Beaches below sandstone cliffs and ‘smokies’ for the table.
The beaches at St Cyrus, Montrose and Lunan Bay are among the best on Scotland’s east coast. Elsewhere the waves have cut small coves from the sheer sandstone walls, and secluded crescents of rock and shingle await the adventurous explorer at the foot of narrow, ill-defined tracks. Coastal paths range from quiet lowland walks to tough clifftop trails, and nature reserves protect miles of marshlands, dunes and cliffs, all alive with sea-birds.
In midsummer the lovely flowers of clustered bellflower daub patches of blue on dune grass and sea cliffs along the Angus coast. The bell-like flowers, large in relation to the size of the plant, are held in tight clusters with mouths uppermost on stems growing up to 2 ft high.
FOWLSHEUGH BIRD RESERVE
From Crawton – a largely abandoned village from whose snores fingers of dark lava reach out to sea – a path leads into the RSPB’s Fowlsheugh Bird Reserve, one of the country’s greatest sea-bird colonies. It consists of 2 miles of vertiginous cliffs – heugh means ‘cliff in the local dialect. The path is not well marked, and there are no barriers. Visitors may find the sight, the sound and in particular the smell of the thousands of birds almost overwhelming. In the breeding season, from March to July, there may be up to 30,000 pairs of guillemots and another 30,000 pairs of kittiwakes. There are also razorbills, herring gulls, fulmars, shags, puffins and eiders.
Lines of cottages along the clifftop face the sea above a bay that is a tangle of crags and rocks. The picturesque setting has made the village popular with artists. A road leads steeply down to the bay, where there is a concrete pier. A scramble over the pudding-stone rocks to the north leads to Trelong Bay, an isolated spot where fulmars, kittiwakes, herring gulls and puffins wheel over grass-covered cliffs. A path leads along the clifftop for Wi miles to Crawton.
The small town of ‘Bervie’, as it is known locally, has grown in recent years as the result of recent influxes of commuters from Aberdeen. It has no harbour, but a seafood factory and jute mill employ local labour.
Inverbervie has a long history. It was granted a charter in 1341 by David II when he and his wife, Johanna, made a forced landing there on their return from nine years of exile in France. His ship was driven ashore in a storm after escaping from the English fleet. A rock known as ‘King’s Step’ is said to mark the exact spot of his landing.
An amphitheatre of steep grassy cliffs encloses the village. There is a spinning-mill, and a dozen fishing vessels work from the harbour, in which there is sand at low tide. Boats can be hired for angling.
This bustling lobster-fishing port has a two-basin harbour, a lobster processing plant and numerous holiday homes. For walkers, a major attraction is a 4 mile coastal path that runs north to Inverbervie along the track of the former Montrose to Inverbervie railway.
MILTON OF MATHERS
Ruined cottages stand side by side with the chalets of a new holiday village. The beach, which is mostly of pebble and rock, is good for swimming only between the rocks, but the slopes behind the village are fine for walking. The woods are cut through by two streams. The northern stream, which tumbles down a 40 ft waterfall, is known as Den Finella after a 10th-century queen who, according to legend, murdered her husband, King Kenneth, and then threw herself from the top of the waterfall.
ST CYRUS NATURE RESERVE
More than 300 varieties of wild flowers, including clustered bellflower and wild liquorice, have been recorded in the national nature reserve which occupies 3 miles of coastline from the mouth of the North Esk to the headland of Milton Ness. From an open, marshy expanse by the river mouth, the reserve narrows northwards as the inland hills approach nearer to the sea, becoming lava cliffs beyond St Cyrus.
The reserve can be entered at several points. At the bend in the side road leading from the A92 via Nether Warburton, where cars can park, a boardwalk leads away from a line of cottages for a few hundred yards over salt-marshes to the dunes. The main entry point is St Cyrus itself; from the car park a paved path leads along the clifftop, with fine views southwards across the bay.
For holidaymakers, the Links of Montrose that lead north for 4 miles from the town offer immense sandy beaches backed by dunes. The beach is supervised by beach wardens during July and August. Behind the dunes lie two 18-hole golf courses. Bathingus safe, except near the mouths of the North Esk and South Esk.
Montrose’s situation at the mouth of the South Esk has made it a thriving port, and new docks have been built to service the North Sea oil industry. Scurdie Ness lighthouse, accessible by a single-track road, is closed, but due to re-open in 1988.
