START: Montrose, Angus
FINISH: Inverbervie, Aberdeenshire
DISTANCE: 16.3 miles (Total – 478.9 miles)
OS MAPS: Explorer 382 & Explorer 396
ACCOMMODATION: Bamse B&B, Montrose
It was my final day in Montrose. Storm Hector had blown through the previous day leaving the atmosphere feeling a bit fresher and cooler. It was a good day for walking; not too hot and not too cold. Most importantly it was dry and the weather forecast no rain at all.
My plan for the day was to walk the remainder of the Angus Coast Path which ended at the River North Esk at the boundary between Angus and Aberdeenshire. I would then start on the lengthy Aberdeenshire Coastal Path, passing through the fishing villages of Johnshaven and Gourdon before arriving in Inverbervie. Sixteen miles of glorious walking were ahead of me.
From the Bamse B&B I headed down to the River South Esk and the statue of Bamse (above), the Norwegian St Bernard, where I had left off on the previous day. There are so many tales to tell of Bamse but I will select the best ones.
Bamse grew up on the island of Mageory which lies at the northern tip of Norway, and was owned by the Hafto family who lived in the small town of Honningsvag. When the Second World War broke out, Captain Hafto took Bamse with him on the Norwegian naval minesweeper Thorodd where the dog was registered as a crew member. The ship was stationed in Dundee and Montrose during the war and Bamse became a favourite of the locals. During action he would wear a steel helmet and stand guard in the gun tower until hostilities were over.
The crew of the Thorodd managed to acquire a bus pass for Bamse which he would carry around in a plastic wallet around his neck. Bus drivers would stop whenever they saw him and allow him to clamber onto the top deck.B
Bamse was very protective of his crew and would tour the pubs of Montrose dragging the sailors back to the ship before curfew ended. He was also known to stop a pub brawl involving one of his crew by standing on his hind legs and clamping his paws on the offender’s shoulders.
Whilst stationed in Dundee, Bamse saved a Norwegian sailor’s life when a man suddenly appeared and attacked him with a knife on the quayside. Seeing the imminent danger, Bamse charged at the man knocking the would-be attacker away before dragging him into the water.
Bamse’s life-saving adventures weren’t finished there. In Autumn 1942 one of the Thorodd’s sailors fell overboard with none of the rest of the crew having seen it happen. Bamse had seen it however and alerted the crew by barking before jumping into the water to try and stop the sailor from drowning. Bamse got into a bit of difficulty himself, however was able to keep the sailor afloat before the rest of the crew managed to pull them back onto the ship. M
So popular was Bamse with the crew of the Thorodd that when Captain Hafto was to be posted to another ship, they refused to allow him to take the St Bernard with him. Sensing that Bamse was critical to the morale of the crew, Captain Hafto agreed to lend him to the Thorodd’s sailors on condition that he be returned to the Hafto family once the war was over.
Sadly Captain Hafto and Bamse were never reunited. Bamse died from heart failure on 22nd July 1944. In his years in Dundee and Montrose he not only had become popular with the locals but had become a mascot of the Norwegian Navy and then of all the Free Norwegian Forces. His funeral was attended by hundreds of people. His coffin was draped in the Norwegian flag and was carried by the crew of the Thorodd where he was buried in a grave amongst the dunes overlooking the River South Esk, his head facing towards Norway.
On the 40th and 50th anniversaries of his death in 1984 and 1994, Norwegian submarines came to Montrose to pay tribute to him. In 2004, a memorial service attended by the Royal Norwegian Navy and members of the Hafto family took place, which was followed two years later by a statue of Bamse being unveiled by Prince Andrew in Montrose in 2006. Bamse is still a popular character not only in Norway where he is a national hero, but also in Dundee and Montrose where he is remembered fondly.
It was quite cloudy as I set off although the sun was trying its hardest to break through the cloud cover. I headed along Wharf Street, bypassing the RNLI lifeboat station before turning right into River Street. This took me by large warehouses and old decaying dockside buildings (below).
Montrose has a long history as a port town. The original settlement of Old Montrose built to the west of Montrose Basin served as the port of nearby Brechin until the port was destroyed by a Viking raid in 970. The new settlement was built to the east of the Basin on the northern bank of the River South Esk. Here, the river offered deep water no matter what the tide, which made it much easier for boats to dock.
