Coastwalk #53 – Portgordon to Lossiemouth

START: Portgordon, Moray

FINISH: Lossiemouth, Moray

DISTANCE: 15.2 miles (Total – 635.5 miles)

APPROXIMATE TIME: 5.5 hours

OS MAPS: OS Explorers 423 & 324

ACCOMMODATION: Victoria Cottage, Whitehills

Sadly it was my last full day in Aberdeenshire and Moray. I had seen some absolute wonders during the past few days in this lovely part of the world but it was now time for my final walk of the week, a journey from the former fishing village of Portgordon to the town of Lossiemouth.

PORTGORDON

I jumped on the bus from Whitehills, the village where I was staying at, for the hour long journey to Portgordon where I had finished off the previous day. I got off at the last bus stop before the bus heads out of Portgordon. From here, I followed Stewart Street along the shore front which then curved away out of the village. Just outside Portgordon a sign for the Speyside Way and Moray Coast Path sign pointed me along a track which led underneath the road. Beyond the bridge the track led straight as an arrow along a raised embankment through some fields. This track was actually the trackbed of the Great North of Scotland Railway which ran along the coast until the line’s closure in 1968.

Portgordon’s long-demolished railway station once found itself at the centre of a wartime spy plot. On the night of the 29th September 1940 a flying boat took off from Stavanger in Norway, which was then under the control of Nazi Germany. The flying boat’s mission was to drop three German spies off under the cover of darkness on the Moray coast. The flying boat landed somewhere between Buckie and Portgordon where the spies rowed themselves ashore. The spies, Robert Petter, Karl Drucke and Vera Eriksen, had assumed false identities – Petter was to be a Swiss national, Drucke a French refugee from Belgium and Eriksen a Danish exile supposedly living in London. After landing the trio were supposed to cycle to London together (which is a hell of a distance from the Moray coast) however unfortunately for the three spies their bicycles had been washed overboard on the way in.

The three decided to split up; Petter went towards Buckie, whilst Drucke and Eriksen headed towards Portgordon railway station hoping to catch the train to Forres. The duo arrived at the station at 7.30am. Eriksen asked for the name of the station she was at which immediately aroused the suspicion of the station staff. She then asked for two tickets to “Forrest”. As Drucke went to pay, laying way too much money on the counter, the stationmaster noticed that the clothing on the bottom of both spies’ legs were soaking wet. Being very suspicious the stationmaster asked the porter to keep the two strangers talking whilst he telephoned the local constable.

Ten minutes later the constable arrived and asked Eiksen and Drucke for their identity cards. Although both claimed to be refugees, the constable noticed that their cards didn’t have an immigration stamp on them. His suspicions heightened the constable asked the two to accompany him to the police station where he called for an inspector from Buckie to come and help out. When the inspector arrived he carried out a search on Eriksen and Drucke discovering a box of revolver ammunition on them. Eriksen tried her best to worm out of capture but every word she uttered placed herself and Drucke deeper into the mire. The pair were taken to Buckie where a more thorough search was carried out. Their luggage was found to contain a Mauser pistol and a flick-knife along with wireless equipment, batteries, a torch, a list of RAF bases and perhaps what sealed their fate, a half-eaten German sausage.

The third agent, Petter, had been more successful, managing to board a train from Buckie to Aberdeen. Unfortunately for him the agencies had been put on high alert and when the Aberdeen police were alerted they confirmed that a man of Petter’s description had boarded a train to Edinburgh at Aberdeen. Petter was arrested by Police at Edinburgh Waverley railway station.

Both Petter and Drucke were tried and executed at Wandsworth prison in August 1941, however Eriksen wasn’t given the ultimate penalty because it was discovered she was pregnant. The top brass were against sentencing a pregnant woman to death and so Eriksen spent the rest of the war in jail before being repatriated back to Germany once hostilities had ceased.

Fortunately there were no German spies walking along the trackbed whilst I was there. In fact there was nobody walking at all so for the next couple of miles it seemed like I had the whole world to myself. The trackbed made a beeline for a line of trees on the horizon. Away to my right the coastline made off towards Spey Bay where I hoped to end up, however my route took a bit more of a tangent before I would get there.

As I got to the line of trees, which turned out to be more of a wood, the trackbed disappeared underneath a bridge which was blocked by vegetation. My route took me up onto a track and then left into the wood. Huge trees towered over me from either side of the track. For the next mile the path meandered its way through the trees, passing by a large quarry, just about hidden through the wood. Again there was not a soul about and I did begin to wonder if the apocalypse had happened since I had left Portgordon. After more meandering the path came alongside the road to Spey Bay and a couple of cars passed by easing my worries that the world hadn’t in fact ended.

SPEY BAY

The footpath through the woods continued on for a short while before coming out behind some houses. I passed through a gap between two houses and joined the road through the village. Spey Bay may be a small quiet settlement now but in its heyday it was a popular destination for the rich and famous, largely thanks to the coming of the railway which passed to the south of the village. I passed by a rubble-strewn area which was once the site of a large hotel.

