CLOUDED skies and a chill breeze awaited me upon the fourth morning of my April 2023 trip, as I emerged from my hotel and went in search of a breakfast more appetising than the lacklustre effort that had been on offer there. On walking days, breakfast is serious business and I required a more fulfilling refuelling. The question was, would Fraserburgh deliver?
It’s not that early, I told myself, something in Broad Street must be open…
…But no, nothing was.
After ten minutes or so of decreasingly optimistic ambling around the town centre, I discovered my salvation in Cross Street in the form of Murdoch Allan, Scottish Bakers. A local bakery chain (est. 1991) with six shops dotted across Aberdeenshire, I was led to their door by following a trail of clearly contented customers, clutching cups of coffee and boxes of breakfasty things.
Upon entry, I found myself confronted with a counter well-stocked with full Scottish breakfast components and was encouraged to mix and match a take-away breakfast. What I wanted, however, was quality without too much quantity, as I was trying to avoid my usual mistake of eating myself into a food coma inconducive to walking two score and more miles. Fortunately, this requirement was easily met, and I left the establishment clutching a black coffee and an excellent bacon roll which is, you may recall, the ultimate food of walking.
Munching merrily away, I returned to Saltoun Square to pick up my perambulations from where I had left off…
I ate my bacon bap in the metaphorical shadow of Fraserburgh’s market cross, though not its actual shadow because (a) I wasn’t standing due west of it and (b) the sky was overcast. The cross was erected in 1613, 25 years after the village of Faithlie was chartered as a burgh (it wasn’t renamed to Fraserburgh until four years after getting burgh status).
Well, I say ‘the cross’ but perhaps I should say ‘a cross’ as the shaft was replaced in 1736 and remounted on a granite base in 1845. By 1858, the finial had been lost, leaving only the shaft. It’s not clear to me if it was replaced in between but the current finial was installed in 1988.
On the south side, it shows the Scottish version of the Royal Arms of Great Britain, as were in use in 1613 above a shield that I suspect is supposed to show the arms of Alexander Fraser (died 1623), 8th laird of Philorth, the founder of the burgh, although a plaque on the cross’s base claims that it’s the burgh’s arms. On the north side, it shows the Royal Arms of Scotland and the original arms of Faithlie.
Not the Old Burgh Arms
Now, I love things likes coats of arms and find them fascinating, so this sent me right down a rabbit hole. The problem with the inset arms above is that they aren’t the burgh arms:
Prior to 1930, when Fraserburgh was officially granted arms by Lord Lyon, King of Arms, Scotland’s chief herald, it used a set of assumed arms based on a version of the Fraser arms, as had been depicted in the town’s official seal. These were quartered with the first and fourth quarters showing the three white cinquefoils on blue of Fraser (representing fraises i.e., strawberry flowers), while the second quarter had the red lion and black ribbon of Abernethy and the third a white lion on red, representing Ross. The Frasers had originally acquired the estate through a Ross marriage and Alexander’s son, Alexander Fraser (1570–1636), 9th laird, married Margaret Abernethy (1616-1669) of Saltoun.
We can rule out it being this set of arms that is intended as the Abernethy ribbon is not part of the carving and wouldn’t make chronological sense anyway. Also, it’s painted so that the second quarter is the white lion of Ross, not the red one of Abernethy.
Not These Arms Either
The new arms, as granted in 1930 and used until 20th century administrative reforms swept away the burgh council, did involve the Ross lion in both the second and third quarters but changed the field of the first and fourth from blue to purple. If the shield is meant to be these arms, they’ve painted two quarters the wrong colour. But why would it be those arms? If the 1988 finial uses the 1613 Royal Arms, then the Fraserburgh arms should be appropriate to that time also…
Which brings us the arms of Fraser of Philorth as used before 1669, when Alexander and Margaret’s son Alexander Fraser (1604-1693), 10th laird, inherited the title of Lord Saltoun through his mother. These arms, as described by Burke’s General Armory, were the cinquefoils of Fraser quartered with a red lion on white for Ross. These arms make the most sense for being the ones depicted on the cross but, if they are, then once again two quarters have been painted the wrong colours. Or possibly Burke’s is wrong, published, as it was, two centuries later, but my money’s on Burke’s being right and the painter having cocked things up.
