Safe haven on a rocky coast
I have to admit to a special fondness for Catterline Harbour, as this is where Montrose Sub Aqua Club have their boathouse and bothy. I’ve been a member of the club for several years and have dived in the harbour, and around the island further out in the bay, on many occasions.
Seals breed (and sing) on the island and occasionally you’ll meet some of the bolder ones, very briefly, under water. Mostly they’re too shy because for years they’ve been killed to protect the wild salmon fishing industry up and down this coast. There’s a lot of kelp and other seaweed growing in the bay, so they have plenty of places to hide from clumsy divers. They may look ungainly and sometimes very uncomfortable on land but underwater they’re sleek and surprisingly fast movers. Their song is a weird keening, other-worldly and infinitely sad. You can see how legends like those of the silkies and mermaids grew up around them.
The pier and harbour
Catterline Harbour got its first pier in 1730, according to a notice on the pier wall. However, according to the Undiscovered Scotland site, the pier wasn’t built until 1810; maybe that was a replacement. Catterline Harbour Trust keeps it in working order, and there’s an honesty box for donations from anyone who’s enjoyed their visit.
The surface is uneven, made up of whatever rock came to hand, regularly patched and infilled to repair weather damage – but a walk to the end is the precursor to any dive trip. How far down can you see? Is it worth going in?
The pier would have been a welcome structure, whenever it was built, as the rocks in the bay form reefs that can do serious damage to a boat – one of them rises up right in the middle of the harbour. Boats are launched and retrieved between the natural and man-made walls: dinghies, canoes, the dive club’s inflatables, Catterline Coastal Rowing Club’s wooden boat. There are also a couple of permanently-afloat boats belonging to local crab and lobster fishermen. It’s quite a bustling scene on a sunny Sunday!
The harbour has been used by fishing boats for over a thousand years, apparently, mostly on legitimate business. But smuggling often helped to boost the fishermen’s meagre income, and one of the houses on the cliff overlooking the harbour was built for Customs and Excise men to watch for illicit landings.
Catterline’s claims to fame
Catterline has two main claims to fame. The first is that it’s where St Ninian landed when he began the long and troublesome task of converting the Picts to Christianity. The local church isn’t named after him, however: it’s called St Philip’s, though its site may have been holy right back to Ninian’s day.
The village’s other claim to celebrity is the group of artists who came to Catterline for its wonderful views and quality of light. They included Joan Eardley, Annette Soper, Angus Neil and Lil Neilson. It’s a great place for photography, too, especially when the waves are crashing over the rocks.
Rocks and boulders
On a small promontory stands Catterline’s most unusual feature, a vertical mudstone-and-boulder stack about 40’ high. You can climb to the top if you’re brave – and come back down if you’re even braver. I’m not!
The foreshore is a great place for rock-pooling. Some of the pools are big enough for really quite big critters to survive in ‘til the tide returns. It’s always worth a poke around and there’s usually a family group or two doing just that. At low spring tides the harbour can look as though someone’s pulled the plug out. The water recedes half-way across the rocky bay, which makes retrieving boats very hard work.
Without its pier Catterline might well have gone the same way as its neighbour, Crawton, abandoned by 1910 as the boats moved to the safe harbour of Stonehaven, a few miles to the north. Instead Catterline survived and thrives. It’s worth a visit – just avoid sunny Sundays!
Find out more
Catterline is on the coast between Inverbervie and Stonehaven; the OS coordinates are 56.895271, -2.214943.
Montrose Sub Aqua Club (BSAC500) is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MontroseSAC