Moray Coast Trail – Hopeman to Covesea

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The Moray Coast Trail, or Moray Coastal Trail (not even the council can decide what it’s called) stretches from Cullen in the east to Findhorn towards the west, along the coast of the Moray Firth.

Officially, it’s 50 miles but there are some arguments about that…

…anyway, over the past few months we, as in Patches and I, have been tackling it in nice bite sized sections at the weekends. Patches is a mature gentlemen, with a touch of arthritis, and so those bite sized chunks range from five to around nine miles. This is a bit of a misnomer though, as we walk each section as a there-and-back, so we might only cover 2.5miles of the trail, but we do it twice, in both directions seeing it from both views.

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Some sections are easier to walk than others, as it shares the route with sections of cycle trails and on disused railways, so sometimes a nice wide flat path is provided and sometimes you are on the “walkers path” and therefore going around the cliffs (and up and down thin tracks being scratched by scratchy shrub).

I had been looking forward to yesterdays section very much, because the map has the words ‘caves’ printed on it all the way. It did not disappoint, although the scratches from the scratchy bushes on the very enclosed sections might take a few days to heal.

All along the route there are coves and bays, some sand and some pebble. Some are easy to get to, and some are definitely not.

The whole route gives excellent views across the firth to the coast on the other side, depending on the weather of course, and you can often see dolphins, seals, and a large variety of birdlife.

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Not marked on the map is the old Coastguard lookout station, which you get to see from quite some distance when walking west to east, but then it pops up over the gorse and undulating cliff top at you if on the route east to west.

It is a shame that you can’t go in it, or that it hasn’t been co-opted into a bothy like the one on Skye. I image the view from the balcony at the top would be quite something.

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The route does indeed take you past a number of sandstone caves and rock formations, as promised on the map. These ones (above) are not far from the active quarry and are reasonably accessible, although two of the three paths down are much steeper than the west most one and great care is needed.

Popular with photographers, mainly due to the natural arch you can just see at the bottom of the photo (above), and the array of weather worn large round rocks which form a stunning collection of geological complexity (below), it is unlikely you’ll be alone here for very long.

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At weekends, it is possible to park near to the quarry entrance and just visit these caves, although this is certainly not recommended on weekdays when the lorries are going in and out, and care should be taken not to block access at ANY time.

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The quarry produces some very large pieces of sandstone, and whilst it may be a bit of a blight on the landscape, it does facilitate the degree of weekend parking which is helpful, as well as offering much needed employment.

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Towards the Covesea end of the walk, which can be extended easily to Lossiemouth if desired, there is the Sculptors Cave. This feature is clearly marked on the OS maps in the serif type usually reserved for ancient monuments so there is a deeply historical context, obviously. It isn’t actually possible to see Sculptors Cave from the walk, as you’re actually walking over it, but nearby natural arches and caves that you can see give you a teaser of what it could be like.

Luckily, the wonderful Canmore website can shed more light on this;

‘Finds from the Sculptor’s Cave dating from the Bronze Age to the 4th century AD, and including Iron Age pottery, are in the Elgin Museum.’

‘The most striking feature of the cave is the (formerly) substantial assemblage of human remains that was revealed in both programmes of excavation’

‘The possibility may be considered that there were two periods of deposition….the deposition of the remains of children, with some emphasis on the placing of heads at the entrance, and….the remains of several decapitated individuals. Concern with the removal, curation and display of human heads is a persistent trait across prehistoric Europe…’
(edited, removing technical references for ease of reading, by the photographer)

This exciting site certainly warrants a further expedition to photography the carvings at a later date.

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The caves and natural arches extend along the seaward side of the cliff and also under where the photographer is standing.

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The coast of the Moray Firth is still able to enchant and interest, even after more than 13 years of living beside it. The geology itself is varied and interesting, and the human history of the coast is just as fascinating.

The eastern side of Scotland is often overlooked by the rush to the west coast and the isles, and whilst this keeps it from being unpleasantly crowded, it is a disservice to what is a very worthwhile destination. The weather of Moray is far more stable, and frequently warmer and drier than the west, although the residents will still bemoan the lack of a “decent summer”. It also suffers considerably less from the issue of the Highland midge than it’s opposing neighbours.

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Although the walk was only around 5-6 miles in length, ignoring some exploratory detours, Patches certainly enjoyed the outing as much as I did.

