cadet branch of that family; the Ogilvy chiefship resides instead in the Earls of Airlie.
Although I mention the Ogilvies now in respect of Cullen, they have already obliquely touched on things discussed, namely the Cullen Bay Hotel. By which I mean that Henry Gordon, who sold Farskane to his distant kinsman in 1668, was not only married to an Ogilvy – Marie Ogilvy (b. c. 1628) – and the son of an Ogilvy (his mother was Isobel Ogilvy (b. c. 1600), which obviously makes his maternal ancestors Ogilvies, but his paternal grandmother was also an Ogilvy – Marjory Abercromby née Olgilvy (b. c. 1558). The Ogilvies were big fish in Cullen’s metaphorical pond.
Battle of Bauds
Although the burgh of Cullen was founded in the 12th Century by King William the Lion (c. 1142-1214) at the mouth of Cullen Burn, the burn itself shows up in much older records. In 962 it witnessed the death of King Indulf of Alba (Ildulb mac Causantín) at the hands of Viking raiders in the Battle of Bauds. Although, strictly speaking, the Bauds of Cullen lie a couple of miles west of the burn, to the south of Portknockie.
Way earlier even than that, Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100-170), the Roman geographer living in Alexandria, wrote in his Geography of the river Celnius, which some have identified with the Cullen Burn as it sits between the estuary of Varar (the Moray Firth) and the promontory of Taezalum (Buchan Ness). Others have thought it more likely that he meant either the Spey or the Deveron. We will never know for sure, but it’s nice to think that he did indeed mean Cullen Burn.
Sometime around 1300, during the Wars of Independence against Edward I of England (1239-1307), the burgh of Cullen moved inland from the mouth of the burn and was rebuilt at Old Cullen. In 1380, Cullen was granted to the Sinclairs, and later passed to the Ogilvies through marriage. They were quite happy living in Castle Findlater, further along the coast, and so waited another 258 years before building Cullen House circa 1638.
Elizabeth de Burgh
Cullen House was built close to the church at Old Cullen, which dates back to at least 1236, before the mass migration of the burgh. Queen Elizabeth de Burgh (c.1289-1327), second wife of Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), is buried in the church’s grounds – or at least her entrails are (the rest of her was embalmed for transport to Dunfermline Abbey) – she having died in Cullen after falling off her horse.
Following the construction of a new harbour in 1736 by stonemason William Adam (1689-1748) for James Ogilvy, 5th Earl of Findlater (c. 1688-1764), a ‘seatown’ grew up on the site of the original burgh, with 29 houses by 1762.
The harbour was rebuilt between 1817 and 1819 by another mason, William Minto, to a design by that ubiquitous designer of everything, Thomas Telford (1757-1834).
The harbour was extended by William Robertson (1786-1841) in 1834, coinciding with a massive expansion of Seatown into the planned village that Cullen is today. New streets were laid out to the southeast of Seatown while the village at Old Cullen was systematically demolished, bringing about Cullen’s second move, more-or-less back to where it started.
Cullen Harbour Light
Finding my way further along the old railway alignment blocked by fencing, I took an exit off it and descended to the streets of Seatown, through which I made my way to the harbour. At the end of its east pier was this:
Cullen Harbour Light was originally erected in 1866, although the current one dates to 1888. Sort of. Which is to say that a small iron lighthouse of this size and shape was erected in that year, with a lantern showing out to sea, but that it subsequently deteriorated in condition. Scouring the internet, I found photos that show it in 2008 as a thoroughly-rusted ruin, the aperture for its lantern a mere gaping hole.
It has since been restored and the lantern housing covered with a blanking plate, and given a fresh coat of all-over white paint (originally the bottom foot or so was painted red). Given how badly corroded it was before restoration, I would not like to guess how much of what stands there is original and how much is new material used for repairs.
Directly around the harbour are were various old storehouses, as one might expect. The development of its harbour did wonders for Cullen and it quickly grew to specialise in the export of smoked haddock. In its heyday, it had no less than three large curing houses, hence its association with the delicious smoked haddock soup known as Cullen skink.
Another, related, industry that thrived in Cullen was boat-building. More specifically, building boats to go out and catch all those haddock.