The Scottish version of the 1603 Royal Arms of Great Britain was correct though, with the Scottish lion rampant in the first and fourth quarters, the second showing the three lions of England and fleurs-de-lys of France quartered and the harp of Ireland in the third. The Scottish, English and Irish elements were arms of dominion (i.e., ‘I own this’), while the fleurs-de-lys were arms of pretence (‘I ought to own this’).
Earliest & Latest Arms
Shown here for completeness are the burgh’s earliest arms, (i.e., those of Fairlie), which depict a ship upon the sea. I think the sea was shown ‘wavy’ but it was hard to tell, looking up at the cross, and I could find no other reliable record of the arms. The other arms shown here are the latest, being those granted to Fraserburgh Community Council. These reuse the cinquefoils and lion quarters of the 1930 arms and include an ostrich, which was a Fraser of Philorth crest (a crest is not a shield of arms but something that may be placed above it in a full achievement) and a fret of fish to allude to the fishing industry.
My bacon bap devoured and, as yet, unaware of the hours I would later lose looking up coats of arms, I turned eastwards and walked into what should have been the blinding morning sunshine but wasn’t, on account of the cloud cover. This celestial screen protected me from both dazzlement and sunburn, which is why I didn’t stumble redly into the harbour and drown. Which was lucky.
The boat shown above is Devanlin, a 23 m fishing boat built in 1968 and still going strong at 55 years old. At just two years younger, I decided to take inspiration from her stalwart example, and to go strongly myself. I thus set off apace…
Both Devanlin and I may have been on this earth for around half a century but that’s a blink of the eye for Fraserburgh Harbour, which was constructed by Alexander Fraser, 8th of Philorth, in 1576. Granted, it has changed a bit since then, with particular phases of expansion in 1738 and 1873 and the construction of a new North Pier in 1810 and South Pier in 1818. A new north breakwater, the Balaclava Pier, was added in 1850.
From the harbour, I headed south along Shore Street, which then became Dalrymple Street, named for a past wealthy benefactor of the town, John Dalrymple (1801-1881), a successful sea captain.
The scion of a family of shipbuilders and merchants, John went to sea as a merchant sailor and rose to become a captain and ship-owner himself. He never married or had children, so, in his old age, he looked for other ways to ensure the legacy of his family name. Having long urged the burgh to build a public hall for the good of the town but had his entreaties fall upon deaf ears, he ultimately resolved to build the bloody thing himself. Which he did. It opened in late 1881 and is still in use today as Dalrymple Hall and Arts Centre, operated by Aberdeenshire Council.
Dalrymple v Johnston & Others
While John Dalrymple may have ended up with enough spare cash that he could choose to blow it on a public hall rather than die intestate and have it default to the Crown, he wasn’t always quite so flush. I stumbled across a court case from 1777 in which he had suffered a financial setback and was suing his insurers for denying a claim.
Eight years earlier, in 1769, he had loaded up his ship, Neptune, and sailed her to Danzig (modern Gdansk), where he had successfully sold off her cargo and bought a new one for the return journey. This he proceeded to insure, using various brokers based in both London and Glasgow. This turned out to be fortuitous because bad weather drove Neptune ashore on the Swedish coast and the wreck cost him more than the value of the cargo. He promptly made insurance claims and, while both London brokers paid up, the Glasgow firm – Messrs Johnston, Jackson & Bogle – declined to do so. Their refusal hinged on whether the cargo was fully insured and, if not, how much of the cost Dalrymple was personally responsible for.
If I read the case notes correctly, the Admiralty Court found that the insurers should pay up but this was overturned upon appeal to the Court of Session, leaving John Dalrymple out of pocket, after all.
Fraserburgh South Church
The other notable building in the photo above is Fraserburgh South Church, which Dalrymple did get to see, on account of it being completed in 1878, three years before he died. The church was designed by John Bridgeford Pirie (1848-1892), an Aberdonian architect who was himself the son of a sea captain.
Pirie was an eclectic and imaginative individual, who employed both Greek and early Gothic influences in his buildings with a freestyle flourish. As such, Fraserburgh South Church is pretty typical of his work, with its European Gothic exterior and Art Nouveau interior.
A carved stone depicting Moses receiving the ten commandments was incorporated into one of the interior walls, having been salvaged from the former parish school, where it had been placed above the door. Prior to that, the stone had graced a different educational institution in the form of Fraserburgh’s short-lived university (1592-1616) and is now the only extant remainder of that building.
