The picturesque fishing communities of the North East of Scotland
Updated: Jul 11
The North East of Scotland is blessed by an abundance of beautiful and diverse landscapes, from some of the tallest mountains and most isolated wildernesses in Britain, to the rolling farmland and rugged coast. For this particular travel blog post, we shall present a tour of those harsh and enchanting seascapes, and in particular, the picturesque little fishing villages and towns that dot the coast, from Cullen in Moray down to Gourdon in Aberdeenshire.
For several hundred years, fishing was an important industry in the North East of Scotland, with salmon and herring being caught in sufficient quantities to be exported into Europe. Many small fishing communities sprouted up along the coast to exploit this profitable industry during medieval times.
The herring boom may have peaked by the start of the 1900’s, but efforts quickly switched to trawling and seine-netting during the turn of the century. However, technological advances increased the size of fishing ships, outgrowing many of the small harbours, and at the same time these advances increased efficiency, reducing the number of fishermen required. Sadly, commercial fishing then began to disappear from the villages and towns of the North East, leaving them as picturesque tourist destinations or dormitories to the larger towns in the area.
Today commercial fishing in this area is mainly operated through the large ports of Fraserburgh, Peterhead and to a lesser extent, Aberdeen. Indeed, around half of the fish landed in Scotland come in to the harbours of the North East.
Our tour of the fishing communities of the North East starts with the charming town of Cullen. This quiet seaside holiday resort, with stunning scenery, long beach and calm waters has a long history, with Cullen first appearing in recorded history in 962. It was noted that during this year, the Battle of the Bauds was fought between the Scots King Indulf and the Vikings, where the unfortunate king lost his life. Another royal, this time King Robert the Bruce’s Queen, Elizabeth de Burgh, also died nearby, in 1327. Indeed, her entrails remain buried at the original church.
By the late medieval period, Cullen became a centre of fishing, and by the 1600’s, the quaint fishing cottages in the Seatown area were being built. The industry then experienced a dramatic growth during the 1800’s. The new harbour was completed in 1819, to a Thomas Telford design, with an additional quay being built in 1834. This complemented the creation of the new town of Cullen, which was constructed between 1820 and 1830.
While in the village, try the world-renowned soup recipe of Cullen Skink. It is a creamy potato, onion and smoked haddock soup.
Portsoy is perhaps best known for its annual Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, which is held in early July. The festival is based around the "Old" Harbour, which dates to the 17th century and the “New” Harbour, which was built in 1825 for the growing herring fishing boom. At its peak, the harbours managed to hold 57 boats! The imposing buildings around the harbour are worth an inspection, having been built around 1700.
This small town is also known for its local "Portsoy marble" (which is not marble, but rather serpentinite). Interestingly, some of the “marble” found its way into the fixtures and fittings of Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles. Portsoy is also proud to have represented the fictional island of Todday in the 2016 remake of the film ‘Whisky Galore’.
Banff has had a long and interesting history, having been home for a short time to King Malcolm IV in the mid-1100s as he fought off the Viking invaders. Royal Burgh status was then conferred to the settlement in 1372 by King Robert II, and by the 15th century, Banff was a thriving port town exporting salmon to the continent of Europe.
During the following centuries, fishing became even more important, but by the 20th century, the fishing boats had moved to the nearby town of Macduff, just across the estuary of the River Deveron, leaving Banff harbour to leisure traffic. While exploring this harbour town, make sure you take the chance to visit the nearby Duff House, designed by William Adam in 1730, and one of Scotland's finest classical houses.
Announced in 2016 by Rough Guides as the 11th best seaside town in Britain, Gardenstown is a stunning little village, clinging on to the side of its steep cliffs. Gamrie, as Gardenstown is known by the locals, was founded as a fishing village in 1720 by Alexander Garden, and has quaint traditional fishing cottages, a small sandy beach and a charming 19th century harbour.
Around the beginning of the 20th century there were around 50 fishing boats and 250 fishermen that operated out of Gardenstown and the nearby village of Crovie. As the century progressed, however, the villages very quickly lost out to the bigger boats and harbours further along the coast, eventually becoming a popular tourist destination.
The area’s history did not start with the fishing, however, as demonstrated by evidence of an 11th century chapel near the village, and it was in this area that The Battle of The Bloody Pits was fought against the Danes in 1004.
