AFTER breakfast, I began my penultimate coastal walk of April 2023 by – and this should hardly be surprising – walking along the coast. I finished it like that, too, with some coastal walking in between. Although, technically, I suppose I didn’t actually begin with coast as I initially detoured a few metres further inland to take a better look at some Peterhead structures I’d glimpsed the previous evening on my way to my hotel.
I began with Peterhead Town House, a large, square house with a central clock tower and spire, situated at the western end of Peterhead’s Broad Street. This was built in 1788 and extended in 1832, though presumably not by enough as Peterhead Burgh Council moved out after WW2 and removed themselves to the other end of Broad Street to occupy the larger but far less striking Arbuthnot House. Their administrative successor, Aberdeenshire Council, vacated Arbuthnot House in 2014, leaving it to decay and it now sits dilapidated, its windows boarded up, while the well-maintained frontage of the old Town House mocks it from afar.
In fairness, the Town House underwent renovation in 2021, so its excellent condition is something of a recent turnaround. Arbuthnot House has received no such treatment, though that is about to change. Aberdeenshire Council has just secured a grant from HM Government’s cringe-inducingly-named Levelling Up Fund, £18 m of which is going to go towards creation of a new ‘cultural quarter’ in the course of which Arbuthnot House will be transformed into a museum and cultural hub.
Arbuthnot House is newer than the Town House, though not by much. Its current form dates to the 1820s but it incorporated an older house that partly-occupied the same footprint from at least 1805, if not before.
James Keith Statue
Standing outside the Town House as a reminder to go to interesting places, see interesting things and potentially get killed by them, was a statue of Field Marshal James Keith (1696-1758). He was the brother of George Keith (1683-1778), 10th Earl Marischal, who was Peterhead’s feudal superior in addition to being the hereditary protector of the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish crown jewels).
Both James and George supported the Jacobite cause in the Rising of 1715 and had to flee abroad in consequence when it failed. James became an army officer in first Spain, then Russia and finally Prussia, where he served under Frederick the Great (1712-1786) in the Seven Years War (1756-1763).
Battle of Hochkirch
It was in Frederick’s service that James fought and died in the Battle of Hochkirch, when an Austrian army over twice the size the Prussian one attacked them in a position that James had desperately but vainly tried to convince Frederick it was suicide to remain in. Commanding the rearguard, he held off the Austrian advance just long enough for most of the Prussian army to escape but was shot several times, the last wound being a cannon ball to the chest. And there’s no coming back from that!
His memorial statue was gifted to Peterhead in 1868 by Prussia’s King William I (1797-1888).
Also in Broad Street and dwarfing James Keith’s statue, was the Reform Monument, erected in 1833 to celebrate the passing of the Reform Bill the previous year, which massively overhauled electoral rules.
The monument is topped by a gold lion rampant, which is an ingenious compromise to represent Great Britain in general, being a hybrid combination of Scotland’s and England’s heraldic gold lions. It uses the posture of the Scottish lion and the colour of the English to arrive at a compromise that aims to represent both nations, while probably failing to satisfy the citizens of either. No thought at all has been given to the Welsh here, but actually this works well too for the arms of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last independent Prince of Wales.
In addition to the hybrid lion final, the monument has various Latin inscriptions, continuing the same unifying theme. These include ‘Concordia res parvae crescunt Discordia maxumae dilabuntur’ (harmony makes small estates great, discord undermines the mightiest empires), ‘Servate terminos unanimitate virtute et industria’ (preserve the boundaries through concord, virtue and diligence) and the motto ‘tria juncta in uno’ (three joined in one) gracing the three national plant badges of Scotland, England and Ireland.
The western face of the memorial eschews national iconography for local, displaying the arms of the Earls Marischal:
The arms of the Earls Marischal of Clan Keith are simple and striking. The shield is mostly silver with a red chief (a horizontal stripe across the top), upon which are three gold pallets (vertical stripes). There is a story that it is the red parts that are significant here as they are said to represent the bloody finger marks of Malcolm II upon Robert de Keith’s shield after their victory against Vikings in the 1010 Battle of Barry. Sadly, the battle is probably fictitious, an unwitting invention of historian Hector Boece (1465-1536), who often garbled sources.
When I was done with looking at monuments and buildings, I allowed Jamaica Street to lead me down towards the harbour. Strictly speaking, what it brought me to was only the outermost basin of Peterhead’s harbour proper but, thanks to the North and South Breakwaters, the whole of Peterhead Bay is essentially a big harbour and I could clearly see ships docked at South Bay Harbour across the bay.
I set off, heading west along Charlotte Street. Here, dockside industrial warehouse units cut me off from the harbour, so all I could see on my left were vast grey walls. On my right was a terrace of stone cottages. Soon enough, this led me to Erroll Street and then Kirk Street, the latter of which was mostly small shops.
Despite its name, there wasn’t a church on Kirk Street, but it did lead to one, namely Peterhead’s Old Parish Church, also known as Muckle Kirk. This sat at the junction of Erroll Street and Maiden Street and was built by local architects Robert & John Mitchell between 1804 and 1806. Although the Mitchell brothers were architects themselves, they did not actually design the church but built it to the plans of Alexander Laing (1752-1823), an Edinburgh-based architect who mostly worked on mansions, castles and churches.
Its bell comes from an older church and was cast in 1647 by Dutch foundryman Michiel Burgerhuys (d. 1651) of Middelburg in Zeeland; Michiel probably created more bells for Scottish churches than any other individual.
