The city of Dundee’s old, informal slogan has stuck with me for decades, and I’m not really sure why. Maybe I don’t see a lot of “j” words, maybe it’s the incongruity of the three things together, or maybe alliteration really is powerful. What I do know is that Dundee was an industrial powerhouse in the 19th Century, and the jute industry stood at the center of this boom.
So what is jute, anyway? You might know it as burlap, gunny cloth, or hessian. According to Wikipedia, jute is a “long, shiny vegetable fiber that can be spun into coarse, strong threads.” The jute plant needs a warm climate and standing water — notably NOT Scotland. Jute has been used for textiles in the Indus river valley for the last 5,000 years, and the British Empire, especially the Dundee jute barons, set up many jute mills in India and Bangladesh.
Jute baron. Man, what a title.
Dundee’s history with jute and industrial textiles is on display at the Verdant Works, a truly immersive museum experience in a refurbished mill building in the heart of Dundee. There’s lot to see — let’s go!
There was plenty of standing (and falling) water on the day I marched across town to the Verdant Works. Housed in a series of sturdy red-brick buildings with green warehouse doors, the Verdant Works presents an atmospheric journey through the Dundonian milling industry at the turn of the 20th Century.
A wander at the Verdant Works is a self-guided affair where you can moderate the speed of your journey through time as you see fit. This is really nice because there’s a lot of information here and some areas will appeal more than others. For my part, I didn’t find the initial section — the mill’s offices — with the somewhat creepy mannequins (a feature throughout) all that stimulating. However, this section of the Verdant Works illuminated the imperial aspect of the jute industry and just how much jute was big business in 1900.
One of the cool things about Verdant Works is that it’s composed of a series of buildings which you enter and exit throughout your visit. It’s an engaging part of the visit that’s very non-standard for museums. Leaving the Works Office I ventured down a long corridor that detailed the entire process of harvesting and processing jute.
Textiles are certainly taken for granted in this day and age, and never has that been clearer than during my musing in this corridor. The jute plant grows in sub-tropical regions, and its fibers are extracted through a process called retting. When retting, you gather a bundle of jute stems and holding them in slow, running water, which I assume allows the fibers to separate. This is a laborious, manual process, and it’s here that some bright mind in Dundee realized that if you treated the jute with whale oil it could be processed by a machine. Cue the jute boom.
The machine hall at Verdant Works is loaded with jute-processing devices from yesteryear. The ingenuity that goes into creating such a process is truly amazing. Every step of the way Verdant Works has endeavored to place this product in the context of the time period, workers’ lives, and its impact on Scotland. It’s no wonder Dundee was also a ship-building hub — jute played a huge role in tallship rigging and sails, just the infrastructure the British Empire needed to sail halfway around the world to its colonies in the Indian subcontinent.
As I passed through exhibit after exhibit on the production and processing of jute, I also learned about mechanical engineering, the Boulton and Watt steam engine, and social justice regarding women and work and social housing. Verdant Works is far more than a museum about jute or even Dundee, it’s a multi-disciplinary exhibit covering industrial and social history, even art!
I feel compelled to reiterate just how much of a museum person I’m not, but once again Dundee has shattered my expectations (Discovery Point being the other time) for a textile museum. Verdant Works opened in 1996 and was named a Recognised Collection of National Significance in 2008.
The reasons to visit Dundee are stacking up. What are you waiting for?
Aberdeenshire is an intriguing mix of ancient history and modern agriculture that creates real planning conflicts for those seeking the breath-taking beauty of the western highlands. Nowhere else in Scotland is as densely populated with castles and ancient stones, and while the landscape here isn’t as ruggedly mesmerizing as the Isle of Skye, Wester Ross, or Lochaber, it has a pastoral pleasantry that wraps around these ancient places like a gift bow.
One of the most amazing aspects of this rich density of history is that many of the ancient places aren’t even marked on maps. You have to scour the internet to identify these places in farm fields, lonely hills, and even front yards! But once you’ve done the homework to find your targets you’re in the market for some enthralling exploration.