Over the next 900 years, Montrose has grown around its harbour which has been an important centre of several types of fishing including salmon , herring, whaling, and a pearl fishery in the river itself. Montrose has also been a major timber port and for many years was one of Scotland’s chief wool ports. In the 20th and 21st century the North Sea oil industry has used Montrose as one of its major off-shore bases. Through gaps in the warehouses I could see one of the supply ships to the oil rigs being loaded up ready for its return voyage out to sea.
I meandered through the harbour area, heading along such streets such as Caledonia Street and the exotically named Rue de Luzarches. Street names such as Ferry Road hinted at the old ferry which ran between Montrose and Ferryden on the south bank of the river between the 12th and 20th centuries. A couple of streets running off Ferry Street were named Garrison Road and Barrack Road are the only suggestions that a large barracks – the Panmure Barracks – used to exist here. Originally built as a lunatic asylum in 1779, it became a barracks for the Angus and Mearns Militia in the mid-19th century before being demolished between the two World Wars.
At the bottom of Ferry Street I took a left into Cobden Street before an immediate right took me into a small car park. At the side of the car park a path led along the riverside, passing by Bamse’s grave (below) and the GlaxoSmithKline factory which is a major employer in the town.
Just past the factory I decided to drop down to the beach as the tide was out. I took a quick look across the River towards the lighthouse at Scurdie Ness which looked very scenic (above) before continuing along the beach. I continued along the beach for a couple of miles before cutting inland through the dunes. I passed by an old fishermen’s bothy (below) which was in need of a few urgent repairs.
Past the bothy a track made a beeline through a small forest plantation before passing by a couple of farmhouses and small cottages. At a T-junction I followed a track to the left which eventually brought me out alongside the busy A92 road. Fortunately there was a cycle track running alongside the road so I was able to keep well away from the traffic.
The cycle track climbed up and away from the road, merging with an old railway trackbed. This was once the Montrose and Bervie railway which used to run along the coast between Montrose and Inverbervie until the line’s closure in 1966. The trackbed (above) and myself crossed the River North Esk over an impressive viaduct which also marked the county line between Angus and Aberdeenshire. This old video on Youtube from 1964 shows the old railway line when it was open.
At the other side of the viaduct I continued along the track bed for a couple of hundred years before it disappeared under some dense greenery. The cycle track veered off to the left and headed downhill until it joined a road. I followed the road, passing underneath the viaduct I had just crossed (below) before continuing on for another mile past isolated farmhouses until I reached a visitor centre at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve.
The reserve was designated as a National Nature Reserve in 1962, however it story goes back much further than that. Sandwiched between 400 million year old cliffs which reach as high as 75 metres (below) and the North Sea the reserve is quite narrow, measuring less than 500 metres at its widest point, however it is crammed full of wildlife. The reserve can boast a variety of wildlife within its borders from plant life (the reserve marks the northernmost limit in the UK for a variety of plants including maiden pink and yellow vetch) to animal life (over 70 different bird species have been recorded in the reserve along with 200 different types of moths).
I had a quick break at the visitor centre, taking a look inside to look at the interpretation panels on offer, before following a well worn path which took me through the middle of the reserve. It was a very scenic place – the clifftops dramatically rising up to my left along with the sound of the sea just over the dunes to my right.
About a quarter of the way through the reserve I came across an old walled graveyard (above). This was the Nether Kirkyard and dates back to the 13th century when the Old Kirk was consecrated. The Old Kirk was the parish church of Ecclesgreig (or St Cyrus as it later became known). The Kirkyard and the Old Kirk was abandoned in 1632 when a new church was built in St Cyrus village which lies a little further inland. The Old Kirk has now completely gone and all that remains are a few gravestones, mausoleums and a ‘watchers house’ where relatives could watch over the newly buried bodies of their loved ones for fear of grave robbers.
Away from the Nether Kirkyard, the path wound further into the nature reserve, passing by a couple of old fishermen’s bothies which were now home to a number of seagulls rather than fishermen. Fishing for sea trout and herring had taking place in St Cyrus for centuries, but it was during the early part of the 18th century when it really took off following the discovery that fish lasted longer when they were packed with ice. Ice was cut from the frozen River North Esk during the winter and then stored in ice houses of which a couple remain near the visitor centre.
Salmon netting was an important industry at St Cyrus from the 18th century until recent times. The fishing bothy (above) were used by the fishermen to store their nets and equipment. Behind the bothy was an area of short grass which were known as ‘drying greens’ where fishing nets were hung over stakes to allow them to dry and be repaired if needs be.
