Scottish fishing ports in the shelter of craggy headlands
Where Scotland’s east coast nears the English border, the countryside is of a startling prettiness. This was battle-torn ground in the centuries-long strife between the two nations, which is recalled today only in the ballads and in the tumbled castles that gaze empty-eyed over fields and villages. Towering cliffs shelter small fishing ports whose monuments to drowned crews are a reminder that war with the sea, at least, is eternal.
The village of East Barns is covered with a fine film of white dust from the vast Blue Circle works that supplies most of Scotland’s cement. The company, however, together with the local council, has presented some 2 ½ miles of coastline to the public, the whole comprising one o the most exciting and interesting reserves in this part of the country. The main theme is a geology trail that points out the features, and the fossils, of the various local limestones which supply the raw material for the cement works.
Long before the birth of the cement works, the limestone was quarried, broken and burned for use as a fertiliser, as a bleaching agent, and as a flux in iron foundries. The old Catcraig lime-kilns have been restored and are a major feature of the walk. Seaweed-scented, its short turf yellowed with bird’s-foot-trefoil, the walk runs by a shore pitted with rock pools in which a myriad small sea creatures have established themselves.
Larger fish – codling, mackerel, wrasse, dab, plaice and flounder-may be caught off the rocks. Barns Ness, too, is a marvellous birdwatching centre; gannets from Bass Rock make their dizzying plunges offshore, and many migrant species are attracted by the beam of the lighthouse. White Sands bay, almost enclosed by rocky arms, is the ideal place for an early morning swim.
Deep Devon-like lanes and streams whose banks are rich with elder, dog-rose, wild sweet pea and ragged robin surround a village which has long made a prosperous living from the good red soil of the area. Its church is 18th-century Gothic and the manse elegant Georgian, while Temple Mains Farm is a group of early 16th-century buildings separated by narrow passages floored with stone setts and cobbles. The most modern feature is a tall stone chimney that once carried off the smoke from the steam threshing machine.
A pleasant walk leads south-eastwards from the village to its castle. Trees grow over the walls and through the empty windows, but the tumbled, venerable stones are of the same rosv-red colour as the houses in the village. For centuries the castle was a major stronghold of the Stewarts until it was besieged and destroyed during the English invasion of 1547.
Like a number of places in the area, Cove could pass for Cornish – except that it yet remains to be ‘discovered’. The tiny village is largely separate from its harbour, which is packed into the foot of the cliffs and reached only by a steep track carved out of the rocks. Occupations, past and present, also have a Cornish flavour; there are usually a couple of fishing boats riding on the serene waters of the little harbour, and for many years the smugglers of Cove were notorious along this coast. Their store-rooms were the caves that riddle the surrounding cliffs.
EYKMOUTII HARBOUR With only scavenging sea-birds for company, trawlers wait under gathering cloud, a dark reminder that storms blow up quickly on this part of the coast.
This lovely cove, with its red cliffs and tawny sands, lies at the foot of the steep Pease Dean. From the top of the approach road the place has a deserted, undiscovered air; this is dissipated as the visitor rounds the last curve to discover a large, neat caravan site.
About l 1/2 miles to the north-west is a gorge, cut through by the little Dunglass Burn. Trees and ferns grow almost horizontally from the precipitous sides, and the air is full of the scent of wild garlic. Three bridges soar over the valley, one of which, built in 1786, is nearly 130 ft high and was said, when it was built, to be the highest bridge in the world. A glance over the balustrade is still an awesome experience.
Near by is the attractive village of Cock-burnspath, which local people call Co’path. The church is partly 14th century, and the ancient Mercat Cross is decorated with the emblems of the thistle and the rose, carved to celebrate the marriage between Princess Margaret, daughter of Henry VI, to James IV of Scotland in 1502.
The priory at Coldingham is one of the glories of this part of Scotland. It was restored in 1098, upon the ruins of an older building, by Edgar, King of Scots,_ in honour of St Cuthbert, under whose banner Edgar had been victorious against a usurper. In the following centuries it suffered the usual misfortunes of any large building on this major invasion route from England – sacked in 1216, burned in 1544, partially blown up by Cromwell in the course of a skirmish in 1645. But it survives as a parish church and one of the oldest places of continuous worship in the country, its solid, rose-red shape softened by crumbling outer arches and walls.
There are excellent sands and safe bathing in Coldingham Bay. Some 2 miles to the north-west there are monster brown trout in
Coldingham Loch, and the hummocks that run almost from the loch to the waterfall tumbling over the cliffs to the sea are the remains of an Iron Age settlement.
