START: Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire
FINISH: Peterhead, Aberdeenshire
DISTANCE: 11.5 miles (Total – 553.6 miles)
APPROXIMATE TIME: 5 hours
OS MAPS: OS Explorer 427
ACCOMMODATION: The Waverley Hotel, Peterhead
It was Monday morning. Now normally on a Monday morning I would be grumbling about going to work. Not this Monday morning though as I was on holiday. Even better it was also my birthday. I had a cracker of a walk planned for my 21st birthday (I say 21st, I’m actually a little bit older but I like to kid myself that I’m still young). The walk involved following the Aberdeenshire Coast Path from the former seaside resort of Cruden Bay, passing the spooky ruins of Slains Castle, the fantastic rock formations of Bullers of Buchan and the historic port of Boddam, until I reached the booming fishing harbour town of Peterhead.
I decided to get an early start on the walk and so at 8.30am I was on the bus leaving Peterhead for Cruden Bay. What would take me a good portion of the day to walk only took me about twenty minutes on the bus. I stocked up on food and drink for the day from the local corner shop before heading back down towards Port Erroll where I had finished off the previous walk (see Coastwalk #45).
It was an absolutely glorious sunny day although still a little chilly. About halfway along the road to Port Erroll there was a car park off to the left. From here I followed was a path through a wooded area towards Slains Castle. The path was quite saturated with water in places as there had been heavy rain throughout the night.
After the path left the wooded area it ran alongside a stream before rising up to head along the clifftops. Ahead I could see the dramatic ruins of Slains Castle. From a distance it looked quite spooky and as I gradually got up close it looked even more so despite the sunny weather
Perhaps unsurprisingly Slains Castle provided the inspiration for one of the all-time great horror novels – Dracula. The author, Bram Stoker, was a regular visitor to the area and also stayed in the castle when it was still inhabited in the late 19th century.
The castle itself dates from the late 16th century when the Earl of Erroll returned from exile in 1597 after his previous castle (called Old Slains Castle) had been blown up by King James VI due to the Earl rebelling against the Crown. Still King James VI was not one to hold a grudge and the Earl was allowed to make his home in the new castle. Over the centuries the castle was extended and in the 19th century was given a whole makeover with a new granite coating which gives it somewhat of a more ‘modern’ look. In 1916 the 20th Earl of Erroll was forced to sell the castle due to mounting financial difficulties. The new owner did nothing with the castle, instead removing the roof and leaving the structure to ruin which it has done for the last 90 years. Planning permission was granted by Aberdeen Council in 2004 for the castle to be completely renovated into 35 holiday homes, however the economic downturn later that decade put a stop to development and nothing further has happened since.
I spent a good twenty minutes exploring the ruins. There was a maze of narrow corridors and large rooms which seemed to never end. Eventually I worked my way through to the other end of the castle and emerged blinking out into the open air. I headed along what I thought was the coastal path but it turned out to be a dead end which led towards a very deep gulley. I peered down into the depths occasionally seeing the swooping of seabirds way down below. I had to almost double back on myself, walking parallel to the castle whilst following what appeared to be the remains of an old moat
A short while later I eventually reached the coastal path and for the next couple of miles I was completely transfixed by the glorious coastal scenery. I passed by half a dozen narrow coves which the path swooped around the edge of. A little further on was a huge rocky island (called The Rock of Dunbuy) which seemed to rise out of the sea (below). On top of one half of the rock was a large gathering of seabirds nesting in the March sunshine. These weren’t the only avian creatures on view though. On a large farmer’s field on the landward side of the path were at least a thousand geese sitting on the grass. Something must have scared them (I don’t think it was me) because as one the whole flock took off and swooped further inland. The rushing of flapping wings was something to behold.
BULLERS OF BUCHAN
About half a mile later the coastal path diverged around a large but narrow cove at the other side of which was a giant finger of rock poking out into the sea. This is known as The Camel’s Back because, well, it looks like the back of a camel. The Camel’s Back had a natural arch cut into it which is known as The Bow of Pitwartlachie Just after this the oath dropped down to the tiny hamlet of Bullers of Buchan. The hamlet was once a fishing village where small boats were launched from the bay below the settlement. The remains of a slipway can still be seen at low tide.
The name ‘Bullers of Buchan’ is an unusual one so where does it come from? Well the Buchan part is easy as this is the name of the surrounding area. ‘Bullers’ is a bit more tricky. Some say it is from the French ‘bouillir’ meaning “to boil” as it the water in the bay appears to be boiling during stormy weather. Others say that it is an old Scottish word meaning “rushing of water”.
Following the coastal path past the small hamlet I soon came to the collapsed sea cave which is also known as Bullers of Buchan. The collapse of an old sea cave has formed a 30 metre (100 foot) deep chasm where the sea water rushes through an archway. The pit is home to a number of seabirds including kittiwakes , guillemots and razorbills, some of which were flying around whilst I took in the views.