Before my travels around Aberdeenshire last spring I did just this (picture Gandalf blowing dust from scrolls beneath Minas Tirith) and winnowed down my chosen sites to a handful along my route. One of the favorites I turned up was the Picardy Stone, a two-meter tall Pictish symbol stone near the town of Insch, not far from the main A97 road running between Aberdeen and Moray.
Leaving the outskirts of Insch and proceeding down an oak-lined lane between two farm fields, I soon noticed a small enclosure near the road. I pulled over and easily found a towering stone — not all that different from the Maiden Stone‘s situation — thrust out from a bed of crushed gravel at the end of an emerald field. In the distance I could see Dunnideer Hill, which is a great hike itself.
The origin of the Picardy Stone’s name is lost to history, but what isn’t lost is the stone’s original erecting place because it’s still here. This is pretty unusual in Scotland — stones fall over, get moved by irascible farmers, and eventually find their way into glass enclosures or museums. This monolith is nominally protected by a gate that really only serves to keep out livestock, so I was able to get up and close and personal with this magnificent piece of history.
We know precious little about the Pictish stones. We can catalog the enigmatic symbols that decorate the Picardy Stone, but we can’t interpret them. In fact, the signboard accompanying the stone posits no less than three meanings for the symbols in three sentences.
We do know that the stone was probably erected around 600 AD, and…yep, that’s the extent of our knowledge. The Picts reused many symbols on their stones, like the double-disc and Z-road appearing on the top of the Picardy Stone. Beneath them you’ll see the Z-rod again, this time with the serpent.
What does it all mean? Are they pictographs like hieroglyphics? Are the stones burial markers? The boundaries of land ownership? Something far less mundane and much more mystical?
The Picardy Stone is unique in another way. The remains of a burial cairn and an empty grave-shaped pit were found next to and under the Picardy Stone.
I stood here awhile soaking in the historic magnificence and sensing the subtle breezes. Words don’t do justice to places like this. There’s a power here, mostly forgotten, largely still present, waiting for an open mind to see it with a different eye.
The name conjures images of marmalade and a flimsy 80s action(?) hero with a knife. For the aspiring visitor to Scotland, Dundee hasn’t leaped off the map begging for attention in a long time. Maybe ever. In fact, more than one old guidebook I’ve perused essentially says to avoid the city.
That is the past, and if you want to get a taste of the future you ought to come to Dundee soon because things are changing in Scotland’s fourth largest city, and they’re changing fast. A youthful energy suffuses Dundee today and with that energy comes modern high tech industry, attractions, and hospitality. I visited for the first time last spring and experienced the thriving atmosphere rippling across the city. I also found my favorite “museum” in Scotland: Discovery Point.
Located on Dundee’s waterfront opposite the rail station and adjacent to the new and lavish V&A Museum, Discovery Point provides an immersive dive into Antarctic exploration and a chance to wander onboard an actual tallship that made the voyage — the RRS Discovery.
The Discovery Point experience begins in the exhibit, which is housed in an interesting octagonal structure beside the ship. Scale-model tallships, artifacts, and scads of informational boards detail the story of Captain Scott’s 1901 expedition to Antarctica, known as the British National Antarctic Expedition.
The RRS Discovery is a barque-rigged auxiliary steamship purpose-built for this mission, the last traditional three-masted ship ever built in the United Kingdom, and one of only two surviving expedition ships from the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. That title might seem a little overblown — I certainly thought it was before I visited Discovery Point — but I soon learned it is apt indeed.
Wandering the exhibits and learning about Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his courageous crew of 48 hand-picked men, it’s impossible not to feel the anxiety and excitement of this mission, and the bravery these men displayed by volunteering to journey into the frozen unknown a world away. Among the crewmen was Ernest Shackleton, one of the age’s true heroes and a folkloric figure among whisky drinkers as well, for it was beneath one of his Antarctic encampments that a case of 100-year old whisky was discovered not long ago.
