A flavour of the Moray coast with a staycation in Cullen

If 2020 was the year of the staycation, 2021 will be delivering more nearcations and holistays and some of us can’t wait to rediscover exactly what we’ve been missing right on our doorsteps.

Cullen, in Moray, Scotland, with its viaduct and sandy beach is an ideal base for exploring the Aberdeenshire coastline.
Cullen, in Moray, Scotland, with its viaduct and sandy beach is an ideal base for exploring the Aberdeenshire coastline.

When restrictions allow, instead of heading for the mountains and glens of the Highlands or the nearby North Coast 500, why not head for The Moray Coast, with its cliffs, caves, coves and picturesque fishertowns strung along the coast like floats on a fishing net?

The outdoors are never greater than on the Aberdeenshire coast, with vast skies displaying show-stopping sunrises and sunsets over cliffs and sheltered sandy bays on good days, and elemental wave-churning, land-lashing stormscapes on bad - the kind that make you realise why all the houses are turned gable-end to the sea.

You can even walk or cycle it, from Findhorn to Cullen, on the 50-mile Moray Coast Trail, stopping off on the way at the likes of Burghead, Hopeman, Buckie, Portgordon, Findochty, Portknockie, Cullen, detouring to explore beyond: the harbour havens of cottages, cosy bars and cafes, serving up filling and fine food, that will fill your boots until you walk, swim and run it off, ready for more.

Sunsets and sunrises along the coast are spectacular on a clear day, here at Cullen.

We based ourselves in Cullen, my Moray-coast seasoned staycationer friends favouring the village for its location with wide-sandy beach, sheltered harbour, amenities and activities. The majestic former railway viaduct separates the waterfront fishing village of Seatown with its picturesque cottages with tiny roof windows for pulling fishing nets in and out from New Cullen with its quirky shops and cafes - as well as proximity to other day trip delights.

First we explored Cullen itself, strolling along the vast golden sands, even splashing about in the sea (a wet suit might be nice), running along the viaduct, watching the Sea School surfers, paddleboarders and kayakers heading out of the sheltered harbour, which is the work of the great Scottish engineer Thomas Telford. We strolled along the coastal path to the quirky pet cemetery where pooches and pusses rest alongside seals and a shark, sampled Cullen’s famous ice-cream, fish and chips, stunning sunrises and sunsets, browsed more antiques than you can shake a Queen Anne leg at and dropped into the Royal Oak hotel to sample local speciality Cullen Skink, or fish soup - a creamy bowl of smoky, haddocky delight in a wood-panelled traditional pub restaurant that prides itself on using local produce from land and sea.

Our locally-owned cottage (244 Seatown, https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/22609683) was spotless, deep-cleaned before we arrived during a lifting of lockdown, spacious with three bedrooms (two ensuite), living room, separate shower room and a kitchen so fully equipped that self-catering was a breeze. This was especially appreciated when the ambitious head chef set about creating two versions of fried chicken (a separate gluten-free version for the coeliac) plus veggie options. It was also ideal for staying in and taking delivery of a spot-hitting curry from Shahbaz Tandoori Takeaway in Buckie while watching the sun set behind the harbour as local fisherfolk tied up their boats in the harbour.

Food rivalries abound on the Moray coast, with fish and chips, ice-cream and Cullen Skink (smoked haddock, potatoes, onions and milk are traditional, but everyone has their own recipe) being the most fiercely contested so we felt duty bound to compare rival villages Cullen and Portsoy’s ice-cream. Ultimately we decided we’d have to go back to try them again (Cranachan flavour next time, or maybe White Chocolate Snickers) as it was just too close a call, ditto the fish and chips, but after the Royal Oak’s Cullen skink I decided I’d found the perfect bowl.

You won't come away from a visit to The Spotty Bag Shop in Banff empty handed.

Further afield we drove a few miles inland to the village of Fordyce with its 16th-century kirkyard and castle in the centre of the picturesque village. Here the gardeners had gone into lockdown overdrive with blooms bursting and spilling over every wall and fence. A walk around the kirkyard with its graves is fascinating for its 400 years’-worth of farmers, spinsters and the armour-clad stone effigy of James Ogilvie of Boyne, dated 1510. The menu outside The Old Kirk Cafe and Bistro with its Portsoy Lobster and Beetroot Courgette and Brie Puff Pastry tart looked tempting, but we hadn’t booked, so it was on to Banff and the ‘Famous’ Spotty Bag Shop, an Aladdin’s cave of everything you could ever wish for and plenty you didn’t know you needed until you saw it.

Our haul included wet weather walking breeks and jacket, a set of four casters, a pineapple corer and a carrot shaped shopping bag, then it was up the stairs (there’s a lift too) to the Bridgeview Restaurant for a proper cheese toastie, cakes, and a wealth of healthier choices, while enjoying the grand views through its massive windows of the bridge over the Deveron river, harbour and Highland League Deveron Vale’s Princess Royal Park football stadium (sadly no game that day).

Next day we headed off by car to Pennan, down the hairpin-bend road from cliff top to shore to find the village famous for its Local Hero red phone box. I missed the insta group photo in front of the call box by being on a mobile call from work (no problem with reception here then), but caught up for a walk in the sun along the front, past washing flapping in the breeze. On to Portsoy, we took another walk around the quiet picturesque harbour and up to the headland and its Carn Standing dolphin sculpture, celebrating the pods of bottle-nose dolphins that cruise local waters and along with the seabirds, make this part of the world a wildlife watcher’s dream.

Feeling like we hadn’t even scratched the surface of this corner of the Aberdeenshire coast - TheBootleggers Bothy at Burghead was recommended, the Sea School water sports instruction was yet to be sampled, the Cullen Skink World championships savoured, and I’d genuinely love to experience the exhilaration of swimming in the North Sea here once more - we left with plans to return as soon as possible. Here’s to 2021, the year of the stayagaincation.

The village of Fordyce, Aberdeenshire, centred around the Castle and Old Kirkyard.

FACTFILE

For current prices and bookings at 244 Seatown, See https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/22609683

Cullen Sea School, http://cullenseaschool.co.uk

The armour-clad stone effigy of James Ogilvie of Boyne, dated 1510, in Fordyce Old Kirkyard

The Royal Oak, Cullen https://theroyaloakcullen.co.uk/

The Old Kirk Cafe and Bistro, Church Street, Fordyce, Banff AB45 2SL

Shahbaz Tandoori Takeaway, Buckie, https://shahbaz-tandoori-takeaway.business.site/

The Spotty Bag Shop and Bridgeview Restaurant and Coffee Shop, https://www.thespottybagshop.co.uk/

The Ice Cream Shop, Seafield Street, Cullen, AB56 4SW

Portsoy Ice Cream, portsoyicecream.co.uk

The village of Pennan, put on the map by Bill Forsyth's 1983 film Local Hero, starring Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegert, Fulton Mackay and Denis Lawson, some of which was filmed here.

Bootleggers Bothy Burghead, @BootleggersBothy

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Bottle-nose dolphins can be seen in the waters off the Moray Coast, celebrated in this sculpture at the Old Harbour by local artist Carn Standing.
A wander along the coastal path takes you past the village's pet cemetery, where cats, dogs, seals and a shark are remembered.
Cullen Skink is a traditional soup made with smoked haddock, onions, potatoes and milk, named after the fishing village in Moray.
Freshly-made ice-cream is one of the delights of a seaside staycation. Cranachan cone anyone?
Cullen Harbour, Moray.