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Issue 56 - Coast to Coast

Scotland Magazine Issue 56
April 2011


This article is 7 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Coast to Coast

in the first of a new series, Sally Toms reveals the histories, mysteries and travel possibilities of Scotland's dramatic coastline

Island nations have a deep and often profound relationship with the sea, and Scotland is no exception. Its coast has provided a source of food and energy, as well as providing the means for trade, and defence against potential invaders for as long as people have lived here. The seas surrounding her can be fierce, but are also extremely fertile. Unusual currents and tide patterns along with a varied underwater landscape result in a complex and mysterious environment in which the tiniest algae thrive alongside the great majestic beasts of the deep. In this series, we shall be exploring all the ins and outs of Scotland’s striking and often surprising coastline, starting with the high cliffs, sandy coves and crystal clear waters of the Berwickshire coast.

Berwick-upon-Tweed This fortified town has been fought over, bartered, sold, and passed back and forth between England and Scotland over the centuries more times than could be believed. In the 13th century Berwick was one of the most wealthy trading posts in Scotland, receiving a quarter of all customs revenues north of the border. A contemporary description of the town described it as “so populous and of such commercial importance that it might rightly be called another Alexandria, whose riches were the sea and the water its walls.” Berwick’s prosperity continued until 1296, when John I of Scotland upset England’s King Edward I by cosying up to their old enemy, the French. Edward’s army stormed the town after a prolonged siege and slaughtered almost everyone – some 8,000 inhabitants. This marked the start of two turbulent centuries during which Berwick changed hands between Scotland and England on average every 15 years, and was transformed from the greatest merchant city in Scotland into a tiny sea port.

In 1482 the town became part of England within which is still (technically) remains, although there is strong feeling among its inhabitants that the town should be reunited with Scotland once more. Evidence of the town’s volatile history can be observed by any visitor. Sadly, Berwick Castle was demolished in the 19th century to make way for the town’s railway station, but the ramparts are still there. Nearly two miles long, these stone faced walls were built in the 16th century, to give defence against developing artillery. A walk round the town on top of the walls gives an excellent series of views into Berwick itself as well as the River Tweed and of its famous bridges. Eyemouth Head north and you’ll soon discover Berwickshire’s many pretty harbour towns and villages, clinging to the edge of the sea. Many of these are centuries old, such as Eyemouth, just eight miles north of Berwick. Eyemouth’s harbour stretches back along the Eye Water. Part working harbour, part seaside resort, Eyemouth’s rambling streets have a rich and intriguing history that is not solely linked to the fishing industry. Old fishing ports such as this were built with narrow interconnecting streets or vennels to give shelter from angry seas and, possibly, to conceal illicit goings on. Scotland’s east coast, being closest to the continent, was a notorious centre for smuggling in the 18th and 19th centuries. At that time goods such as brandy, tobacco and tea were highly taxed by the British government to raise money for the war chest.

Gunsgreen House, across Eyemouth harbour, is open to the public as a museum dedicated to smuggling. Built for local smugglers John and David Nisbet, the house was adapted for their ‘special requirements’ by famous architect John Adam, who designed numerous secret passages and cellars which would open out direct onto the sea to receive their illicit imports. A number of other houses in the town had secret cellars and passages as well, and according to some reports of the time, there was more of Eyemouth below ground than above.

St Abbs Further up the coast is St Abbs, a pretty harbour village nestled in a sandy bay between jagged black rocks. Before any houses were built, the bay was known as Coldingham Shore, or simply, The Shore. In the mid 1700s, the fishermen who worked their boats from The Shore lived at Fisher’s Brae in nearby Coldingham. Each day they would walk their baited lines and other gear the mile and a half down to the beach, a path that is now known as the Creel Path (a creel is a lobster pot). But by 1832 it is recorded that the inhabitants of The Shore comprised 16 families, and thereafter the village earned its own name. Today, St Abbs has become a destination dive site owing to its clear seas and spectacular underwater scenery. One of the main attractions is Cathedral Rock, just a short swim out from the harbour wall. Appearing above surface as little more than a seaweed covered rock, is actually a huge arch rising from the sea bed in which you could park a double decker bus. The walls are covered in an amazing range of marine life and when the sunlight pours through the kelp forests, it makes a spectacle you’ll not see anywhere else. But if diving’s not your thing, you can still get a great view of the local marine life from St Abb’s glass-bottomed boat, which sails from the harbour daily (tickets available from the Ebb Carrs Café). The adjacent headland is a noted National Trust Nature Reserve boasting a wide variety of bird life in a complex coastline of sheer cliffs, offshore stacks and narrow gullies. It is one of the most readily accessible of all seabird colonies, where thousands of Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes nest on the sheer cliffs together with Fulmars, Shags and a few Puffins. In late summer seawatching in onshore winds could catch you a glimpse of shearwaters and skuas. Three miles west of St Abbs Head is Fast Castle, the ruins of a coastal fortress built in the 1400s. It stands on a headland of rocks surrounded on all sides by cliffs, and was once accessed only via a drawbridge over a wide chasm dropping directly to the rocks below. Only the foundations now remain, but even these ruins, defiantly jutting out into the North Sea, will have your imagination (and your insides) turning somersaults.

Cove Cove Harbour is, quite literally, one of Scotland’s truly hidden treasures. So much so, that the Conservation Trust who manage this tiny natural harbour don’t even like to have it written about. So immediately after reading this, you must cut out this section and burn it, okay?

You reach the harbour through an eerie tunnel which was carved out of the rock by the villagers in the 1700s. And the view that greets you on exiting the tunnel is just charming. It’s like stepping back in time, and has been used by more than one Hollywood film maker as a location for Scotland in ‘days gone by’.

These days Cove Harbour remains in use by a few small fishing vessels that set creels for crabs and lobsters. All the buildings are listed, and the Cove Harbour Conservation Trust work hard to ensure Cove stays exactly as it is. Adhering to their provisos, we shouldn’t tell you exactly where it is, what specific films were made there, and we’re not even allowed publish our own pictures of it. Sounds excessive? Maybe, but there are too many examples of fragile beauty spots that have been spoiled by too many visitors. It is possible to kill a place by loving it too much.

Closeby, Lidsters bay is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) renowned for its geology, with the rock strata containing some of the oldest reserves of fossilised flowers in the world. The geology of this coastline is extremely unique; 18th century geologist James Hutton used it to prove his theories on rock formation, which have since shaped our understanding of the earth. On our route further up Scotland’s coast along the A1, you can’t fail to miss Torness nuclear power station. This ugly emblem of the modern world creates quite a contrast when seen after the wistful beauty of places like Cove Harbour and St Abbs. It’s a necessary, if somewhat stark reminder of the changing times in which we live. And suddenly the protectiveness of the Cove Harbour Conservation Trust doesn’t seem quite so excessive after all.