ON THE third morning of my four-day October 2022 trip, I initially awoke to the sound of rain and quickly decided that the best way to address this was to ignore it in the hope that it would go away. While I can’t say that it worked completely, it was more successful than it had any right to be, having eased off to light, misty spitting by the time I surfaced for breakfast. By the time I had finished my breakfast, the rain had also come to an end, at least for now. The skies might be unpromisingly clouded but they weren’t actually leaking.
Wending Through Woods
My plan for the day was to walk from Nairn to Forres, mostly via Culbin Forest. This promised to be as lovely as a woodland walk always is (I like them a lot) but would more than double the distance. Nairn to Forres as the crow flies is about nine miles. I would be doing twenty-one, starting at the Newton Hotel.
But, before I could make my way into the forest, I first needed to investigate Nairn’s shops…
This the being the case, I decided not to mess about with taking the most coastal route into the city centre but to get there directly. I began by turning immediately right and heading down a street called Manse Road.
A manse is the Church of Scotland term for what their English counterparts would call a ‘vicarage’. This manse turned out to be a large and rather lovely house with bay windows and Scottish baronial style turret and stood close to the far end of Manse Road.
Typically, the manse is situated close to church, reducing the minister’s commute to mere minutes, and I had no reason to doubt that this would be the case here. I was therefore quite unsurprised when, just 100 m later, I found myself passing Nairn Old Parish Church. But, looking at the map, I see that the manse’s back garden abuts directly onto the churchyard, allowing a gate to cut that commute distance in half…
Old Parish Church
Completed in 1897, the church was designed by John Starforth (1822-1898), an English-born architect who mostly designed churches and country villas and farmsteads in southern Scotland; this was something of an unusual excursion north for him.
According to the Church of Scotland, ‘The church is considered by many to be the finest structure in the area,’ and, while they would say that about their own building, the anonymous ‘many’ have a point. Its truncated transepts make it almost circular in shape, fronted by a roughly 30 m tower.
Stained Glass Windows
The church’s ground-floor stained-glass windows are said to be quite lovely but, of course, you can’t really tell that from outside. Based on who made them they are probably exquisite, having been created by Ballantine & Gardiner – a company that also helped glaze the House of Lords in 1843 – and Douglas Strachan (1875-1950), who would go on to be considered the most significant Scottish designer of stained-glass windows in the 20th century.
Nairn Old Parish Church was situated on Academy Street, a main road leading into Nairn town centre. This also happened to be the A96, the main road link between Inverness and Aberdeen, my encounters with which had previously had involved my frantic dashing across it, dodging the traffic. Now, however, I was able to stroll alongside it in relative comfort (though not quiet) as here it had an accompanying pedestrian pavement.
St Mary’s Catholic Church
Academy Street conveyed me past the Old Parish Church’s local competition in the form of St Mary’s Catholic Church (built in 1864).
A short distance beyond that, I reached Viewfield Drive, a side-street leading to Viewfield House, the home of Nairn Museum since 2003. Formerly used as council offices, the house was originally built in 1803 as a home for Colonel Ludovic Grant (c. 1750-1830), a soldier with the Honourable East India Company. It originally stood within substantial grounds, but these have been reduced to a small park in which it now stands; the site of its former lodge house is now Nairn Police Station, which I strode past.
Just after Viewfield Drive, I crossed the A96 in unaccustomed safety and comfort, thanks to traffic lights and a pedestrian crossing. This enabled me to cut past Nairn Library and onto the High Street, which was also the B9090.
I had been counting on Nairn being large enough a town that it would have enough shops to sell me what I wanted, which was a new LED torch of eye-melting brightness as, without one, my homeward travel plans were doomed. I was pleased to discover that the High Street would answer that need…
A Dark Discovery
Up until the night before, I had been labouring under the misapprehension that I already owned such a torch, but some strange premonition had compelled me to check and discover that, no, what I actually owned, was now a torch-shaped paperweight.