Sadly, the boat-building shed of William Gardiner and the numerous net stores, ropemakers and coal sheds that nestled close to it (the latter used by coal merchants to supply the coal for steam drifters), are now long-gone, destroyed by the North Sea Flood of 1953, in which a high spring tide and storm surge combined with devastating effect.
Directly opposite where William Gardiner’s boat-building shed once stood is Cullen’s pet cemetery. This grew up almost by accident after local resident Stephen Findlay buried his own three dogs there – Ben, Bracken and Bruce – beginning in 2003. He then dedicated his retirement to interring other people’s pets there also on a purely voluntary basis, charging no fees. Between 2003 and 2019, he buried dozens of animals – I couldn’t find exact numbers just a vague ‘three book’s worth of names’ – not all of which were pets; there are also seals, dolphins and a shark buried in there somewhere. And then, bureaucracy happened.
In 2019, the Scottish Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) introduced compulsory inspection fees of £100 for all animal cemeteries in line with EU regulations. APHA tried to find an exemption for him but the regulations as written allowed them no wiggle room and Mr Gardiner, a retired bin man, lacked the necessary funds. Consequently, he retired from his self-appointed role, closing the pet cemetery to new occupants.
From the Pet Cemetery, I headed eastwards along what continued to be a broad, level, well-defined gravel path. This carried me past the rocky shore known as Muckle Hythe and below a 35 m hilltop viewpoint called Nelson’s Seat, rounding its headland to face onto Portlong Hythe.
Here stood the ruins of a former salmon bothy, used by fishermen up until 1975. This marked the end of the high-quality accessible path, which curved away to head inland, and the start of the sort of narrow, informal footpath that one generally expects to find along the coast.
The Giant’s Steps
The path around to Logie Head was a little muddy in places but generally fine. I was a little anxious as to what I might find when I got there, not least because I’d also read that they were called ‘the Giant’s Steps.’
These were the steps that Hotel Breakfast Lady had enthused about. They were built (or possibly re-built, accounts seem to differ) in 1987, a herculean single-handed effort by local teacher and keen kayaker, Tony Hetherington (1949-1993).
Ascending the Steps
I was very grateful for the Giant’s Steps, as they made getting over the ridge of the headland much easier than it would otherwise have been. It is true that I tripped on my way up, grazing my shin on a step edge that was a little bit giant-er than the rest, but I shudder to think what sort of awful plummet I might have managed on an uneven, non-stepped incline.
And Descending Them
Now nursing a mildly stinging shin, I crossed the ridge and descended the steps on the far side without taking the fast way down. At the bottom, to remind me of mortality, and to commemorate Tony Hetherington, whose life was cut short at 44, was a memorial cairn.
A keen kayaker and instructor, Tony Hetherington had been invited by friends to join an eight-man RAF party of white-water canoeists in Austria, led by an experienced white-water instructor. Unfortunately for the group, for all their combined experience in white water canoeing, they lacked local knowledge and misinterpreted signs that the river was closed to canoeists – its swollen waters had killed three Czech rafters a week earlier – as general hazard warnings.
Tony capsized as they paddled down the river and was unable to roll to right himself in the conditions. Exiting his canoe, he was swept away and dragged under, after losing his grip on a lifeline thrown by one of the others. A stark and tragic warning that even the most skilled of adventurers can be at the mercy of nature.
Having crossed the ridge of Logie Head, the path now settled into a stretch of easy going at more-or-less sea level, between the foot of the cliffs and a shingly beach. I had only walked about quarter of mile of this at most, when I came across an unexpected sign up offering information about a former resident of this cove – Charlie Marioni, the so-called ‘Cullen Caveman.’
Charlie was a French sailor during WW1 but very much decided that he didn’t want to be and deserted while his ship was in Plymouth. Using an alias, he made his way along the south coast and then up the east coast, reaching Cullen by 1920. There he built himself a shelter out of driftwood, using as one wall a hollow in a rock that is really too shallow to dignify with the name of ‘cave’. The other three walls, he fashioned from driftwood. Over the course of thirteen years he scavenged for driftwood, caught fish and rabbits and grew potatoes, becoming popular in Cullen, where he would barter for other needs.
