A peaceful world of pink granite cottages and giant dunes
The oil industry has brought new wealth to this corner of the Buchan coast, without spoiling its essential character. There are fishing villages and old castles to visit, and shores where the walker can find solitude and peace broken only by the cries of millions of sea-birds. South of Peterhead there are miles of spectacular cliffs, carved into countless caves and ravines into which the waves thunder far below the grassy clifftops.
The narrow streets and compact cottages of St Combs continue into the adjoining village of Charlestown, while to north and south are clean, sandy beaches. St Combs derives its name from St Columba, and the ruins of the old parish church dedicated to him are to be seen in the graveyard overlooking the sea.
The neat rows of cottages were built in the late 18th century, but the fishermen they housed now sail from Fraserburgh, with its deeper harbour, leaving only a few small craft in St Combs.
LOCH OF STRATHBEG
The loch, covering 550 acres, is an important breeding area for a wide range of terns, waterfowl and other birds. It is administered by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and admission is by permit only, obtainable from the warden in advance.
The headland is one of the few points accessible by car on the long strip of sandy shore that dominates this coast. Only the crumbling ruins of St Mary’s Chapel mark the site of a once-flourishing community. The salting up of the harbour by the shifting dunes ended its brief existence. A castle built by the Comyn Earls of Buchan also stood on the headland, but there is nothing left of it now. The narrow road to Rattray Head leaves the A952 half a mile east of Crimond, and twists its way to the dunes. A wide path through the dunes leads to the beach, within sight of the Rattray Head lighthouse which guards the shelving shore. Bathers should be cautious of the fast tide which rounds the head during a north-east wind.
From Rattray Head it is possible to walk along the shore to either St Combs, 5 miles to the north-west, or Inverugie, 6 miles to the south.
Now dominated by the great bulk of gas and oil terminals, this small village has a long history, being named after an 8th-century bishop. It provides a convenient access point to the long stretch of sandy beach that runs north from Peterhead. At the southern end of the village, take the lane signposted to Scotstown for about a mile. There is space to park there, and after crossing the dunes, the lover of solitude can walk for miles in either direction along a shore line frequented by a variety of wading birds but rarely disturbed by human beings. Visitors tempted to bathe should be wary of the strong tides.
South of St Fergus are the remains of Inverugie Castle, once the home of the Kieth family. To reach the ruins, follow the A952 for 2 miles then turn right, following the sign to Inverugie, and past the hill where the earlier Norman castle stood. The castle stands close to the road, opposite a garden centre.
Once Scotland’s most important whaling port, Peterhead still maintains its strong links with the sea, both as a fishing port and as a base for the oil industry. Some 400 fishing boats operate from its harbour, and the offshore supply vessels for the oil rigs add to the activity of the harbour area.
Peterhead’s huge harbour is known locally as the ‘National Harbour of Refuge’; it was begun in 1886 but completed only in 1958, with the aid of prisoners from Peterhead Prison. In the north corner of the main harbour is the entrance to the smaller, inner harbour. This is a scene of almost continuous activity, and is particularly busy when the fish sales take place from 8.30 a.m. daily.
The town is clustered around the harbour and built almost entirely of pink granite quarried at nearby Boddam. In front of the severely elegant facade of the Town House is a statue of Field-Marshal James Kieth, who lived at Inverugie Castle and was one of the favourite generals of Frederick the Great. The statue was given to the town by the King of Prussia, William I. Of greater antiquity is the ruin of the pre-Reformation church of St Peter, standing among gravestones on South Road. Near by are the Kirkburn Mills, where wools and woollen cloth are produced.
SANDS OF FORVIE Some 2,000 pairs of eider ducks are among the birds that breed on the Sands of Forvie in spring and early summer.
The Arbuthnot Museum in St Peter Street has a display of local history, with particular relevance to the whaling industry. The community centre in Queen Street offers a wide range of recreational activities, including an indoor swimming pool. Peterhead Bay is suitable for sailing, while the River Ugie, at the northern end of the town, offers fishing for brown trout and sea trout. Beyond the Ugie estuary Craigewan beach stretches north for almost 2 miles.
This granite fishing village, built above a harbour with massive cement walls, is dominated by a lighthouse that- like several in the area – was built by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the author R. L. Stevenson. The lighthouse, dating from 1827, stands on Buchan Ness, and is linked to the mainland by a bridge. It is open most afternoons.
BULLERS OF BUCHAN
This tiny village huddles above a steep-walled bay. The main attraction for visitors is a second inlet that is surrounded by a gallery of rock with a narrow, grassy path leading along it. The path follows a knife-edge 100 ft above the waves, and is not a place for the nervous or for small children. At one point in the rock wall below, the sea has battered a hole and high seas turn the inlet into a ‘monstrous cauldron’, as Boswell described it after visiting the spot with Dr Johnson. His phrase recalls the origin of the word ‘bullers’, which is probably derived from ‘boil’.
A footpath leads round to a second and larger bay, North Haven, which has a rocky shore with steep grass-covered banks.
The town of Cruden Bay, and its harbour, Port Erroll, are the centre of a fast-growing holiday area, with sandy beaches, dunes and a golf course.
Behind Port Erroll, overlooking the sea, is the stark and spectacular ruin of Slains Castle, which was built by the Earl of Erroll after the destruction of his previous castle, Old Slains Castle, at Mains of Salins, 5 miles to the south-west. The castle was greatly extended in the 17th century and was the centre of a tourist boom in Edwardian times, when the railway reached Cruden Bay. After the First World War, profits declined, and in 1925 the great house was partially demolished.
The fenced-off ruins, standing gauntly above equally gaunt cliffs, are the stuff of horror movies. Indeed, they may well have inspired the setting of the novel Dracula, whose author Bram Stoker used to holiday at Port Erroll.
A dozen cottages in four rows stand near the edge of an almost sheer grassy cliff, down which a track zigzags to a rock-and-shingle beach. A footpath leads 2 miles to Cruden Bay. A North Sea oil pipeline comes ashore near by; the pipe itself is deeply buried, but inland from Whinnyfold can be seen the grey installations where the oil is received.
OLD SLAINS CASTLE
The gaunt ruined tower of the Earl of Erroll’s first castle stands at the end of an unpaved road, guarding nothing more today than its little headland, three houses and a gravelly-beach. James VI personally supervised the destruction of the castle in 1594 after discovering that the earl was involved in a plot to land Spanish troops on the Aberdeenshire coast.
Neat grey cottages and grassy slopes overlooking a harbour with a broad encircling wall form a delightful little backwater. Collieston once flourished on fishing and smuggling, the contraband being hidden in the many caves that pierce the coast.
St Catharine’s Dub, a rocky cove north of the village, takes its name from the Spanish galleon Santa Cateriua which was wrecked there in 1594. There is a large car park. A footpath south of the village leads to the Sands of Forvie.
SANDS OF FORVIE
The Sands of Forvie National Nature Reserve is one of the largest dune systems in Britain. Some of the dunes are nearly 200 ft high and have an almost Saharan grandeur. They shift with the wind, and over the last 2,000 years have overwhelmed both Iron Age and medieval settlements. The reserve also includes the estuary of the River Ythan, which provides a source of food for huge flocks of wading birds and wintering wildfowl.
A section of the reserve is closed to visitors for part of the year, for shelduck nest in the dunes and terns breed in the estuary. Boardwalks are provided for easier walking. From a hide, visitors can watch the four species of tern that breed there: common terns, Arctic terns, little terns and Sandwich terns. The Sands also contain the largest population of breeding eiders in Britain, numbering some 2,000 pairs, and shelduck are also common.