The RRS Discovery had next to no time for sea trials, so her maiden voyage to New Zealand via Madeira and Cape Town would prove to be her testing ground. That’s a horrifying thought, and I can’t imagine how the crew shook that from their minds during the interminable sea voyage. I think of a journey like this with a mix of dread and boredom, but we have passenger planes that get us anywhere in the world in less than a day. At the turn of the 20th century, a sea voyage into the unknown like this was certainly the trip of a lifetime.
The men of the RRS Discovery found problems along the journey, but with no time for drydocking they had to make do with…caulk. Gulp. After five months at sea the RRS Discovery finally sighted Antarctica. The purpose of this expedition was primarily scientific — among the crew were five scientists covering the realms of biology, geology, physics, zoology, and botany — and the journey was a rousing success that discovered hundreds of species and filled ten mammoth tomes of research.
But this was also an adventure. Captain Scott, Shackleton, and zoologist Edward Wilson set off in November 1902 to go further south than any man had ever gone. With a team of 19 dogs and five sledges with nearly a ton of equipment, they reached 82° 17′ latitude at the end of December. The exertion was ghastly. Dogs died left and right and the men suffered from a myriad of maladies. They were forced to turn back for the Discovery and by sheer force of will crossed 950 miles of cracking, frozen desert in 93 days.
There was one problem. By December 1903 the Discovery was ice-locked with no apparent way to free itself. Supplies ran low and emergency communications were sent out. A pair of relief ships arrived in January 1904 and through the use of ingenious, controlled explosions the Discovery was freed from her glacial prison and began the journey home to the United Kingdom.
She made landfall in September 1904 and the crew were hailed as heroes. This journey was big news and filled the minds of luminaries such as H.P. Lovecraft, whose story At the Mountains of Madness was certainly fueled by images and missives from Antarctic expeditions like the British National Antarctic Expedition.
Today, the RRS Discovery is safe and sound dry-docked on Dundee’s Waterfront, a monument to the past and an incredible visit. I loved wandering the gleaming deck and taking the narrow ladders to the mess, captain’s quarters, and various cabins. I could almost feel the icy southern seas beneath the keel and hear the cracking of ice echo through the fog.
I tip my hat to the memory of these heroes, and to the proprietors of my favorite exhibit in Scotland. You might not be able to explore Antarctica like Captain Scott, but you can explore Dundee.
The last couple of months have been quite the change in the life of Traveling Savage. Working full-time at an office while continuing to write here and provide trip consultations has proven to be taxing, not to mention the myriad tasks and responsibilities of simply being alive that now get crowded into our evenings and weekends.
After eight years of self-employment, I think Sarah and I had taken for granted my freedom to manage the house at will. We will adjust, but the recent past has been an exceedingly time-scarce period. I’ve dedicated my Traveling Savage time to catching up on posts from my pair of 2018 trips which took me through Glasgow, Angus, Aberdeenshire, Speyside, and Argyll, and I have enough material to keep me writing well into 2020.
That’s probably a good thing because I don’t have any trips planned at the moment. The one that pops into consciousness when I have a moment to daydream involves finally getting out to the Outer Hebrides. There are bits and pieces of the Scottish mainland I’ve yet to lay my eyes upon, but the Western Isles remain the last significant portion of Scotland beyond my grasp.
I have my itinerary sketched out, with entry and exit points being Oban and Ullapool, respectively. This ferry-heavy trip would take in Barra, the Uists, Benbecula, and Lewis & Harris, with additional time in the west highlands. Such a trip maxes out the complexity factor as there are many ferries to arrange and the ferry schedules are never straightforward, even in the summer season. This will be a beautiful trip and a suitable capstone to many years touring Scotland. I know I don’t want to do it alone, though.
It is comedic how fortunes change. For the last eight years I’ve been time rich and money poor (so to speak), and now that I’m back in the corporate world the tables have turned. It’s now time that slips through my fingers while Sarah and I enjoy increased prosperity.
This development has forced me to reevaluate how I spend my time, and I’ve come to a decision. Starting May 1, 2019 I will suspend bespoke itineraries and trip consultations for the foreseeable future. I will continue to review itineraries, but at a reduced volume. I have so enjoyed working with many hundreds of you around the world on your Scotland itineraries, and hearing how life-changing these trips were for you are memories that will endure forever.
