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Review: Moray Coast Fishing Villages


Moray, Scotland, United Kingdom

An enjoyable day exploring the small fishing settlements along the Moray coast

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2247 reviews

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  • Sep 2013
  • Husband

45 people found this review helpful

We spent an enjoyable day exploring the string of small fishing villages along the Moray coast. Many of the settlements were established in the 18thC when crofting families cleared from inland estates to make way for their landlord's sheep, were moved to the coast. It is a hostile and rocky coastline and settlement grew up around the mouths of streams where a small harbour could be built. Families fished from boats owned by the landlord. They used lines to catch haddock, whiting and mackerel. By the end of the 19thC some fishermen had managed to save enough money to build their own boats. However larger boats appearing in the first half of the 20thC were unable to operate out of many of the small harbours and fishing declined rapidly. Now there is little fishing from many of the settlements apart from some crab and lobster and harbours are full of small pleasure boats.

We began with Pennan, a small settlement huddled under red sandstone cliffs beneath the plateau behind. This has a small harbour at the mouth of the stream which has cut a deep gorge down through the cliff. The single row of white houses under the cliff are built with their gable ends facing the sea to reduce exposure to the elements. There is just enough space for the road and narrow grassy area in front of the houses protected by a concrete sea wall. The wire lines are now used to hang out washing to dry, rather than nets.

Next was Crovie. Here the houses are built on a narrow ledge above the beach. There is just room for a narrow footpath of boulders and cement above the shore, which gives access to the houses. This also doubles up as a sea wall. There is a visitors car park at the top of the cliffs and a footpath with steps drops down the village by the mouth of the stream, which is the only place boats can be pulled up out of the sea. The small harbour is very exposed with a single breakwater to provide shelter.

Originally the only contact with the outside world was a footpath along the cliffs to Gardenstown across the bay. At the end of January 1953 a mighty storm with hurricane force winds and huge seas washed away the cliff and parts of the footpath as well as houses and sheds at the western end of the village. Many people left or abandoned their houses and moved round the bay to Gardenstown. Although a new road was built down to the village with the cleared western end of the town providing resident’s parking, Crovie remains one of the best preserved fishing villages in Europe.

Gardenstown is one of the larger of the fishing village along the Moray Firth. The newer houses tumble down the hillside, dominated by the bulk of the large stone built St John’s church. Beyond the town on the opposite hillside is the cemetery and the remains of St John’s Church.

The harbour is large compared with the other fishing villages but is now mainly pleasure craft. A bill board advertises pleasure trips to the RSPB reserve at Troup Head, the second largest gannet colony in Britain.

Seatown to the west of the harbour was the traditional fishing village with rendered and pastel washed houses. Streets are narrow with alleyways between the houses.

We drove through Macduff and Banff on either side of the River Deveron. Macduff is a pleasant stone built town and is one of the best fishing harbours along the Moray Firth and is the only place in the UK building deep water wooden fishing boats.

Banff with its stretch of golden sand is no longer a commercial fishing port and is dependent on the tourist trade. It is one of the best preserved townscapes in Scotland with a Georgian ‘Upper Town’.

Whitehills still has a fish market on the quayside although it lost its fishing in 1999 when the marina was built. It is trying to promote tourism by a series of information boards around the settlement.

Portsoy was one of the oldest harbours to be built along this stretch of the Moray coast in the 15thC. The harbour was replaced in 1692 by the Lairds of Boyne with a massive breakwater on the seaward side and a number of quays. The construction used large stones set vertically, apparently because it was believed that this made them less likely to be washed away by the sea. It seems to have worked as the old harbour is still there, although it is now replaced by a newer and larger harbour to the east.

Portsoy had been a busy harbour and trade was varied. As well as fish, they exported locally produced thread and linen to England and locally quarried green Portsoy marble. Some of this even found its way into the fixtures and fittings of Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles. Coal was imported.

The New Harbour was built in 1825 to meet the demands of the herring boom and the volume of trade going through Portsoy. This had to be rebuilt following storm damage in 1839.

As elsewhere along the coast, fishing and trade declined through much of the 1900s. There have been a number of regeneration projects from the 1970s which have succeeded in giving Portsoy its heart back with an attractive centre with streets winding down to the old harbour. The stones of the harbour are covered by bright orange lichens and there are bright pink tufts of thrift and white heads of scentless mayweed growing between the stones.

The old harbour is surrounded by impressive buildings dating from 1600-1700. Houses and warehouses are clustered round the head of the harbour. Beggar’s Belief with a wooden statue of of pirate outside and a board saying “coffee and curios”, serves teas, soups, rolls and pancakes as well. The Cullen Skink soup was served in a big bowl and was thick with chunks of smoked haddock and potato along with two rounds of homemade oatcakes. It was just what we needed to warm us up on a cold day.

Just inland from Portsoy is Fordyce, which still retains its medieval street plan with stone built houses with attractive flower gardens around Fordyce castle, a typical Scottish tower house. The remains of the 13thC church are found in the graveyard behind the castle. This was dedicated to St Tarquin, a 6thC Celtic saint who founded a church here.

Cullen is an attractive town at the mouth of Deskford Burn. The Great North of Scotland Railway connecting Portsoy and Elgin had run through Cullen. Closed in the aftermath of Beeching, the three great viaducts still dwarf the town.

The main road drops down through the newer town, built round a large square with the Mercat cross and a good range of small family owned shops. The chain stores haven’t arrived here yet. Just above the viaduct on Seafield Street is The Ice Cream Shop, regarded by many as the best in Scotland.

The original harbour was built by Thomas Telford in 1817 as part of a government programme to improve communications and create employment in the north of Scotland. In 1842 it was described as one of the best harbours along the Moray Firth. It imported coal, salt (for curing fish), staves (for casks) and barley (for whisky making). It exported herrings, dried fish, timber, oats and potatoes. The town specialised in smoked haddock and there were three large curing houses. The local dish of Cullen skink soup probably dates from this time.

To the west of the harbour is a long sandy beach with rocks. Seatown, the original settlement, is here. This was a planned town. Small fishermen’s cottages are arranged on a grid patter with narrow alleyways between them. They are small single storey buildings with dormer windows. Those along the shore have their gable ends turned towards the sea. Beyond is a long stretch of sand, popular with holiday makers.

Portknockie is unusual as the village is built on top of the cliffs above the harbour. It is a very exposed coastline. The town grew in the 1770s when fishermen from Cullen settled here and it grew rapidly during the herring boom of the 1800s. The town is a planned town with a regular grid street pattern. Houses are small although there are some larger captain’s houses with external steps up to the net loft.

Findochty is described as a non-touristy settlement which has been settled since the 1400s. It has a large and very well sheltered harbour which is now full of pleasure boats. There are a few lobster and crab pots along the harbour wall. At the end of the harbour are larger captain’s houses. There is a white church with a manse set on a rocky outcrop at the eastern end of the town. The oldest part of the settlement is beyond the church. There seems to be a small natural harbour here with a grassy area to pull up boats. Beyond is a large sandy bay guarded by rocks.

Buckie is the largest fishing settlement along the Moray coast and is made up of several small fishing villages which have grown into each other. It is a thriving and busy centre for the area. The main road runs along the harbour with boatyards, industry and large fishing vessels.

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