I continued on through the reserve until the path came to a steep track which zig-zagged up the cliffs. I headed up the track, taking in the stunning views back along the nature reserve, with Montrose just about in view in the distance (below).
At the top was a cluster of buildings, which was once a fishing station. A track headed off to the left back along the clifftops towards the village of St Cyrus. My route, however, took me along a track on the clifftops to my right. There was a slight problem though in the shape of a sign which warned walkers that the path this way was dangerous and could collapse at any moment. Walkers taking this route did so at their own risk. I weighed up my choices for a minute. I could go round but this would mean diverting a long way inland. In the end I decided to take the clifftop route and just be a bit more mindful about any potential cliff falls. As it happened there weren’t any major issues although the path was precariously close to the edge in stages and ridiculously overgrown in others.
Clambering along the clifftops I noticed the remains of a square stone tower hanging on a precipice over the sea (below). This was all that remains of Kaim of Mathers Castle which had rather gruesome origins or so legend says. In the mid 14th century the lands hereabouts passed into the hands of the Berkley family, however a castle wasn’t built here until the early 15th century when it was said that the then owner, David Barclay, Laird of Mearns, built one to protect himself following a ghastly event involving the Sheriff of Mearns, Sir John Melville.
David and his uncles had become increasingly exasperated at the actions of the Sheriff and so repeatedly petitioned King James II. The King himself became so annoyed at the repeated moaning of the Barclays that he was alleged to have said that he could not care if the Sheriff was “sodden and supped in broo” – basically they could make soup out of him and sup him and the King wouldn’t be bothered. Now normal people would have taken this royal statement with a pinch of salt, but not the Barclays. What they did instead was to prepare a large cauldron in a gully near the site of the future castle and then invite the Sheriff along on a pretense of them all going on a hunt together .
The Sheriff duly turned up only to find out that he was going to be the one that was hunted. The Barclays grabbed him, threw him in the cauldron where he slowly boiled to death. Each of the Barclays then took a horn spoon and ‘supped’ the filthy broo’ therefore, according to their logic, obeying the King’s command. Was the King happy with his loyal subjects? Unsurprisingly, no. Instead, to the bewilderment of the Barclays, he refused to admit that it was his idea and denounced the Barclays as murderers and outlaws. It was said that David Barclay was so frightened that he built Kaim of Mathers Castle to protect himself and his family, however it is more than likely that a castle already existed here. The Barclays didn’t live in it for long, though, as a result of its exposed location on the cliffs and soon moved to a more comfortable residence in St Cyrus, leaving Kaim of Mathers Castle to slowly crumble into the sea.
The castle is now quite a forlorn place with only half of a square tower now remaining. It is almost impossible to access the castle as a deep chasm separates it from the mainland. No human has stepped foot in it for many years, with a colony of seabirds now making the castle their lordly domain over the sea.
I left the ruined castle behind, continuing to follow the precarious footpath along the clifftops until I came to a building – another former fishing station. Here a narrow metalled track led me to a T-junction where I took the road to the right. This led downhill into the hamlet of Tangleha’. This tiny settlement consisted of a line of fishermen’s cottages along with a couple of larger cottages nestled close to the shore. Tangleha’ was built as a replacement for the much larger settlement of Miltonhaven just a little along the coast which was washed into the sea during an epic storm in the 1790’s. I headed along the pebble strewn beach, listening to the sound of the waves as it shifted thousands of the tiny stones whilst lapping onto the shoreline. The stones crunched under my feet as I passed a caravan park at Miltonhaven. A little further on I joined firmer ground as I hopped onto a grassy track which hugged the shoreline.
The track headed wound round a small headland before coming to a lovely old fishing cottage, outside of which were a plethora of ornaments and sculptures made up of random pieces of flotsam and jetsam that had washed up on the shore in front of the cottages.
Past the cottages the track continued to hug the coastline before it began to rise to get around another small headland. An old limekiln stood next to the path, hinting at an industrial past that was once a significant employer in the numerous villages and hamlets that dotted this small section of the coast. The track wound its way round the headland before coming to a large cottage where the grassy track grew into a much wider gravel road. Ahead was the beautiful village of Johnshaven.