Alexander Fraser, 8th of Philorth, had big ambitions for the planned town that he was turning Faithlie village into and the university was part of that dream, founded with the intent of catapulting the burgh from obscurity into the mainstream establishment. Unfortunately for him, the kind of development he was driving costs a pretty penny and he rapidly ran out of funds, forcing him to sell off parts of the estate and massively curtailing his subsidising of the university.
In its brief existence, the university had one principal, namely Charles Ferme (1565-1617), who had previously taught at the University of Edinburgh. Ferme arrived in 1598 as a church minister and was appointed principal in 1600, whereupon he got himself arrested for protesting James VI’s reimposition of bishops upon the Church of Scotland. If he wasn’t going to accept the existence of bishops, then Ferme definitely wasn’t going to stand for being arrested on their account and he proceeded to execute a daring escape from Castle Doune. Twice. After his second attempt, they removed him to the Isle of Bute to make escape harder.
Ferme was released in 1609 and restored to his position as principal but by then the university was already dead on its feet. Its finances collapsed and it closed in 1616; Ferme died the following year. Thereafter, the campus fell into ruin and was liberally plundered for stone for other buildings. Nothing now remains of it apart from that singular carved ‘Moses Stone’ in Fraserburgh South Church.
I may have been four centuries too late to be taught anything by Fraserburgh University but that didn’t stop me learning from Charles Ferme’s excellent example. If he could escape from imprisonment within a castle more than once, then I really ought to be able to find my way out of Fraserburgh…
Initially, my cunning escape route was grimly brutalist, as Dalrymple Street became South Harbour Road, flanked on both sides by warehouses and industrial units. But then things opened out as the road passed close to Fraserburgh Beach and this allowed me to transfer over to the Esplanade.
The beach began as rocky rip-rap piled up to protect the shore but quickly turned to sand. This made for a proper seaside experience, bound at both ends by streams spilling out into the sea. At the Fraserburgh end, the stream in question was Kessock Burn.
I stepped lightly across Kessock Burn and made way along the shoreline of Fraserburgh Bay. The sea appeared silver beneath a clouded sky, which briefly experimented with spitting rain. But I was having fun anyway and didn’t mind at all about the weather. In fact, I thought it was cool. Literally and figuratively.
Cool Dude Pillbox
The cool dude above is a Type 24 pillbox. An irregular hexagon in shape, with the back wall wider than the front so as to fit the door in, this one’s entrance is well buried under the dune that gives it its marram grass quiff. It gained its sunglasses paintjob in the latter half of 2021, before which it merely sported some uninspired graffiti.
Still, at least I now knew why it was cloudy. What was it thinking, putting on sunglasses? It had completely jinxed the sky.
Water of Philorth
The eastern end of the beach was bounded by the Water of Philorth, an altogether wider and deeper affair than Kessock Burn and one which I would not be crossing without aid of a bridge. There was no such structure lying handily about at the stream’s mouth, so I knew I’d have to go look for one further inland.
Waters of Philorth Nature Reserve
Turning towards the dunes that backed the beach, I soon picked up a footpath that ran more-or-less alongside the Water of Philorth. This carried me through the Waters of Philorth Nature Reserve, a dune and estuary habitat sandwiched between the stream, a golf course and the sea.
The footpath soon emerged into a small car park and picnic area in which I sat and counted my lack of snacks (I’d not bought any in Fraserburgh). I didn’t really need snacks – but then one never does; that’s why they’re snacks and not meals – but it seemed a terrible shame to let a perfectly good picnic bench sit unused.
Philorth Railway Bridge
From the car park onwards, the footpath was replaced by an access road, which made sense. This conveyed me a short distance upstream where I encountered the first of three bridges that spanned the Water of Philorth.
Philorth Railway Bridge was never particularly impressive to behold, being merely a short, a single-track girder bridge. It formed part of the Fraserburgh and St Combs Light Railway, a branch line between the two places named, opened in 1903. Both bridge and line served for six decades before being ‘reshaped’ out of existence in 1965, care of Dr Richard Beeching.
A basic station – Philorth Bridge Halt – was sited fairly close to the bridge, somewhere on the far side. Even less remains of that than the bridge.
Bridge of Philorth
Immediately upstream of the old railway bridge was the Bridge of Philorth. This was a modern concrete affair, not particularly exciting to look at, but extremely effective in doing its one and only job – carrying the B9033 and its traffic over the Water of Philorth.
