START: Peterhead, Aberdeenshire
FINISH: St Combs, Aberdeenshire
DISTANCE: 15 miles (Total – 568.6 miles)
APPROXIMATE TIME: 6 hours
OS MAPS: OS Explorer 427
ACCOMMODATION: The Waverley Hotel, Peterhead
I was originally planning to do the stretch of the coastline between Peterhead and St Combs over the course of one day, however there had been weather warnings in place because Storm Gareth was threatening to ravage much of the UK with 75mph winds and torrential rain. I didn’t really want to miss out a day’s walking so I decided to split the walk over two days. As Storm Gareth wasn’t due to be at its worst until the afternoon at the earliest I decided to walk the short distance up the coast to the village of St Fergus some five miles from Peterhead during the morning. I would then do do the rest of the walk the following day when the worst of the weather had passed.
So on Tuesday morning I was back down at Peterhead’s busy harbour ready to start the day’s mini-walk. It was very overcast and the wind had been picking up throughout the morning. The threat of stormy weather wasn’t stopping the people in the harbour though as the place was a hive of activity with big fishing boats unloading their overnight catch.
I continued past the harbour heading alongside a couple of roads which in turn hugged the shoreline until I was brought out on to a grassy open area called Gadle Braes. There used to be a spa along here, one of the last ones built in the town in the 1820’s. In 1824 in an attempt to recover Peterhad’s reputation as a prominent spa town the Community of Friars contributed £5 towards the building of a well house. Unfortunately it was too little too late as the wealthy patrons who used the spa waters continued to drift away towards more fashionable resorts.
At the other side of Gadle Braes was the little harbour of Buchanhaven. Originally separate from Peterhad, this former fishing village has been swallowed up by the town’s expansion through the 20th century however for a time during the 19th and early 20th century it was a thriving fishing community. It is believed that the fishing village came into existence around 1814 when a boat’s crew of five fishing families from St Combs settled here.
A small pier was built here during the 1830’s and then further improvements in the 1850’s and 1860’s allowed larger boats used to the small harbour. By the 1860’s some 27 boats were calling the harbour home but there was a problem with over fishing particularly during the final decades of the 19th century. In the 20th century more and more fishermen moved to nearby Peterhead where there were better harbour facilities. To this day there are still a few boats that use the harbour but nowhere near to the extent that they were during the village’s heyday.
I continued past the harbour following a promenade which ran alongside the mouth of the River Ugie. Ahead was a small building which had smoke coming out of the chimney and a distinct fishy smell. This is the Ugie Salmon Fish House which is used to smoke salmon and has been doing since 1585, making it the oldest working smokehouse in Scotland.
A little way past the smokehouse was a bridge which crossed the River Ugie. There used to be a ferry here until 1925 which was the only way to easily access the golf course on the north bank of the Ugie from the Buchanhaven side. The bridge opened on the 11th April 1925 and all the children who attended the opening ceremony were given a free aster egg.
Sadly I didn’t get an easter egg as I crossed the bridge onto the north bank of the Ugie. Ahead was the path towards the clubhouse however I took a sandy path that led off through to the dunes to the right and eventually on to the beach. It was also at this point that the sun decided to make an unexpected appearance. What was even better was that the wind, whilst still strong was definitely calming a little.
I followed the beach before rounding the small headland of Craigewan which brought me out on to a much longer beach. This was my companion for the next couple of miles towards St Fergus as I pondered whether to do the full walk to St Combs or stop off at St Fergus as originally planned. The weather forecast was still predicting a nightmare of an afternoon, however the increasing sunshine and the dropping wind almost made a mockery of this. In the end I decided to stop the walk at St Fergus as after here there was nowhere I could finish the walk and be able to get back to Peterhead until I got to St Combs some ten mile distant. Plus if the weather did make a turn for the worse I could get stranded with nowhere to go.
So after about forty minutes I came to a track which led to St Fergus a mile inland. Before I headed up the track I did sit on the beach for about half an hour as it was actually quite pleasant. I did ponder again to keep going but in the end I wandered up the track towards St Fergus where I could get the bus back to Peterhead.
The following morning I was back in St Fergus. The promised storm hadn’t materialized as bad as it had been made out to be, however it was extremely windy with winds hitting 50mph. Apart from that it was a nice sunny day and there was little rain threatened so I thought I would risk the walk.
As I headed back down the road towards the beach at St Fergus I noticed another hiker heading up the road from the beach. We stopped to exchange pleasantries (just as a cloudburst spectacularly erupted soaking us both) and whilst we were talking I got the strangest feeling that this guy was called Martin Shipley. I didn’t just pluck this name out of thin air. If I did I would be able to make a lot of money by guessing people’s names. No rather I had been following another coastal walker on Facebook called Martin who was walking around the UK coast over 9 months in aid of Thrombosis UK. Martin had started off in North Yorkshire a few weeks previously and had been speedily making his way up the east coast of Britain. I knew he was in the Peterhead area but I though the chances of me meeting him were slim.
I asked him “are you Martin Shipley?” He looked a little bit taken aback for a split second probably thinking that I was some sort of stalker (which technically I suppose I was) but said “yes”. I then said “my name is James and I have been following you on Facebook”. We had a brief chat but the cloudburst was getting heavier so we parted ways hoping to meet up later in the walk. Martin was taking a more inland route up the coastal road as he was unsure if he could get past the huge oil terminal at St Fergus. To be honest I wasn’t sure if I could either but I thought I would give it a try.