I walked along a narrow street lined with single-storey fishing cottages before coming out on to the lovely harbour which had a few fishing boats in it. Johnshaven is still an active fishing port and has been so for centuries. In 1722 the village was said to be one of the most important fishing ports in Scotland when it had twenty-six fishing boats employing at least 130 fishermen. By 1800 there were 1000 people living in Johnshaven and two decades later the village was described as a “colony for the manufacturers of Dundee”.
Like most fishing villages on the east coast of Scotland, Johnshaven witnessed a rapid decline in the latter half of the 20th century following the near collapse of the fishing industry. Yet somehow the village still clings on to its fishing heritage. In 2011 there were twenty boats registered at Johnshaven, with lobsters and crabs being the main catches, and a fair amount of the village’s residents are still involved in the fishing industry.
There were a couple of fishermen out on their boats as I took a little break sitting on a bench overlooking the harbour. It was rather pleasant, especially as the sun was starting to beat down, which must have made it harder work for the fishermen.
My break over I continued on through the village, passing by the McBeys warehouse which is used to store lobsters caught by the fishermen of Johnshaven. There was a bit of a fishy smell emitting from the warehouse so I assumed there was a fresh catch being stored in it as I walked past.
I followed a path out of the eastern end of the village, passing by a caravan park which was strung along the shoreline. Ahead the path diverted alongside a stone wall. This was present for the next half-mile before I crossed a bridge over a stream which entered into the sea on my right. A little further on the path passed a line of cottages before continuing onwards towards the village of Gourdon.
Just before I got into Gourdon I took one last look down the coast towards Johnshaven and noticed a huge dark cloud approaching from that direction. I picked up pace and made sure my waterproofs were to hand in case the heavens opened. Fortunately the dark clouds bypassed Gourdon and I sat on a bench overlooking the village’s picturesque harbour to have another quick break.
Gourdon, like Johnshaven is still an active fishing port. A farming and fishing settlement was first recorded here in 1315, although it is likely that people have settled in Gourdon since Neolithic times, 5000 years ago, as a funerary monument has been discovered on nearby Gourdon Hill dating from this time.
Gourdon was traditionally a herring port – some 8,000 barrels of herring were exported from Gourdon in 1881. The herring industry declined in the early 20th century with fishermen switching to long line fishing from motorboats, being one of the first ports in Scotland to do so. Nowadays, cod, lobster and crab are the main catches and there are still a number of traditional fish merchants in the village.
Whilst on my break an old couple sat down on the next bench along carrying an open bag of fish and chips which they started eating with much gusto. I resisted temptation for about twenty seconds before deciding to get some fish and chips myself. The Quayside Restaurant & Fish Bar was handily available on the other side of the harbour so I dashed over there and got myself some fish and chips and wolfed the lot down.
Well fed and full as a gun, I set off walking (or rather waddling) through the village. I headed out of the eastern end of Gourdon following the shoreline for a bit before joining a cycleway which ran along the trackbed of the old Montrose and Bervie railway. The sun had come out again and it was a pleasant walk along the cycle path which took me into Inverbervie where I finished my walk.
Before I headed into the centre of the village where I could catch the bus back to Montrose, I stopped for a little while to look out over the blue waters of Bervie Bay. It was a good chance to reflect on the past week of walking which had been fantastic from start to finish. I had started off in the city of Dundee, which was undergoing a major transformation and will certainly be a place to watch out for in the future. After Dundee was the beautiful Angus coastline – the towns of Arbroath and Montrose had plenty of hustle and bustle but it was the quiet former fishing settlements of Auchmithie and Boddin that held my interest the most. These places were once important but now have sunk into anonymity, the monuments to their industrial past are now being lost to time and memory. It is these places that need to be kept alive before they are forgotten and I hope this blog keeps a little of bit their memory going.
So to do places like the villages of Johnshaven and Gourdon in southern Aberdeenshire. Settlements like these have been fishing ports for centuries but have suffered since the end of the Second World War as trade declined and industries changed. Somehow, they are still going thanks to the efforts of the inhabitants of these villages who still go out day by day and keep the centuries old traditions going. These places need to be preserved too.
The first eleven or so miles of Aberdeenshire’s coastline had already shown so much but there was still many more miles of it left to do. I came back this way in late July 2018 hoping to make it to Aberdeen, which was about forty miles away. However, the great and unpredictable Scottish weather put paid to that as you will find out in my next blog post. Happy reading!
Davidson, D. P. (1880) Kaim of Mathers: A Historical Tale. Montrose.