Immediately upstream of that was the Old Bridge of Philorth, a stone-faced double-arch bridge with a rubble core erected in 1723 to replace a wooden predecessor. Descriptions of this bridge emphasise its chamfered granite voussoirs (the wedge-shaped blocks framing the arch), of which the centre keystones are slightly protruding for ornamental effect.
About a third of a mile south of the Bridge of Philorth stands Cairnbulg Castle, also formerly known as Philorth Castle. The original 14th-century castle was destroyed circa 1308 during the Scottish Wars of Independence and, in 1375, its ruins passed from Comyn ownership to the Earls of Ross. That same year, Sir Alexander Fraser of Cowie (c. 1340-c. 1411) married Joanna – daughter of the late William (d. 1372), 5th Earl of Ross – whose brother-in-law now held the earldom through his own marriage to Joanna’s elder sister. The Philorth estate was given to Alexander and Joanna (making Alexander the 1st Fraser laird of Philorth) and the castle rebuilt in 1380.
The Frasers expanded and improved the castle in 1545 but, by 1613, the 8th Laird was forced to sell it off to cover the expenses incurred in developing Fraserburgh. It proceeded to pass through the hands of various other branches of Clan Fraser before being acquired in 1775 by George Gordon (1722-1801), 3rd Earl of Aberdeen. Lord Aberdeen stripped the castle and abandoned it, allowing it to fall into ruin.
In 1896, the castle was restored by a new owner, wealthy Aberdeen barrister John Duthie (1858-1922) only to see it gutted by a disastrous fire in 1915. It was subsequently restored and reacquired by the Frasers in 1934, when it was purchased by Alexander Fraser (1886-1979) , 20th Lord Saltoun and direct descendant of the 8th laird. It remains a private residence in Fraser hands today, being the home of Katharine Fraser (b. 1957) , Mistress of Saltoun, heiress to Flora Fraser (b. 1930), 21st Lady Saltoun and granddaughter of the late 20th lord.
As the heads of Clan Fraser the Lords or Ladies Saltoun bear the undifferenced arms of Fraser – three white cinquefoils (representing strawberry flowers) upon a blue field. Traditionally, women bear their arms upon a diamond-shaped lozenge rather than a shield as women armouring up and riding to war like Joan of Arc was not considered the mediaeval norm. But that’s an awkward shape to try to fit arms onto, so we’ll just stick with a shield.
I had wondered if I could continue from Bridge of Philorth by following the old alignment of the Fraserburgh and St Combs Light Railway. While west of the Water of Philorth, it is no longer easily discernible, east of the river the alignment is pretty clear. Unfortunately, it was also fenced off and at least shin-deep in vegetation so, while I could follow it if I were determined, I found myself disinclined to try.
Instead, I took advantage of the much easier going offered by the B9033. This conveyed me eastwards past the former site of Philorth Bridge Halt and then Cairnbulg and Inverallochy Burial Ground, which dates back to WW2 and contains war graves. Directly north of this, on a hillock called Tershinity, is more evidence of the war, in form of the remains of a bunker that served as the wartime Battle Headquarters for Fraserburgh Airfield (in use 1941-1957). A Royal Observer Corps post was also sited on the hillock.
I then continued to a crossroads beside the hillock of Scabbit Fold and close to the farm of Gowanfold. Here, the B9033 continued eastwards, while another B-road, the B9107, headed north to the twin villages of Cairnbulg and Inverallochy. They were where I would be going next…
Cainbulg & Inverallochy
The twin villages of Cairnbulg (Càrn Builg, ‘gap cairn’) and Inverallochy (Inbhir Aileachaidh) run into each other indistinguishably and are both the result of planned village development in the 1860s, after cholera wiped out the original settlement there.
The combined villages then grew to host over 200 boats, including steam drifters that massively outmatched their sail-powered predecessors and prompted the construction of the Fraserburgh and St Combs Light Railway to get their fish quickly to market. This boom was short-lived, however, and subsequent commercialisation of ports like Fraserburgh and Peterhead saw Cairnbulg and Inverallochy unable to compete, their fishing fleet dwindling away.
Offering an insight into life during the Herring Boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Maggie’s Hoosie, a tiny fishwife’s cottage restored to period condition with earthen floors and neither electricity nor running water. It takes its name from its former occupant, Maggie Duthie (1867–1950), and is open as a museum. Intermittently. Allegedly.
I’m told that it is open for limited afternoon hours during the summer. It definitely wasn’t, back in April.