Alarmed at this development, I had quickly ascertained that the problem didn’t lie in the batteries, but somewhere within the torch’s robust plastic housing that I couldn’t access without taking a hacksaw to it. Tempting as that was, I didn’t have a hacksaw on me and, even if I had, I’d realistically only have converted my broken torch into two broken torch pieces. Not really an improvement.
Let There Be Light
No, I realised, what I need was a replacement and was my good fortune that I was in a sizeable town and not a tiny village. But could it sell me what I wanted? The answer was not only a resounding yes but also a revelation in terms of price. LED torches were still quite novel when I bought my last one but now, over a decade later, they had become so commonplace that I could get one far smaller but equally as powerful for just one fifth of the price. Excellent!
Nairn Town & County Buildings
Most recently refurbished in 2020, Nairn’s Town & County Buildings were constructed in 1818 on the site of a former tollbooth, which they replaced. They were built by local mason, builder and architect John Wilson (1788-1872), who would go on to be Provost of Nairn (equivalent to an English mayor) from 1839 to 1853.
Although he carried out the construction work on these buildings, he didn’t design them, as he was subject to the supervision of a different architect, whose name is unhelpfully recorded only as ‘Mr Smith’. Well, that narrows it down…
Having equipped myself with a method of turning night into, if not quite day, at least a little less night, I could now properly get going on my day’s walk! The clouds above dropped some rain on my head, lest I get too upbeat, and, suitably chastened, I made my way to the northern end of the High Street, where I turned right into Bridge Street and briefly re-joined the A96 as together we crossed Nairn Bridge.
Nairn Bridge was built in 1804 by George Burn (1759- 1820) to replace a previous bridge that had stood from circa 1631 until 1794, when it washed away in a flood. Burn’s bridge has technically lasted longer but not without a great deal of effort and arguably isn’t really the same bridge at all. It was extensively repaired and rebuilt in 1829 and then again in 1868 and widened and strengthened in 1936.
Merryton Bridge is named for the long-vanished farm of Merryton, now occupied by a housing estate. Locals have long known it as the ‘Sewage Bridge’, on account of the sewage pipe carried underneath it, which has been known to show a distressing tendency to cope poorly with wet conditions, bursting open manhole covers and flooding nearby paths with water you’d not want to wade through.
I’m pleased to say that the pitiful stop-start spattering of rain was not nearly enough to trigger an unsanitary inundation and the only flowing water in evidence was that of the River Nairn itself.
Pungent pollution of the waterway is hardly a new thing, however. Downstream of Merryton Bridge is a sports field known as the Maggot, a strange name not really explained by the fact that it used to be a tidal creek where a small stream met the river.
A sheltered spot with shallow water, the Maggot was used as a mooring for small fishing boats and a repair dock for larger vessels floated in at high tide. Over a hundred fishing boats worked out of Nairn at the industry’s height during the 19th century! But what does this have to do with pollution, you ask? Well, one theory for the inlet’s odd name is that in summer, when the stream dried up, the mussels would rot and become infested with maggots. That must have created quite a pong!
Decline and Demise
The 20th century brought with it the decline of the fishing industry and, by 1920, the Maggot was no longer in use, marked only by the mouldering wrecks of boats abandoned in the mud. A new harbour constructed in 1932 proved too little, too late and the fishing fleet dwindled until it was dead as those decaying mussels. Eventually, in the 1960s, the Maggot was filled in and made into a sports field.
My downstream dawdle came to an end when I ran out of River Nairn. This watercourse, which I’d now crossed five times in three days, flowed past the harbour and out into the sea, flanked by stone piers on both sides.
Nairn East Beach
Having got back to the shore, I now needed to travel along it. The path began by leading me across a system of low dunes colonised by marram grass.
Dropping off the Dunes
After several minutes of following this path, I came to the conclusion that this was stupidity and, if I kept doing it, I’d have only myself to blame.
I had been concerned that if I strayed down onto the open beach, I’d miss the point where the path turned inland and entered Culbin Forest. Now, I was more concerned with how cold and wet my legs were getting from mid-thigh downwards; I went and walked beside the lapping waves.
