Moray is Scotland's Sunshine Coast, statistically speaking
Does Scotland really have a sunshine coast? Well, Moray, in the 'rain-shadow' of the Grampian mountains pretty much fits the bill. Honestly. Especially the favoured coastal strip, tucked below the hills, beyond the reach (mostly) of the rainy south-westerlies off the Atlantic.
Scotland’s Sunshine Coast
So where exactly is Scotland’s sunshine coast? It’s a bold claim! You thought it was never sunny here?
It's simple. Mostly Scotland’s prevailing winds come from the south-west, off the Atlantic. So-o, what area lies beyond, to the north-east of the mountains, notably the Cairngorms, making it sheltered, drier and sunnier than the average? Answer: Moray.
Coastal Moray is Scotland’s sunshine coast
Admittedly, bits of East Lothian and also stretches of Fife (both, note on Scotland’s east side) are fairly dry too, though nearer major centres of population and thus more crowded.
But Moray? ‘Up there’ on the shore of the Moray Firth. Well, it’s pretty unspoilt, down by the sea. And dry.
The little resort town of Lossiemouth, for instance, has 672.7mm of rain per year. (That’s 26.5 inches in old money.) Average for the whole of Scotland is 1571mm (61.8 inches). The Met Office says so.
Here's a snapshot of the Moray Firth Coast
It’s May and the gorse is out. It smells of coconut. Above the gentle splash of the tide, you can hear the squeaky-scratchy song of whitethroats. Pink thrift is in flower underfoot and there’s some crowberry too (which a friend says ‘smells of mountains’).
Lyrical, eh? Anyway, there's more. You’ve got the path to yourself. You’ve nailed the place to get morning coffee...or, no, make that lunch...maybe try our local fish soup called Cullen skink. (One of the best places to eat it is at Bijou By The Sea at Portessie one mile from where this Findochty picture was taken).
Now, would you really want to be away in the far west of Scotland on a warm and sunshiny day like that - BEING EATEN ALIVE BY MIDGES? Your call.
The old seatown of Cullen dates from the 1820s, just after the harbour pier by Thomas Telford was built. The series of viaducts to the south were built by the Great North of Scotland Railway in 1886. Today the old railway trackbed is a walkway between Cullen and Portknockie.
Moray’s coastal villages
Let’s sweep west to east, starting with the slightly posh village of Findhorn. (Look, it’s got a yacht club, OK? So it follows...)
In this pic, the tide is high, there’s a not a lot of sailing activity as it’s a weekday, but there’s a grand sweep of a bay to mess around in if you’re a bit boaty. And there’s a fine and endless beach just a moment from here. Plus nice places for pub meals, drinks, cake, etc - as well as a couple of hotels, B&Bs and cottages. It’s all very pleasant on the sunshine coast.
Relics of conflict - Burghead Bay
Midway between Findhorn and Burghead, note a couple of characteristics of Roseisle Beach / Burghead Bay: the trees (Forestry Commission) grow down to the shore and there are extensive WWII defences, as this picture shows.
The shoreline hereabouts was considered by the military to resemble a sector of Sword Beach, one the designated beaches for the Normandy Landings of WWII. Hence a variety of rehearsals were carried out all along the coast here, notably by the 79th Armoured Division.
Though these exercises were carried out comparatively successfully, it is said that at least five tanks (other sources say eight) were lost during practice launches offshore. The ‘swimming tanks’ were top secret, so reports are scarce - but these Duplex Drive Valentine tanks lie in the waters of Burghead Bay, towards the Findhorn end, with one (at least) a designated war grave.
Burghead - the Capital of Pictland
If - instead of driving - you walk east from Findhorn, on the beach or in the forest, after a couple of hours hiking (or less), you will reach the promontory town of Burghead. It’s a ‘planned town’, meaning it was laid out to the local landowner’s improving plan in 1805-9. Unfortunately, in clearing the site, the builders destroyed a large portion of what would otherwise have been Scotland’s largest and probably oldest Pictish Fort, which straddled the headland.
Discover more at the excellent local heritage centre, housed in an old Coastguard Lookout, right on the tip of the headland. Great for dolphin-watching in the Firth too. (Hey, how come we got this far without mentioning dolphins?) You can grab a snack at the Bothy Bistro in Grant Street.
Where there's life there's Hopeman
This little town has a lovely shoreline, with beach huts an unusual feature for this part of Scotland. You could treat yourself to an ice cream here and go for a stroll.
Walking eastwards towards Lossiemouth brings you to a more rugged section of the coastline, maybe a kind of 'Dinosaur Coast’ as various fossils are sometimes unearthed here by the local quarry. (Strictly speaking, most of them are pre-dinosaur, but obviously, as you can see from a picture here, at least the beasties had developed feet.)
This chunk of rock lies near the path. It's too big to carry off, so don't even think about it. But you can see other footprints on the Hopeman sandstones on the shore, including evidence of 'tail-drag'. No, really.