ST ABB’S HEAD
From the car park outside St Abbs village, a track climbs up over steep turf; sheep and black cattle share the fields. At the top of the cliff, kittiwakes mew like a thousand cats, but this is only the overture to the great and endless symphony of the 50,000 sea-birds that nest on the head – guillemots, razorbills, shags, fulmars, puffins and herring gulls, all flying about the dark, volcanic crags in a perpetual tumult. Dizzyingly far below the sea, like green-black marble veined with white, heaves and soughs between the stack and the cliffs.
The St Abb’s Wildlife Reserve, owned by the National Trust for Scotland and managed in conjunction with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, extends over 192 acres, and many creatures other than sea-birds live there. Land birds such as wheatears, meadow pipits, skylarks and stonechats nest on the headland, and in spring and autumn thousands of migrants rest there. Several species of butterfly also occur on St Abb’s Head, and there is a profusion of wild flowers. The clear and unpolluted sea about the cliffs is included in the reserve, and the marine animals and plants that live in them attract underwater photographers and explorers. Diving is allowed from the harbour at St Abbs, subject to certain restrictions. Permission to dive from Pettico Wick, on the north side of St Abb’s Head, must be sought from the Ranger.
St Abbs village, tucked away at the foot of the cliffs, takes its name – as does the headland – from a convent that was built on the crags in the 7th century. The ruin on Nunnery Point, however, is not that of the convent, but of a medieval hall. All that can be seen of the religious settlement is a few bumps and depressions on Kirk Hill.
A rigidly planned housing estate and a vast caravan site mask the approach to this old fishing port; but the town centre, with its winding, narrow streets, its busy fish market and harbour crowded with brightly painted fishing boats looks much as it must have done a century ago.
On October 14, 1881, Eyemouth suffered its cruellest day, when a gale blew up out of a clear sky and sank 23 of its boats and drowned 129 of its men. The story is told in an excellent museum opened on the cente- nary of the disaster; what makes the tale particularly poignant is that the names of the boats involved – Forget me not, Good Intent, Guiding Star and so on – are so much like those of the boats in the harbour now.
The museum also shows the history of east-coast fishing in general, and tells of the lives of the fisher lasses who, between May and November each year, used to ‘Travel the Herring’ – follow the fleets from Eyemouth to Yarmouth and the Shetlands, cleaning and barrelling the fish. The museum is, in addition, the beginning of the Tourist Board’s Fishing Heritage Trail that runs up to Lerwick in Shetland.
Eyemouth boats no longer catch herring, but fish for white fish instead. All the same, the highlight in the town calendar is still the week-long Herring Queen Festival held in July, when the flag-bedecked fishing fleet escorts the newly elected Queen from St Abbs to Eyemouth.
Other attractions in the old town include Gunsgreen House, a Georgian mansion whose secret passages were admirably suited to its role as a smuggling gang’s headquarters. The beach is a mixture of rock and sand and, because of breakers, bathing is not always safe. However, St Abbs and Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Nature Reserve offers a wide range of sub-aqua activities, and there is a 6 mile walk along the clifftop to St Abb’s Head.
This unprettified, toughly attractive collection of fishermen’s cottages crouches at the bottom of a very steep hill. Yard-thick tarred sea-walls with worn steps leading up make a pleasant place to sit and contemplate the quiet waters of the harbour with its tiny inshore fishing boats and piles of lobster pots and nets on the one hand, and the harsh rocky beach on the other.
Out of the holiday season, Burnmouth is a lonely place. Like Eyemouth, it was hit by the disaster of 1881 in which a total of 188 local fishermen lost their lives; perhaps because it was so much smaller than Eyemouth, it took longer to recover. It is very much a Border village; fair-haired, bright-eyed children play round the harbour, using among themselves dialect words that echo those in the Border ballads. But to visitors they are unfailingly warm of manner, and highly informative about their coast and countryside. to be the finest championship course of all. Visitors, on certain conditions, are welcome at all the courses around Gullane, while for those who do not care for the game, there are miles of coastal footpaths, with the wind, sea-birds and wild flowers for company.
Gullane village’s preoccupation is made clear in pub and bar names like ‘Golf Addicts’, ‘The 19th Hole’ and ‘The Golf Bag’, but there are other attractions too. The handsome but roofless St Andrew’s Church – whose last vicar was dismissed by James VI for smoking – dates from the 12th century; and the sands in Gullane Bay provide probably the best and safest bathing on this stretch of coast.