Behind Maggie’s Hoosie was Shore Street, facing directly into the coast. I sat there on a bench for a while and looked back towards Cairnbulg Point, now seeing it from the other side.
Inverallochy Golf Club
Turning about, I found my way onwards barred at the shoreline by the links of Inverallochy Golf Club, which has existed, albeit intermittently, since 1884. This was annoying but they were definitely there first, so I conceded their occupancy and, passing by their clubhouse, exited onto a minor, unclassified road.
This was, it turns out, the former alignment of the Fraserburgh and St Combs Light Railway, its tracks having been lifted and the bed long since asphalted over.
This nameless road, which paralleled the coast the Whitelinks Bay, was lined by well-spaced houses of sufficient size and cost to be easily thought of as mansions.
Former Level Crossing
The road ended at a crossroads of sorts, where the railway line had once crossed a road into St Combs. Left and right, the road persisted, while dead ahead the rail alignment continued onwards as a footpath.
There was little point in looking for the old railway terminus as its site has been essentially obliterated by subsequent development. That being so, I eschewed the forward option and turned left, taking the road as it curved around into Charleston.
Separated from the rest of St Combs by the Mill Water, Charleston is effectively that village’s northern edge of St Combs but was created in 1800, some sixteen years after the rest of the village, by the Inverallochy Estate. This addition met with the disapproval of St Comb’s residents, who decried Charleston as ‘Sodom.’
St Combs proper was laid out as a planned village in 1784 by Charles Gordon (1749-1796) of Buthlaw and Cairness, funded by his lucrative ownership of a slave plantation, the Georgia Estate in Jamaica’s Trelawny Parish. He followed it up by building himself a magnificent house at Cairness, a couple of miles southwest of St Combs.
Charles belonged to a minor branch of Clan Gordon, being descended from several younger sons of younger sons. Accordingly, his arms were differenced from the main arms of Gordon (three boar’s heads) twice – once by the addition of a chequered fesse and again with a gold mullet (i.e., star).
St Columba’s Church
The village was named on account of a mediaeval church dedicated to St Columba (521-597), which had been abandoned in 1608 after a new and more conveniently-sited church was constructed a new church was built at Kirkton of Lonmay, two miles inland.
I actually passed quite close to the old church ruins, while taking a track towards the beach. But they were not at all obvious from the track and so I passed them quite obliviously, continuing on to Inzie Head.
Inzie Head is a small headland composed of grainy metamorphic rock, with visible compositional banding.
Boy Fred & Alice
In 1936, Boy Fred – a 22 m lugger i.e., a boat rigged with a lugsail, which is a type of fore-and-aft sail – fell foul of Inzie Head’s rocky shore when she grounded there and was stranded. Built in 1904 and skippered by a Captain Noble, she was not carrying any cargo at the time but appears instead to have been carrying another vessel, a much smaller (5 m) lugger named Alice.
The wreck reports are a little contradictory with Alice being lost off Rattray Head, four miles further south, in December (no date specified) and Boy Fred being lost on 23 Sep. Given the exact date for Boy Fred and vague month-only for Alice, it seems more likely that Alice’s wreck report is just an example of poor record keeping rather than Boy Fred having two incidents mere weeks apart. Boy Fred is assumed to have been refloated, though, as her wreck does not lie off Inzie Head.
The track I was following had led me to a slipway; from here on, I would be back upon the beach:
The beach in question was at a place called South Inch. ‘Inch’ in Scottish place names is usually an anglicisation of Gaelic innis, meaning ‘island’ and, while no proper island was obviously visible, there was a rocky sandbank that probably becomes one at certain states of the tide. I soon put this behind and set off down the sands:
The beach was glorious and I had it all to myself. While it may not be the most easily accessible beach, which doubtless played a part, I am sure that the brisk and surprisingly chill wind also did its bit to ensure my splendid isolation. I, however, was meteorologically undeterred. Not only do I not feel the cold but most of my childhood seaside memories involve determinedly having fun in what felt like a force nine gale (usually at my dad’s insistence, while my mum refused point blank to leave the car).
Not the Burn of Strathbeg
I had only spent about a mile on the beach when my progress was checked, as I knew it would be, by a stream too deep to wade across. This stream, which is unnamed on Ordnance Survey maps, was the outflow of the Loch of Strathbeg, which is Britain’s largest dune loch.