His popularity proved his undoing as people passing through to visit him in his ‘cave’ infuriated the adjoining landowner – a Mrs Murray – and he was reported to the authorities. Charlie was arrested and found guilty of failing to register as an alien, which incurred a 20 shilling fine. He was able to pay it, having saved up the money, but decided to move on, telling friends in Cullen that he would likely return to France. Shortly after he left, his shelter was burnt down and little sign of it remains visible today.
In fairness to Mrs Murray, who might not have simply been a humourless killjoy, in the absence of the Giant’s Steps, one obvious route between the cave and Cullen would be a track running straight past Logie House, which is presumably the property in which she lived (it lies in ruins today). That might get pretty annoying, given that it was otherwise a dead-end track with no expectation of through traffic. And the crux of her complaint was damage to, and interference with, her farm rather than a general ‘shouldn’t be allowed’ vibe.
Also, old maps show what is now the Giant’s Steps path climbing earlier to cut across what is now a field, so anyone going the Logie House route did, in fact, have an alternative. I can see how she might get exasperated. I’m still not convinced that getting Charlie arrested was her best option, illegal immigrant though he certainly was.
I was telling myself that, cool and exciting as building your own cave hideaway sounds, a lean-to shed is probably miserable mid-winter. But, on a sunny spring morning, the idea seemed rather more inviting, especially when this beach is almost on your doorstep:
I took a brief break on Sunnyside Beach because, well, why wouldn’t you? This turned out to be a good plan as it meant that I was properly refreshed as the path made a sudden and fairly steep dash for the cliff top above the part of Sunnyside Beach called West Sands. This end was supposed to be sandy, as per my OS map (whereas in reality it all was, at least at this state of the tide). It was as if someone had secretly sanded the beach while the OS wasn’t looking.
About a third of a mile after reaching the cliff top, the winding coastal path brought me to a point overlooking Findlater Castle. Or rather, what little was left of it.
Named from the Gaelic fionn (‘white’) and leitir (‘cliff’), Findlater castle dates back to 1246. It seems to have fallen into disrepair even then, as Alexander III (1241-1286) felt the need to repair it in the early 1260s as part of his dispute with Håkon IV of Norway (1204-1263) over which of them owned western Scotland. Unfortunately, his repairs proved insufficient when Håkon subsequently invaded. Though the Norwegians were defeated at the 1263 Battle of Largs, this eastern coast castle was captured by Norwegian forces and held for some time (how very embarrassing!)
Sinclairs & Ogilvies
Eighty-odd years later, in 1342, the castle was held by Geoffrey de Findlater (c.1310-1342), hereditary Sheriff of Banff, who died leaving an heiress, Joanna de Findlater. In 1366, She married Richard Sinclair (1347-1380) he being a younger son of the Baron of Roslin, and thus Castle Findlater passed to the Sinclairs, who also acquired Cullen in 1381. The Sinclairs had Findlater Castle extensively rebuilt, modelling it on Roslin Castle and what little of it has not yet plunged into the sea dates from this rebuilding.
Richard and Joanna’s son, Sir John Sinclair (1380-1411) died at the Battle of Harlaw (a conflict over succession to the Earldom of Ross), and was himself succeeded by an heiress, Margaret Sinclair, who married Walter Ogilvy. The Ogilvies then lived there until about 1638, when James Ogilvy was created Earl of Findlater and built himself Cullen House as residence to match his new status.
The arms of their Earl of Seaford descendants show this dynastic union and also the previously mentioned subsequent merger with Clan Grant. The first and fourth quarters are themselves quartered, combining the crowned red lion of Ogilvy with the black engrailed cross of the Sinclairs. The second and third grand quarters show the Grants’ three gold antique crowns on red.
Abandoned, Findlater Castle was allowed to fall into ruin; by 1786 it was uninhabitable, part of the cliffs having collapsed, taking the castle walls with it.
And so, in the end, the castle’s abandonment hardly mattered to its fate. No amount of maintenance is going to save a structure when the very rock it is built upon decides to go for a swim. I mean, what can you do in the face of cliff collapse?
The closure of the path was disappointing as I was rather enjoying my cliff top amble and not at all ready to switch to going by road. It did offer one advantage, however, which was that it meant I could properly look at a mysterious shape lurking in a nearby field.
Restored in 1992, this dovecot – or ‘doocot’ in Scots – dates to the 16th century and was originally associated with the castle, though it now belongs to the farm of Barnyards of Findlater.