Nature and history have allied at Dirleton to provide a tourist’s delight. Three sides of the great wide green are lined by cottages and houses of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, all built of the same rosy stone. So too is the venerable church, part of which dates from the 12th century. It is a beautiful building, nobly carved on the outside, but as plainly furnished as a classroom within.
The fourth side of the green is bounded by the massive bailey wall of the castle, which today encloses delightful gardens with a well have been the heavily disguised Earl of Bothwell, heir-apparent to the throne. The earl escaped, but many of the women were condemned to the stake.
This is another one of those ancient volcanic cores – Edinburgh Castle Rock and North Berwick Law are among the others – that occur up and down the coast; the Bass, however, is particularly impressive, in that it rises a sheer 350 ft straight from the sea. It is best known nowadays as a sanctuary for sea-birds – gannets, fulmars, cormorants, razorbills, puffins and many others, including an occasional wandering albatross – but in its long history, it was also a sanctuary for men. St Baldred, a disciple of St Kentigern, sought refuge there, and from 1691 to 1694 a Jacobite garrison held it for James II against the forces of William III.
One of the most evocative sights on this part of the coast is the rose-red Tantallon Castle, a ruin now, but still conveying a sense of immense power as it rides on its 100 ft promontory above the sea. Built mostly in the 14th century, it was a Douglas stronghold through much of its history. In 1651, a two-day battering by Cromwell’s siege guns collapsed one of the walls into the moat, so creating a bridge. The Ironsides stormed across and took the castle.
The Tantallon headland offers the best mainland view of Bass Rock, towering from the sea about l1/: miles out.
JOHN MUIR COUNTRY PARK
The 8 mile stretch of sand and salt-marsh that includes Belhaven Bay, Tyne Mouth and Ravensheugh Sands is included in a country park named after the Victorian conservationist John Muir. The area is a sanctuary for all kinds of sea-birds, waders and wildfowl, and visitors are offered a golf course, riding trails, a nature trail, barbecue areas and fishing. Bathing is not recommended.
The park is bordered to the north by the gardens and estate of Tyninghame House, which has been famed for its woodlands ever since the 6th Earl of Haddington created beech plantations there in 1707. By the 1940s, the trees had reached their full and magnificent maturity, when they were sacrificed to the war effort. Re-planting began in 1945.
Inland from the house is the pretty estate village of Tyninghame, its cottages smartly uniformed in rose-red stone and pantiles, while about Wi miles to the north is Whilekirk, whose kirk, despite the name, is rose-red too. Dating from the 15th century, it is accounted one of the finest of small Gothic churches in Scotland, though it has had a somewhat chequered history. Cromwell is said to have stabled his horses in the building; the Covenanter Richard Blackad-der preached his last sermon there before being imprisoned on Bass Rock; and in 1914 it suffered the unusual fate of being set on fire by suffragettes. The church was gutted,
A PROPHET’S BELATED HONOUR
John Muir, born in Dunbar in 1838, was a tireless campaigner for the conservation of the countryside, yet it was in the USA that he became known as the father of the National Parks movement, and his work was not recognised in the country of his birth until 60 years after his death. Muir emigrated in 1849, and it was due to his writings that America’s first national park, Yosemite, was established in 1890. Today more than 20 places in America bear his name; in Scotland the John Muir Country Park was opened in 1976. but magnificently restored by public subscription three years later.
Standing on one of the classic English invasion routes into Scotland, Dunbar’s history has been a tumultuous one. Two major battles were fought there, both disastrous to the Scots. In the first, which took place in 1292 at Spott, about 2 miles to the south, the Scots army under John Bailiol was soundly defeated by the forces of Edward I. The second battle, in 1650, was one of Cromwell’s major victories. The Army of the Covenant abandoned its secure position on Doon Hill and rushed down to meet the battle-hardened Ironsides; ‘the Lord hath delivered them into our hands’, said Cromwell. The engagement was brief and bloody and, for the time being, fatal to the cause of Charles II.
Dunbar has a real, working fishing harbour with piles of red nets and lobster pots and a deep-sea lifeboat; there is a lifeboat museum near by. In the background stand the tattered, dark-red remains of Dunbar Castle, to which the Earl of Bothwell brought Mary, Queen of Scots in 1567, after the murder of Darnley. Among other places of interest are Lauderdale House, designed by Robert Adam; the Old Cromwell Harbour, partly paid for by the Lord Protector; and 126 High Street, the birthplace of John Muir, now a museum.
Though there are sandy beaches, bathing is hazardous in Dunbar. However, there is a sailing club in Victoria Harbour.