The loch was formed in 1720, when a massive storm shifted the dunes and dammed the estuary of the Burn of Strathbeg, trapping a cargo ship laden with slates in the process; William Roy, in his military survey map of about thirty years later, shows the loch as a pool cut off from the sea by as-yet unvegetated sandbanks.
It’s not clear which, if any, of the four burns now feeding the loch was the old Burn of Strathbeg but, if the loch was formed by damming that burn and its outflow has no other name, then that at least ought to be the Burn of Strathbeg. But no. Apparently, it’s just called ‘the Cut’.
Fortunately, while my progress was blocked, I was not trapped like a slate ship. Turning my back upon the sea, I headed upstream towards the loch. This was not because I was drawn by its beauty (though I am sure it has such a quality in abundance), nor was I drawn by its many waterfowl (a fifth of the world’s pink-footed geese apparently use it a staging post). In fact, I didn’t plan on actually getting as far as the loch’s shores at all. No, I was looking for this:
About a third of a mile north of the pillbox was the site of another defensive structure that had once been considerably more significant, namely Lonmay Castle. Built in the 13th century, this was a Fraser castle that was subsequently abandoned and then quarried for stone to build nearby farmhouses so that, by the 1840s, nothing of it remained except the mound on which it stood.
Prior to 1720, its position would have overlooked the northern shore of the estuary that was to become the Loch of Strathbeg. In addition to forming the lock, the movement and deposition of sand has moved the actual shoreline so that it is now half a mile inland from the sea.
After crossing the footbridge, I followed the burn back down to the beach, which required some effort not to fall into it in places (the tide was high enough to not leave a lot of room and its banks were quite steep). Soon enough, though, I was back by the shore and making my way south towards Rattray Head.
Thanks to the dunes, I could not see the Loch of Strathbeg, nor several sites of interest beside it, though several of those would not have been visible even had I been stood next to them. This was especially true of Rattray Castle, a counterpart to Lonmay Castle, in that it had guarded the southern shores of the estuary until it was swallowed by the sands!
Also built in the 13th century, Rattray was a Comyn castle, which proved problematic in the Wars of Independence, when Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) defeated John Comyn (c 1260-1308), 3rd Earl of Buchan, at the Battle of Barra in 1308. The Bruce followed up his victory with a destructive rampage – the Harrying of Buchan – in which he burnt Comyn properties to the ground, Rattray Castle included!
Rattray was given to Sir Archibald Douglas (d. 1333) and the castle was rebuilt in stone. Then, in 1382, Robert II (1316-1390) – the Bruce’s grandson – gave it to his third son, Alexander Stewart (1343-1394), also known as the Wolf of Badenoch.
The 1720 storm that created the Loch of Strathbeg also buried Rattray Castle beneath the sands, and swallowed up the nearby burgh of Rattray (Raitear) too! The castle was never excavated from the sand and remains buried to this day.
Burgh of Rattray
The burgh started out as a fishing village, facing onto the estuary. It was raised to the status of a royal burgh by Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) in 1564, mostly to stop the neighbouring lords from squabbling over who owned it.
The burgh (in reality still a small village) was swallowed by the shifting dunes in 1720, with only the ruins of the 13th-century Chapel of St Mary to show where it was.
Local tradition holds that Rattray’s inhabitants were godless miscreants who were playing cards on the Sabbath when the storm struck and were buried alive by the sands for their sins!
Seatown of Rattray
The Rattray Estate built a new fishing village in 1795 and named it Seatown of Rattray. This quickly gained a reputation as being such a harsh and unforgiving environment that it was unofficially rechristened Botany after the Australian prison colony of Botany Bay. By the 1830s, only a handful of families remained and even they had gone by the 1950s.
As I rounded Rattray Head, I was pleased to find one structure with the ‘Rattray’ name attached to it that was still intact and in situ:
Rattray Head Lighthouse was erected in 1895, designed by David Alan Stevenson (1854-1938) of the prolific lighthouse-building Stevenson family. Its two-stage design was novel, with keeper accommodation in the upper part and the engine room and foghorn in the lower; additional accommodation was provided ashore in the form of a block containing cottages. The lighthouse was automated in 1982.
At this point, I foolishly congratulated myself on making progress in good time. Such high spirits were not to be tolerated and the skies resolved to dampen them by means of more lightly-spitting rain. They utterly failed and I remained in good cheer.