From this point, it was open sands for the win and I’d figure out where the path turned off when I got to it. And if I found myself looking at a marshy pool, where old saltings had once been, well, then I’d know I’d gone too far…
Nairn East Beach turned imperceptibly into Culbin Sands as I strode along the soft sandy beach, not far from the water’s edge. About a mile or so from the mouth of the Nairn, the beach began to narrow abruptly and then curved around to the right. On my left, breakers crashed offshore, betraying the presence of a sandbar and, as I followed the curve of the beach, I saw marshy ground ahead, with Culbin Forest behind it. Between me and the forest lay a pool.
I had, as predicted, gone too far.
Some faffing about followed, as I backtracked around the Minister’s Pool until I could finally intersect with the path. I was slightly surprised, when I found it, to discover that it had sneakily upgraded itself while I wasn’t looking and was now a broad, flat, gravelled, accessible path.
The Minister’s Pool
The path crossed a small stream via the bridge in the photo above and then carried me around the back of the reedy, marshy pool that had been blocking my way.
Entering the Forest
A couple of hundred metres further on, the path plunged into the forest. Almost immediately, it lost its neatly maintained surface and became a damp and sometimes muddy surface of mostly old pine needles. I didn’t mind this a bit; I love a good woodland walk…
A Change of Track
The path carried me along the edge of the forest, not quite close enough to see the marsh but close enough that the bright grey of the sky between the tree trunks betrayed that the forest ended somewhere just to my left.
After just over mile, it met up with another, more clearly defined track that showed signs of vehicular use. Most of the remaining ten miles or so would be on trails closely resembling this one.
A numbered post informed me that this was Junction 23. As I didn’t have a map on me that showed me all the junction numbers, this was not entirely helpful. A brief search of the internet failed to procure one (I’ve found one since, of course, now that I don’t need it), so the best this system could really offer was that I’d know if I went around in circles.
Types of Tree
Putting Junction 23 behind me, I was absolutely in my element as I bombed along the trail, which leads me to the slightly disappointing conclusion that my ‘element’ must be damp leaf litter. The trees were mostly conifers but with the occasional scattering of deciduous alternatives, of which silver birch was by far the most visually striking.
Young Forest Enthusiast
After a while, I heard voices up ahead and I soon caught up with the only other people I’d see in Culbin Forest all day. This was a young couple with a young child – maybe five or six – who was clearly having the most exciting adventure ever, exploring the woods with Mum & Dad.
I thought that I had been having fun but this child shamed me by comparison. He was having the time of his young life! His enthusiasm was utterly infectious and I resolved to follow his example and enjoy the forest even harder!
Two thirds of a mile on from Junction 23, I and the couple whom I had just overtaken, came to Junction 22. This was a T-junction, offering the reassuringly predictable options of going left or right. I went left, they went right. The rest of my woodland wander would be strictly solitary.
Turning left put me on a course straight for the marsh but I knew I’d not actually reach it. As expected, the track turned hard right and headed east just inside the forest’s edge again. After about half a mile, I decided it was probably time for a rest.
The trick to maintaining stamina on long walks is to rest briefly and often even, and this important, if you don’t feel you need to yet. If you wait until you’re tired and your feet hurt before you take your first break, you’ve already missed the optimal window and won’t recover nearly as much as you want. Resting at intervals before that even happens, staves off the point when it inevitably will.
These days, I tend to take a break every five or six miles, which is a spacing that works well for me. I perched upon a handy log that happened to be perfect sitting-on height and ate one of several snacks I’d picked up while in Nairn High Street.
My snack consumed, I leapt back up and resumed my eastward journey. This carried me past Junction 21 and on to an unnumbered one where I saw the first of several handy fingerposts, letting me know what lay in various directions.
Fly Agaric Toadstools
The path continued eastwards past Maviston Dunes, winding gently as it went. Along the way, I saw the first of many examples of a fungus I can confidently name – the classic white-spotted, red-capped fungus fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), as depicted in a million children’s book illustrations and traditionally used as an insecticide or alternatively lived in by Smurfs.