Made of limewashed rubble, it can hold 700 nesting boxes and has two protruding stone ledges around it perimeter, which make it more difficult for rats to climb up and get inside. Not being a rat, I felt no need to test that.
Sandend Back Road
From the doocot, I passed by the many, many barns and singular farmhouse of Barnyards of Findlater and, via their access road, out onto the public road.
This particular road has always been a back road, even going back to the OS 1st edition in map of the area in 1871. It has gained a couple of cottages since then (Brankanentham Cottage and Broom Cottages and there is also now Broomlee on a road connecting with the A98) but the same three farms are still there as were in the 1870s – Barnyards of Findlater, Brankanentham and Broom.
As roads go, this single-track road with almost no traffic (there were just a couple of cars heading to the castle) was pretty benign.
The road might not have been falling into the sea but, towards its end, it suddenly lost height, revealing Sandend Bay in all its glory:
Sandend is a fishing village that developed in the 17th century, although not all that much as it’s still pretty small. Its two biggest businesses now are probably seasonal tourism (it is a lovely beach) and whisky – the Glenglassaugh Distillery (established 1875) is located near the far end of that beach.
T by the Sea
All in all, it was rather pleasant, and I hoped to find a café or similar source of refreshment. I couldn’t see one, when I first stepped out into Seaview Road – the linear village’s singular street –but I did see a small group of people whom I thought I might ask about such things.
As I drew closer, I realised that they were buying food and drink from a mobile kiosk fashioned from a trailer emblazoned with the name ‘T by the Sea’. I decided to forego the now-redundant step of asking the refreshments kiosk people if they knew where I might find them and skipped straight to ordering a cold drink, which I then sipped slowly on the beach.
Crossing the beach was Scattery Burn. This didn’t pose much an obstacle to me but promised to obstruct some particular uninvited visitors.
Hopping across the WW2 anti-tank cubes looked to me like an excellent way to trip over again and this time send myself to hospital, so I merely splashed across the burn instead. A merry stroll down the third-mile of sands soon showed that the anti-tank line stretched its length.
Burn of Fordyce
At its far end was the Burn of Fordyce, which was even less of an obstacle than Scattery Burn had been and upon which, further upstream, sits the distillery. Stepping over that burn brought me to the far end of Sandend Beach and proof that the War Office had been determined to deny Glenglassaugh’s whisky to the Germans:
The Glenglassaugh Distillery is a little less than 200 m south of the beach and about twice that distance upstream of it, thanks to the mad meandering of the Burn of Fordyce between it and the sea. It was founded by Portsoy grocer James Moir (1812-1887) and his nephews to give him a quality whisky that he could sell to his customers.
In 1892, the sole surviving nephew, Alexander Morrison, sold the distillery to Highland Distillers (est. 1887), who owned it for the next 116 years but closed it down for much of that – it was inactive from 1907 to 1960 and again from 1986.
In 2008, it was sold to a Dutch investment firm, Scaent Group (est. 2003), who restarted production. It was sold again in 2013, this time to Benriach Distillery Company (est. 2004), which was, in turn, acquired in 2016 by the US-based Brown-Forman Corporation (est. 1870), under whose ownership it remains in business today.
Since the distillery was founded in 1875 and the OS 1st edition map for the area was published four years earlier, it enables us to peek back in time to see what was there before it. The answer is a corn mill labelled on the map as Craig Mills. This was powered via a dam and mill pond now long-disappeared beneath the footprint of one of the distillery’s buildings.
The ruins of an old windmill stand next to the distillery; this was already ruined by 1871.
Glenglassaugh takes its name from being the glen (i.e. valley) in which Glassaugh is located, this being a house about a mile upstream of the Burn of Fordyce from Sandend Beach.
This is where Henry Gordon (who sold Farskane House to William Gordon) had been laird of, though he also had sold that too in 1650 (to John Abercromby, younger brother of Sir Alexander Abercromby (1603-1684) of Birkenbog). I guess he needed ready cash more than land.
I ascended the steps in the previous photo, this time without grazing shins. Atop the low cliff, I found a broad and easy-going path flanked by gorse in full bloom. The heady coconut scent of its flowers filled the air as I made my way along the eastern edge of Sandend Bay, past Red Haven, Broad Craig and Skedam Cliff.