Kirk Street ended at a roundabout from which South Road curved around the bay. As this was also the A982, it would have been a less than delightful walking experience so I was overjoyed to discover that I could access a footpath that served as a promenade along the shoreline. I followed this around the bay, pausing midway to regard the two breakwaters and the entrance gap between them:
Fortunately, the North Sea is not prone to tsunamis, the Storegga Slides around 8,000 years ago being the most obvious exception (they created a 3-6 m high tsunami that reached up to 18 miles inland when it struck what is now Scotland).
Less prehistorically, the North Sea Flood of 1953 combined spring tide and storm surge to create a flood 5.6 m above mean sea level. That’s not enough to top the breakwaters, but that just means they would funnel the surge through the gap, aimed right where I was standing to take the photo above.
Peterhead Bay Marina
Towards the southern end of the bay, I found Peterhead Bay Marina and, immediately before that, the Peterhead Marina Bay Holiday Park, which sounds to me as though they’d gotten some of those words in the wrong order. However, I’ll let them off without too much criticism because, in addition to offering egregious word salad, they also had a shop selling drinks and snacks with, it turned out, a complimentary side order of hiking advice and general enthusiasm. And one can hardly fault that!
Now clutching a steaming hot coffee and full of good cheer, I made my way back up the bank to South Road, the promenade having ended. This so offended the A982 that it immediately went off to find a mammal-free route, leaving me with much less traffic to contend with. This suited me just fine.
Climbing gently, South Road conveyed me past a number of houses followed by what used to be HM Prison Peterhead. This opened in 1888, having been constructed as part of the plan to build the breakwaters. A rise in shipwrecks in the late 19th century had led to demands that something must be done, that something being the construction of a harbour of refuge, in which vessels could shelter in poor weather. Peterhead was chosen for the site and it was decided to use convicts sentenced to hard labour as part of the workforce. Even with the costs of building new infrastructure to contain and control them, this still worked out more economically viable than actually paying labourers at market rates.
Specifically, the convicts were used to quarry the granite from which the breakwaters were to be built and a standard gauge railway line – the Peterhead Prison Railway – was constructed between the prison and Stirling Hill Quarry to carry the men back and forth. This was, at the time, the UK’s only state-owned railway.
The original plan was that it would take 25 years to build the breakwaters, completing them in 1913. Things went more slowly than expected (a couple of world wars didn’t help) and construction didn’t end until 1956, almost 70 years after it began and six years after hard labour was abolished in Scotland. In all that time only one prisoner was shot and killed by the rifle-toting guards for trying to escape from the quarry (this happened in the 1930s).
Closure & Replacement
HMP Peterhead was enlarged during its existence but, by the late 20th century, was outdated, overcrowded and inadequate. It became notorious for hunger strikes, protests and riots. In 2013, 125 years after it first opened its doors (or rather didn’t open them, what with being a prison and all), it was finally decommissioned, to be replaced by a new institution built right next door on the site of the railway’s marshalling yard. This was HMP and YOI Grampian, which opened in 2014 and holds up to 560 inmates in five blocks (Peterhead had a capacity of 208 inmates).
HMP Peterhead’s buildings remain intact and now operate as a successful visitor attraction under the name Peterhead Prison Museum. The museum also serves as a useful film set for prison-based film and TV productions.
South Base Road
At this point, South Road curved around to the right and I followed it. I mean, I shouldn’t have done – I should have cut past Burnhaven School onto South Base Road, but it wasn’t that clear on my map that I could do so and I strolled right past the turning. This wasn’t a huge deal as problems go – compared to, say, getting stuck up to your knees in a bog or bursting unexpectedly into flames – but, since I was currently neither mired nor ablaze, I rolled my eyes and tutted irritably at my own stupidity while completing two quite unnecessary sides of a triangle.
From South Base Road, I was able to access a path across the top of the dunes that backed Sandford Bay.
The footpath carried me around the curve of Sandford Bay before dropping down the coastal slope and then re-climbing it for no overly obvious reason (it was the valley of a small burn, though no flowing water was visible). Having re-ascended the coastal slope, the path brought me to a rectangular doorway in a stone wall that would otherwise have blocked ingress. Beyond the wall, I found the house whose property it had been enclosing.
The building in question was Sandford Lodge, a large and superior farmhouse built circa 1800 to be more like a miniature mansion. In fact, the Ordnance Survey Name Books, compiled around seven decades later, described it as ‘a lodge or modern mansion.’ Its original owner is not known but it passed through many hands until the mid-2000s, when it was purchased with the intention of demolishing it so that a ‘decarbonised fuel power generation plant’ could be built on the site. This never occurred, largely due to government disinterest to helping fund such a scheme, and the lodge sat empty and boarded-up but intact until 2015, when it suddenly caught fire.
Peterhead Power Station
Owned and operated by SSE plc (est. 1998), Peterhead Power Station is twenty years older than its owner, having been built in 1978 for the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. It was originally intended to burn oil but designed to also burn gas, switching between fuel sources as economics favoured one over the other. Its relative proximity to St Fergus Gas Terminal was a significant influence upon this decision.
The footpath curved around the coast, remaining between the power station and the shoreline, and passed above a gushing cooling water outflow.
Thistle Seafoods Ltd
The path dropped down to the shoreline and then cut inland immediately before the factory premises of Thistle Seafoods Ltd.
Established in 1947 (although only incorporated as a limited company in 2001), this company lays claim to be the largest independent seafood manufacturer in Scotland, and describes itself as a ‘fifth-generation family-owned business.’
As I made my way around its perimeter, I encountered a possible fan of its products in the form of a small, dark cat, who followed me all the way round as if to make sure I was really going and not getting too close to all the nummy fish. Having thus been escorted from the premises by the Security Cat, I found myself in the village of Boddam. More specifically, in Harbour Street.
