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:


Brechin Mechanics Institute

Brechin Mechanics institute

Home of learning and entertainment

Brechin (* see below for pronunciation) is a fascinating place.  The size of a large village, it is in fact one of Britain’s smallest cities.  It has a 13th century cathedral that’s now a parish church of the Church of Scotland.  Since it therefore has no Bishop, it isn’t technically a Cathedral any more.  (The Episcopalian Diocese of Brechin uses St Paul’s Church in Dundee as its Cathedral).  Because of this discrepancy, some people would say Brechin can no longer call itself a city.  Locals would not agree!

Brechin also boasts an 11th century Round Tower in the Irish style, one of only two in Scotland to survive.  It nearly didn’t make it through the 1960s, as local councillors considered it irrelevant and planned to demolish it.

The closure of the nearby US Air Force base some 20 years ago hit the city badly, but it’s finally getting back on its feet.  Many buildings date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and some have recently been restored to their full glory.  Others are still very run-down and just crying out to be tidied up and put back to use…

Brechin Mechanics Institute

And it has the Brechin Mechanics Institute, a fine building that faces you as you approach the town from the Forfar road.  Historic Environment Scotland describes it as “Tudor gothic”, a designation I hadn’t come across before.   As it dates from 1838, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation, I’d have though “Victorian gothic” would be more apt.  But I’m not an architectural historian.

John Henderson of Edinburgh designed the Mechanics Institute building.  He was the son of a gardener at Brechin Castle, just along the road.  The Earl of Dalhousie, owner of the Castle and, presumably, Henderson’s patron, gave it to the city.  Faced in fine ashlar stone, the building soars elegantly heavenwards, suggesting perhaps that the source of learning lies above.

The Mechanics Institutes movement dates from the Age of Enlightenment, that period in the early 19th century when philosophy, physics, chemistry and natural history, as we now know them, were born.  The first Mechanics Institute was founded in Edinburgh in 1823.  However, the idea goes back to George Birkbeck (for whom Birkbeck College is named) who started a group in Glasgow in the 1790s.  Another Mechanics Institute of the period is now better known as UMIST.

The Brechin Mechanics Institute occupies the site of an earlier school building.  It provided a night-school for “mechanics” (workers), and anyone else who wanted to improve their employability, on the upper floor.  The lower floor housed the High, Parochial and Burgh schools for youngsters.  It must have been a busy place in its heyday.

What happened next

The Institute didn’t just provide education: all sorts of groups met there.  The Guildry of Brechin used the building for meetings and still makes an annual donation towards its upkeep.  A Guildry was a group of Guilds of various trades;  Brechin’s dates from 1629.  Although it’s lost its original purpose, it’s still active in the civic and social life of the city.  Many of those civic and social events take place in the Mechanics Institute.

When the Managers and Patrons of the building felt unable to maintain it by themselves in 1950, ownership of the building was “vested in the City Council for the Common Good of the Burgh”.  It subsequently passed to the District Council who, in the 1970s, had the same difficulties and closed the building as an act of economy.

Events and artworks

Finally, after many years of negotiations, Brechin Mechanics Trust was founded to manage and maintain the building, though Angus Council still own it.  The Trust has refurbished and  updated the facilities.  There’s now provision for disabled access, for example, so the whole community can use the building.  The Institute once again hosts events of all kinds, from formal dinners, art shows and musical events to pop-up oriental rug and knitwear shops.

As a place of education, the Institute displayed paintings such as Phillip’s “Robert the Bruce on the Eve of Bannockburn”, to bring history to life.  There are several portraits of local citizens, to give students models to follow, including a QC, a Doctor of Divinity and the poet Alexander Laing.  There’s also the rather unpleasant-looking local landowner Lord Erskine, ancestor of the writer Violet Jacob.  They both lived at House of Dun, between Brechin and Montrose which is now a National Trust for Scotland property.  You can see the pictures, in the upper hall, whenever the Institute is open.

What else to see

When you’ve finished at the Brechin Mechanics Institute, there’s an excellent Town House Museum on the cobbled, steeply-sloping High Street.  The Cathedral and Round Tower should also definitely be on your itinerary.  Brechin still has lots of interesting shops, too, including one of the very few greengrocers to survive the onslaught of the supermarkets.  While you wander, keep your eyes open for the many architectural joys in this tiny gem of a city.  You never know what you might spot.

