Catterline Harbour

Catterline harbour and pier

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.Notice on Catterline Pier

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

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The Lecht Mine

 

Lecht mine
The Lecht mine

Mining, whisky and religion

The Lecht is a steep road – this is, after all, one of Scotland’s main skiing areas.  The road seems to climb for ever to the summit, over 2,000 feet above sea level.  Imagine what it must have been like for the poor bull who helped drag the rollers for the Lecht Mine over it.

The Lecht mines

The mine was built in 1841 and closed just five years later – hopefully, the bull never knew that.  It separated manganese ore, used in the manufacture of household bleach, from the rock.  A slow process.  The rollers brought by the bull were operated by a water wheel.  They performed the first stage of extraction – crushing the rock – so they were heavy.

The workers barrowed the rock into the mine across a plank bridge high above the burn (stream) that fed the water wheel.  It must have been heavy work and, especially in rainy weather, slippery and dangerous.  Despite the risks, more than 60 people worked here at the height of production.  It will have been a big blow for the area when it closed.

There had been an iron-ore mine here in the 1730s, again for just five years. There was talk of opening the mine in the 1920s, again for iron, but it came to nothing.  It would only have been profitable if the iron could have been transported by rail from Tomintoul and nobody was investing the cash to build railways in the “hungry ’20s”.

So the empty shell of the restored Lecht mine building sits quietly at the head of its short glen, lonely and purposeless.

The Lecht Well

You reach the building from the Lecht Well car park, where I was lucky enough to see my first black grouse up close – well, fairly close, anyway.  We’d heard them calling as we walked and suddenly there he was, apparently unfazed by our proximity.

Black grouse at the Lecht
Black grouse at the Lecht

(I later saw two capercaillie and my travelling companion saw a red kite: a great day for us both!)

It’s roughly half a mile each way to the mine and back along a well-worn track, so it makes a good leg-stretcher on a long journey.  The route follows a burn so there’s plenty of water around if you’re travelling with a thirsty dog or puddle-splashing children.

Whisky smuggling

A sign half-way along the track points uphill to the left along an old whisky road.  Well, the sign calls it a road.  It’s hardly a path.  It doesn’t look as though even the sheep use it much nowadays; I certainly wouldn’t want to be carrying awkward contraband cargo along it.

It was quite busy once, though: this was one of the routes used by distillers of illicit whisky. The spirit was heavily taxed in the late 18th-early 19th centuries and local people brewed their own rather than pay the tax (they were made of sterner stuff than us).  These hills were sufficiently lonely and remote to avoid the eyes of the excise-men most of the time.

The whisky wasn’t just for home consumption – in fact some of today’s famous distilleries started illegally way back then – and the “whisky roads” were how it reached its market, smuggled through the heather at the dead of night.  Actually, night-time travel was probably mostly unnecessary: broad daylight would have been safe unless you were very unlucky.

… and religion

Also hiding in these hills was the Scalan Catholic seminary.  From 1717-1739, trainee priests of the then-illegal religion trained here to spread the word to their flock.  Large parts of the Highlands remained staunchly Catholic – some still are – and priests were needed.

But they could still, at that period, have been killed for their faith, so the seminary skulked in the hills, out of the eye of the Justices.  That’s not to say the Justices didn’t know about the seminary; there’s a good chance quite a few of them were themselves Catholics.  But the fact that it was hidden away allowed them to ignore its existence.

What with whisky smugglers and outlaw priests, these hills must have seen a lot of furtive movement.  The Lecht is not far from Culloden, and Jacobites escaping from the retribution after the battle probably “took to the heather” here too, as they did all over the remoter parts of Scotland.

It’s astonishing what you can find on a half-hour walk, even in what looks like the middle of nowhere.  There’s not a house to be seen, but people have worked here, legally and illegally, for centuries.  They still do, of course: employees at the ski resort, gamekeepers and hill farmers and, no doubt, many others.

The Lecht may look as though nothing ever happens there, but it’s just another case of appearances being deceptive.

Find out more:

The Lecht Well is on the A939, about halfway between Cock Bridge and Tomintoul, on the right and after the ski centre if you’re heading towards Tomintoul.  On the map we were using, the mine is marked as “Lecht Iron” – interesting, considering its history.