Buchan Ness Lighthouse
Near the corner where Harbour Street met Queen’s Road was the headland (and tidal island) of Buchan Ness. This was traditionally the point of assembly and departure for whaling expeditions but was regarded as an important navigational feature long before commercial whaling became a thing.
Under the name of Taezalum, it was referenced in the Geography of Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100-170), which he wrote in far-off Alexandria. Ptolemy failed to mention its most obvious navigational feature, however, although that was probably because it wasn’t built until 1,657 years after his death:
While the lighthouse was pretty good at grabbing the attention, which is rather the point of it, the other buildings of Boddam were not without their charms. Leastways, the little stone cottages that lined Harbour Street, Queen’s Road and Rocksley Drive were and, with that sort of competition, no other buildings were getting so much as a look-in.
Built in the early 16th century, Boddam Castle was the seat of the Keiths of Ludquharn, a Keith cadet branch descended from Sir Edward Keith (d. 1346), Marischal of Scotland, through his second son, John Keith, who married Mariota de Cheyne, daughter and heiress of Reginald de Cheyne (d. 1345). We have heard of these two before, their marriage being how both Forse and Inverugie Castles passed from Cheyne to Keith ownership.
They became Keiths of Ludquharn when Gilbert Keith (c.1420-1495), 3rd laird of Inverugie, married an Ogstoun heiress and inherited Ludquharn, an estate (today, a farm) about six miles west of Boddam. This later passed to a younger Keith of Inverugie son, creating the Ludquharn cadet branch.
In 1629, William Keith (c. 1580-1655) of Ludquharn purchased a baronetcy in the Baronetage of Nova Scotia.
Originally dreamt up by James VI as a scheme to fund settlement of Nova Scotia as a Scottish colony, the baronetage was put into practice by Charles I. Basically, by paying a sum of £2,000 Scots (equivalent to £166 13s 4d in Sterling) to support colonisation efforts, Scots gentlemen could purchase a baronetcy, which is basically a hereditary knighthood. In other words, it was a literal, yet officially legitimate, ‘cash for honours’ scheme.
Governor of Pennsylvania
The 4th baronet, Sir William Keith (1669-1749) had a rather more hands-on colonial role by serving as the Deputy Governor of Pennsylvania from 1717 to 1726. However, after the death of Proprietor William Penn (1644-1718), he quarrelled with Penn’s widow, Hannah Callowhill (1671-1726) and ultimately fled the colony when she turned its assembly against him.
End of the Line
The line of the Keiths of Ludquharn came to an end in 1771 with the death of Sir Robert Keith, 5th Baronet, whose sons and heirs had predeceased him. Robert had fought as an officer in foreign armies, latterly that of Denmark (where he rose to the rank of major general) but previously that of Prussia, where he served under his kinsman, Field Marshal James Keith, in the rank of lieutenant colonel.
A handy sign near the ruin gave some of the above information and only got a bit of it wrong. Amongst the parts that were right were the arms of Keith of Ludquharn, which were differenced from the main Keith arms by the addition of two blue charges in fesse (i.e. placed as if on a horizontal line across the centre of the shield), namely the Cheyne cross fitchée and a scallop shell. Scottish heraldry is very strict about no two men bearing the same arms, so younger sons have to difference theirs from their father’s.
I was surprised to encounter a broad, well-defined and newly made footpath beyond Boddam Castle.
The footpath led me past the islets of Meikle Donnon and Little Donnon to the promontory of Dundonnie. The name of the latter beginning with ‘dun’ (from Gaelic dùn, meaning ‘fort’) was a dead giveaway that there had been a hill fort atop this, although only a single rampart is actually present.
After Dundonnie, the path looped around in an attempt to try to return me to the road. Since that road was the busy A90, I aimed to be uncooperative in that regard, much to the disapproval of my only adult observer.
With apologies to the Highland coo, I figured I’d found my desired route to keep me off the A-road. It was hard to tell, though, as the information signs were rather terse:
With the path fighting my uncooperative attitude by adopting the same for its signs, I was initially a little confused at what I was looking at. It was clearly the abutment of a railway bridge but had the line run over it or under it? Fortunately, I figured it out fairly quickly. the answer was both.
Stirling Hill Tramway
The line over the bridge had been a tramway running from Stirling Hill Quarry to the shore. This was older than, and separate to, the Peterhead Prison Railway, and presumably enabled transporting material by sea.
Boddam Branch Line
The line under the bridge was the 15-mile Boddam Branch Line, opened in 1897 by the Great North of Scotland Railway (GNoSR), linking Boddam to Ellon. This had been built mostly to service a new hotel at Cruden Bay, with extension to Boddam an afterthought. Unfortunately, the hotel was never a great success and the line was not all economical. It was closed to passengers in 1932 and to freight in 1945.
Today, its alignment is surprisingly not overgrown and many of its cuttings, embankments and road overbridges remain, though many other embankments have been filled for ease of farm access. The section immediately south of Boddam seemed pretty well defined, and had to be safer than the A90, right?
I didn’t actually sink up to my knees and get stuck, but I did have to fight with the track bed for ownership of my shoes once or twice. It was pretty obvious just a half dozen paces in that I had woefully underestimated just how wet it would be and that I ought to turn back. I certainly shouldn’t squelch stubbornly forwards for the almost half a mile of the cutting. That would be madness!
Even if it hadn’t been madness to attempt that, it was very much my state of mind by the time I squelched out of the far end of it. A path of sorts veered right to join the road, while ahead stood a small house, essentially a modern cottage, which had been built on a mound piled directly over the rail alignment. This was Meikle Croft and there was clearly no way around it other than the road… or was there?
As much because I didn’t want all that squelchy effort to have been wasted as any other reason, I made my way to the end of that mound to see if the way was fully blocked. What I found there filled me with joy.
