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Issue 60 - Ghostly Lions and Pictish Sacrifices

Scotland Magazine Issue 60
December 2011


This article is 6 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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Ghostly Lions and Pictish Sacrifices

Sally Toms heads further round the coast of Scotland.

The latest in our series charting Scotland’s beautiful, dramatic and beguiling coastline picks up at the mouth of the Moray firth; a stunning expanse of tidal flats and sand dunes, of craggy cliffs and caves. This particular stretch of coastline was home to some of the first Scottish settlers, and it has a long and intriguing history.

This pretty stone harbour is one of the earliest ports to be established in the north east In 1550, Portsoy was granted burgh charter and began a lucrative trade in coal, linen and a particular speciality known as Portsoy marble. This attractive dark green or red stone is not actually marble but a type of serpentine rock quarried locally. The semantics was not enough to deter Louis XIV, however, who specially ordered Portsoy marble for his palace at Versailles. Today, it is still polished and made into jewellery in a workshop on the harbour. Lucky visitors may even find a chunk or two strolling along the beach.

Portsoy is also famed for the annual Scottish Traditional Boat Festival. Held at the end of June or beginning of July, this unique event displays one of the largest collections of traditional boats in Scotland.

Towns dotted along the Moray coast lie on the fringes of Speyside, Scotland’s whisky-making heartland. Everywhere you go you can feel the industry’s omnipotent presence all over the place, from maltings to cooperages to distilleries like Glenglassaugh, which lies nearest the coast at Sandend Bay. More practical than picturesque, the distillery has a formidable pedigree but lay mothballed for more than 20 years until it was rescued by a group of Russian whisky fanatics.

Production restarted in 2008 and the distillery is now fully operational. Visitors are enthusiastically welcomed, although there is not yet a visitor centre. Rather significantly, those first casks filled in 2008 officially come of age on the 16 December 2011. Get it while you can!

A little further along the coast between Cullen and Sandend is Findlater Castle, a dramatic ruin perched precariously on an outcrop of rock, some 50ft above the crashing sea. Descent to the castle itself is a tad precarious, so visitors who value their mortality are advised to view the castle from the viewing point, where an information board explains some of the history of the site.

There has been some form of fortification here since at least the 13th century, but the structures we see today probably date from the late 14th century when the castle was owned by the Sinclairs.

Later it passed to the Ogilvies, and was abandoned in the 1600s.

Nearby is the charming village of Cullen, where fishing has been the mainstay for at least 500 years.

The old part of the village, known as Seatown, is a delightful huddle of colourful painted cottages and twisting lanes that date from the 17th century. The adjacent harbour was built in the 19th century for the Earl of Findlater (of castle fame) and once thrummed to the tune of herring. Later, the village specialised in the export of smoked haddock and had at one time three large curing houses. This fishy legacy can be felt when you order the local delicacy, Cullen skink, a delicious fish soup of smoked haddock, potatoes, onions and milk. (The ‘skink’ part comes from a gaelic word meaning ‘essence’). Another local speciality is the Ice Cream Shop on Seafield Street, which is widely claimed to be the best in Scotland.

But perhaps the most striking visual feature of Cullen are the railway viaducts which, when viewed from the sea, make a striking backdrop. They were built in 1886 by the Great North of Scotland Railway, all because a local countess refused to allow the line to cross the grounds of her house. This section of the Firth between Cullen and Findhorn is home to a resident population of bottle-nosed dolphins (one of only two in Britain). The estimated number is about 129, and on a calm day a walker on the cliff tops may have the rare opportunity to see the dolphins leaping and playing, sometimes quite close to the shore.

Spey Bay
Salmon has probably been fished from the mouth of the River Spey since humankind first dipped a toe in these waters, but fishing only got underway on a commercial scale in the 18th century, when a fishing station was built at Tugnet.

The most striking reminder of this time is the Tugnet Ice House, by far the largest ice house in the country, a relic of a time when frozen river water was gathered from specially cut channels, and packed in underground chambers so it could be used to keep the salmon fresh throughout the year. This spectacular building with its many underground chambers and vaulted brick ceiling is open to the public free of charge.

The nearby Moray Firth Wildlife Centre, which looks after visitor interests at the ice house day-today, offers shop and refreshment facilities, and exhibitions on local wildlife.

The town known affectionately as ‘Lossie’, Lossiemouth is a lovely little Victorian spa town and fishing port, home to servicemen from the local RAF base, golfers, and holiday-makers alike.

Over the years the town has expanded to absorb the village of Stotfield, whose population were all but wiped out in a fishing disaster in 1806. Three boats and 21 men were lost to a violent storm on Christmas Day that year, a relatively small loss compared to other disasters on this unforgiving coast, but small as they were the effects were devastating to the community. Those three boats represented the entire fleet and every able-bodied man and boy in the village. Stotfield was left with 17 widows, 42 orphaned children and a handful of the elderly and lame. Since that day no fishing boats in Lossiemouth have set sail on Christmas Day.

A record of the disaster and memorial to those who died is contained in the Fisheries Museum. It is a sad and sobering thing to read the names of the dead, and so difficult, today, to imagine a community so utterly dependent on the sea.

Inland a few miles is the atmospheric ruins of Spynie Palace. For more than 500 years, this was the seat of the Bishops of Moray and over the years played host to a who’s who of Scottish nobility, including James V, Mary Queen of Scots and James VI.

The founding of the palace dates back to 1200, but it was burnt to the ground in 1390 by Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch. The palace was rebuilt by Bishop Innes, and part of the stone structure still survives from this time. The most impressive part of the Palace is the six-story tower, named David’s Tower after Bishop David Stewart who oversaw its construction. The tower has impressively thick walls, and is one of the largest towers of this type in Scotland.

For those that enjoy that kind of thing (myself included), Spynie’s history has several grim elements of folklore that include a devil worshipping bishop, the ghost of a piper and one of a lion that still walks the tower, leaving its ghostly footprints in the ruins.

On the peninsular at Burghead, a slightly odd looking coastguard lookout has been adapted for use as a visitor centre that goes some way to revealing the real importance of this area to the ancient Picts. The headland was once the site of the largest Pictish fortification in Scotland, dating back to 400AD. It is a fascinating period of Scottish history, with numerous sites that confound just as much as they captivate.

The Burghead Well is one such site. It consists of a flight of steps leading down to a chamber and an underground pool fed by springs. There isn’t another site like it anywhere in the world, and no one knows what it was for. Some ceremonial significance, religious or secular, seems likely.

Wells and springs were often places for worship, and it is possible the pool was used for some sort of Christian baptistery during the Middle Ages. But who knows? Historical sources also record that a traditional method of execution among the Picts was drowning.

Another macabre and mystifying site lies further east at Covesea, a tidal cave known as Sculptor’s Cave. Adorned with Pictish Carvings, archaeologists have revealed that this site was of extreme significance for Scottish settlers some 3,000 years ago. For some reason people brought the bodies of their dead children to this spot from all over northern Scotland, the Islands and even Ireland. For what purpose we will never know, but perhaps by exploring these sites, and by absorbing the beauty and character of this spectacular coastline, we can share some of what was felt by our ancestors all those thousands of years ago.