Find out more

* In case you’re wondering how to pronounce it, Brechin has a “ch” as in “loch” or the German “ach”, not as in “church”, and the “e” is long: “Breechhin” is the nearest I can get to writing it!

Brechin Mechanics Institute listing at Historic Environment Scotland:

Round Tower:

Brechin Cathedral:



The Silver Darlings


Nairn Fishwife with silver darlings
The Nairn Fishwife with her speldings

The east coast herring bonanza

In Nairn Harbour stands the statue of a Nairn Fishwife holding a handful of what look like kippers.  They’re Nairn speldings, one of the many ways the silver darlings (herring) were cured.

Unlike kippers, which are smoked, Nairn speldings were split open and dried in the sun.  The name comes from the Scots verb “speld”, meaning to spread out.  Most herrings weren’t turned into speldings, they were salt-cured and packed into barrels for transport to markets far from where they were caught.

Herring fishing  was a huge industry all down the east coast of Scotland, from the early 19th century until the First World War.  The west coast got in on the act later in the 19th century.  Their season was later too.  Boats from the east coast would make the difficult journey through the Pentland Firth to take part when their own season had ended.

At its height, the industry employed thousands of men at sea and women on land. The boats got bigger and the herrings dwindled.  By the 1970s, catching them was banned and stocks are only now recovering.

The fishwives

The women worked in teams of three, two gutting and one salting and packing.  They also kept house, looked after the children and the aged, found bait and attached it to the hooks and helped mend nets.

Around Arbroath, and possibly elsewhere, they also piggy-backed the men out to the boats so they wouldn’t have to spend the whole trip soaked.  I’m not sure how effective that would have been; my experience of small boats is that you get soaked anyway.

The women also sold fish locally, walking miles inland with their creels on their backs to hawk the fish from house to house. The word “fishwife” now has a rather derogatory feel to it, but these women played a very important part in the local economy.  The one in the statue stands tall and strong, sure of her worth.

The statue is interesting in another way.  The sculptor seems to have clothed his clay model in real clothes before casting it.  You can feel the texture of her cardigan and see the weave in her skirt.

The ice-house

Across the Moray Firth from Nairn, at Cromarty, we found an old turf-roofed ice-house built to supply the fishing industry.  Freezing the catch helped preserve it longer and extended the selling season, as well as providing unsalted fish for those who preferred it.

Cromarty ice house
Cromarty ice house

Half built into the bank, the building would have been filled with ice harvested from fresh-water lochs through the winter.  The semi-dungeon construction would have kept the ice cool enough to last until the herring season in May and June.

The Silver Darlings

If you want to get an idea of what the herring fishery meant to the north-east of Scotland, I strongly recommend Neil M Gunn’s book The Silver Darlings.  Published in 1941 and made into a film in 1947 by Clarence Elder, it gives an only-slightly-romanticised view of life in the early years of the industry.

The main characters were victims of the Clearances; fishing became a life-line for many such people, displaced in favour of sheep.  These were tough folk fighting a hard land and a capricious sea to make a living; they earned every penny the hard way.

Find out more

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn (ISBN: 9780571090419)


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.


Mercury Seaplane

Mercury seaplane plaque
Mercury seaplane with Maia flying boat

World record long-distance flight

Walking along the Tay Embankment next to RRS Discovery, I stopped to read a bronze plaque attached to the sea-wall.  It commemorates the world record for long-distance seaplane flight. This was achieved by the Mercury seaplane, which took off from Dundee.

The illustration shows  a combination of one plane under another.  This rather ungainly but intriguing arrangement was known as the Short Mayo Composite.  The name commemorates its builders (Short Brothers Ltd) and designer (Robert Mayo).

An epic adventure

It was high tide and windy as I stood at the edge of the river.  The Tay roiled and slopped against the embankment below me.  Conditions were much the same in early October 1938, but by the 6th they had cleared up enough to be safe.

This is what the plaque says:

“Commemoration of the 1938 flight of Captain Bennett from the Tay Estuary to South West Africa.

The world record long-distance flight by a seaplane was achieved by the aircraft “Mercury”, the upper component of the Short Mayo Composite that took off from the Tay Estuary at Dundee on 6th October 1938.