The cliff path started magnificently, as you can see, and I was having a whale of a time striding along it, unmenaced by cars, unstuck by bog and inspired by cliff-related scenery. It was great! For just over quarter of a mile.
My exciting clifftop adventure came to an abrupt end at the actual Long Haven, where the railway had cut across its head atop a retaining wall but the cliff path wanted to go down on steps and climb back up on the other side. Except it didn’t, because it was fenced off with a footpath closure notice; landslips had closed the cliff path.
This was frustrating, because they’d let me get this far instead of warning me at the start, which seemed like a poor choice. And also because it looked like I could still navigate those steps. But then, I reasoned, what if a huge chunk of cliff is missing further on and that’s what the sign is about? I had better take them at their word.
With some reluctance, I crossed the field that separated the footpath from the road. It looked like I would be risking life and limb on the A90 after all.
The A90 turned out to be not nearly so bad as I’d feared. The traffic had calmed right down since I’d first set eyes on it and I knew that I was only planning to stay on it for about half a mile, anyway. I’d gone about half that far, when I reached a bricked-up cottage beside the access road to Mains of Longhaven. Beyond it, I could see several other buildings including Station House, the old stationmaster’s house for the long-vanished Longhaven Station. This was the village of Longhaven.
I knew that I had three chances to leave the A-road up ahead and turn left to enter the Longhaven Cliffs Nature Reserve. I didn’t want to seem too keen, so I passed the first one, which was flanked by Granite Lodge and Station Farm.
The second had no such guardhouses, merely a gate and a sign for the nature reserve. This one, I took, and it carried me past the farm of Blackhill to a point where the Longhaven Cliffs path joined this track. Here, there was similar signage to that I had encountered near Meikle Croft and, just as then, no hint that a path closure lay in wait partway along.
Near to the junction with the cliff path stood what was left of an old stone cottage. This may have become associated with Blackhill Quarry, at the edge of which it sat, but was probably built as an outlying cottage for workers at Blackhill farm.
Old maps of the area show that part of the spot occupied by Blackhill Quarry was the Black Hill for which it was named. This wasn’t massive, as hills go, at a mere 72 m high, but quarrying made it even less so.
Just beyond this quarry pool, the track I was on came to an abrupt end. Looking about for the way onwards, I could see a track that led to the farm of Whiteshin but didn’t really want to take that. My chat with the coffee-purveying lady at Peterhead Marina Bay Holiday Park had led me to believe that a cliffier route was available, not that I could see it.
The solution came in the form of a man walking his dog, who was able to point me in the right direction, through a gate that I’d not spotted. I thanked him and he quickly hurried away – not because of me but because of the rain, which had just started up to give us both a light sprinkle.
I’d not gone very far, when I came across this:
Pool and Gully
A little further west, the path dropped into a narrow gully in order to cross it. This was artificial, having been carved out to connect another quarry pit to the shoreline for ease of removal of material. This pit had also since filled with water to make a pool but, with its high walls and a projecting rock making an islet, I thought it visually appealing.
A pre-existing path had bridged the gully but this was now fenced off as unsafe.
I was very much enjoying the cliffside path and with its coastal views on the one hand and the melancholy relicts of the quarry on the other. Even a spattering of rain had not dampened my spirits. If the weather was aiming to make me unhappy, then it had missed!
The mist rolled relentlessly over my surroundings, screening them partly from view. For a few over-eager minutes, it experimented with upgrading to full-on fog before settling back down to intermittent mist bands, which alternately hid and revealed the terrain in a game of scenic peekaboo.
Bullers of Buchan
At North Haven, the path descended again to cross a more natural gully. Here, the Boddam branch line had also had the same need, except it had done so on the level, by means of a single-arch bridge. Underneath it ran a rough track from the shore to North-haven farm.
The mist came and went as I rounded Blockie Head and approached the Bullers of Buchan. This name is given to both a collapsed sea cave or ‘pot,’ and a tiny hamlet close to it.
The collapse has created a circular chasm with a narrow entrance through a natural arch. The turbulent waters within may have given this location its rather cryptic name. The etymology of ‘Bullers’ is uncertain, but two competing explanations include derivation from a possible Scots word buller, meaning ‘rushing of water’ or from French bouillir which means ‘to boil.’
Hamlet or Village
Scotland doesn’t really use the word ‘hamlet,’ so Bullers of Buchan is generally described as a ‘village,’ but it is absolutely tiny.
It has no shop, pub or other facilities, which means that there is little reason to stop. And if you don’t stop, there is just enough time to think ‘cool little cottages, what an awesome location!’ and by then you’ve already left it behind.
The path out had a warning for dangerous, unfenced cliffs; with my poor head for heights, such things often can be a challenge.
Actually, the path was a little too precarious for my comfort in places but I coped.
As I made my way southwards along the cliff tops, the mist continued to come and go in bands, timing itself perfectly to obscure the arched island of Dunbuy just when I was in the right place to try to photograph it.
The mist was still giving its all as I approached Slains Castle. This was, perhaps atmospherically appropriate as the castle is said to have been one of the inspirations behind the descriptions of Castle Dracula in Dracula (publ. 1897). Mere moments after my arrival, however, the mist entirely evaporated with almost supernatural speed.
Slains Castle – or, more accurately, New Slains Castle – began as a 16th-century tower house built for Francis Hay (1564-1631), 9th Earl of Erroll, but was subsequently extended and then rebuilt in Scots Baronial mansion style in 1837. The earl built it because his family seat, Old Slains Castle, had been torn down by James VI after the earl had shown himself to be a Catholic traitor. However, in 1597, the earl abjured Catholicism and made his peace with the king, who allowed him to build the new castle.