I walked along the beach soon coming to a large stream which emptied into the sea. It was too wide, too deep and too fast flowing to cross safely so I hunted around for a safe crossing point. According to the OS map there was a little bridge across the stream which I eventually found. This brought me right alongside the huge gas terminal. The terminal has been operating since 1977 and receives around a quarter of the UK’s gas supply from the North Sea.
My path took me around the perimeter fence of the terminal and there were signs everywhere warning against trespassing. I felt a bit sheepish as I quickly walked by, hoping that the security personnel inside the terminal didn’t think I was up to no good. Luckily I was able to move away from the terminal and after topping a big dune I was able to drop down to the beach.
For the next couple of miles I struggled against the very strong headwind and the shifting soft sands. I had to stop a couple of times as it was really quite hard going in places. I could see the lighthouse at Rattray Head getting closer and closer and the best part of the hour had passed before I was able to get there. Before I reached the lighthouse I noticed a load of wood jutting out of the sands like jagged teeth (below).
This was in fact a shipwreck belonging to the Excelsior, a Norwegian barque which ran aground here in November 1881 during a strong gale whilst en-route from South Carolina in the United States to Bo’ness near Edinburgh. Fortunately the crew of thirteen was saved by the crew of the RNLI Lifeboat at Peterhead, however the ship was a total loss and has been lying here ever since slowly but surely being reclaimed by the sea.
Just past the wreck of the Excelsior was the spectacular building of Rattray Head Lighthouse which lies just a little of the coast. Work began on the lighthouse in 1892 taking three years to complete. The lighthouse is accessible at low tide via a causeway however it must have been slightly isolating for the lighthouse keepers who lived there until it was fully automated in 1982. The lighthouse came under attack during the Second World War when on the 20th September 1941 an enemy plane dropped three bombs and machined gunned the lantern itself. Fortunately no one was injured and the lighthouse survived any major damage.
Rattray itself used to be the site of a substantial medieval village located at the south-east tip of Loch of Strathbeg which in the 12th century was actually a bay of the North Sea. The village came with its own castle, a chapel dedicated to St Mary and a harbour. The village was made a Royal Burgh by Queen Mary in 1564 meaning that it was directly ruled by the Crown rather than through some nobleman. This didn’t appear to improve the prosperity of the village which was already in decline due to shifting sands making access to the harbour more and more difficult. According to local legend the final death knell for the village came in 1720 when a storm blow a mass of sand across the bay blocking off the channel that linked the harbour to the sea forever. A map of the area completed in the 1750’s showed the chapel of St Mary remaining but no sign of the village itself.
As i rounded Rattray Head I got a bit of a taste taste of what that storm of 1720 did to the sands in this area. Fifty mile a hour winds were blowing a ton of sand right into my face and for the remainder of the journey I could have built a sandcastle out of the sand that was in my eyes. It was tough going as I was now walking directly into the wind but I was still having the time of my life.
I continued along the beach occasionally glancing over my shoulder to see if Martin was behind me. As I got further along the beach I could see someone about a mile behind dropping down from the dunes onto the beach. I slowed my pace a little hoping that it was Martin walking along the beach. Just ahead I had to get round a fast moving stream that flowed out of Loch of Strathbeg which was too wide to get across. After a bit of searching I was able to find a bridge which crossed the stream.
As I was heading along the north bank of the stream I came across Martin who was heading the opposite way on the south bank. I waited for him to catch up and we had a good natter about everything from coastal walking to films as we headed along the beach towards St Combs. It was really interesting to hear the reason why another coastal walker was walking the UK coast. Whereas I’m just doing it just for the hell of it Martin is raising money from Thrombosis UK. It’s a fantastic challenge what he is doing – walking the coastline every single day for 9 months clocking some 3800 plus miles, being joined by his wife Maureen at various points along the coast.
Martin talked about the other walks he and Maureen had done in the past including from Cape Wrath at the northwest tip of Scotland to Dover in the south east of England, a sort of alternative to the Lands End to John O Groats route (which they have also done). Martin and Maureen wrote a book about their Cape Wrath to Dover journey called A Bit of a Caper
It wasn’t long before me and Martin ate up the miles to St Combs. We actually went a little too far ahead of ourselves, almost continuing well out the village towards Inverallochy. After asking a local resident for directions we headed up into the village where I could catch the bus back to Peterhead and Martin could continue on to Fraserburgh by a more direct route along the coastal road. There was half an hour wait for the bus and Martin was kind enough to wait with me. It also gave him chance to have a much needed food break as he still had a few miles more to go, having already walked about fifteen miles that day alone.
Sadly my bus showed up and I waved goodbye to Martin, wishing him well for the rest of his incredible journey. The bus journey back to Peterhead was a great chance to reflect on what had been a good walk over the two days. There had been plenty to see and it was really nice to meet another coastal walker. Tomorrow’s walk, the final one of the week would see me head back to St Combs and head northwestwards along the coast through the port town of Fraserburgh to the former fishing village of Rosehearty,. It promised to be a nice walk and I was really looking forward to it but more about that in the next post! Happy reading!
P.S. If you have a few spare quid lying around please donate to Matthew and Maureen’s wonderful cause at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/teamshipley. Thank you!