Fly agarics can actually vary quite a lot in intensity of colour and cap shape, depending on maturity, and the white spots can be brushed off over time. I would see dozens of these colourful toadstools during the course of the day and I amused myself by grading them, giving them marks out of ten for conformity to the ideal.
The track I was on ended at Junction 20, another T-junction with a left-or-right choice. As before, I chose left and, just as previously, it first made a lunge for the edge of the forest before bouncing right off an invisible barrier and taking a sharp turn to the right. This time, though, instead of heading east, the path was carrying me southeast. I was now heading for Cloddymoss, whether I wanted to go there or not.
My chance to resume my eastward course came just a third of a mile later at what was apparently Junction 19. Here, I could take a connecting path that would put me on a different track. It has to be said, however, that the path was a little less defined than what I had gotten used to in Culbin Forest.
It was with some relief and a whole new appreciation for the nuances of squelchiness, that I emerged from the linear exploration of that concept that had been the connecting path. Junction 18 was right next to another corner where a path heading for the forest edge suddenly chickened right out. I took another break because the squelchiness had been fatiguing, and considered my route onwards, after taking the obvious turn eastwards.
The Long Straight
The next mile and a half were mostly straight, with only the occasional wriggle and some very gentle inclines. I passed two more numbered junctions – numbers 15 and 14. Both of these offered paths inland but that was not a direction that I was looking to go yet.
A Gutless Decision
A fingerpost at an unnumbered junction offered an alternative, however. Behind me, it pointed to Maviston Dunes and Nairn East Beach, which was mildly reassuring, and somewhere ahead was Buckie Loch. But left, towards the edge of the wood, was a path that led to the Gut. But what was the Gut? A marshy mudflat, apparently.
Keeping on up the long straight path for another third of a mile brought me to Junction 13. Here I had the usual left-or-right choice but with the added dimension that it was also an appraisal of how I felt about Culbin Forest. If I took the left path, I was committing to completing the full eleven miles. The right could cut a whole chunk out and let me exit the forest at Wellhill. So, was I still having fun?
Another mile and a half and a left turn at Junction 8 brought me to the Buckie Loch promised by that earlier fingerpost. Today, this is a stretch of marram dunes and heath where the forest meets the sea with no hint whatsoever of it being loch-like.
Looking back through old maps, though, tells a different story. 1970s Ordnance Survey maps show Buckie Loch as a patch of marsh. Going back to 1905’s 2nd edition six-inch-to-the-mile map, we find it shown partly as marsh and partly as an enclosed pool. The 1st ed map of 1871 shows it entirely as a marshy pool, which is joined at one end to the sea at high tide. Although, those last two maps also show no sign of Culbin Forest at all, it having been planted in the 1930s to stabilise what was then a highly mobile series of dunes.
OS Name Book
The OS Name Book, used to help compile the 1st ed in the 1870s, had this to say about Buckie Loch:
‘This name is given to a salt water loch, an inlet of the Moray Firth. It ebbs and flows only a few inches owing to a sand bank at its west end, that prevents its waters from flowing out at ebb tide. Its southern side is marshy and is frequented by great numbers of wild ducks. It is the property of JJRM Grant Esquire of Moy House, by Forres.’
The path skirted around the edge of what had once been Buckie Loch, with occasional spurs leading off to access the actual beach, in case anyone should want to walk out, look at it and walk back again, for instance.
After Buckie Loch, the path plunged back into the forest for a mile and then, just as being flanked by trees had resumed its lulling sense of familiarity, it burst forth into an area that had been brutally denuded of them.
The path skirted around two sides of this roughly square area, taking about a third of a mile to do so, after which, it was back into the trees…
The path was heading south, now, and I disregarded the option at Junction 3 of heading east to the shore of Findhorn Bay as I wasn’t sure how navigable that shore actually was. I would, as it turned out, find out anyway.
In the meantime, though, I continued south via Junction 4, coming within a stone’s throw of the private Binsness Estate. It was here that, having passed that cleared section and numerous piles of timber, I encountered a sign warning that the track ahead was closed for forestry operations.
There was a diversionary route in place, which I followed, at least at first. I think I then went awry and followed the wrong path entirely because instead of picking up the road leading west out of Binsness, I somehow went east and ended up on the shores of Findhorn Bay after all.