Following this freeze on services Sarah and I may begin work in earnest on Traveling Savage’s first e-book. The idea has been in our heads for some time, but the bandwidth to work on it has escaped me. I can’t make any promises on this front, but I would really like to package new and existing information in an easily digestible format!
Life is full of twists and turns, ups and downs, and for that I’m thankful. It’s in the contrast that we find life’s richness.
Scotland’s eastern seaboard faces the windy North Sea and distant Norway, yet for many visitors it remains out of reach despite how easy it is to access. Part of the reason, I think, is that there aren’t many obvious sites beyond thundering Dunnottar Castle. The other reason is that it can be difficult to figure out where to stay. Most people have heard of Aberdeen, but if I’m frank it’s not the most exciting place to base yourself. There is a small town, however, near Aberdeen, accessible by both car and train, that makes the perfect base in this slice of Scotland: Stonehaven.
Eastern Scotland is comprised of Angus, Aberdeenshire, and Kincardineshire, a small district wedged between the two also known as the Mearns. Stonehaven is the county town of the Mearns, and, at less than half an hour south of Aberdeen’s town center, it makes a proximal alternative to Scotland’s third largest city. The main reason to base yourself in Stonehaven, though, is that it’s simply beautiful.
The best way to experience Scotland is to identify a number of bases from which to strike out on day trips. Such a trip-planning strategy requires that you have identified good bases, however, and this is always something I remain on the lookout for while traveling across Scotland. You can read about some of my favorite small towns in Scotland elsewhere on this site, but consider Stonehaven another on the list.
So what makes Stonehaven so great?
Location, for one. The town’s situation makes exploring the eastern coast at places like RSPB Fowlsheugh and St. Cyrus NNR, Aberdeen, Scotland’s castle country, and even the eastern Angus glens real possibilities. Close to home, as I mentioned, is Dunnottar Castle, and the best way to see Dunnottar is to hike the cliffs from Stonehaven in the evening. Simply amazing!
Much of Stonehaven is mildly pleasant grid-work streets, but the section around the shorehead is inspired. Long has Stonehaven harbor sheltered fishermen, and today as you stroll along the shorehead pier you’ll find the 16th century Tolbooth. Originally designed as a storehouse, it later became a prison and court before assuming its present guise as a museum and restaurant.
Stonehaven’s best pubs — The Ship Inn and The Marine Hotel — also peer over the shorehead. You can’t ask for better ambience for quaffing pints with salty patrons.
Beyond being the home of the deep-fried Mars bar and being the site of Keith’s Place, Stonehaven just feels good. The longer I travel around Scotland the more I rely on my intuition. This country is something of a whetstone for the sense.
Some places just feel right. Begin the hike to Dunnottar Castle from the harbor and get a load of the view of Stonehaven. You’ll feel what I mean.
Scotland’s eastern coastline between Arbroath and Aberdeenshire is loaded with a number of engaging stops. From the Seaton Cliffs and Lunan Bay to St. Cyrus NNR and the topic of today’s post, RSPB Fowlsheugh, there’s more than enough to warrant this route for the avenue into the northern highlands (and I haven’t even mentioned Dunnottar Castle until right now).
Scotland is for the birds. My grandma used to say that in reference to something not being worth one’s time, but I use it here to literally indicate that Scotland is a place for birds and, by extension, birders. I first assumed it must be the whisky in the air because who wouldn’t flock toward that delightful aroma, but it didn’t take long to realize seabirds prefer the liminal places between water and land: Cliffs. With almost 800 islands and more than 6,000 miles of coastline, Scotland has plenty of real estate for these avian explorers.
One of the ways Scotland caters to birds and bird-lovers is through Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) sanctuaries like Fowlsheugh. The RSPB was founded in 1889 to promote the conservation and protection of birds and their habitats, and today you can find RSPB sanctuaries across Scotland. They always make for a good day out in the countryside even if you really aren’t into birds all that much (like me).