Update Sunday 8th October: attempted today to get down to the Sculptures Cave from the cliff above. It was difficult is distinguish the right path and I tried finding a way down and back to it from different points. In the end I found what seems the most logical path but I was only brave enough to tackle the first section and was slipping in the mud from the last few days of rain. As I peered over the precipice and contemplated the leap across the missing rock section onto the second path I am afraid that I bottled it. The caves remain unexplored until I can tackle them from the bottom having walked there from the beach at the far Lossiemouth end. For this, I would want to be there as the tide was going out rather than after it had turned and was heading back in, as being cut off is a very serious proposition. Another time…

 

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Every season in one day

 

It’s my own fault for complaining I guess. I had called the sky on Skye “chocolate box blue” once too often, and bemoaned the lack of clouds, and therefore the lack of weather. Skye, or more so Mother Nature, would have her revenge and bring me not just a little weather, but all the weather, and all in one go.

The forecast was ‘changeable’, but it is April, and that’s to be expected. ‘April showers’, and all that. After sunshine and shorts in February the weather wasn’t playing by the rules anyway, not this year. I was ready for it all; I had midge repellent (it is Highland/Island Scotland after all), and I had sunscreen (mainly for wind burn usually), and I had waterproofs. I didn’t quite plan on thermals but hey, that’s Scotland for you!

Arriving after a long, and slightly boring, drive with mainly dull grey cloudy skies I was hopeful for something better later, or in the morning. Consulting the forecast, from the accommodation, was out of the question. There was no 3G let alone 4G and no wifi. So, I consulted the maps and picked a route that would me a nice 10mile stroll if nothing else. Tomorrow, I was heading to Macleod’s Maidens, from Orbost, on Duirinish peninsula I decided. It would be a new area for me, having so far not explored past Dunvegan and I was excited to see what the guidebook described as the best cliff top coastal walk on the whole island. However, before I could get to Duirinish there was some unfinished business with another area of Macleod land – the Cuillin, and specifically the Fairy Pools which sit under the Cuillin in Glen Brittle.

I had pondered this excursion before but not actually taken it, mainly because it is another one of those photographers honeypots that I detest. I did not fancy competing with ten or twenty other tripods for a space amongst hundreds of tourists, but I hoped the weather would maybe keep a few of them away. The clouds were breaking but it was still dull and threatening rain. Of course, the weather didn’t put them off, well, that’s not entirely true, as there was actually a single space left in the car park when I arrived. There was only a small wait for the stepping stones (2ft high, 2ft apart, raging torrent beneath in case you’re wondering…) and fewer photographers than I had seen elsewhere recently.

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Fairy Pools #1
I was pleasantly surprised to get a few moments without people in them, and although the exposures were difficult they were not impossible, mainly thanks to the improved sensor in the Fujifilm XT-2 with, I am sure, a greater dynamic range than its predecessor the XT-1.

I still needed to use my Cokin Z-pro filters, combing the ND2L with the ND4M to give me a ND6 with a very soft graduated edge. This was needed to avoid changing the colours of the mountains which are naturally so much darker than the surrounding lower landscape and rocks, whilst still bringing in the (8-stop) lighter sky. I spot metered each area and decided this should work, with maybe a little additional pulling back in of the clouds in Lightroom later if needed. Using the single 8-stop filter would have been preferable, but the graduation of that specific one was wrong for the landscape and the position I required to have the camera to get the aspect I wanted.

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Fairy Pools #2
I walked to the furthest of the photogenic pools first (#1), then tracked back to the one with the single but longer fall (#2). The clouds were moving very rapidly and the light was constantly changing, so I need to work fast whilst at the same time waiting patiently for the tourists in their bright coloured waterproofs to get out of my shots. Constantly a balance of speed and patience, I actually took very few images in total, and then I discarded more than 70% back in the office because people had popped into the edges of the frames or appeared from behind rocks.

The weather didn’t deter too many, and in fact two brave souls even took up swimming in and out of my shot in one of the lower pools, much to many photographers annoyance. I actually thought that alone, the gentlemen, would have made the photo – a big and well muscled iconically Scottish looking guy with celtic tattoos, ginger hair and beard, but sadly accompanied by his girlfriend (I assume) in her 1950s style bathing costume but very modern hairstyle, it wasn’t quite working it the same. Ne’er mind as they say around here.

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Happy with my shots, and laughing slightly at the failed opportunity “modelled” shots, I retired to contemplate the morrow in my Whitewave pod. The sun was much slower to dip now as the Spring brought in longer evenings, spring flowers, and lambs gambolling in the fields. Tomorrow was another day and the sky on Skye was, for the first of this years visits, a lot more interesting.

Day 2

The sky was still looking interesting in the morning, even more interesting in fact. It might rain later, it might not, I hoped perhaps for a little bit because the light could then become quite amazing.