No Road Access
I did wonder if I could pick up Binsness’s road anyway but the answer was ‘no,’ not without rudely violating their privacy and marching right past their windows. The signs they had up about it being private property with no access suggested they were even less keen on that than I was and the reverberating bark of a dog that sounded like it might be the size of a bear added the dissuasive icing on the prohibitive cake. I would not be doing that.
It started well, with shingle for about as far as you can see it in the photo above, reaching to the actual point of Binsness.
Thereafter, it was rather marshier and slightly harder going as I made my way along what stopped being Findhorn Bay in general and became a channel created by the Muckle Burn instead. I strode, hopped and squelched my way along this for just over half a mile until the Binsness Estate Road swept close enough to the shoreline that I could finally join it.
Dyke & Moy
I followed the road for about a mile within the Binsness Estate, allowing it to carry me past Moy Cottage, Auchilty Lodge and Wellside Farm, where I left the estate and returned to the public road.
Almost immediately, I passed Kilcorth House, an old manor house with parts dating back to 1797 but which was substantially extended in 1867 by the architect Alexander Ross (18354-1925), who usually specialised in churches. It originally belonged to Robert Grant (1752-1801), who had made a fortune in Canada and founded the Northwest Fur Company, before returning to his native Scotland.
My destination for the day, namely Forres, lay on the far side of the River Findhorn, which is the principal river flowing into Findhorn Bay. Crossing that river was therefore in order. But before I would get to cross that river, I would first have to cross two smaller burns. The first of these was Belmack Burn and I rested on its bridge for a moment, within sight of Earnhill House.
The second was the Muckle Burn, beyond which stood Moy House, once the residence of the JJRM Grant who owned Buckie Loch (and the whole Moy Estate) circa 1870.
The original 17th century house was purchased from the Campbells of Cawdor by Major George Grant (1681- 1755) in 1733 and was extended with wings by mason Collen Williamson (1727-1802) in the 1750s. Williamson would later become the chief stonemason to work on constructing the White House in Washington.
The original part of the house was demolished in 1762, on the orders of Grant’s nephew, Sir Ludovic Grant (d. 1790) and replaced with a new block, again built by Collen Williamson and designed by architect John Adam (1721-1792).
The major was a younger son of the Chief of Grant but I could find no record of his matriculating his own arms, so he may have used the undifferenced Grant arms (three gold antique crowns on red) by courtesy. Moy House later passed to the Grants of Glenmoriston, a cadet branch who differenced their arms with a silver fess bearing a blue bend sinister.
Fire & Ruin
Moy House remained in the Grant family until 1922, since when it has had several owners. It fell into increasing disrepair in the 1980s and ’90s and twelve houses were built in its grounds in 1994 to fund its restoration. Alas, it caught fire the following year and was reduced to a ruin, which it has remained ever since.
Broom of Moy
About half a mile south of Moy House, I reached the turn-off for Broom of Moy, a collection of houses on the west bank of the River Findhorn. There, I would tackle the challenge of crossing the river…
Broom of Moy Bridge
A footbridge has been in place in Broom of Moy since the mid-20th century, although prior to 2013 this was a Bailey bridge that just crossed the Findhorn’s permanent channel. It has since been extended by three sections to cross the full expanse of shingle that gets flooded when the river is in full spate. Prior to the bridge, there was a ferry service.
On the far side of the Findhorn, I followed a cycle path downstream until it veered off to meet Waterford Road about two thirds of a mile north of the centre of Forres. I followed this road south until diverted off it onto an unexpected road that climbed a ramp to cross a railway line.
My OS map, despite having just been bought new – I just love a paper map – was last updated back in 2016. It turns out they rebuilt the station and straightened the railway line in 2017, adding this new crossing to go with it.
Having crossed the Aberdeen-Inverness railway line (which was opened in three stages between 1854 and ’58), I was dumped onto the side of my old nemesis, the A96.
