Friday 24 April 2015

Moray firth - the hidden jewel

Beautiful cliff walks, Golden sand beaches, Quaint villages and Spectacular rocks

I confess that I have not always been a great fan of the east coast of Scotland. Missing out on the mountainous terrain and the mysterious lochs and glens we normally associate Scotland with, I always thought that the area will not be able to provide the kind of excitement and dramatic landscape I normally look for. However, my belief got its first blow when a few weeks back I visited Stonehaven and walked up to the Dunnottar castle - A misty day in Stonehaven. In the lashing rain and mist, the cliffs stood formidably against the crashing waves and the walk culminated at the spectacular location of this once impregnable fort. Even though my photographs could not capture the drama to its true extent it did whet my appetite for more. So, after a few weeks of nursing my foot and leg injuries, when I eventually cancelled my long weekend plans to the west coast I promptly decided to visit the Moray firth instead. This is a part of Scotland I have never been to. My main interest was the curious rock formations this place is known for - so be warned, the blog is going to be filled with photographs of the weirdest rocky outcrops.

Sheltered by the Grampian hills, Moray firth enjoys some of the best weather in Scotland and this weekend even though the rest of Scotland was being battered by storms, the forecast for this region was more optimistic.

The journey

I took the 7:30am train from Edinburgh on Saturday morning. The journey was going to be a long one. First a two and half hours train journey to take me to Aberdeen. From there I had to take the number 35 Stagecoach bus towards Elgin for another two and half hours to Cullen.

Saturday afternoon

It was almost 1pm when I finally walked  into the Cullen Harbour Hostel. It is a Scottish Independent Hostel with an open door policy, no timings to restrict movements. The location is just by the harbour. I was a bit lost as the hostel seemed to be locked up so decided to look around. The rock shards by the coast were all standing at an angle, the slanting rocks being the striking feature of this whole coastal area which I would encounter during my visit. Close to the hostel was a pet cemetery and I took some time to walk around looking at the tiny memorials.
As I came back to check the hostel again, found Howard who runs the place with Ruth had come down. The family stayed adjacent to the hostel. As he let me in through the unlocked door he mentioned that the knob needed a bit of oil. It turned out to be an open hostel after all. I signed in the log book, made my payment of £16 for the night (and an additional £1 for the sleeping bag lining) and went out to find food. Bought a fish and chips from the local chippie as I walked down to the beach.
The lighthouse in the harbour from beach
Cullen beach
The viaduct goes by
My plan was to visit the Bow and Fiddle rock. I had seen it on many photographs, both commercial and amateur. It is located in Portknockie, about two miles west of Cullen. There are a couple of routes to Portknockie. One by the old railway viaduct which has now been converted to a pathway. I took the other path that hugs the coast. As I walked on to the sandy beach of Cullen, was greeted by the first intriguing rock formation.
This was clicked on the way back in the afternoon sun
The path then went past the golf course below the cliffs. Winding paths lead up to join the main path on top of the cliff. I stuck to the lower levels. Though the sun was bright, the wind was very strong and cold. It was quite evident that some of the storm that was battering the rest of Scotland was finding its way through the Grampians. The next stop was at the Whale's moo by the Jennie's well. Another slanting rock, this is also a spectacular example of the violent past of this geological area. A couple of kids were fishing on the slopes.
The path then went up on concrete steps on to the cliff top. I met an elderly gentleman and we were soon joined by an elderly lady as well. They were locals and gave me a quick overview of the area, places of both geological and historical interest, a few remnants of the second world war could be found by the coast, mostly rifle ranges. By now the sun was covered in clouds and we were attacked by a ferocious shower of hail stones. As the elderly lady accompanied me to Portknockie she mentioned that she will be visiting Ladakh in August and was trying to get fit for the trek - to me it didn't look like she needed any more fitness though.

The Bow and Fiddle rock was visible from the cliff top, but for a better view a short descent takes you right at the front of the rock. In flesh it was even more impressive than the images. Protected from the wind by cliffs all around me, I sat there and had a snack as the tides gradually started to move in.
The clouds were closing in and after a short stroll to the Portknockie harbour I decided to return, this time on the path over the cliffs till I reached the golf course and then walked down to the beach and back to the hostel. The late afternoon sun was still strong but the wind remained strong.
Line of houses in Portknockie village
Portknockie harbour
Sea, beach and golf course
There were no other boarders at the hostel, so I cooked and had a quiet dinner in the kitchen. It was warm and cosy, the heat was provided by wood fire and the whole kitchen smelled wonderful. Comfortable couches and chairs were laid all around. It had a music system and even a piano! Definitely a hostel of its kind.
Some interesting sauce collection in the hostel kitchen
As I went to bed that night in the empty hostel, in the dimly lit room, surrounded by curtains hiding the beds behind them and no locks on the doors, it felt a bit creepy. Hideous sequences from various Hollywood thriller movies made appearances in my head. Eventually my sleepiness got the better of it and I soon drifted away.