The castle remained in Hay hands until 1916, when Charles Hay (1852-1927), 20th Earl of Erroll, ran out of money and sold it. It then passed quickly through several owners before being bought by Charles Brand Ltd, a Dundee-based company whose entire business model was the buying, stripping and demolishing of castles and mansions. They did their thing in 1925 and, well, you can see above what was left.
The connection between Slains Castle and Castle Dracula is usually overstated, Bram Stoker (1847-1912) having already taken most of his inspiration from pictures of Transylvanian castles before he ever laid eyes on Slains. It does have two features he seems to have borrowed, though, one being a tower that directly overlooks a precipice and the other being an octagonal chamber.
Slains Castle’s octagon was used as a hallway and waiting room for visitors to the earl, while Dracula’s windowless equivalent was the antechamber to Jonathan Harker’s bedroom.
Old Water Moo’
From Slains Castle, I had two options, one being an unmade road that led north to the public road network. The other was more of a track, which looped south and west towards the village of Cruden Bay. This latter would pass close to Old Water Moo’ (i.e., mouth), this being the gorge-like mouth of the Back Burn, a small stream.
The size of the Old Water Moo’ is all out of proportion to that of the current Back Burn, on account of having been carved out by glacial meltwater.
The Watter’s Mou’
Bram Stoker was evidently impressed by it, taking the feature’s name in slightly variant form – The Watter’s Mou’ – for the title of an 1895 novel. This is a tragic romantic adventure story which pits dashing young coastguard William Barrow against local smugglers, one of whom is the father of his fiancée, Maggie McWhirter. He is honour bound to do his duty, she feels she must warn her father of impending arrest. The weather is stormy and treacherous. It doesn’t end well for anybody.
The rest of the way into Cruden Bay was pretty tranquil:
The Back Burn, or Slains Burn, is actually the former downstream course of the Water of Cruden, the main stream now flowing into Cruden Bay, hence the name Old Water Moo’. Old maps such as those of James Robertson (1822) and William Roy (c. 1850) clearly show the Water of Cruden meeting the sea through the Old Water Moo’. It would appear that it was deliberately diverted in the 1850s or ’60s as part of the development of Cruden Bay.
Cruden Bay was first developed in the 1840s by William Hay (1801-1846), 18th Earl of Erroll, who named it Port Erroll because he could. A harbour was added by his son and heir, William Hay (1823-1891), 19th earl, in 1875 and it was that that really prompted the growth of the village. A hotel, the Kilmarnock Arms, was built in 1877 and named for the subsidiary title of Baron Kilmarnock, created for his father in 1831.
A baron is a lower ranking title than an earl but the holders of Scottish titles (like the Earldom of Erroll) did not have an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords, but instead elected 16 members from amongst their number to do so.
By making the 18th earl also the 1st Baron Kilmarnock – a lesser title but one in the in the peerage of the unified UK – it gave him an automatic seat in the Lords without any tedious elections.
The actual Kilmarnock arms would obviously be the same as those of the Hay earls of Erroll, namely three red shields upon a silver field. In addition to having their ancient coat of arms, the earls of Erroll also appoint a private pursuivant (a junior herald) with the title of Slains Pursuivant of Arms, to handle heraldic and genealogical matters. He wears these arms of Hay upon his tabard and is one of only four private pursuivants recognised by Lord Lyon, King of Arms, Scotland’s senior herald.
In walking from Peterhead to Cruden Bay (where I had never been before) I was in following in the footsteps of Bram Stoker, who had first discovered the village in exactly the same way – he too stayed in Peterhead and then went for a walk down the coast!
Bram, who lived and worked in London, where he was business manager of the Lyceum Theatre (he only wrote books part-time), liked to holiday remote from civilisation. Cruden Bay and its environs seemingly met that need in spades, for he visited the area no less than thirteen times between 1892 and 1910.
Initially, his Cruden Bay holidays saw him stay at the Kilmarnock Hotel but, from about 1896, he switched to booking Hilton Cottage, located at the other end of Bridge Street. This was then owned by the hotel and split into two, one half serving as staff accommodation, the other half being available for guests.
Water of Cruden
I wandered up to Port Erroll Harbour in the hope that that might be an obvious place to find refreshment, but in this was proved mistaken. Well, no problem, that just meant I needed to head back the other way (if nothing else, the hotel should have a bar, I thought). On my way back, I took an opportunity to slip past the roadside cottages onto the sandy shore of the Water of Cruden, the river which spills across the eastern end of Cruden Bay.
The shoreline was well-defended with WW2 anti-tank cubes. Not being a tank, these posed no obstacle to me but the same could not be said for the Water of Cruden itself, which was too broad and too deep to wade across. Fortunately, the ladies of Cruden Bay had anticipated my need a century prior, raising the money to build a bridge in 1923.
For the moment, I passed by the Ladies’ Bridge and headed up Main Street towards the Kilmarnock Hotel. I never made it that far, however, as on the way, I discovered Paterson’s of Cruden Bay, a newsagent and general store. This furnished me with a cold drink and an ice cream, which made me very happy.
Paterson’s is housed in a small, one-storey building of similar size to a cottage. Built in 1897, this originally housed three shops (they must have been tiny), one of which belonged to a bootmaker, James Beagrie, who also moonlighted as a driver and would run Bram, his family and their luggage between Cruden Bay Station and their accommodation. The station closed in 1932, when passenger service ceased on the Boddam branch line.
Clutching my drink and my ice cream, I went back and crossed Ladies’ Bridge. This was not actually the original, it having finally been rebuilt in 2016 after concerns about its safety had been raised since 2002.
Cruden Bay Beach
Safely on the western bank of the Water of Cruden, I drank my drink and ate my ice cream. From here, a mile and a half of sand stretched south-westwards. Boots and socks came quickly off.
