St Abbs for Seabird Spectacle on Dramatic Cliffs and Coast

St Abbs is a pretty coastal village in the Scottish Borders. It’s popular with divers, birdwatchers and visitors. It has impressive rugged seascapes and cliffs. Overall, a good introduction to Scotland’s east coast scenery. Close to the A1 main road.

St Abbs in the old county of Berwickshire is easy to reach from the main A1 road and is a good introduction to east coast Scotland, just minutes over the Border.

Today’s village shows a characteristic of some other Scottish east-coast former fishing settlements – and I’m thinking here of places such as, say, Pennan in Aberdeenshire or the old sea-town parts of Portknockie or Cullen in Moray – all much further north.

And that feature is simply that there isn’t a lot of room down by the pier.

St Abbs and harbour
St Abbs and harbour

These old sea-going communities that grew up round a natural cliff-girt cove are naturally compact: small harbour, some houses and sheds close by, but the main settlement is mostly higher up, above the cliffs or sea-braes. (Scots: slopes)

In the days when locally-based small-scale fishing was the norm, no-one in their daily struggle gave a thought to the picturesque.

But today, a century and more beyond those times, the little harbour, the cliffs as a backdrop, the old houses and so on, are all features considered charming and picturesque.

Village Of St Abbs – Worth The Detour From The Main A1 Road

St Abbs – as somewhere quite close to the border with England – is worth the detour from the main A1 for its setting alone.  If you are on a short trip to Scotland, it may be your only chance of seeing an old Scottish fishing community.

St Abbs, looking towards St Abb's Head.
St Abbs, looking towards St Abb’s Head. (Opposite way from pic above.)

St Abbs is older than its name – only given to it at the end of the 19th-century by Usher, the local wee bit laird (land-owner). It was originally Coldingham Shore – Coldingham being the very old settlement a little way inland.

In fact the original fishermen lived there and carried their fishing gear by the Creel Path – still walkable today – down to the cove from where they launched their boats.

The village still has a strong maritime theme today. It’s one of the most popular dive sites in Scotland, well known to the flippered fraternity. (I can’t believe I just wrote that. I’ll be calling mussels ‘inky-hued sea-beasts’ next, just like that Scottish restaurant reviewer.)

Dive-boats go out with their clients to explore Scotland’s only Voluntary Marine Reserve. It runs along the coast from close to the Head itself, eastwards to the bigger fishing town of Eyemouth.  (As well as chartered vessels, the harbour at St Abbs does have its own resident creel boats.)

In summer, there’s always a bit of a stir down there, though sometimes that’s just to find a parking space. Yes, it gets busy. Sometimes it’s neoprene as far as the eye can see. (What’s the collective word for divers. Is it shoal? A school? A pod?)

Visit the cafe-visitor-centre-toilets-craftshop before the St Abbs walk
Visit the cafe-visitor-centre-toilets-craftshop before the St Abbs walk

Walk Out To St Abb’s Head from St Abbs village

Anyway, though there’s a busy carpark down at harbour level, with a narrow access road, if you are even half-fit then check out the carpark at Northfield Farm, before you come into the village

It’s meant to be used for the walk to the reserve at St Abb’s Head.

It’s beside the farm cottage conversion, now an NTS visitor centre, a small cafe and a nice contemporary art gallery, just before you reach the village (and pictured here).

In the red-roofed little picture, the actual village of St Abbs – with the Ebba Centre (with cafe), the excellent Friday market and also the St Abbs Visitor Centre – are all just out of shot on the far right, beyond the trees. A five minute walk, I promise.

St Abb's Head lighthouse, with redundant foghorn.
St Abb’s Head lighthouse, with redundant foghorn.

(Pictured here) St Abb’s head Lighthouse is inevitably a Stevenson light and, cleverly, David and Thomas Stevenson noticed that the very top of the cliff was often in mist.

Consequently, they built the lighthouse not on the highest point of the headland, but somewhat down the seaward slope.

Obviously, you’ll take care when you visit? Keep small children and dogs well-tethered.

St Abb’s Head For Birdwatching

As well as diving types, the village also attracts birdy folk. There is a splendid circular walk from the aforementioned carpark – probably best done anticlockwise.

That means go down to the coast, up by the cliffs, over to the lighthouse, and gawp at the seabird colonies – there are around 60,000 birds, and they smell very fishy.

Kittiwakes at St Abb's Head
Kittiwakes, St Abb’s Head, Scottish Borders. DATE: 9 April 2014.

The birds pictured here are kittiwakes. (More on birdlife in Scotland here.)

And kittiwakes really do say their name: ‘kitti-way-aches’ – a characteristic seabird colony sound.

Kittiwakes are a sea-going gull species – more wholesome than your average herring gull, not having developed a taste for land-fill sites and fish-and-chip wrappers.

Next, return either by the lighthouse access road or at lower level by the Mire Loch. It’s great – a real, exposed wild cliff experience. 

St Abb’s Head is a National Nature Reserve.

The National Trust for Scotland own and manage it though, along with Scottish Natural Heritage.

St Abbs is also on the things to see in Scotland page now! It’s pretty much the best of the Borders.

Remember there’s great coastal walking on both sides of St Abbs. More information on Berwickshire coastal walks on that link. Oh, and if you are a visitor to these parts, then you’d probably also enjoy Berwick-upon-Tweed as well. You’d hardly know it was in England.

Guillemots at St Abb's Head
Guillemots at St Abb’s Head. There might have been razorbills too, but I think I cropped them out.
St Abb's Head guillemots
The wild rocks and cliffs preferred by the St Abb’s Head seabird colonies

St Abbs’ fictional twin

Wait, there’s something else about St Abbs. It’s been twinned with New Asgard. No, hadn’t a clue either, (must be a young person’s thing) but it’s apparently a fictional village in the movie Avengers: Endgame and location filming took place in St Abbs.

Movie makers made a substantial donation to the local lifeboat station as well, which was nice of them. Ho-hum.

And finally, I do hope you notice I’ve been as careful as I can to spell St Abbs the village with no apostrophe and always use one in the name St Abb’s Head.

Nope, don’t really know why this is so but I’ve got a pretty much fool-proof, infallible rule for the apostrophe (in Scotland and beyond) on that link.

Nah, you’d probably enjoy the page on Berwick-upon-Tweed more. 

In fact, Berwick-upon-Tweed accommodation is worth a look as well. It’s a good base for a St Abbs visit too.

St Abb's Head from the north-west
View from the less visited cliffs beyond St Abb’s Head – the smugglers’ haunts of old.

Here are some more suggestions for seeing wild nature in Scotland.