Spey Bay was well known for its salmon fishing station which opened in 1768. I came across the old fishing station at the end of the village which had a large ice house, the majority of which was hidden underground. The ice house, which is the largest in Scotland, was built in 1830. Ice gathered in winter from the frozen River Spey was used to store freshly caught salmon in the ice house to keep them fresh for longer. The last salmon was caught in 1991 and the former salmon fishing station was taken over by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society to create the Scottish Dolphin Centre. Spey Bay is a haven for all forms of wildlife, from coastal birds to bottlenose dolphins and grey and common seals.

I took a quick break outside the ice house on a bench that overlooked the bay. I couldn’t see any dolphins which may have something to do with the sporadic machine gun fire from a little further up the coast. Surprisingly this is quite a regular occurrence here, not because the locals are gun mad but because there is a army shooting range right on the coast a couple of miles away. This would prove a bit of a problem later in the walk as I would have to divert around the shooting range.

My break over, I followed the road round the other side of the Scottish Dolphin Centre, taking a track to the right which led across a stream and then alongside the River Spey. The views across the river were great, even it was a bit of a murky day. The track continued southwards for about a mile, running roughly parallel with the river. At a crossroads there were a number of signs pointing in different directions. The Speyside Way headed straight onwards, however the Moray Coast Path which I wanted to follow headed off through some woods along the old railway trackbed to my right.

I followed the path and a short while later came out onto one of the jewels along this part of the coast – the Spey Viaduct. During 1883 there was great excitement in the area as the railway was finally going to reach the towns and villages along the coast, however the railway engineers faced a great problem in the shape of the unpredictable River Spey. The engineers had a bit of a dilemma; they couldn’t rely on the middle span not being washed away in the frequent floods along the river or being secure in the constantly changing riverbed. The engineers settled on sinking several paired cylinders into the riverbed with the main channel being spanned by a huge 350ft metal arch which at the time was the longest such in Scotland. Either side of the main span were three further spans each a 100ft long. It was a mighty project and there is no surprise that it took three years to build the bridge.

It is therefore a shame that the bridge was only in use for 77 years with the lines closure in 1963 bringing to an end the need for a bridge. There was a proposal to turn it into a road bridge in the 1970’s to ease traffic on the main coastal road but it would prove to be too costly and so the idea was dropped. Fortunately the bridge has been preserved and thousands cross the Spey every year underneath its arches either on foot or on cycle. I walked along the main wooden walkway which marked where the rails once lay, admiring the metalwork that crisscrossed above my head and to my side. I tried not to look through the wooden slats at either side of the walkway as the river looked very far away beneath me.

At the other side of the bridge the path continued along the trackbed for a short while until I reached a bridge where a Moray Coast Path sign pointed me up the embankment and into the village of Garmouth.

GARMOUTH & KINGSTON

Garmouth was a wonderful village to walk through although I did wonder where it got its name from, being a mile inland and on the banks of the River Spey not the River Gar. The name is actually misleading, instead it comes from the Gaelic “gearr magh” meaning narrow plain. Despite its location, Garmouth was a significant port from the sixteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. It was also a centre for exported logs which were floated down the Spey from the Rothiemurchus Forest. The log industry also led to the establishment of a new settlement a mile downstream right on the coast called Kingston-on-Spey, which I would pass through in a short while.

By the 1860’s the supply of wood from Rothiemurchus Forest was drying up and the Spey itself was changing course making it harder for the harbour at Garmouth to operate effectively. Gradually the industry came to an end, and Garmouth became a residential settlement, which it remains to this day. It was pretty quiet as I wandered through the village, most of the inhabitants must have been out at work.

I took a little break in Garmouth before continuing on along the road which led out of the village towards Kingston, about a mile away. Kingston as it is now known was founded in 1784 by Messrs Dodsworth and Osborne who were shipbuilders from Kingston-upon-Hull in England. Dodsworth and Osborne signed a contract with the landowner the Duke of Gordon to buy all the timber in the Duke’s Glenmore and Rothiemurchus Forests which were then floated down the river to Garmouth and Kingston. Dodsworth and Osborne established a shipyards at Kingston where ships of up to 500 tons were built to service the tea trade from India. Over the next forty years until the shipyard’s closure in 1815 some fifty-five ships were built at Kingston.

Following the shipyard’s closure, one of the shipwrights William Geddies purchased a wreck at Lossiemouth, re-floated it and used the profits to set up a new shipyard in Kingston which was in operation until the 1880’s. Geddes shipyard wasn’t the only one in Kingston during this time; by the 1860’s there were seven shipyards in operation in the village. Kingston was home to some twenty-five shipbuilders and ship masters and a further fifty-seven people who were employed in the shipbuilding industry including carpenters, painters and sailmakers. All in all some three hundred vessels were built in Kingston until the last ships were built prior to the outbreak of the First World War. By this time shipbuilding in Kingston had severely declined as it couldn’t keep up with more modern shipbuilding techniques where steel and steam were all the range.

