START: Collieston, Aberdeenshire
FINISH: Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire
DISTANCE: 8 miles (Total – 542.1 miles)
APPROXIMATE TIME: 3.5 hours
OS MAPS: Explorer 421 & Explorer 427
ACCOMMODATION: The Waverley Hotel, Peterhead
Another year had finished and 2019 beckoned with its promises of fresh new challenges and fresh new coastal walks. I had a week left of my annual leave to use in the middle of March so I decided to get another round of coastal walking in. This time I would base myself in the port town of Peterhead in north-east Aberdeenshire and hopefully get a 45-50 mile stretch of the Aberdeenshire Coast Path done. I couldn’t wait!
I had spent about seven and a half hours on the Saturday travelling from my home in Teesside to Peterhead via a combination of two buses just in my home town alone, a trip on the Metro in Newcastle, two trains from Newcastle to Aberdeen and then a further bus journey to Peterhead. By the time I got to my hotel I was ready to sleep for about a week. Fortunately this feeling soon passed and on the following morning I was heading on the bus down to Collieston where I had finished off the previous year (see Coastwalk #44). Unfortunately there is no direct service to Collieston from Peterhead, instead the bus stops on the main road about a mile away from the village so I had about a twenty-five minute walk just to get to Collieston.
Fortunately the road into Collieston wasn’t too busy and it wasn’t too long before I was on the outskirts of the village. I decided not to go right down to the harbour but instead I headed down a road which took me to a car park at St Catherine’s Dub, about a couple of hundred yards away from the harbour. There was a great view of Collieston which is draped around its harbour in a natural amphitheater
Collieston was established as a fishing village in the 1500’s and came into its own during the 1600’s and 1700’s. Collieston Speldings were a local delicacy. These were salted and sun-dried haddock and whiting, and proved very popular in far flung cities such as Edinburgh and London.
By the 1800’s Collieston’s harbour had become too small for the bigger fishing boats that were piling the seas and as such the fishing industry shifted further north to Peterhead, along with the fishermen and their families. Fortunately another sea-based trade brought fortune to Collieston – this time in the shape of smuggling. Thanks to the many sea caves, coves and shingle beaches that are in abundance along this stretch of the coast, Collieston proved to be excellent territory for the growing smuggling trade in the late 1700. It was estimated that up to 8000 gallons of illicit foreign spirits were being landed in the area of the village around this time.
Collieston’s most famous smuggler was Phillip Kennedy who was famed for his smuggling exploits and also for his courageous defence of his smuggled goods. Unfortunately smuggling proved to be the death of MrKennedy. On the 17th December 1798, Phillip and his brother John along with some servants were taking ashore sixteen ankers (a small cask) from Holland gin at Cransdale, roughly near to where I was standing. The party of smugglers were taking the contraband goods to John’s farm when they were challenged by a group of Excisemen armed with cutlasses. In the ensuing melee both Phillip and John were wounded, Phillip coming off worse with his head being split open with a cutlass. The blow wasn’t immediately fatal, Phillip was still able to stagger for another mile to the farmhouse of Kirkton of Slains (which I had passed on the way into Collieston) before dying from his injuries. He was buried in the Kirk next door to the farm and his gravestone is still there.
Before setting off on the walk I decided to climb up to the viewpoint at St Catherine’s Dub and have a quick look about. According to legend, the name St Catherine’s Dub comes from the Santa Catarina which was said to have been a ship from the Spanish Armada that sunk here in 1588. What is more likely is that the ship was in fact from the Spanish Netherlands and was gun-running for Francis, the Eighth Earl of Erroll’s Catholic uprising in 1594. The Earl of Erroll had a lot of land in these parts and owned Old Slains Castle just up the coast from Collieston.
I dropped down from the viewpoint as it was getting really chilly so I headed back through the car park and then up a steep set of steps cut into the cliffs. At the top was a great grassy path which hugged the clifftops for the next mile-and-a-half. Despite it being an overcast day there were fantastic views of the sea and the coastal geography was fascinating to look at with a variety of rock formations scattered along the coastline.
These rocks have proved very dangerous to shipping over the years and there are a number of shipwrecks along this part of the coast including the iron steam trawler Ladybird which ran aground here in 1906 and the SV Zippora, a Norwegian brig which ran aground almost on the same site in 1898 with the loss of seven lives.
It was a pleasant if slightly challenging walk for the next mile following the undulating path until I came to a track that led down to a small hamlet slap bang in the middle of which was the remains of an old castle or Old Slains Castle to be exact (below).
All that remains of the castle nowadays is a 15th century tower house. The castle was once an impressive building which had a long association with the Hay family. The Hay family took over the castle in the early 14th century when King Robert I rewarded the loyalty of Sir Gilbert Hay of Errol with the title of High Constable of Scotland and the lands of Slains. Throughout the next two centuries the Hay family prospered through its continuing loyalty to the Crown. In 1372 Sir Thomas Hay of Errol married the King Robert II’s eldest daughter, whilst 81 years later Sir William Hay was awarded the titles of Earl of Errol and Lord of Slains by King James II thanks to Sir William’s support of the King during the war with the Douglas family.
Loyalty is only good if one is loyal to the victorious side but when you back the wrong person it can be quickly turned into ruin. Francis Hay, the 9th Earl of Errol backed the rebellion of George Gordon, 6th Earl of Huntly against King James VI. The rebellion was defeated and in October 1594 Old Slains Castle was destroyed on the orders of the King who may have personally supervised the Castle’s destruction himself. Francis Hay escaped to Denmark but sneaked back to Scotland a year later, and following his public renouncement of Catholicism he was soon back in King James VI’s good books. Even though the lands surrounding Old Slains Castle stayed in the hands of the Hay family, the Earl decided to build a new castle – New Slains Castle – further up the coast.