The eastern limit of Sandend Bay was West Head, which sounds stupid except that it’s named in relation to Portsoy, not Sandend.
Atop West Head was a structure that some people seem to think is a WW2 lookout post but I think that they are mistaken.
It doesn’t have any windows looking out, for one thing, and for another it is right at the end of a now-disused rifle range that first shows up on OS maps in the 1950s (but might have been there since WW2 and omitted for national security reasons). The structure is exactly where ‘target’ is noted by the OS and mostly appears to be a wall across the end of the range, while the firing position was at the south end near North Arnbaft Croft. Thus, I don’t think it’s a lookout at all; I think it’s the backstop to the range.
A short distance on from the rifle range backstop, at a place rejoicing in the name of Foul Hole, the path met the end of a farm track. Foul Hole was described in the OS Name Book (a catalogue of place names used to help compile the 1st edition) as ‘a long narrow chasm on the coast, situated midway between Redhythe Point, and John Legg’s Well.’
Redhythe Point is the very tip of West Head, while John Legg’s Well is a chalybeate spring that the OS Name Book (compiled between 1867 and 1869) helpfully tells us ‘was discovered some thirty years back by a fisherman, John Legg by name, who was in the habit of fishing from one of the rocks contiguous.’
The farm track met another, running east from North Arnbaft Croft and I turned left to follow it. This conveyed me past Westerwards Croft, which was situated just south of John Legg’s Well, and then met up with the public road, joining it at a corner to form a T-junction.
Westerwards Croft is a traditional single-story stone cottage that today serves as a holiday cottage. In the OS 1st edition it was labelled as ‘Wester Wards’ (two words) and the OS Name Book had this to say about it:
‘A dwelling house, with some outhouses, and a croft of arable, and pasture land attached, situated on the west of Portsoy: and the property of the Earl of Seafield.’
Open Air Pool
No sooner had I joined the public road than it left me, turning sharply left to lead down to the shore. I didn’t take this, preferring to continue along a footpath to Portsoy, but had I taken it, it would have conducted me down to the now sadly disused lido that is Portsoy Open Air Pool. The pool was opened in 1936, when such outdoor pools were all the rage, and designed to be flooded at high tide, refreshing its volume of water.
In its heyday it was furnished with a springboard and high diving board, now long gone, and its only furnishing now is a sign declaring it closed to public use. Its demise came about in 2001, when it was found to no longer comply with health and safety legislation.
Since then, it has been left to deteriorate, no longer maintained and, while there are frequent calls to bring it back into public use, to do so becomes ever more expensive as its condition declines.
The footpath I was now on was short, meeting end-on with a Portsoy street, Marine Terrace. This, in turn led me to Cullen Street (presumably so named as, before the modern A98, it was the start of any journey from Portsoy to Cullen). This led me into the centre of town.
A burgh since 1550, Portsoy (Port Saoidh) was also on Ogilvy land although, in this case, a different branch, based in Craig of Boyne Castle before 1575, and a newly-built Boyne Castle thereafter.
A left turn offered to take me down to Portsoy’s Old Harbour, so I took it.
The town’s Old Harbour was built in 1692 but ultimately proved insufficient for the burgeoning herring trade, so a New Harbour was built in the 1820s. This was in use for about a decade before an 1839 storm demolished its pier, rendering it useless and leaving Portsoy only with its Old Habour. The New Harbour was rebuilt in 1884 but it was to the Old Harbour that I now went.
As I sat and rested by the harbour, I gave consideration to how I was going to head further eastwards.
I knew that there was a perfectly serviceable footpath out to East Head but that it would end there. It would be possible to continue onwards, as others have done so before me, but it would not only require some pathless trailblazing (of which I am generally no fan) but it also had the problem of Boyne Bay Quarry sitting squarely in the way. I wasn’t sure if the quarry was open or closed on a Saturday and the internet didn’t seem sure, either.
If that option was ruled out, then the only viable alternative was to take to the roads. Not the A98, obviously (which would be suicidal) but the far less busy and more direct B9139. This began at Portsoy’s southern edge, where Aird Bridge crossed the Burn of Durn, but I had spotted a back road that should cut a corner to link up with it.
I have to admit, I was expecting a road of the sort that led me into Sandend, but no. I sometimes forget that the OS makes no distinction for the narrowest roads between actual asphalt single-track roads, muddy farm tracks and green lanes.