South of Rattray Head was the broad embayment of Rattray Bay. Lightly misted by the rain, I happily followed the curve of its flat sandy beach, bounded by the sea on one side and towering dunes on the other. Behind those, in the distance, were actual towers of the industrial kind, for St Fergus Gas Terminal lay ahead.
The gas terminal lay about a mile and a half south of Rattray Head, which gave the skies a good half an hour in which to give up on raining, which they did.
About a mile into this section, I passed the location of Rattray House, not that I could see it through the dunes. This country house was built in the mid-18th century and originally named Broadlands. In 1817, it was purchased by Adam Cumine (1767-1841), former captain of the East Indiaman Bengal.
Cumine renamed the house ‘Rattray’ to match the Rattray Estate, which he had also acquired, finally returning it to Comyn ownership (Cumine being a later spelling of that name). He also immediately set about altering and extending the building in 1818, an endeavour his son James Cumine (1810-1894) would revisit in 1890.
Before retiring and acquiring Rattray, Adam Cumine had commanded Bengal on four voyages between Britain and Bengal for the Honourable East India Company, starting in 1800 (Bengal was launched in 1799) and ending in 1807.
He was succeeded as captain by his chief mate Richard Harper Sharpe, who sounds like one of Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction characters but sadly lacked the accompanying plot armour. On Sharpe’s first voyage as captain, Bengal became separated from the rest of the HEIC convoy during a gale and was never seen again.
The wreck in that last photo is all that remains of Excelsior, a Norwegian cargo barque built in 1869.
Excelsior plied her trade back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean until 1881, when she was bound for Bo’ness from South Carolina with a hold full of phosphate rock. She successfully crossed the ocean, made it through the treacherous waters of the Pentland Firth and into the North Sea and had just 150 miles left to go to her destination, when she ran aground close to where the gas terminal would eventually be built. Badly damaged, she was a total loss and could not be refloated but twelve crew and the pilot (who had just spectacularly failed at his job) were saved by the Peterhead Lifeboat. It is in this respect that Excelsior was luckier than Bengal, whose 110 crew were all lost.
Excelsior was owned by Norwegian shipping magnate and politician Magnus Gotthilf Oppen (1835-1915), who had joint-owned her with his father-in-law, Magnus Iversen Hesselberg (1804-1877) until the latter’s death. While losing the ship and her cargo was a real misfortune, Oppen seems not to have attached any superstitious notions of bad luck to reusing the name as he launched a new, replacement Excelsior in 1890.
St Fergus Gas Terminal
In reaching the wreck of Excelsior, I had also drawn level with St Fergus Gas Terminal, which is only named for the saint (d. 730) indirectly, however gassy he may or may not have been. It takes its name from the nearby village of St Fergus, which in turn takes its name from a church dedicated to him. The gas comes from under the North Sea.
The terminal began operating in 1977 and hosts the processing plants of several different oil and gas companies including Total, Shell, Mobil and the National Grid (which acquired the gas transport arm of British Gas in 2002). It receives and processes approximately 25% of the UK’s gas extraction.
While the flares represented one type of burn, I was now anticipating the other. I knew that Annachie Burn lay ahead and my map strongly suggested a similar scenario to Strathbeg, necessitating a diversion to cross this inconvenient barrier via Annachie Bridge.
I looked at the burn which, at this state of the tide, was ankle-deep at the most and weighed up a watery decision. I could wade across and be on my way with no problem at all, or I could go and use the bridge anyway, knowing that the bridge, a small stone arch, has been there since at least 1722 and was shown on Roy’s map? That last part made it particularly tempting but the bridge is in a poor state, its parapets long since gone, and the burn was right there in front of me, looking inviting.
Much as I love an old bridge (and I do), my decision was made! Off came my shoes and socks, and up rolled my trouser legs before I splashed merrily across.
Wading the Waves
The water was cold, but having now got my feet wet, I concluded I might as well continue in that vein. Not that the weather had got any warmer at this point, so I was still wearing my coat and woolly hat even as I waded through the waves along the shoreline, shin-deep in chilly seawater. And why not? It was fun.
I waded south for a little over a mile, enjoying the way that cold water generally refreshes fatigued feet. This brought me to the rocks of Scotstown Craig, just off Scotstown Head, which are only exposed at low tide. Here, I paused to consider if I was ready to sit on a rock and put my shoes and socks back on.
I had a second opportunity another mile of wading later, when I reached Black Stones off Kirkton Head.