I had a quick look at the castle tower which was now guarded by seabirds rather than armoured knights before turning back round and heading back up the track. I had a choice here. Either I could continue to follow the coastal path which hugged the coastline and added more miles to the walk or I could head inland for about a mile and follow a minor track towards Cruden Bay. I decided to keep on the coastal path because I felt as if the views would be more rewarding and I was proved right.
Still, it was tough going. The coastal path was little more than a narrow sheep track in places and was very undulating. There was even more coastal geography to look at on this stretch with plenty of rock formations out in the sea.
At one stage the path headed a little inland around a gully. In the field next to the gully was a herd of young cows who got startled by my sudden appearance so they stampeded away. I’d thought I had seen the last of them, however when I got to round the other side of the gully the cows decided to stampede back towards me. I went to poo myself as there was no where I could escape to so I closed my eyes and waited for my imminent death. Fortunately the cows realised there was a fence in their way and stopped dead. My heart racing I quickly took off whilst the cows just glared at me.
The next couple of miles towards Whinnyfold were pleasant especially as there were no more cows about to keep an eye on and it wasn’t too long before the coastal path reached the tiny former fishing village. The current settlement dates from the 1860’s, replacing a much older village which was about a mile inland. As Whinnyfold has no harbour the fisherfolk had to climb up and down a steep grass slope to get to their boats and catches. Despite this obstacle, during the 19th and early 20th centuries Whinnyfold had a thriving fishing community employing more than 190 fishermen in 24 boats. Fish caught by Whinnyfold’s boats were sold as far away as Manchester.
During the summer months the fisherfolk would abandon the village and seek more lucrative employment in nearby Peterhead. Those left behind would temporarily convert the empty fishermen’s cottages into tearooms to serve the plethora of tourists visiting nearby Cruden Bay. One of the many visitors to Whinnyfold was the novelist Bram Stoker who fell in love with the area whilst on a holiday in 1893. The treacherous area of semi-submerged rocks called The Skares which lie a little to the north of Whinnyfold were the inspiration of Stoker’s 1902 novel The Mystery of the Sea. The rocks had claimed a number of ships over the years and were a source of local lore which would have inspired the novelist. Nearby Slains Castle at the other end of Cruden Bay would inspire Stoker to write his most fampus novel Dracula (but more on that in the next walk!)
Whinnyfold’s fishing industry gradually declined in the early 20th century when boats became larger and more mechanized. The lack of a harbour didn’t help matters and the inaccessibility of the beach to Whinnyfold itself proved to be the ultimate downfall. Nowadays Whinnyfold is a very quiet place and I hardly saw anybody as I wandered through. I took a quick break on a bench at the edge of the village but didn’t stay too long as it was getting really cold.
I followed a path away from the village which ran along the clifftops. I was able to get a good view of Whinnyfold’s beach and I could see how hard it must have been for the fishermen to scramble back up to the village after the end of a hard day’s work. I certainly wouldn’t have liked to do it day after day. A little while later I passed The Skares (above) before the footpath dropped down on to Cruden Bay beach.
I passed an old WWII pillbox before walking along the sands. It was at that this point that the sun decided to come out making it look like I was walking along a Mediterranean beach. It certainly didn’t feel like a Mediterranean beach what with it being winter and a Scottish one at that but it did look nice. It was a pleasant walk along the sands which curved ever so slightly in a northeasterly direction. There were a few people on the beach, especially as got I close to the village side of the bay.
A short while later I was approaching Cruden Bay village, well the Port Erroll part of it anyway. Cruden Bay is technically a two-part village. Closest to the sea is Port Erroll where the first harbour was built in the 16th century by the Earl of Erroll when he also built New Slains Castle. The present harbour was built in 1875 and once supported as many as 68 fishing boats and 190 fishermen. Not surprisingly Port Erroll was a vibrant fishing community.
The village of Cruden Bay itself lies a little way inland although there is no clear marker as to where Port Erroll ends and Cruden Bay begins. Cruden Bay became the name of the overall settlement in 1897 with the arrival of the railway to Port Erroll. The Great North of Scotland Railway who owned the line wanted people to come and use it and so built a large and luxurious hotel – The Cruden Bay Hotel – on the high ground above Port Erroll, complete with a tramway which linked the railway station with the hotel. The Railway company promoted Cruden Bay as the Brighton of the North, a place only twelve hours way from London where the gentry and nouveau riche could come and relax.
Whilst initially popular with holidaymakers (including Bram Stoker) the hotel never really prospered and when the railway closed in 1932 the hotel followed soon afterwards and was requisitioned as an army hospital during World War II before being demolished. Cruden Bay itself declined during the 1950’s and 1960’s but the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970’s saw the village’s fortunes turned around and the population quickly doubled as its handy location within commuting distance of Aberdeen saw Cruden Bay become a popular commuter vllage.
It certainly was a nice place and as I left the beach, crossing a bridge over a wide stream, I looked back down the now sun-drenched sands which was starting to fill up with a few more people. I headed away from Port Erroll soon coming to the main road which passed through the village where I waited for the bus back to Peterhead (after having a cheeky pint in The Kilmarnock Arms Hotel).
It had been a pleasant first coastal walk of the year. It was a bit tough going at times but worth it for the views alone. It was also my last coastal walk as a 30-year old as the next day would be my 31st birthday. I had a cracker of a walk planned out from Cruden Bay to Peterhead for my birthday, a walk which more than delivered, but you can read up about that in my next blog post!