St Abbs for Seabird Spectacle
St Abbs is popular with divers, birdwatchers and visitors. Impressive seascapes, cliffs - a good introduction to east coast scenery. Close to A1 main road.
- the best of the Scottish Borders is by the sea
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. 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.
(Pictured here.) Yes, St Abbs certainly bustles with visitors in summer. In winter it's different, as many houses are second homes or holiday houses for letting. Ho hum. That's just how it is. Also pictured here, the cliffs that rise towards St Abbs Head, is taken from roughly the same place as the village view but looking the other way.
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 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.
Voluntary Marine Reserve - popular with divers
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 wall-to-wall neoprene. (What’s the collective word for divers. Is it shoal? A school? A pod?)
Walk out to St Abb's Head
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.
(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, so built the lighthouse not on the highest point, but somewhat down the seaward slope.
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: down to the coast, up by the cliffs, over to the lighthouse, gawp at the seabird colonies – there are around 60,000 birds, and they smell very fishy.The birds pictured here are kittiwakes. And they really do say '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 Abbs Head is a National Nature Reserve. The National Trust for Scotland own and manage it though, along with Scottish Natural Heritage.
Wondering now if St Abbs shouldn't just go in the main Scotland must sees page now! (Actually - it has. Links below.) 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.