As I was splashing through the water anyway, I did not have to worry about any of the minor burns that cross the beach. The first of these was Bluidy Burn, named for its blood-stained waters after the 1012 Battle of Cruden in which Malcolm II fought off the Danes under Prince Cnut (c. 990-1035), son of Sweyn Forkbeard (963-1014), King of Denmark and Norway.
Cnut, of course, would later go on to become ruler of an empire encompassing Denmark, Norway and England but, at Cruden, Malcolm won the day. Indeed, the name ‘Cruden’ is traditionally held to refer to the battle, allegedly deriving from the phrase Croch Dain – the slaughter of the Danes!
A short way beyond Bluidy Burn, I encountered evidence of preparations to repel later invaders, in the form of the first of two pillboxes. The second awaited my arrival at the far end of the bay.
These were, of course, of WW2 vintage and formed part of a comprehensive defensive line that involving both pillboxes and lines of anti-tank cubes.
The second pillbox marked the end of my paddle through the waves of Cruden Bay. It was time to put my boots back on.
Sandy & Broad Havens
The path started off fearsomely boggy to the point that it was almost more like wading than walking. Fortunately, it quickly calmed down as it climbed, taking me up onto a cliff top to pass around the small, stony bays of Sandy Haven and Broad Haven. The latter was broader than the former, so it gets points for truthfulness, whereas Sandy Haven could do with a stern talking to from the Advertising Standards Authority.
Just offshore from Broad Haven lay a shoal of semi-submerged rocks known as The Skares (meaning ‘skerries,’ both from Norse sker). As is typical for a boat-eating reef in treacherous waters, the Skares have been responsible for loss of many vessels across the years.
These, and the nearby hamlet of Whinnyfold, feature in Bram Stoker’s 1902 political thriller The Mystery of the Sea. This is a wild tale involving second sight, hidden treasure, the Spanish Armada and complications arising from the Spanish-American War of 1898.
The path then deposited me in Whinnyfold. In The Mystery of the Sea, the protagonist, Archibald Hunter, is staying in the village at the start of the novel. Like his fictional creation, Bram Stoker and his wife Florence Balcombe (1858-1937) also holidayed in Whinnyfold. In their case, they stayed in a cottage by the name of Crookit Lum (‘crooked chimney’).
This cottage was a teashop owned and run by a woman named Isy Cay and the Stokers had frequently walked down to coast to take tea there, while staying in Cruden Bay. It was a natural progression that they should switch to staying there as increasing tourism made it more difficult to book their accustomed accommodation.
Whinnyfold sprang into being in the 1860s as a fishing village as a replacement to another settlement further inland. It never had a harbour, but relied upon a natural haven with a pebbly shore. This meant that fishermen had to scramble up and down the coastal slope to access their boats, which were beached upon the shingle.
Although a once thriving fishing community, Whinnyfold eventually gradually lost its boats to the safety and convenience of other, nearby harbours such as those at Cruden Bay and Collieston.
According to Wikipedia, the original settlement that Whinnyfold replaced was ‘one mile inland’ but old maps offer no obvious candidates. Or rather, they do offer an obvious candidate but considerably closer to the coast.
The OS 1st edition (published in 1870, right after Whinnyfold’s creation) names the current Whinnyfold as New Whinnyfold, while the plain name ‘Whinnyfold’ is attached to a cluster of buildings a mere quarter mile northwest. By the 2nd edition in 1901, these had become Whinnyfold and Old Whinnyfold respectively. Over subsequent decades, the Old Whinnyfield site then lost all but one of its buildings and ceased to be named on the map.
Today, still unnamed on OS maps, the site hosts two houses – Castleview and Windyhill – while its last remaining original cottage sits windowless and derelict upon the grounds.
Poor Man of Harrol
In truth, I could have afforded neither the time for a detour, nor the time to stop for tea. I had somehow contrived to lose quite a lot of time and I didn’t think I’d been quite that slow in lacing my boots in Cruden Bay. At any rate, I was no longer entirely sure if I had the time I needed to do the remaining cliff path, as it was. Oh well, I figured, I’ll still give it a go…
Setting off apace, I rounded Green Brow and the bay beyond it known as Harrol. There, the rocky stack known as the Poor Man of Harrol, waved me encouragingly onwards.
The Poor Man of Harrol is so suffixed to distinguish him from another stack, the Poor Man of Broad Haven, whom I had passed up by Whinnyfold. He was described by the OS Name Book as ‘A very large and high rock standing up on the shore, on which it is said a very large ship once struck and went to pieces, all hands in the ship were lost.’ Sadly, I have not been able to put a name to this shipwreck.
I was fairly bombing along the cliff path and thinking that I might just make up for lost time (however I had managed to lose it). This kind of positivity was obviously in no way acceptable, so the path pulled the same stunt as it had back at Longhaven, with a sudden and unexpected closure notice. Right, I thought, can I see the problem? Why is it closed?
My first hope was that it wasn’t as bad as it looked and that closing this little bridge had been done from an overabundance of health and safety caution. I gingerly put a foot on the bridge to test this and the entire thing twisted and buckled. It was exactly as utterly fucked as it looked. Ah.
On the other hand, the burn it was crossing looked pretty narrow. Narrow enough in fact, that I could find a spot to hop across with little effort. This I did and, enjoying a warm glow of achievement all out of proportion with the modest nature of the challenge, I bounded merrily onwards past Berry’s Loup and the rocks known as The Veshels.
The coast between Whinnyfold and Collieston is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for nationally important colonies of cliff-nesting seabirds of various species and more than a few of them appeared to be sitting on Green Craig as I made my way past. These made for an excellent audience when I somehow contrived to slip over on some mud – mud that was by no means as treacherous as any of that I had already dealt with mind you – and, catching myself with my walking poles, snap one of them clean in two!