This particular stretch of the A96 was the Forres Bypass, constructed in 1988 to take the busy A-road from out of the centre of the town. Its old alignment, via Nairn Road, the High Street and Victoria Road, was demoted to become the B9011. And that was exactly where I needed to go next.
Time to risk my life crossing it again…
A short walk down Market Street brought me to a roundabout overlooked by the Victoria Hotel (built in 1864) and onto the B9011. Before I could enter Forres High Street, I first had to cross the Burn of Mosset via Castle Bridge.
Castle Bridge sports six castellated turrets, hence its name. According to one on the southern side, the bridge was erected in 1823 and rebuilt in 1908. Although here ‘rebuilt’ is synonymous with ‘replaced entirely.’
Forres Burgh Arms
On the northern side, one of the bridge’s turrets bears the burgh’s coat of arms:
And here they are in colour. St Lawrence has a nimbus of light behind his head (not a halo, because it is a solid disc and not a ring) to indicate his sainthood. He is flanked by a crescent and sun and holds a book of the Gospel in his right hand, referring to his office as an archdeacon, and the gridiron in his left. He stands upon a green mound. The foliage beside him is allegedly supposed to be palm fronds.
A plaque on the bridge commemorates someone who definitely did have a connection to the area, namely Donald Alexander Smith, 1st Baron Strathcona (1820-1914). He was born in a home beside the burn, close to the bridge, and went on become governor of the Hudson Bay Company, co-founder of the Canadian Pacific Railway and Canada’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
(A High Commissioner, incidentally, is an ‘ambassador’ from one Commonwealth realm to another. Actual ambassadors are representatives from one head of state to another and, since we share a monarch, it would be silly for the King to send himself a representative. I mean, he could save time and just talk into the mirror. The solution is a representative from one government to another, and those we call ‘high commissioners.’)
While Queen Victoria was monarch for most of Lord Strathcona’s life, she was succeeded by her son, Edward VII, towards the end of it. The King apparently nicknamed him ‘Uncle Donald.’
The sun set as I stepped onto the High Street and the peculiar bluish hues of twilight accompanied me as I made my way past Forres Tolbooth. This civic building was constructed in 1838 but its tower replicates the design of its predecessor which, though altered through much repair and rebuilding, dated back around 800 years.
Pausing only to nip into a shop for something, I continued down the High Street and into Victoria Road, which the B9011 next became. This conveyed me past Grant Park, gifted to the town by Sir Alexander Grant (1864-1937), a Forres-born philanthropist and the managing director of McVitie’s. It was Grant who, in 1892, developed the still-secret recipe of the famous McVitie’s digestive biscuit.
The park became a public space in 1922 when Forres House and its gardens came up for sale and was bought by the burgh, funded by a gift from Sir Alexander. Sadly, the house itself burnt down in 1970 and its site is now occupied by a sunken garden.
The park is well-known for its creative flowerbeds, which I struggled to see clearly in the rapidly fading twilight. These incorporate topiary and floral sculptures to delightful effect.
I hurried past Grant Park in rapidly diminishing daylight, picking up my pace because I wanted to sit down and absolutely not at all for fear that the floral sculptures would come alive in the dark. The very idea!
My fleeting feet quickly conveyed me to the doors of the Ramnee Hotel, built in 1907 as a villa in the Arts & Crafts style. It was constructed for Richard Hamblin (1854-1910), who had just returned from the North-west Provinces of India, where he had been employed in the Imperial Civil Service. He allegedly named it in fond remembrance of the difficulty Indians had had in pronouncing the name of Ramsey Convent School. At least, one hopes it was fond remembrance and not just cruel mockery. I mean, it was the man’s home, so he probably named it for what he saw as a nice thing…
Whatever the reasons for naming it thus, the villa had long since become a hotel and that was a good thing in my book as that was where I was staying. I checked in, got showered and changed and enjoyed a leisurely meal and a glass of whisky.
It had been a good day, most of which I had spent in Culbin Forrest. As I’ve said before, I love a woodland walk, so I was entirely happy with how that played out. Even if none of the fly agaric toadstools scored the full ten out of ten!
This time: 21 miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,194 miles