Lossiemouth - the Antibes of the Moray Firth?
Slightly tongue-in-cheek here: (I may or may not delete that heading.) The town of Lossiemouth carries that air of well-scrubbed neatness that former fishing towns have in this area. The harbour is a marina. Big wide beaches roll out east and west. It's even popular with aircraft spotters, as the local fast jet base can be very active. And you can see round the community-owned Covesea Lighthouse.
If you want just one gee-whizz fact about the place, the local business association website tells us that 'the dunes in Lossie’s East Beach were made using old railway carriages to protect the seatown from heavy seas'. I think that even beats the story that the old Tory buffers in the local golf club banned Lossiemouth-born Ramsay MacDonald from joining, because he was a Labour Prime Minister. Ah! parish pump politics...
Next, Spey Bay, Portgordon and so to Buckie
Are we nearly there yet? No, there's still a ton of places to enjoy. There's Scotland's longest storm beach at Kingston-upon-Spey, where the shingle runs for miles. There's the estuary of the River Spey by Spey Bay - a popular place for dolphin spotting plus a visit to the Scottish Dolphin Centre
Onwards and east runs the big shingle bank, past Kingston, Spey Bay and towards the wee Buckie satellite of Portgordon.
Unusual for the Firth, with its well-kept little ports, this village has a harbour that has an air of having seen better days. But it makes up for it with plenty of places to view seals, which loll about seemingly without a care in their fishy world, indifferent to the onlookers.
Ospreys fly down from the River Spey on morning and evening fishing trips. Most visitors don't notice as they are ogling the seals instead.
As for the local centre of Buckie, nobody could say it's picturesque, though the late Victorian houses especially north-west of the centre, into Buckpool, are proper, substantial and solid, with their stonework defying Presbyterian dourness with the occasional flash of decoration.
Well worth a stroll if you are interested in vernacular architecture. Buckie's commercial harbour is interesting and on the main street there are proper little shoppies. Visit the local bakers or get some fish and chips. Friendly too.
Findochty, Portknockie and Cullen
Thanks to various shades of hard-wearing outdoor paint on walls and windows, we soon start to do picturesque again. Here’s where you see the Moray Firth tradition of painting the stonework on older houses. Sometimes even the mortar between the stones is picked out and the result is very distinctive.
Findochty comes next, on this eastward review. Pronounce it 'finn-ECH-tae' or the local folk (of which thankfully there are still a few) will laugh and throw stones at you. Only kidding. Good colours here, down by the waterfront.
Next comes Portknockie, with its funny wee harbour tucked below steep green slopes. The local folk (of which thankfully etc etc) are known as 'Knockers'. But the place is best known for its proximity to the Bow Fiddle Rock. a nice place to stay here is The Victoria Hotel, run by locals with just seven rooms and good home-cooked food. Dog friendly too.
I suppose The Bow Fiddle serves as a Moray Firth icon. This rock formation of sea-eroded quartzite has a variety of explanations for its name, including the obvious one: uhmm, it resembles a fiddle bow. (Then why isn’t it ‘Fiddle Bow Rock’?) I think I may start calling it ‘Whale Tail Rock’.
The Bow Fiddle Rock is OK, but the short stretch of coast between there and the handsome little town of Cullen is pretty special. Steps lead down the cliffs near the BFR, and you can walk along the ‘singing sands’. (They squeak - it’s the quartz grains rubbing together.)
Or you can have some high level views by using the old railway trackbed that leads over the Cullen viaducts.
Cullen is charming. Below is the old higgledy-piggledy almost picturesque sea-town. Above is the handsome early 19th-century planned town.
Oh, and the ice-cream shop, plus a selection of antique shops, a hardware store (always a good sign!), cafes, and everything you’d want for a leisurely stroll around.
And, if you go down to the harbour and walk along the shore, past the (surprisingly emotional) Pets’ Graveyard, you can walk for mile after rugged rocky mile with a few surprises on the way - the least surprising of which is finding yourself in Aberdeenshire. But that’s for another day. Or page. By the way...
The Three Kings of Cullen are prominent features of the coastal scenery to the west of Cullen. Two of them are lapped by the tides on Cullen beach. Like the Bow Fiddle Rock to the west, these rock formations are of tough quartzite rock - as is the beach sand.
The locally famous landmark of the Bow Fiddle Rock is a kind of icon of the Moray coast. On the eastern edge of Portknockie - and visible from Cullen - the Bow Fiddle is formed of quartzite rock. The sea has eroded it to form a sloping arch offshore. It can be safely viewed from the coastal cliffs and also at sea-level.
Why Moray is pretty dry
You know about rain-shadow? It’s applied to an area in the lee of high ground, sheltered from prevailing winds.
Basically, rain-bearing clouds dump moisture on the hills before reaching the favoured area beyond. Consequently, that area is drier and milder.
I was told | sound like a geography teacher, so I relegated this map to the foot of the page. And I'm sure you're grateful.