With my dignity in tatters and my walking pole in twain, I continued onwards at a little more cautious pace. If nothing else, I could comfort myself that I had only been a little bit muddied and not, say murdered. A small inlet in the headland that I was now traversing rejoiced in the name Bloody Hole for such a reason, as noted by the OS Name Book:
‘This name is applied to a very deep hole on the coast, and tradition says there was many a Kingsman killed here by the smugglers, hence the name.’
Immediately after Bloody Hole came Study Head and, after that, the broad bay of Bruce’s Haven. This also takes its name from violent death though, in this case, through misadventure and not murder. The OS Name Book described it as:
‘A fine haven on the coast, in which a fisherman whose name was Bruce, was drowned. it is very rocky and dangerous to enter with a boat.’
Which makes me think it’s not exactly much of a haven if its not safe to bring your boat in.
Fawn Pot & Pissing Yad
After Bruce’s Haven, the path rounded another small headland above a bunch of rocks known as The Nobs and ventured about 150 m upstream of a small burn that was cascading down to the sea in a series of water falls. The uppermost dropped into a small plunge pool which the OS names as Fawn Pot. The lowest is not named on modern OS maps but older maps called it Pissing Yad with a note in the Name Book that ‘yad’ is a dialectal term for ‘an old mare.’
I took what should have been an excellent photo of Fawn Pot and its waterfall, which was where the path crossed it, but it turns out what I actually photographed was blinding lens flares from the sun. This photo as a whole was pretty unsalvageable but, by playing around with brightness and contrast, I’ve managed to get something vaguely useable out of the key element, namely the waterfall and Fawn Pot (see inset):
Much as I had enjoyed seeing the waterfall, I was starting to find the cliff path hard going at this point. It was narrow and not always easily discernible, sometimes seeming little more than a sheep track. And parts of it were more precipitous than I dared let myself notice. Now, granted, I have a terrible head for heights, so someone else might have been fine there. But it wasn’t someone else there, it was me, and I was starting to find the mental effort not to freak out a little fatiguing.
Where this is going is that I was considering coming off the cliff path at the next opportunity, regardless of how late or not it might be. I would, I concluded, make my final decision upon reaching Old Slains Castle. In the meantime, I had Radel Haven to traverse, which I did. This was ‘a small bay or haven,’ which the late-1860s OS Name Book noted ‘affords quiet shelter for the fishing boats in stormy weather.’
As I headed further south, I started to catch glimpses of Old Slains Castle and then, suddenly, I was edging around the unoriginally-named Broad Haven, across which I was regarding it directly.
The path around Broad Haven was particularly narrow and started to climb unnecessarily high (to about 50 m). I decided that I wanted none of that and found my way down the coast slope to reach the shore at the bottom. From there, a path with steps led me back up to Old Slains Castle and the modern houses that are its neighbours.
I was doing very badly for time, it turned out, and the sun was low over the horizon. My original plan had been to stay on the cliff path until I reached Collieston, but it was now clear that I’d run out of daylight doing that. Perhaps more limitingly, I’d also reached the limit of my ability to make myself do heights and, were I to continue, I might succumb to terror on the cliff tops.
I would, I decided, take a road route into Collieston. On the far side, there would be more coast path but this would be in Forvie National Nature Reserve, where I knew the said path to be low, broad and safe. And also fairly light in colour, the better to see it in twilight fading to dusk. Not that it was twilight yet, though; I still hoped to reach Collieston before sunset, which meant I had to get a move on and could not hang about gawking at the ruins of Old Slains Castle…
Old Slains Castle
Old Slains Castle was built as a tower house in the 13th century and belonged to John Comyn (c. 1260 – 1308), 3rd Earl of Buchan. The earl was an opponent of Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), who became king in 1306 and enthusiastically confiscated Comyn assets. He gave the castle to an ally, Gilbert Hay (d. 1333), 5th Baron of Erroll.
The castle remained the property of the baron and his descendants until 1694, when (as mentioned earlier) Francis Hay, 9th Earl of Erroll, took part in a Catholic rebellion against James VI. The furious James opted to eschew mere confiscation and had the castle blown up with gunpowder.
Between Old Slains Castle’s destruction and the construction of New Slains Castle (during which period Francis was in exile), his wife – Elizabeth Douglas (d. 1631) – moved into Clochtow farmhouse, half a mile to the north. Thereafter, she preferred to be known as the ‘Guidwife of Clochtow’ over ‘Countess of Erroll,’ as the King could never strip her of the former, while he had the latter for a while.
Mains of Slains
There was only one road leading out from Old Slains Castle and I took it. This climbed a hill and then came to a junction beside Mains of Slains farm. I turned left, passing a couple of cottages, and headed southwest towards Kirktown of Slains.
Kirktown of Slains
Kirktown of Slains is, unsurprisingly, a settlement that includes Slains Kirk (built 1805); it forms an outlying part of Collieston. In addition to the church and a handful of cottages, there is also Slains House. This was the old manse, built in 1876 and designed by architect William Smith (1817-1891) for whom manses were his speciality.
To be honest, I paid both very little heed as I was now on a mission to get as far as I could, as quickly as I could before the twilight failed.
My haste in dashing past the church was regrettable in one respect, in that I would have liked to have had the opportunity to leisurely scour the churchyard for the grave of Philip Kennedy (1760-1798), notorious gin smuggler.
Smuggling was once a thriving local industry and Philip was an active participant in this illicit trade. His smuggling career came to an abrupt and bloody end, however, when he and his gang were betrayed and fell into an ambush by a trio of excisemen while moving smuggled gin ashore from the lugger Crooked Mary.