A beautiful Sunday

Woke up to another bright, sunny but windy day. The plan today was to walk up to Portsoy, about 7 miles to the east and from there take the bus back to Aberdeen.
Morning at Cullen harbour
The walk started of from the hostel, past the pet cemetery. I headed for Logie Head, the headland jutting out straight ahead. Wild flowers had started to bloom as spring starts to set in. As I got closer more striking rock features appeared. These incredible cliffs are a favourite spot for climbers. Once the only way to go past these cliffs was by scrambling across. However, there are steps built on the cliff making the walk much more accessible. Known as the Giant Steps these were built single-handedly by Tony Heatherington. A memorial has been built beside the stairs on the other side by the grateful locals.
Looking towards Logie head
The path followed to a lovely reclusive stretch of gold sand - the Sunnyside beach. I left the path and walked on the sands.
Sunnyside beach
From here the path climbed up on the cliffs again as it spiraled through gorse in full bloom. The waves were crashing below and the sea was remarkably blue.
The next point of interest was the Findlater Castle. Now in ruins, an information board mentions how impregnable the castle might have been once given its position. It is possible to go down to the castle, but because the winds were really strong I decided against it and walked on.
Findlater castle
Soon the next village of Sandend appeared, to be more precise, the huge crescent of a beach appeared. It had taken me a couple of hours from Cullen. By now the rain was coming down as well. So I sat in the shelter of the Creele Cottage (just read the name on the house) and had my lunch. Sun and clouds played along and I sat for a while.
Sandend appears
Houses in Sandend
As the sun reappeared and I walked along the beach and got back to the coastal path which was now climbing up to the top of the cliff. The path remained there through the rest of the way to Portsoy. I took a short detour at the next beach but after that it was just nondescript cliff top walking through the gorse. It actually got a bit boring.
Looking back at Sandend
As Portsoy appeared so did some more interesting rock formations - the coast almost had a lunar feel to it.
Approaching Portsoy
I noticed a dry, open water pool and went down the cliff to visit it. A notice proclaimed that the pool was now closed. Felt sorry that such a beautiful pool enclosed within the amazing rock structures and stunning scenery was no longer in use.
The closed natural pool
To reach Portsoy, I was tempted to clamber over the cliffs but with the high wind and my backpack decided against it, so just went back to the normal path, the same way I had come down.

It had taken me about an hour from Sandend to reach Portsoy, and three hours from Cullen and about four with the lazy lunch break. I still had a few hours before the bus so walked around the old harbour, sheltered from the wild seas outside. The wind was brutal and I was frozen from inside. Decided to get some warmth so walked into the Beggar's Belief Coffee Cove, a quaint little place tucked in the corner by the harbour. Ordered a cup of tea and had the dish of the day - local prawns cooked in garlic and butter.
The beach room - at Beggars belief coffee cove
After food I was walking around the village, killing time, when I bumped into a group of ornithologists. It was actually the humongous 800mm lens that I noticed first though. They had flown in from London in the morning just to see the rare white billed divers, which can be seen only in Portsoy. They would be leaving by the evening flight from Aberdeen. The news of ten sightings of these birds in the past few days had brought them here and they were very excited by something on the seemingly empty horizon. I started chatting with one of them as he shared brilliant stories of his adventures round the world. He described his hobby as a cross between Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes. Bird watching had taken him to north east India in the late 70s and early 80s and he told how he smuggled into Manipur where he ate the traditional dog meat cooked with Naga chillies with the tribals. It had started into a very interesting conversation and not surprisingly time flew. Unfortunately, I had to leave for the bus and so said our goodbyes and hoped we would bump into each other again someday.
The bus was due at 4:30pm. Since I still had a few more minutes, crossed the road and got some local handmade ice-cream. The bus from Elgin was on time and once again I was on the long journey, this time back to Edinburgh.

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