Like Garmouth, Kingston too is a quiet residential settlement. Again there was barely a soul about as I wandered through the grid-patterned streets. Ahead I could see there was a bit of fog and mist further along the coast and I did wonder if I should carry on. The sound of heavy machine gun fire was also getting closer and more intense so I would have to deal with getting round this shortly.

I left Kingston behind me and followed a path which led through a flat area of wasteland. Off to my right was a long pebbly mound which was strung all the way along the coast. The path ran alongside the pebbly mound for a while and then alongside a line of concrete anti-tank blocks left over from World War II. Ahead in the murk I could see a small hut and a flagpole which had a red flag fluttering in the breeze. Unsurprisingly the heavy gunfire I had heard most of the morning meant that I could not walk along this part of the coast, not unless I wanted my head to get shot off.

As I got closer to the little hut I could see a man wearing camouflage gear standing inside. When I got there I asked him if there was path round the shooting range which was hidden deep in the forest ahead of me. He replied that there was and I was to follow the path which led off to the left for a few hundred metres before another track would take me around the edge of the shooting range. So off I followed this track. Unfortunately when I got to the other path which should have taken me around the shooting range there was a closed gate there with another red flag fluttering at the top of a flag pole next to it. I did not want to anger the Army by heading along this track so I continued to follow a path which took me through some trees and then alongside an old abandoned farmhouse.

I followed a gravelled track which took me away from the farmhouse and further away from the coast. There didn’t seem to be any way back into the forest so I continued along the track until I joined a minor road which ran parallel to the coast but a couple of miles inland. I kept studying my OS map looking to see if there was a way back onto the coast. A quarter of a mile later I noticed a track off to my right heading off into the forest so I decided to follow this hoping there would be a way back on to the coast.

The track headed uphill until I was standing on top of a hill which overlooked the coast. Fortunately some of the mist had been burned away by the sun which was starting to peek in through the clouds so I was able to get a good view of where I was in relation to the coast, although now I could see no way as to how I actually would get down there. Fortunately there was man out walking his dog so I asked him if there was a path down into the forest and the coast. He said there was and pointed me towards a rough path which led downhill off to my left. I thanked him and followed the track which descended steeply down the hill.

Ahead of me was the edge of Lossie Forest. I followed a path which seemed to be heading towards the coast and fortunately for me it did. I came out on the line of WW2 anti-tank cubes and the long mound of pebbles which actually blocked my sight of the sea itself. I took a little break here as it had been a hell of a detour.

I sat on the pebbly mound for about half an hour whilst I had a bite to eat. The machine gun fire was still going on off to my right and off to my left was the roar of jet engines taking off from RAF Lossiemouth further up the coast. With the Army and the Air Force creating a big racket I was half expecting the Navy to join in by shelling the beach I was on.

My break over I continued onwards following the coastal path as it passed mile by mile of endless anti-tank cubes which were interspersed every hundred meters or so by decaying pillboxes. This part of the walk wasn’t the best I’ve ever done. After a couple of miles it got a bit monotonous especially as it was misty everything just seemed so grey.

LOSSIEMOUTH

Eventually the relics of World War II petered out and the coastal path joined Lossiemouth’s East Beach which seemed to stretch on forever towards Lossiemouth which I could make out in the distance. As I got closer to Lossiemouth the sun managed to burn its way through the mist once again so by the time I got to the town it seemed like a lovely summer’s day. The beach came to an end at the mouth of the River Lossie which meant that I had to cross a very long footbridge which led from the beach over the river and into the town.

The path led into the Seatown part of Lossiemouth which was established at the end of the 17th century to replace an older much further inland at Spynie which had been cut off from the sea by a series of storms. I crossed over Spynie Canal which was constructed during the early 19th century to drain Loch Spynie and the low-lying areas surrounding the loch. I joined the main road into the town where I decided to finish the walk as there was a handy bus stop there where I could get the bus back into Elgin and then back to the cottage in Whitehills.

The final walk of the week had been the longest and also one of the most varied and interesting, from old railway lines and bridges to ice houses and shooting ranges. It had been another fantastic week’s walking. Aberdeenshire and now Moray continued to highlight how wonderful the Scottish coast is as it constantly throws up surprises and memorable places. I could not wait to continue along the Moray coast and I would be back within a matter of weeks, but more on that in another post!

REFERENCES

Portgordon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portgordon_railway_station

https://web.archive.org/web/20130809072053/http://rgu-sim.rgu.ac.uk/history/German%20Spies.htm

Spey Bay

https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/speybay/speybay/index.html

https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4368426

https://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/reserve/spey-bay/

https://dolphincentre.whales.org/

http://www.speymouth.co.uk/the-spey-viaduct/

Garmouth & Kingston

https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/garmouth/garmouth/index.html

https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/kingston/kingston/index.html

http://www.speymouth.co.uk/shipbuilding-on-the-spey/

Lossiemouth

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lossiemouth

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