Inland, the shallow Montrose Basin, which drains completely at low tide to form a mud plain of some 3 square miles, a nature reserve which attracts thousands of wildfowl including, in winter, pink-footed Arctic geese.
FISHTOWN OF USAN
Two lines of ruined cottages flank an old lookout tower that once housed a lifeboat. The beach is shingle, with huge expanses of low-tide rock cut by an inlet used as a mooring for local boats.
On this low-lying point, visitors can park to admire a fine view across the bay. Cod and lobster are still caught offshore, but some of the fishing cottages by the shore are abandoned. Low tide reveals seaweed-covered rocks and shingle on which agates can be found. The fortress-like structure on the tip of the point is a lime-kiln once used to prepare fertiliser for the surrounding farm land. A quarter of a mile along a coastal path is Elephant Rock, a red-sandstone stack in which the sea has carved Tegs’ and a ‘trunk’.
The shady sweep of the bay, punctuated here and there by salmon nets set out on posts to dry, is cut in two by the serpentine Lunan Water and dominated by the nearby hilltop ruin of Red Castle. The castle, once owned by Robert Bruce, was in good repair until 1770 but is now starkly open to the sky. Its walls, built of the soft local sandstone from Red Head, are badly eroded. The shore, easily accessible from both Red Castle and Lunan, is safe for bathing except in the river mouth.
The head can be reached only by a bumpy ½ mile drive along an unpaved road, and partly for that reason it is one of the most glorious and unspoiled spots on Scotland’s east coast. The 265 ft sandstone headland provides a superb view up and down the coast. Below the cliff edge, where the rock has collapsed, active visitors can scramble down a little-used path to the shore and walk for a mile in each direction over the shingle and the sandstone rocks that have fallen from the cliffs above.
Handwritten sighs throughout Arbroath advertise the locally made ‘smokies’ for which the fishing town is noted. To make them, freshly caught, cleaned and salted haddocks are smoked over a hardwood chip fire – and visitors are soon aware of the rich smell of smouldering wood drifting from the buildings near the harbour.
The town is dominated by the well-preserved ruins of its abbey, which was founded in the late 12th century by William, King of the Scots. William was an admirer of Thomas Becket, and as a tribute to Becket after his murder in Canterbury in 1170 he based his design for Arbroath Abbey on the towering Gothic style of Canterbury Cathedral. The abbey has a central place in the history of Scottish nationalism: in 1320, when Robert Bruce was trying to unify Scotland against the English, the Scottish nobles gathered at the abbey to sign the Declaration of Arbroath, asserting Scotland’s independence.
The abbey was dissolved in 1608 and fell into decay; but its underlying significance to Scots was emphasised as recently as 1951 when the Stone of Scone, taken from
Westminster Abbey, was eventually found on the high altar at Arbroath. Today trim lawns replace the ancient floors, between the roofless red-sandstone walls. A museum recalls the abbey’s history, and visitors can buy copies of the Declaration of Arbroath.
Overlooking the harbour, busy with fishing vessels, is the Signal Tower, another museum that recalls the burgh’s history. The tower was built in the early 19th century to communicate with a lighthouse, the Bell Rock, which stands 11 miles offshore, warning ships to keep clear of the notorious Inchcape Reef. This reef, which claimed countless ships before the lighthouse was built, is the subject of Robert Southey’s poem The Inchcape Rock, which tells of the feud between Arbroath’s abbot and a wrecker named Ralph the Rover.
To the east the town has a broad esplanade with acres of grass and ample parking. From its northern end, a paved path designed as a nature trail leads along the clifftops. The path follows the cliffs – a superb, convoluted wall of red sandstone – for 3 miles through vegetation that combines coastal and inland species. Sea plantain and scurvy grass grow alongside red campion and wood vetch.
Halfway along the trail is a rock-stack known variously as The Deil’s Heid, the Pint Stoup and The Poll – one of many oddly shaped rocks that puncture the shore. At the trail’s northernmost point, in Carlingheugh Bay, is a cave that leads clear through a rocky point to the neighbouring bay; before venturing through the cave visitors should check the state of the tide to avoid the risk of being cut off.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Angus Folk Museum (NTS). Glamis, 16 miles W of Arbroath, via A94, Daily in summer,
Edzel! Castle and Gardens, 10 miles NW of Montrose, via B966. 16th century Daily.
Glamis Castle, 16 miles w of Arbroath, via A94, 17th century Most afternoons in summer.