I followed a narrow dirt path as it snaked along the clifftops and along inlets and geos. Birds careened below, squacking and calling as they wheeled in the May sunshine. Far below the North Sea surged against the rocks. These clifftop walks are no joke. There aren’t rails or fences to keep you from foolishly tumbled to your doom, so take care on the path while gawping at the beauty.
Nesting birds make their homes on top of the cliffs as well as in every nook and cranny perpendicular to the sea. The stoney facades become a kind of bird hive here at Fowlsheugh, which, incidentally, means “bird cliffs.” Aptly named, Scotland.
RSPB Fowlsheugh is known to home puffins at certain times of the year, and wherever puffins are they instantly steal the spotlight. Sure, they’re attractive little toucan penguins, but what about the kittiwakes, fulmars, and oystercatchers?
Periodically I’d stop on a bench and gaze at the sea, searching for dolphins and grey seals and answers to life’s mysteries. I didn’t spot any sea life this day, but you’d be surprised how often you’ll spy seals bobbing in the water or baking on rocks.
By the time I’d completed my jaunt along the beautiful clifftops of RSPB Fowlsheugh I’d counted around 130,000 birds. That’s how many nest here in the spring and summer. It truly is one of nature’s spectacles.
RSPB Fowlsheugh is a great stop on the eastern route north to the heart of Aberdeenshire and just a short distance from Dunnottar Castle and Stonehaven. I’d recommend a visit to anyone interested in birds, hiking and walking, and beautiful views, which is everyone who comes to Scotland. Right?
On a whim, after a long, long day out exploring the Angus Glens, I diverted into Brechin as the sun descended on a beautiful May day. Brechin (pronounced BREE-eh-kin with a guttural, phlegmy break in the middle that’s very hard to articulate) is a pretty town in eastern Angus, just off the main A90 leading toward Aberdeen, and it is renowned for being the home of Brechin Cathedral.
There aren’t many cathedrals left in Scotland thanks to the Reformation, but those that are left, places like St. Mungo’s in Glasgow and Brechin Cathedral, are incredibly powerful places. I often wonder if it’s the church and the belief system that makes such a place powerful, or if, like a well built over a spring, the place of worship just serves as a conduit to some greater power within the earth. Perhaps it is both, and more.
Brechin Cathedral was left to me on this beautiful day. I wandered the graveyard in the light of the setting sun, noting the same reddish stone used in many of Angus’s other historic sites, places like Arbroath Abbey, Edzell Castle, and the aptly named Redcastle.
Brechin Cathedral is a glorious house of worship, but one of its most distinctive features is the tall, Irish-style round tower adjoining the main square tower. This 106-foot tall tower was built as a freestanding tower in the 11th century, and it remains one of only two such towers on mainland Scotland (the other is at Abernethy). Such round towers were bell towers once upon a time when someone would climb to the top and ring handbells from the window. The beautiful door is cut from a single stone and decorated with a very Irish depiction of Christ crucified.
It’s believed a Medieval cathedral and Celtic monastery preceded the building of Brechin Cathedral during the reign of Kenneth II, MacMalcolm, King of Scots in the late 10th century. In the mid-12th century King David I converted the church into a Norman-style cathedral, and the form we see today hails from 1900. My favorite architectural detail of Brechin Cathedral is the massive “rose window” on the Queen’s Aisle, the north transept named after Queen Victoria who died during its building. Note the small heads to either side of the window.
The interior of Brechin Cathedral serves as a moody place of worship but also a local museum, which is common for churches in small-town Scotland. Here you’ll find some well-preserved Pictish stones as well as two stones of special note: The Mary Stone and the Brechin Hogback. The hogback in particular is a stunning slab of red sandstone in the Ringerike style, which mixes Celtic and Scandinavian motifs, and dates from the 11th century.
Standing quiet and resolute in the heart of Angus, Brechin Cathedral is a beautiful place of contemplation and artistry. Nothing lasts forever, but some things last a long time. I, for one, am glad Brechin Cathedral is one of them.