The drive to Orbost is easy, with decent roads, consisting of two lanes rather than single track. At Orbost the guidebook lead me to a parking spot, and the nice friendly green sign informed me it was ‘5m’ (miles) to the Maidens which the guidebook again assured me was on a clear path. This was going to pleasant, or so I thought.

The initially wide hard packed path lasts until you get to the very steep path which takes you up onto what you initially think is the top of the cliff. At this point you imagine, at least for a little while, that will be the only ascent of the day. It isn’t. It also doesn’t take you to a ‘nicely cropped’ grassy top either (well, not until the last 200 yards some three hours later…).

What actually follows is wading of the many streams, combined with negotiating mile after mile, after mile, of mud. Mud up to your knees, or if you are Patches your boy bits, and slippery sloppy mud filled rivets of water running in all directions. Gloop, nothing but unrelenting miles of gloop.

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A small example of the views, and the gloop
The views, when you find a bit you can stand on without sinking for long enough to look at them, are indeed, rather splendid. But, the mud will make those five miles feel like ten, and you’ve got to repeat the experience to get back to the car again.

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View of the Cuillin, which dominates many views on Skye
Now the forestry have cleared more of the hill side there are indeed rewarding vistas, and some additional and wonderfully unexpected delights.

Rebel’s Wood was first started during Joe Strummer‘s lifetime and was originally conceived as a way for him to become carbon neutral. In 2003, after his untimely death, 8000 saplings were planted in his memory. They are growing slowly, as trees tend to do, but the idea is sound and it might have the added bonus of drying out some of the water logged areas of the walk and eventually creating a habitat for things that don’t want mud, or grass and heather.

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Looking back to the path from the first of the croft ruins above Brandarsaig Bay
The path leads around the small summits under the shadow of Macleod’s Tables and through the remains of the old croft villages. If you sit and listen carefully you can hear the voices of the past issue from the broken walls and overgrown hearths.

After passing through the crofts above Brandarsaig Bay, where caves can be viewed at a distance, you come to the remains of the village of Idrigill which gives its name to the point from where the Maidens are viewed.

Finally, reaching the top of the point in one last uphill muddy battle, you are done with the gloop and although now probably also wind battered, you eventually reach the cliff top where you can see the impressive stacks of Macleod’s Maidens. Care is required as there is no fencing to stop you getting a final experience of the Atlantic.

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Macleod’s Maidens
There are several legends surrounding these sea stacks, which rise to over 200ft above sea level. The most often quoted is that they are named after the wife and daughters of the 4th Chief of the Clan Macleod who were shipwrecked on them. From this they became the hosts of the souls of the ‘mother’ and her two ‘daughters’.

The wind was now quickening more rapidly, and the clouds were rolling. I did not try to use a tripod, or to stay very long atop the cliff. Between the gusts and the stares of the rather well endowed Highland cattle (in the horn department it should be noted) I wasn’t inclined to dally here for long. There is an atmosphere of foreboding here, and with the weather turning for the worst I had little desire to stay.

Whilst retracing the path back the wind continued to gain in strength and the clouds thickened. Rain finally came in short but not insignificant bursts, and the temperature dropped continually throughout the returning walk. It was not a place to be caught out, and a couple of hours later, mud splattered and with very tired legs I was happy to get to my car and be heading back to my pod (and a pint).

Day 3

The wind had battered the pod growing in strength throughout the night until at 5am I had to check I was still on Skye and not now on either the Isle of Harris or North Uist! it sure felt that we were heading that way. By 8am the rain had turned to sleet, and then by 9am to proper snow.

By the time I was packed twenty minutes later the snow was no longer falling but going sideways, in gale force winds. It was sticking to the road signs but little else, the winds wouldn’t let it. Heading back to Moray was a sad affair, even in this weather. Whilst some see this precipitation as making the landscape barren and bleak I feel the power of nature and waiting promise of what is to come. The thing I love most about Scotland is that it has proper weather, in all its forms.

And, when I go to Skye I feel like I am going home. Funnily enough, I have felt this every time I go there from the very first visit some twenty odd years ago, and I have felt this nowhere more so that at the remains of Idrigill. So much so that I felt compelled to thank the (g)hosts for their hospitality as I left them.

The drive back wasn’t quiet, but the breaks in the weather allowed the mountain’s heads to peep from the clouds every now and again. When they could be seen they were now they shimmering in a dusting of white. Three days again, but this time there had been sun, rain, sleet, snow, and even for a short time, a sea fog. Mother Nature had delivered her reply to my complaints about that stable wall to wall blue sky, and she had delighted me with her vengeance. Skye had been still as wonderful and majestic, in spite of all the mud, and I had two sets of photos that had eluded me so far. Skye is my spiritual home, and one day I hope to make her my living home also.

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