Long before the roads were given their A and B classifications in 1922, and before what is the now the A98 was built was built as a turnpike road in the early 19th century, what is now the B9139 was the King’s Road from Portsoy to Banff. This was later rerouted to meet the new road (now the A98) but the green lane I had found was its original start point. I had found an example of an old, disused road and I love that sort of thing.
On its way out of Portsoy, the green lane gave me a view out over Portsoy’s cemetery. Beside this, on the shore, was the site of an ancient chapel dedicated to St Columba (521-597), the Irish abbot who crossed the Irish Sea to bring Christianity to Scotland in 563.
Of course, a chapel dedicated to the saint is not necessarily the same as one founded by him but, whenever this particular chapel was founded, by the time the OS Name Book was compiled in 1869, there was already no trace of where it had been.
St Comb’s Well
Close by stands a well, also named for the saint, which can still be found, on account of the stone cupola that covers it, the latter erected in 1893.
The King’s Road
Burn of Durn
The green lane crossed the Burn of Durn on a small stone bride (visible in the photo before last) and then climbed steeply up a hill. This was hard work after the relative flatness of Banffshire so far, but was nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable.
Alas, the green lane ended all too soon, connecting to the B-road just before a bend, where the farm track to Rosehall also joined it. I rounded the bend, crossing over a crossroads of sorts (east-west was surfaced B-road, while north and south were the access roads to Hillhead and Longside respectively).
A long straight now led ahead, past Cairnrankie Houses to the copse of trees by which Cowhythe farmhouse could be found. The road here was slowly descending down the southern flank of Cowhythe Hill but the gradient was barely discernible.
The slow descent continued as the B-road gently made its way down to Scotsmill Bridge, the crossing over the Burn of Boyne. As the name gives away, there used to be a corn mill on the burn; its building is now a pottery, with all the mill machinery long removed.
The bridge itself is a late 18th-century affair, a single span of stone rubble much like that over the Burn of Durn, except surfaced.
A stone house on the far side of the Burn of Boyne’s valley had what looked like a stone barn attached as a wing. This was, in fact, an old smithy, now sitting at the entrance to Boyne Bay Quarry’s access road.
Boyndie Wind Farm
As I continued eastwards along the old King’s Road to Banff, I passed Boyndie Wind Farm, whose massive wind turbines I had been staring ahead to ever since joining the B-road (you can see them in my previous photo). Established in 2006, the wind farm occupies the disused Boyndie Airfield, which had been created as RAF Banff during WW2 and served as such 1942-1946.
The wind farm was built by Falck Renewables Wind Ltd (est. 2002), which changed its name to Renantis in 2022. The local community also owns shares in the wind farm, however, through the Boyndie Wind Farm Co-operative Ltd, which was the first wind farm co-operative in Scotland.
Further down the road, I passed the farmsteads of Wester Whyntie, Easter Whyntie and Thriepland, all of which are shown on the 1871 map, and Thriepland Cottages, which first appeared on the map in the 1920s. I paused before the turning for Boyndie village to take in the vista of bays and cliffs ahead.
I didn’t take the Boyndie turning, as going to Boyndie played no part in my plan. Nor did I take the access track to Upper Dallachy, which signposted itself merely as ‘Dallachy Farm.’ Its signage also promised access to a coast path, which was tempting, but also something of an unknown quantity.
I elected not to detour but to instead to stick my original intention and take the next turning for Whitehills.
The Whitehills turning was even narrower than the B-road and initially flanked by more gorse. This opened out as it curved around to where it met that coast path not taken.
At this point, the road was atop a low cliff, about 10 m in height. The coast path was down by the shingly shore and I watched a man and his young daughter first stumble clumsily along it and then climb steeply back up to the road. I regarded their struggles with a mixture of empathy and smug relief not to share them.
In truth, it wasn’t all that hard going, but more so than my legs wanted; I was happy enough to experience it only vicariously.
Whitehills is – as I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn – a fishing village that mostly developed during the 19th century. Who’d’ve guessed?
In Whitehills’ case, it wasn’t planned from nothing but developed from a mostly 16th-century village, which expanded when a harbour was constructed in 1815. Prior to that, its fishermen had had to beach their boats in a rocky inlet called the Hythe (from Old English hyþ, meaning ‘landing place’).