This headland takes its name from being the site of the mediaeval Church of St Fergus, which belonged to Arbroath Abbey. This church became disused in 1616, when a new church was built further inland, though its graveyard remained in use The new church in St Fergus was itself completely rebuilt in 1763.
Having rounded Kirkton Head, I got my first sight of Peterhead, peeking out from behind the next headland, which was Craigewan. From here, it was just two more miles along the shore.
About a mile and a half of those two miles was taken up by the continuation of the beach around the shallow embayment between Kirkton Head and Craigewan. This was crossed by a couple of tiny burns, the first of which was Cuttie Burn and the second of which seems to have no name in account of being just a drainage channel.
St Fergus and North Ugie Canal
While I was vainly trying to find a name for the second burn, I spotted something else on old maps, only intermittent traces of which remain today, namely the St Fergus and North Ugie Canal. This was the private endeavour of James Fergusson (1735-1820), 3rd laird of Pitfour and intended to open up the countryside inland of Peterhead. He succeeded in building four miles of it between 1797 and 1800 but abandoned the project due to ‘difficulties in effecting the necessary arrangements with neighbouring heritors.’
Although never finished, the short stretch he did build had to cross burns like Cuttie and its unnamed neighbour via short aqueducts.
A Face Only a Mother Could Love
In his dealings with uncooperative neighbours, James would have found his chosen career a benefit – as a lawyer and politician, he should have been eloquent enough – but may have been let down by his appearance, which often counts for more than it should. His stocky build and unappealing features were such that even his own mother once wrote to him to say:
‘Never expose yourself, James, to the charge of rape, for your broad shoulders will cause the jury to think it probable that you made the attempt, and your face will make it manifest that it must have been against the will.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the poor chap never married and the woman he is thought to have had a massive crush on – political hostess Jane Gordon (1749-1812), Duchess of Gordon – described him as ‘an honest fellow with an ugly face.’
James’s arms were those of Fergusson (three boar’s heads and a silver buckle), differenced by the addition of a silver bordure. The confusing similarity of the Fergusson arms to those of various Gordon branches, which were also often ‘three gold boar’s heads and another thing,’ was coincidental, rather than indicating a link between the clans.
At Craigewan, the beach became a boulder field that would have been hellish to cross. Fortunately, almost every other person to ever go there before me had had the same opinion and there was an obvious path that bypassed the boulders via the dunes.
Pair of Pillboxes
The pill box was actually the second I’d seen in the vicinity of Craigewan, the first had been just before the rocks and had been almost totally buried.
The River Ugie, which lay between Craigewan and Peterhead, could have been a problem but a chap named Alexander Birnie (1863-1944) of Wellbank had anticipated my need by erecting a footbridge in 1924.
Alexander Birnie donated the funding for the first bridge as a memorial to his father, George Birnie, who had served as Peterhead’s harbourmaster. Before that, the Ugie had been crossed by means of a ferry.
Having crossed Birnie Bridge, I had now entered Peterhead. The road immediately adjacent was called Golf Road because the main use for the pre-bridge ferry had been to visit golf links on the other side. Golf Road connected me to Ugie Road, which appeared a fairly main street and I followed this east until it reached the corner of Barclay Park. Whereupon I became aware of a Morrisons supermarket.
Now, at this point, not only had I eaten nothing since my breakfast bap, but the weather had also turned to glorious sunshine over the last couple of hours and I desperately needed a cold drink. An urgent diversion to Morrisons was thus in order.
From Morrisons, Queen Street – which was also the A982 – led me directly into the town centre, part of which was pedestrianised. There, in Marischal Street, I encountered the statue Fisher Jessie, by sculptor Andy Scott (b. 1964), which celebrates the women of the fishing communities rather than the men who went to sea. Wives such as she would travel from the town into the surrounding countryside, hawking fish from the wicker creels on their backs.
Fisher Jessie was commissioned in 2001, which explains why her child (also part of the sculpture) seems impatient; that’s 22 years of standing around!
End of the Line
From Fisher Jessie, it was but a hop, a skip and a jump to reach my hotel, where I could enjoy a long sit down and, much later, a more substantial meal.
It had been a good day. It was cold and blowy at first, admittedly, with sprinklings of rain, but it had finished up with blazing sunshine and a two mile wade along the seashore. The following day would prove more challenging and also succeed in burning me bright scarlet but that lay in the future and I was comfortingly unaware…
This time: 21 miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,304½ miles