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The Grassic Gibbon Centre, Arbuthnott

Grassic Gibbon Centre
The Grassic Gibbon Centre, Arbuthnott

Author of Sunset Song

If you’re one of the thousands of people who’ve read A Scots Quair or watched Sunset Song on TV, you’ll enjoy this tiny museum in the old school at Arbuthnott.  The Grassic Gibbon Centre tells the story of James Leslie Mitchell, who wrote both in his own name and under the pseudonym Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

A Scots Quair is by far his best-known work.  It was “drawn from life”: Grassic Gibbon was the son of a crofter, a small-scale farmer.  His family lived in the Howe o’ the Mearns, the rolling agricultural land between Fordoun and Inverbervie.  It’s now in Aberdeenshire but it used to be Kincardineshire, and many people still use the old name.

The dialogue is written in local dialect, the “speak o’ the Mearns”, which Mitchell grew up talking.  Sunset Song was filmed, at least in part, on location in the area and using local actors who spoke the “speak”.

Visiting the Grassic Gibbon Centre

There’s a DVD to watch either before or after you go round the exhibition (you have to decide, so they can set it up for you).  It gives details of Grassic Gibbon’s complicated life and prolific but tragically short career.  The exhibition itself contains a lot of information about Grassic Gibbon and his books, and there’s lots of personal memorabilia on display.

Mitchell/Gibbon’s output was not confined to novels about north-east Scottish farming life.  He began his working life as a journalist, but he also wrote biographies, books about exploration, history, book reviews and short stories.  Something of a workaholic, he published seventeen books in seven years.  And that’s with two small children in the house!

The Centre isn’t just a museum.  It houses a gift shop, a café and the local Post Office in the same building.  The local community owns, runs and uses the Centre and it also hosts functions relating to Grassic Gibbon and local events.  Group visits to the Centre are welcome, by arrangement; they can even lay on supper for you.

A couple of miles down the road, in Inverbervie, you’ll find the memorial to another local boy, Hercules Linton, who designed the famous ship Cutty Sark.  You can read the story here.

More information:

The Grassic Gibbon Centre, Arbuthnott, Laurencekirk, AB30 1PB

Website: www.grassicgibbon.com

Email: lgginfo@grassicgibbon.com,

Tel.: 01561 361668

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Hercules Linton Memorial

Hercules Linton memorial
Hercules Linton Memorial, Inverbervie

Inverbervie’s famous ship designer

Hercules who?  Well, indeed!  But in his day Hercules Linton was a well-known shipbuilder and famous as the designer of the fastest ship in the world.

Hercules Linton designed and built the famous tea clipper Cutty Sark.  She was named after the garment worn by the young witch Nannie in Robert Burns’ poem “Tam o’ Shanter”.  You may remember how Nannie pulled the tail from Tam’s grey mare Meg as he fled from the witches.

All of which goes to explain the rather unusual statue at the northern edge of the small coastal town of Inverbervie, Kincardineshire*.  Hercules Linton was born and is buried in Inverbervie.  And the statue’s a copy of the original figurehead from the Cutty Sark ship.

There Nannie flies, clutching Meg’s tail, in her skimpy “cutty sark” or short shift. (In the poem the sark was from Paisley so it probably wasn’t plain white, but Paisley-pattern would have been harder to paint on a ship.)

Hercules Linton’s greatest ship

Cutty Sark, now a major attraction at Greenwich on London, was launched in 1869.  Building her bankrupted Hercules Linton’s company, but she made a fortune for her owners.

The clipper sailed the route between England and Shanghai, carrying tea on the return journey.  This was a serious race, with intense rivalry between the clippers.  Whichever ship got the tea home first got the best price for her cargo.

Cutty Sark later carried wool from Australia, and was subsequently sold to a Portuguese trader.  She then returned to Britain and served as a training ship for naval cadets until 1938.  She finally came to rest at Greenwich in 1954, 54 years after the death of her creator.

Other local attractions

A couple of doors away from the memorial is Inverbervie’s other famous landmark, the Bervie Chipper fish-and-chip shop, a great place to sample some of the local produce.  You can park in the square opposite the Chipper and take a walk down to the beach while you eat.

A few miles up the road is Arbuthnott, where you’ll find the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Centre.

*The historic county of Kincardineshire is now technically part of Aberdeenshire.

More information

Some of the above came from the plaque on the wall by the statue. The rest is from the Undiscovered Scotland biography of Linton (http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/l/herculeslinton.html)

and from the Royal Museums Greenwich site (http://www.rmg.co.uk/cuttysark/history-and-collections/history/1922-to-present).

And if you can’t remember the poem, you can read it in full here: http://www.robertburns.org/works/308.shtml.

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