According to a 19th century account by author and journalist William Alexander (1826-1894), Kennedy – a local farmer – was a large and violent man and knocked down two of the three excisemen, while calling on his companions to secure the third. Unfortunately for him, they ran and hid instead, leaving him facing off against the final foe, whose name was Patrick Anderson.
In the ensuing fight, Patrick slashed Philip’s head with a cutlass. It’s not clear how he got away but, with his mortal head wound streaming blood, Philip staggered a quarter-mile to Kirkton of Slains, where he promptly expired. Patrick Anderson was duly charged with his murder but was acquitted in Edinburgh, the killing having been lawfully carried out in self-defence during the execution of his duties.
Collieston is a fishing village which dates back to the 16th century in its current form. Formerly, not just herring but also cod, haddock and whiting were landed here. It experienced a period of prosperity and became famous for Collieston speldings, which were sun-dried, salted whitings or haddock. By the mid-19th century, larger harbours like those of Peterhead could host larger fishing fleets and Collieston’s fishermen found themselves economically outcompeted. Thereafter, the industry declined and dwindled to nothing.
My impression of Collieston, as I fairly hurtled through it, was that it was a perfectly lovely village of old fishermen’s cottages. In rapidly decreasing daylight, I made my way from one end of it to the other, emerging on the far side onto a broad footpath that led into the Forvie National Nature Reserve…
Sands of Forvie
The Forvie National Nature Reserve was established in 1959 and encompasses the Sands of Forvie, which is Britain’s fifth-largest dune system. This comprises both fixed and mobile sand dunes.
I had originally hoped to follow the coastal edge of these sands down to the mouth of the River Ythan and then follow that upstream. It was clear, however, that I didn’t have nearly enough time.
According to my OS map, an inland footpath cut across the reserve, which would surely save time. This quickly proved to be rather more obvious in cartographical form than it was on the ground, even at its start and, in consequence, I elected not to take it. The coastal path that I had first planned on was broad and far easier to discern, which was going to prove a significant bonus when twilight failed and torchlight took over as my main source of illumination. Also, I knew it would meet with a vehicular track at one point. If I wanted to make it across the sands in dusk and darkness, then sticking to the most physically obvious paths was the only way to go…
After a while, the path, which started off hardened and accessible, diminished to become rugged and unsurfaced but it remained broad and obvious, which was my main requirement. It also remained right next to the sea, treating me to the crash of waves, the mew of gulls and the chock-chock-chock of helicopters flying to and from the North Sea oil rigs (there had been a surprising number of those pretty much all day).
As the daylight gradually failed, the seagulls and helicopters stopped flying and distant lights became visible on the horizon. It was starting to get properly dark as I reached Hackley Bay, a sheltered, sandy cove claimed by some to be the prettiest bay on the Aberdeenshire coast.
Forvie was the name of a village, abandoned after a nine-day storm saw the sands engulf it in 1413. They haven’t spat it back out yet, though the ruins of its 12th-century church are visible in daylight.
I had very much hoped to see this – there is something about settlements being swallowed by shifting sands that really intrigues me – but the veil of darkness had well and truly fallen by the time that I got there. The ruins of Forvie Church are just the base of the walls and are sunken, and also lie some distance from the footpath. This not only meant that I couldn’t see them by torchlight from the path, but that I might not be able to find them even if I went looking and, worse, that I might have trouble re-finding the path again afterwards. No, I was simply going to have to forego that pleasure.
Just past Forvie Church, the footpath met up with a vehicular track by the sea. This track – which did not exist on the 1870 OS 1st ed map for this area but had appeared as a footpath by the 1902 2nd ed – ran northwest from the shoreline to connect up with the public road next to Waterside Bridge. This made it an ideal escape route from these village-devouring sands.
The track was a little over a mile in length but it felt more like forty. When you’re walking by torchlight, you can see nothing but what’s right in front of you, which really wants to be road. This is not only unexciting but it messes with your ability to judge how far you’ve come and, by extension, how far you have left to go.
Waterside Bridge was a fairly standard modern flat-deck road bridge over the River Ythan. It was built in 1988 by Grampian Regional Council, to replace its 1920s predecessor (now demolished), which was suffering from spalling and corrosion.
As we established back at Hell’s Hole, I’m not a big fan of bridges that are clearly disintegrating under my feet, so I thank them kindly for their efforts. The ‘new’ bridge succeeded admirably in its job, allowing me to cross the Ythan.
On the far side, I found myself entering Newburgh. Today, this is a commuter village but it grew up as the port for the town of Ellon, which lies about five miles upstream of the Ythan (or about 4 miles away as the crow flies). In this capacity, it exported timber, grain and wool and became quite busy. In fact, it became so successful, thanks in part to its competitively low port dues, that it sucked trade away from Aberdeen in the 16th century, enraging Aberdeen’s town council. Enraged, the Aberdonians had Newburgh’s trading vessels seized and their sails confiscated!
Newburgh has never been an ideal port, though. The mouth and estuarine channel of the Ythan posed navigational problems, not least of which were sharp bends. This limited the size of ship that could call there and, ultimately, larger ports like Aberdeen won out.
One legacy of Newburgh’s long since vanished maritime trade can be found in the names of some of its houses – e.g., Shanghai House – recalling the destinations of the captains of 19th-century clippers.
I made my way through Newburgh, looking for the Newburgh Inn, although I didn’t look too hard as I already knew that it was right at the far end of the village. Eventually, to my great relief, its lights came into view and I staggered into its bar a good two hours later than I had said I would be. But that didn’t matter; I had made it!
Tomorrow, I would press on to reach Aberdeen…
This time: 25 miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,329½ miles