IT IS probably unfair to describe the Banffshire coast as a forgotten part of Scotland. Perhaps overlooked would be more appropriate.
Those seeking the undoubted pleasures of northern Scotland tend to head up the A9 to Inverness and beyond, or the A85/82 to Oban or Fort William.
But it is well worth taking the A90 to the east (avoiding the horror that is Aberdeen’s traffic, if you can) and striking out through the Garioch to enjoy a quiet corner of Scotland that has plenty to offer those seeking either soul-replenishing solace or a more active holiday.
While the west coast boasts the combination of sea lochs and islands that make vistas from the shore constantly delightful and ever-changing in their beauty, the Banffshire and Moray coast offers little in the way of off-shore features to please the eye.
Instead, in this exposed, north-facing slice of the Moray Firth, the coastline itself is the source of interest and attraction. Cliché, it may be, but ‘rugged’ is certainly the word for this stretch of alternating beaches, cliffs and fishing villages tucked into the few sheltered spots among the headlands and stretches of wave-battered sands. Sea stacks and fabulous rock formations add to the drama of the cliff bases and beaches.
The area is home to numerous forms of native fauna and, with the market for wildlife tourism ever-growing, the self-styled Dolphin Coast is keen to promote itself as a destination for enjoying Scotland’s swimming and flying tourist attractions.
The marine aquarium in Macduff provides a glimpse under the waves and reveals the natural history of the firth, with nothing but local species in the various displays and the huge central tank featuring bass, haddock and giant cod.
A boat trip aboard the Puffin, from the harbour at Macduff, gives the opportunity to see other wildlife, including dolphins, close up – often alongside the boat – as well as (occasionally) other marine mammals such as porpoises and minke whales. The birdlife is abundant, and guillemots, razorbills and puffins flapped frantically past the boat as it chugged east towards Troup Head, with kittiwakes and fulmars whirling in the stiff north-westerly, wingtips kissing the top of the swell. Troup Head is an RSPB reserve – the only gannet colony in mainland Scotland. It is home to 4,000 of the superbly streamlined seabirds, ideally adapted to the spectacular plunge-dives they employ to catch sand eels and other fish for their young, perched on the cliff edge.
The Puffin, operated by John Clarke, is also the ideal platform from which to view the coast-clinging villages, from Sandend, Gardenstown and Crovie to Pennan, of Local Hero fame. These haphazard little settlements were homing beacons to the fishermen of years past; gables of pink, blue and yellow to guide the men back to the sanctuary of the tidy little harbours.
That there is a great legacy from the fishing industry on both a large and small scale here is self-evident. Macduff harbour still throbs to the diesel rhythm of big trawlers, while crab and lobster creelers hug the coast to deposit and retrieve their pots. Each village seems to have a quayside shop selling the freshest of seafood.
That tradition of fishing is encapsulated at the restored Salmon Bothy in Portsoy, originally built in 1834 as the base for long-netting the king of fish along the coast. Now a museum owned and run by the Portsoy Traditional Boat Festival, the whole process from netting to market is illustrated and was explained to us by local volunteer Len Murray, whose roots run back generations.
He revealed that chunks of ice from the frozen local boating pond in winter would last the fishermen all summer if stored properly in the ice room. This would be used to pack the fish in boxes, which were put on a train to Aberdeen in the days when the railway ran into the heart of the village. In Aberdeen, the Portsoy catch would join the overnight fish train, and Moray Firth salmon was on sale at Billingsgate in London by 6am the next morning – a triumph of logistics more than a century ago.
From the ice room, it was up the road to Portsoy Ice Cream, a family business where owner Alex Murray has transformed the traditional seaside treat into a form of haute cuisine. Bespoke flavours including Jaffa Cake, Boyndie sticky toffee, Snap Crackle and Pop, apple crumble, chocolate and ginger and even one based on the local fizzy drink Moray Cup had children who aren’t exactly ice-cream novices declaring Alex’s wares to be the best they had ever tasted.
In the evening, a meal at the unassuming Portsoy Station Hotel proved to be rather more than we expected from the standard facade of a straightforward early-20th-century railway inn.
Owners Susan and Euan Cameron have made a commitment to use local produce in their kitchen and, while it was almost obligatory to try the famous local smoked haddock soup, Cullen skink, it turned out to be delicious. Mains of lemon sole stuffed with prawns and a fish pie bursting with flavour also met with approval. Susan and Euan are building a line of business with all-inclusive golf holidays, and the two major local courses, Banff House Royal and the magnificent links at Cullen, are both great attractions.
For non-golfers there are other options and, despite pouring rain, the persuasive silver-tongued silver surfer Davie Johnson overcame our reluctance and had us donning wetsuits for a surfing lesson at the Surf and Watersports Club at Banff beach. It turned out to be an absolutely thrilling, if exhausting, experience and – true to Davie’s word – we could not have cared less about the weather by the end.
During our short stay, our base was the village of Cullen. On first driving down the main street, the breakers on the beach were framed by the arch of the old railway viaduct, providing a stunning glimpse of the Seatown area where the superb four-bedroom cottage at number 125 was more than comfortable.
As for the address, despite a maze of lanes and vennels, there are no street names in Seatown, just numbers. To add to the confusion, residents used to take their number with them when they moved house, so the order of houses makes little sense. With one property even numbered 104 And A Half, just finding the holiday house was a little adventure in itself.
Three-hour boat trips on the Puffin from Macduff harbour cost £25 for adults and £15 for under-14s (07900 920445, www.puffincruises.com)
A family ticket (two adults, two children) to Macduff Marine Aquarium is £16.70 (01261 833369, www.macduff-aquarium.org.uk)
A meal for four at the Station Hotel, Portsoy, costs £60-£70, plus drinks (01261 842327, www.stationhotelportsoy.co.uk)
Portsoy Ice Cream, 24 Seafield Street, Portsoy (01261 842279, www.portsoyicecream.co.uk)
A two-hour tryout for a family of four is £80 at Surf and Watersports Club, Banff (01261 815228, www.surfandwatersports club-scotland.com)
Graham Lindsay and family stayed at 125 Seatown, Cullen, a four-bedroom self-catering cottage, costing from £650 per week (07703 632173) – available for short breaks on request.
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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Temperature: 11 C to 18 C
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