Downies of Whitehills
The old harbour was replaced with a new one in 1900, after which the old one was filled in with the rubble from the new and used as the site of Downies of Whitehills’ fish-processing factory.
Downies is a family-owned firm that can trace its origins back to the 1870s and possibly earlier – a George Downie (b. 1821) is listed in the 1861 census as a fish-curer, though he may not have been working for himself. His youngest son Henry Downie (b. 1877) appears to have been the founder of the firm.
MV Titan Discovery
Moored in the harbour’s outer basin, this bright yellow boat caught my eye:
The boat in question is MV Titan Discovery, a 13 m catamaran launched in 2014 and employed as a coastal survey vessel. Although capable of 20 kts, she is typically used for surveying underwater cables, dredging operations and offshore windfarm sites, all of which involve her bobbing about generally in the way, hence the high-vis livery.
She belongs to, and is operated by, Titan Environmental Surveys Ltd, a company established in 2001 through the management buyout of another company’s survey division, namely Hyder Consulting (est. 1993). In 2005, Titan became part of Gardline Ltd, a marine survey company founded in Lowestoft in 1969, which was itself acquired as a subsidiary by Dutch dredging and heavylift company Boskalis in 2017.
The inner basin of the New Harbour was converted to a marina in 1999. Prior to that, Whitehills had been the smallest village in Scotland to retain its own fishing fleet and fish market. The closure of the latter posed particular issues for Downies, who had previously sourced most of their fish from it and now had to go further afield for suppliers, such as Fraserburgh, Peterhead and Kinlochbervie.
Fishermen & Seafarer’s Memorial
Just beyond the harbour was a reminder that, while most of Whitehills’ fishermen quit, retired or went elsewhere for economic reasons, some are no longer here for more tragic reasons.
Made of granite, the Fishermen & Seafarer’s Memorial was unveiled in 2015. It was the brainchild of one of the village’s former fishermen, who wanted to commemorate all those who had set sail from these shores but not returned. As such, it lists no particular names but stands for any and all who lost their lives at sea.
It was funded by voluntary donations, many from fishing and oil-related businesses.
Lest this give the idea that Whitehills is a prolific hotspot for maritime fatalities, its lifeboat (transferred from Banff in 1924) was withdrawn in 1969 due to the infrequency of call-outs. The RNLI felt that she would be more useful elsewhere.
From the harbour and memorial, the road I was following (Harbour Place) continued around the end of Knock Head, which is the headland whose western side Whitehills occupies. On its eastern side, I passed by Whitehills Caravan Park, whose shop allowed me to purchase an ice cream, to fuel this final stretch. My destination now became visible, across the waters of Boyndie Bay.
The Red Well
Harbour Place soon gave way to a broad coastal path for both foot and cycle traffic. Near to the start of the latter stood the Red Well, a domed structure enclosing a chalybeate spring, of which I thought I had taken a photo but apparently not. The well itself may well date back to Roman times; the dome almost certainly does not despite some wild claims online to the contrary. Certainly, it does not appear to be a listed building, which you would expect, if it were.
The easy-going path carried me along the shore of Boyndie Bay and past a field unlabelled on modern maps but named as Arrdanes in early OS editions, and annotated ‘supposed site of battle.’ This battle, between Scots and Danes was held to be an alternative site for the death of King Indulf, but has since been considered to more likely date to the time of Malcolm II (c 954-1034).
No less than 21 skulls were unearthed from a mound in the field in 1853, many of them oddly mis-shapen.
St Brandan’s Church
Close by the battle site stand the ruins of St Brandan’s Church, erected in 1723 on the site of an older church dating back to at least the 13th century. The church, which served the parish of Boyndie, was abandoned in 1770, when a new one was constructed in the centre of Boyndie village.
Just northeast of St Brandan’s, I crossed the Burn of Boyndie via a small footbridge, which conveyed me into what was clearly another caravan site, namely Banff Links Caravan Park. This occupied the western end of what was historically known as Boyndie Links (linkland is the term for grassy sand dunes in Scots parlance) and which was home to Banff Golf Club between 1871 and 1925. They even had their own halt – Golf Club House Halt – on the GNoSR’s Banff, Portsoy and Strathisla Railway line.