From Bullers of Buchan the coastal path snaked along the edge of the clifftops. Each twist and turn in the path brought with it increasingly stunning views, from towering granite cliffs to rocky foreshores and everything inbetween. The path was quite narrow and in some places was in danger of tumbling over the cliff edge. I had to shuffle along these parts rather cautiously, making sure I didn’t plummet into the sea and bring a premature end to the Coastwalk.
About three-quarters-of-a-mile from Bullers of Buchan the coastal path reached an almost lunar like landscape – this was the 1.5 mile long Longhaven Cliffs Wildlife Reserve. The lunar landscape is a result of extensive quarrying which has occurred here over the years. Only now is Mother Nature starting to reclaim the site with grasses and shrubs growing over the rocky landscape and the quarries themselves being filled in with large bodies of water.
I followed an old quarry track through the reserve coming to what looked like a gravestone buried into the grass. This was in fact a memorial to two climbers – James Paterson and Alexander Hamilton – who died whilst climbing the cliffs in 1967. Nearby was an old interpretation panel which mentioned that there was a ruined quarryman’s bothy sitting amongst old quarry workings situated some dozens of feet below where I was standing on the cliffs (see below). I peeked my head over the drop and saw the ruined square of the old bothy. I imagined what life must have been like for the quarry workers – it must have been very tough as the quarry was constantly exposed to the elements.
I continued onwards, following the coastal path as it headed through the nature reserve and then climbed higher up a set of steps. It was getting quite windy at this point and as the path was exposed I was worried about getting blown off into the North Sea. The views were worth it though as at the top a stunning vista opened up. For the next mile or so the path twisted and turned along the clifftops, soon coming to a ruined building next to an old railway trackbed.
The coastal path ran parallel to the trackbed towards Boddam. As the trackbed disappeared into a cutting the path also seemed to just end. I climbed down into the cutting which was boggy and saturated with water so I gingerly made my way along the trackbed for a short while. Fortunately the path suddenly started again so I followed this for a short while until another obstacle presented itself – Highland Cows. I should have been able to continue along the old trackbed into Boddam, however a herd of Highland cows blocked the way so I had to head up to the A90 road and walk along the verge. Luckily for me the verge was quite wide so I was able to avoid getting mowed down by the busy traffic.
A short while later I was in the village of Boddam. At the entrance to the village was a statue dedicated to those who served at RAF Buchan. The RAF base was open for over half a century until its closure in 2005 and was responsible for tracking Soviet aircraft over the North Atlantic during the Cold War. An army cadet camp now uses part of the old base which I wandered past on my way through the village.
Before I got to the seafront I took a little detour down a side street and ended up crossing a bridge onto a tiny island called Buchan Ness. Towering above the island was the red and white striped lighthouse which has been keeping this section of the coast safe for shipping since 1827. The lighthouse, designed by Robert Stevenson (grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson) only became automated in 1988 and the old lighthouse keepers cottage has been made into holiday accommodation.
I retraced my steps back over the bridge and onto the mainland and followed a quiet road until I reached a picnic area overlooking Buchan Ness. I thought now would be a good time to have some birthday lunch and bask in the surprisingly warm glow of the late winter sun.
Even though Boddam is overshadowed by its much larger neighbour Peterhead, this wasn’t always the case. A map produced in the 1600’s showed Boddam to be much larger than its northern neighbour thanks to its safe harbour guarded by Buchan Ness. A short-lived Dutch fishing station was set up in the village in the 1700’s. In 1831 a brand new harbour was built with further extensions and improvements being made throughout the 19th century. Whilst fishing was an important part of the harbour’s trade, a large amount of shipping was used to export the red Peterhead granite taken from the nearby quarries.
The 20th century saw a decline in Boddam’s fortunes with most of the village’s fishing fleet moving towards Peterhead’s better harbour facilities. Fortunately the arrival of the North Sea oil boom saw Boddam’s harbour occasionally being used as an oil support base and also to support the construction of Peterhead Power Station which looms over the village in the 1970’s. Nowadays there are still a small number of fishing boats that use the harbour.
There is an unusual story which links Boddam with the coastal town of Hartlepool hundreds of miles away in North East England. According to local legend in Hartlepool, a monkey washed up from a shipwreck near the port of Hartlepool during the Napoleonic Wars. As the wrecked ship belonged to the enemy the French the Hartlepudlians assumed that the monkey was in fact from France and so hanged him thinking they were doing their patriotic duty. Over time the term “monkey hanger” became a derogatory term for people from Hartlepool although in recent years the inhabitants of the town have come to embrace the town and even the local football club’s mascot is called H’Angus the Monkey (who was also elected to be the town’s mayor on three consecutive occasions (see Coast Stories #2) .