For as many distilleries as there are in Scotland in 2019, there are still horrid swaths of countryside void of distillation. You might think the Outer Hebrides, the Shetland Islands, or small isles like Raasay might be such deserts of distillation, but you’d be wrong on all accounts. Instead, it’s place like the Northwest Highlands and, most shocking of all, Angus in the heart of Scotland where one struggles to find an oasis. This changed for Angus in 2015 when Arbikie distillery opened on a farm near Arbroath.
I caught wind of Arbikie during my week distilling at Strathearn in early 2017. My friend Jeff and I toured Tullibardine distillery prior to our work week, and there we happened to run into Christian Perez-Solar, none other than the man who helped kickstart Strathearn with Tony Reeman-Clark. Christian had moved over to Arbikie distillery where he was conducting curious experiments on a new single-estate distillery, and I took his card and promised to get in touch down the road.
The road finally led to Arbikie during my exploration of eastern Scotland last year.
It’s not the easiest place to find.
I performed a few loops on Angus farm roads, the coast hovering just to the east, before I tentatively pulled into a cluster of houses and farm buildings, straining to see some signifier that this the oasis I sought. As luck would have it, Christian was walking toward me, empty coffee mug in hand, heading to his house for a refill (talk about a short commute). Fueled up on coffee we trudged across the cracked asphalt mercy to the day’s wild winds and ducked into a farm shed the size of an aircraft hangar.
Christian is the friendliest. Originally from Chile and with a background in wine, he came to Scotland to pursue distilling. Maybe this doesn’t come as a surprise, but there aren’t a lot of winemaker-to-distillers in Scotland, and as Christian led me around Arbikie’s facility I quickly came to deeply appreciate his vintner background. His eyes lit up as he pontificated on the qualities of yeast and mashing on skins.
Arbikie is a single-estate distillery. They grow all of the products they distill. That’s impressive and entirely unique in Scotland. Arbikie was founded by the Stirling family in 2013. Specifically, brothers Iain, John, and David are the idea men behind the distillery, which stands on the family farm. They hired Kirsty Black as their master distiller and brought Christian on as another distiller and production manager. Together the team aims to produce a portfolio of spirits entirely sourced and produced on their estate.
There’s something incredibly romantic about being a self-sufficient distillery. In fact, soon (if not already) they’ll even take to malting the barley grown on the farm, thereby closing the circle on the production process.
Christian has me smelling mountains of barley and troughs of potatoes — potato vodka is the base spirit for one of their gins — as we wander among Tio Pepe Matusalem barrels aging rye whisky and single malt. Yes, Arbikie has rye whisky nearly ready when I visited, and as of this writing they are first Scottish distillery to have produced rye whisky in 100 years! In fact, it’s considered a grain whisky because there aren’t even laws around what constitutes Scotch rye whisky. This is not the first example of Arbikie’s maverick approach to distilling.
Christian tells me the whisky is laying down for a minimum of 14 years. FOURTEEN YEARS! Suffice it to say it’s nice to have capital.
Arbikie’s stillhouse, which looks out to the Angus coast, is the distiller’s version of a mad scientist’s laboratory. Christian Carl pot stills from Germany anchor one corner while a massive column still reaches to the house’s lofty ceiling in the center of the space. Steel washbacks, a mash tun, pumps, hoses, a de-methylizer, and other equipment I’ve never seen before cluster around a rustic bar where Arbikie’s current offerings stand by a tidy box filled with botanicals like Hebridean seaweed, orris root, and angelica root.
Christian walks me around the space spitting out facts and figures about their distillation processes. He’s got all the numbers and the science to back it up. I get a taste of Kirsty’s Gin with its potato vodka base and AK’s Gin with smoked cardamom, mace, and honey. Both go down quite smooth and delicious, but I want to talk about whisky.
Arbikie is classified as a Highland distillery, and while some baggage might come with that in terms of style, Arbikie seems to once again be doing things their own way. A 96-hour fermentation is sure to lead to a spirit with some fruity tones, and Christian goes on to describe the newmake as containing notes of orange peels and toasted pecans. Sounds wonderful. Too bad I’ll almost be 50 when it’s ready.