The course closed in 1925 when the Banff Links club merged with that of Duff House and its members switched to using the course of the latter.
Heading eastwards, the path followed the bay around to emerge into a car park at the western end of the part of Banff known as Scotstown. It then continued as a public road past the long line of cottages that comprise Scotstown, leading me towards Banff Harbour.
Banff’s harbour was established in 1625 with the clearance of rocks from an inlet to create Guthrie’s Haven. This is now the harbour’s Inner Basin which, in time, proved inadequate and so, in 1770, an outer basin – now the Middle Basin – was created by the renowned civil engineer John Smeaton (1724-1792). The harbour was extended again in 1818 by the arguably even more renowned Thomas Telford to create its Outer Basin.
Over the years, siltation became a problem as the River Deveron slowly shifted course and this caused most of the commercial fishing boats to relocate to Macduff on the other side of the river. Left to leisure vessels, the harbour became a marina in 2007.
Banff (Banbh) dates back to at least 1163, when it was the site of a castle, defending against Viking invaders. England’s Edward I visited it twice, firstly in 1296 and then again in 1298, following his defeat of Sir William Wallace (c. 1270-1305) at the Battle of Falkirk that year. He left it garrisoned with English soldiers and it remained in their hands until 1309, when Scottish forces recaptured it.
Over the centuries it belonged to various owners and was purchased by James Ogilvy, 3rd Earl of Findlater in 1688. In 1750, James’s great-grandson, another James Ogilvy (and, from 1764, the 6th Earl) built a new mansion house in the castle grounds, designed by architect John Adam (1721-1792), the son of the builder of Cullen Harbour.
This house still stands today but the original castle does not, much of the latter having been quarried away over the following decades, with the last of it demolished circa 1815. A small park now occupies the castle grounds, the gates of which I passed as I headed south through Banff.
The settlement that it protected was granted Royal burgh status by Robert II (1360-1390) in 1372. Over the following centuries it grew to be an important fishing and trade port and, like so may other Scottish coastal towns, enjoyed its heyday in the 19th century with a thriving export industry, shipping cured herring to the Baltic.
The Other Banff
Arguably more internationally famous today is the other Banff, namely the ski resort in Alberta, Canada. It is, of course, named after the Scottish original. It was named in 1884 by George Stephen (1829-1921), the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, who had been born in Dufftown and grown up in the general vicinity of the then-bustling herring-port.
In search of my hotel, I headed south down Sandyhill Road, vaguely aware that, hidden in the trees behind the houses on its east side, was Duff House. A Georgian estate house, this was designed by William Adam – the builder of Cullen Harbour – and built between 1735 and 1740 for local politician William Duff of Braco (1697-1763), who was later created Earl Fife.
Duff and Adam promptly fell out over several details ranging from the design to the materials used, resulting in a legal case being brought in 1741 as Adam sued his client in order to get paid, having previously not agreed a formal contract. His initial claim for £5,796 12s 11⅓d was successful but Duff avoided payment by dragging out the proceedings for so long that Adam died before he could collect.
The arms of William Duff and his heirs are interesting, if only for their pretence. They quarter the red lion rampant on gold of the mediaeval Macduff Earls of Fife – from whom William asserted descent without proof other than his Duff surname – with the Duff arms to which he was definitely entitled. These show a zig-zag ermine fess (horizontal centre stripe) between a stags head and two scallop shells, all gold.
Duff House Golf Club
Duff House Golf Club, with which Banff Golf Club merged, is right nest door to Duff House, on land which Alexander Duff, 1st Duke and 6th Earl of Fife (1849-1912), granted to the town for recreational use in 1907 along with Duff House itself. The Duke had married into the Royal Family and so no longer needed it.
Fife Lodge Hotel
That the hotel which I was seeking, the independently-owned Fife Lodge Hotel – was a little further down Sandyhill Road was no coincidence. It had originally been built in 1909 as the new estate house to administer what was left of the Duff House Estate and serve as its residence. As such, it was located on the estate grounds but conveniently close to the road. This also made it conveniently easy for me to find it.
Having found the hotel, the usual post-walk wind-down occurred: Ablutions, clean clothes, food , drink and, eventually, sleep. More walking would follow in the morning…
This time: 16½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,258 miles