The seaplane was positioned on top of the “Maia” flying boat for assisted take-off, enabling her to carry a greater fuel load.  The planes separated in the skies north of Dundee and “Mercury” flew 6,041 miles to Alexander Bay, South West Africa.

The two experiment planes, “Mercury” and “Maia” were built by Short Brothers Ltd. for Imperial Airways and designed to carry mail long distances without refuelling.

This tribute to the epic flight by Captain D.C.T. Bennett and First Officer Ian Harvey was unveiled by Captain Bennett’s wife Mrs Ly Bennett and Lord Provost Mervyn Rollo on 4th October 1997.

Captain Bennett, later Air Vice Marshal D.C.T. Bennett, C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O., was the famed founder and Commander of the Royal Air Force Pathfinder Force during the Second World War.”

The story of the Mercury seaplane

The reason for creating the Short Mayo composite is that planes can’t take off with the amount of weight they can carry once they’re actually flying.  They also use a lot of fuel to get airborne.  If another plane can assist with take-off, the smaller plane can travel further on its fuel-load.

A frame on the lower plane (Maia, a flying boat) held the upper one (the Mercury seaplane) until the moment of release.  There were two release levers, one in each cockpit, to avoid mishaps.  Aerodynamics then provided the lift to get the upper plane airborne.

Before the African trip, the Mercury seaplane had successfully flown across the Atlantic to Canada to deliver mail.  Her flying ability was proven.  But the African journey was considerably longer.

The expectation was that Mercury would fly all the way to Cape Town (some 6,400 miles) but poor weather meant she hadn’t enough fuel to get all the way.  Instead she landed on the River Orange.  Apparently she came down through a flock of flamingos, which must have been somewhat unnerving for Captain Bennett.

Mercury didn’t beat the overall long-distance flying record.  However, no other seaplane has beaten her record (mostly because very few seaplanes make long-distance flights these days).

Mercury and Mayo seem to have been the only Mayo Composite plane combo built and neither plane survived World War II.  However, the idea lived on.

The piggy-back concept was used again when 747s carried the US Space Shuttle around America.  The coupling idea also developed into in-flight refuelling, according to Wing Cdr Colin McCrae of the Air Training Corps, quoted in a BBC report of the 70th anniversary celebrations of the flight.

Find out more

You can watch contemporary footage of the Short Mayo Composite on YouTube and at the British Pathe site.

And you can learn all about Captain (later Air Vice Marshall) DCT Bennett here.  Perhaps surprisingly, he was an Australian.  He joined the RAF in the early ’30s, left to become a commercial pilot, then rejoined the RAF in 1941. After the War he became an MP and designed cars and light aircraft.

If you know what happened to First Officer Ian Harvey, please let me know.  As so often happens with the “junior” members of a team, I couldn’t find anything on the internet apart from his connection with this flight.


Lower City Mill, Perth

Lower City Mill, Perth
Lower City Mill, Perth (photo RCAHMS)

Milling oats for Perth Prison

Pottering around Perth the other day I stopped to read a tourist information sign on the side of a building.  The water-way (lade) nearby should have given me the clue but it hadn’t occurred to me that a city the size of Perth would have water mills right in the middle of it. Silly me!  This one, Lower City Mill, was working right up until 1953, producing oatmeal for HM Prisons.

Perth has had mills since at least the 12th Century.  Lower City Mill hasn’t been there quite that long but it’s still pretty old, dating from around 1720.  It was originally two separate mills, milling different products.  The buildings were combined in 1793 by building over the lade.

It’s a handsome structure, in a workman-like sort of way: stone-built and sturdy looking.  It’s also Grade A listed but in 2012 it was put on the Buildings at Risk Register (that’s when this photo was taken for RCAHMS).

Visiting Lower City Mill

The mill’s working parts are still there but the buildings haven’t been open to the public since 1999 (despite what you may read online).  You can peer in through a large window over the lade at the front of the building but the interior has that sad, abandoned look.

What is still working, in the other end of the building, is the local Tourist Information office.  It has very helpful staff and an excellent selection of books, guides and goodies.  The Upper Mills, opposite, are now a hotel.