What is perhaps less well known is that the Hartlepool story was probably inspired by a folk song about a similar tale in Boddam. According to an early 19th century folk song called ” The Boddamers hung the Monkey-O ” a shipwreck in 1772 of a boat called Annie occurred off the coast near Boddam. The fishermen of Boddam climbed aboard the stricken boat looking for cargo and materials to loot The laws of the day allowed people to claim booty from shipwrecks as long as no-one remained alive on the boat. Unfortunately for the fishermen there was still someone (or in this case something) alive on the boat – a monkey. Unfortunately for the monkey he had to be hanged by the fishermen so they could claim their looted booty.
The tale of the monkey hanging moved down south, being the inspiration for various monkey-related stories including Scottish ballads published in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the 1820’s about a monkey being confused as a barber by an Irishman, and a tale in Newcastle in the same decade of a baboon belonging to Russian cossacks who visited Tyneside with their pet baboon dressed up in the finest military regalia. By the 1850’s this story had been moved further south by popular entertainer Ned Corvan whose song of the Hartlepool monkey hanging was heavily based on the one in Boddam. It even had the same tune.
If you’re ever in the Boddam area please resist the urge to mention the monkey hanging story as the locals really don’t like the story as it was used to insult the village and it’s inhabitants. Still I think it’s a wonderful tale which links the north-east of Scotland with the north-east of England.
My break over I wandered along to the harbour which was devoid of any fishing boats although a couple were on dry land getting repaired. From the harbour I zigzagged up another level so I could join the coastal path which was wedged in between a seafood factory and the perimeter fence of Peterhead Power Station. Past the seafood factory the path ran along the shoreline before climbing up another level to avoid a landslip. There was a cracking view across the bay with large ships docked up at a jetty on the Peterhead side or waiting out at sea to come into harbour.
The path headed through the remains of an old walled garden belonging to a dilapidated house. On the other side of the walled garden the path dropped back down to the beach before climbing up again at the Peterhead end of the bay. I took one last look across the Bay which was framed by the tall chimney of Peterhead Power Station.
I dropped down to a road which serviced the southern part of Peterhead’s harbour before following a road which climbed uphill into Burnhaven, a former fishing village which has now been swallowed up by Peterhead. I followed a road which swooped around alongside the old Peterhead Prison, one of Scotland’s most notorious prisons which is now a museum.
During its years of operation the prison was known as “The Hate Factory” due to its overcrowded and primitive conditions (there was no internal sanitation available in the cells). In September 1987 tensions amongst the prisoners erupted spectacularly and violently when 50 inmates took control of D-Hall and took two prison warders hostage. One of the warders was released after a day but the other warder was taken up on to the prison’s roof by the prisoners and beaten and threatened with being set on fire. The riot lasted for five days when it was spectacularly ended by an SAS raid. The old prison was closed in 2013 after 125 years of service with a brand new prison opening just a short distance away.
I continued to follow the road past the old prison which eventually brought me to a path which led down to a small campsite nestled along the shore. I headed down this way and took a short break at a bench overlooking the bay. After I rested my legs for a bit I continued along the coastal path until it reached the other side of the bay. Here the path led up into Peterhead proper and I followed a couple roads which took me past a half dozen or so warehouses until I came to the town’s harbour.
There has been a harbour at Peterhead for over 400 years. Not is it only an important port for servicing the North Sea Oil and Gas industry but it is Europe’s largest fishing port. Over 173,000 tonnes of fish were landed at Peterhead in 2017 creating some £200 million for the local economy. The harbour was certainly a busy place as I passed with a number of huge fishing boats lined up next to the docks either unloading their daily catch or waiting to launch back out to sea. The smell of fish was heavy in the air, adding to the cacophony of noise.
It was at the harbour that I decided to finish the walk as my hotel was only just round the corner. On the short walk back to the hotel I reflected on how it had been another great walk along the Aberdeenshire coastal path which as always brought so much variety and interest at every stage. This walk from Cruden Bay to Peterhead would easily be placed into the top five walks I’ve done so far on the Coastwalk as the scenery was outstanding particularly in the run up to Boddam from Longhaven Cliffs. There was so much history on offer too with the gothic ruins of Slains Castle and the tale of the ‘Monkey Hangers of Boddam’.
The next day’s walk was subject to weather conditions. Over the weekend the weathermen on TV had been practically having a panic attack over Storm Gareth which was set to pile through the UK during the next couple of days bringing 75mph winds and a heapful of rain with it. I was hoping to walk to the village of St Combs, some 15 miles distant from Peterhead but it all depended on the weather. In the end I split the walk up over two days but more about that in the next post. Happy reading!
Cruden BayBullers of Buchan