They have a plan at Arbikie, though. When that rye whiskey is ready, they’ll fill the bottles and then put newmake single malt into ex-Scottish rye barrels. Not only are they growing and sowing all of their base materials, they’re also seasoning their own barrels.
My head is spinning a little bit as Christian sells me on the idea of terroir in whisky (another idea borrowed from wine). Arbikie has the opportunity to try and make this work — he even wants to try wild fermentations. I hear about varietal whiskies and soon wine and whisky are on the same continuum and I’m thinking “why wouldn’t this work?” as I look around the mad scientists’s lab.
The Arbikie lads and lasses are doing something major here. This is a ride you don’t want to miss.
Disclosure: Christian is a friend and he showed me around Arbikie out of generosity. All thoughts and opinions expressed here, as always, are my own.
On the shores of Loch Fyne, beside the mouldering, ivy-grown stones of Old Castle Lachlan, deep in Argyll’s Secret Coast, there was a moment of complete union. When the winds ripped apart the clouds and drove down rain from the sun. When the light ricocheted off the skin of the sea and the waves crawled upon the stones like a finger upon the lips. In this easy intersection of the autumn elements the rainbow bridge arced across the heavens. Is there a less obvious rosetta stone than an immaterial beam of light?
On the first day of the Celtic New Year the spirit world and our world overlap. Perhaps I heard the brownie of Old Castle Lachlan sweeping away my confusion or the waterhorses of Loch Fyne neighing truths beneath the waves. Standing on the castle bridge, mouth parted and neck craning, I watched this beam of light striate into colors that make all other colors. How simple and true how one makes all and all make one. Mother Nature implores us to see our nature in hers. And even as the clouds slid back across the blue and the loch turned hard as beaten steel, I did. I do. Thank you spirits, for nothing can ever be the same.
The Angus and Aberdeenshire coastline is a string of beaches, cliffs, and sheltered bays. Compared to the west coast of Scotland, this eastern coastline looks downright pleasant, some might say same-y if only looking at a map, but a map does little to convey the violence of the North Sea storms that sweep over this region. The St. Cyrus National Nature Reserve between Montrose and Stonehaven is a beautiful strip of sandy beach prey to these wicked storms.
St. Cyrus NNR makes a great visit on any journey along Scotland’s eastern coastline. I visited after leaving Balbinny in the heart of Angus en route to Stonehaven and glorious Dunnottar Castle. The day blessed me with blue skies and not even a hint of approaching storms, though the wind was biting and very chilly.
A boardwalk from the slim parking area leads over sandy heath to the coast. You’ll find some informational boards along the way, but the big draw is the sea just over the far dune. The boardwalk eventually terminates at a set of sandy rock steps that carry you over the top of the dunes.
St. Cyrus comprises 230 acres of coastal habitat supporting more than 300 plant species and 70 different bird species like redshanks, oystercatchers, curlews, buzzards, kestrels, and even peregrine falcons. The flowering plants are especially plentiful among the sandy grasslands, and it’s here where you’re bound to find butterflies, moths, and insects, if you’re into that sort of that thing.
From atop the dunes you have a wide-angle view north and south to Montrose and of the beautiful reddish beach curling against the sea. This is good, fine sand, and you’ll see many beach-combers, dog-walkers, and dreamers wandering its sepia-toned length.
There are some prehistoric archaeological sites in the neighborhood, places like the Stone of Morphie and Gourdon Hill for those who like to bring together multiple flavors of activities in a single day. The Stone of Morphie is an unshaped standing stone about 3.5 meters high that is believed to be the burial site of a Viking warlord whose army was destroyed by the Scots at the Battle of Barry in 1010 AD.
I loved all the driftwood on St. Cyrus beach. Despite the blue skies I strode beneath, here was the proof of these North Sea storms. Some of the driftwood had been fashioned into crude dwellings and I could envision the type of lost-in-time Scottish beach bum who might inhabit such a shelter. I wondered if it could be me.
St. Cyrus makes for a refreshing breather on a trip through Angus and Aberdeenshire. A stop here needn’t take long, but it’d be a shame to miss out on this pretty span of eastern Scotland.