The lade that powered Lower City Mill comes via an aqueduct from the River Almond, four miles away.   I don’t know why they didn’t use the River Tay to power them but in the 13th century the mills were just outside the town boundary, so maybe they weren’t wanted in the residential part of town.

Or perhaps the water in the lade was easier to control – the Tay floods quite regularly.  The water from the lade went on from the mills to fill the moat that surrounded mediaeval Perth’s city wall.  It now runs too low to power a wheel, due to flood-prevention measures.

The Lower Mill is best approached on foot (unless you have a bullock cart handy).  The road’s still cobbled, which gives a nice historical feel.  The information plaque can be seen in the photo above, just above the wall that hides the lade.  The Tourist Information office is round the other side, in the building with the “hat” on.

Find out more about Perth at  It’s a delightful city with a strong artistic culture.



Dundee Museum of Transport


Dundee Museum of Transport
Dundee Museum of Transport

Transports of Delight

Do you love interesting old vehicles?  Then you’ll love Dundee Museum of Transport, crammed into tiny premises off Market Street on the eastern edge of Dundee.

It’s a transport museum with a difference.  For a good start, many of the exhibits belong to individual enthusiasts, not to the museum. And quite a few of them are definitely not in “show condition”; in fact a couple haven’t yet been restored at all.

One of those (at the time of our visit) is a double-decker bus that was used as a house for a while. If it’s anything like the buses of my childhood, that must have been chilly in winter!

The Museum isn’t finished, or at least not in its final home. Currently it’s housed in Market Mews, off Market Street (which is off Dock Street). The premises are crowded and way too small for all the vehicles.  Quite a few are in the yard out the back, which you can only visit with a guide for safety reasons.

The story so far

The final destination of Dundee Museum of Transport is, appropriately, the old Maryfield tram depot at the top of Forfar Road. They acquired the premises in November 2014 but it will take a while to sort them out. They’ll need more funding before they can even start, as it’s on the “Buildings at Risk” register.

That’s one reason they’ve opened in Market Mews: to help raise the cash.  They’re also applying for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant and holding their own fund-raising events – and they’re always looking for volunteers to help!

They currently have around 45 volunteers, organised into three teams. The Visitor Services team deals with (you guessed it) visitors to the Museum; the Build team turns its collective hand to maintenance and alterations to the building; while the Restoration team looks after the vehicles.  If you live in the area and you’re interested in getting involved, in whatever capacity, they’d love to hear from you.

Visiting Dundee Museum of Transport

Back to the Museum itself: what’s on show?  The first space holds some very fine commercial vehicles, an ambulance and a rare walking ambulance. That’s a stretcher with a privacy cover, on which patients were pushed to hospital as late as the 1920s. There are bikes, cars, a fishing boat… even a carrot-eating horse.

To get to the next room, follow the dotted white lines and be sure not to stop on the double yellow ones! The second space showcases a steam roller, several buses and a tiny electric car.

There’s also a small room devoted to railway transport in the Dundee area, and a display window with models of the Tay ferry boats.  They ran between Newport and Dundee until the 1960s, when the Tay Road Bridge opened.


The Museum holds themed events from early April to October – you can even drive some of the vehicles at one of them. If you have a party (up to 20 people) you can also book a “Tea on the Bus” event any time.  See the website (below) for full details.

Altogether Dundee Museum ofTransport is well worth the entry fee.  Better still, children under five get in free.  If you enjoy your visit and you live locally it would be worth getting an annual ticket, as it gives you unlimited visits.

The new premises, when they open, will have space to showcase more vehicles. But the present place has lots to offer, including a tearoom, shoe-horned into the tiny space.

More information

If you’d like to help, get in touch via the website (, email ( or phone 01382 455196.

The museum’s open every day, weekdays 10-3 and weekends/public holidays 11-3.30.  It’s very easy to get around: there are ramps everywhere, so buggies and wheelchairs are no problem.

There’s plenty of parking in the Mews or out on Market Street (though you’ll probably haveto go further afield on event days.

P.S. If you’re a diver or other watersports lover, nip in to the Museum’s neighbour at Unit 8, Splashsports, and say Hi to Craig for me!  Don’t expect to find him there before around 11.30 a.m. (he goes to their main shop in Glasgow before opening up in Dundee).