As well as having a stunning location, the tiny village of Crovie (pronounced 'crivie'), has the unique distinction of being the only village in Britain where you can’t drive a car through. There are no cars simply because there is no room on this strip of land for a road! The upside to living in this location, however, is that your doorstep regularly gets cleaned by the sea.
Locals are able to park at one end of the village, while visitors are able to use the car park just above the final hairpin bend descending to the shore.
Crovie village developed rather later than its North East counterparts, being created when the families living inland were cleared away by the land owner to allow for sheep farming in the late 18th century. By the middle of the 19th century there were fifty fishing boats sailing out of the tiny harbour of Crovie. However, following a devastating storm on the 31st of January, 1953, fishing boats ceased operating out of Crovie, with many of the fishermen moving to the nearby Gardenstown.
The claim to fame of the quaint settlement of Pennan is that it represented the fictional village of Ferness in the 1983 cult classic film Local Hero. Many visitors flock to Pennan to have their photo taken in the iconic red telephone box featured in the film and indeed this has been a listed building since 1989. What many visitors don’t realise is that the telephone box used in the film was actually only a prop and that the current box was placed there well after the film was shot.
The first harbour was built in Pennan in 1704, and the hamlet was established around this. Take note of the houses, as many were built gable end on to the sea, facing away from this hazard. The harbour that you see today, however, was built in 1845, with the west pier being replaced in 1903 after a particularly vicious storm.
The Bay of Cruden has a sweeping expanse of pink sands and dunes approximately 2.5 km in length. Cruden Bay is the village that lies at the northern end sands, however, the harbour area is more properly known as Port Erroll, and Cruden Bay itself lies a little inland. "Cruden", which comes from the Gaelic Croch Dain or "Slaughter of Danes", refers back to a battle fought between the Scots and the Danes in 1012.
While in Cruden Bay, plan to have a meal at the Kilmarmock Arms. As well as serving fantastic food, this hotel can boast that Dracula author, Bram Stoker, stayed here, gaining inspiration for his novel from the nearby New Slains Castle. If you ask nicely, they will even show you Stoker’s signature in the visitor's book!
The earliest recorded history of Collieston is of the arrival of St Ternan, a Columban monk on a mission to convert the local picts to Christianity. There is, however, evidence that people lived here during much earlier times.
Once a thriving and prosperous fishing community, the construction of Collieston’s pier in 1894 inadvertently hastened the demise of the local fishing industry. The build-up of sand in the harbour coincided with the advent of steam trawling and many fishing families left the village to pursue their trade in Torry, Aberdeen. For older fishermen and their wives who chose to remain in the village, fishing continued to be the focal point of their lives.
The village became famous for speldings, split and dried haddock or whiting, and day trippers and holiday makers would flock to the village’s Bakery and Refreshment Rooms for a ‘Spelding Tea’ or to buy a ‘take-away’.
Portlethen Village, often referred to as Old Portlethen, is perched high up on cliffs with spectacular views and overlooking a small, picturesque inlet harbour. It is hard to believe, but in 1881, there were 37 small fishing boats crammed into this small creek, employing a total of 89 men.
Cod and Haddock were the main catch fished for at this time, but following the Late Gale of 1880, which is thought to have claimed several lives, there was a steady drain of fisher families to the growing fishing village of Torry (now part of Aberdeen), with commercial fishing dieing out in the early 1900’s.
Interestingly, the name Portlethen may have actually been Port Leviathan, as it may have been a whaling station when the village first developed, however, it has also been suggested that Portlethen is Gaelic for “Port of the slope”.
Stonehaven’s history stretches back to the Iron Age, when a fishing village was established on Stonehaven Bay. Throughout the Dark Ages and into the mediaeval period, Stonehaven harbour became an important trading port. Later, the town became notorious as a haven for pirates. The harbour was dramatically reconstructed during the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th Century, with the South Pier being constructed by Robert Stevenson, the celebrated engineer and grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Fishing peaked in 1894 when the herring catch reached 15 million fish that year. However, overfishing became a massive problem and the industry subsequently collapsed. Today, Stonehaven has grown to a population of over 11,000 and was even voted the best seaside town in Scotland in a 2010 survey carried out by the Bank of Scotland.
Fishing boats have operated from Catterline for a thousand years or more, though the numbers operating in recent centuries have not been large. Smuggling, however, was often a popular means of supplementing fishing incomes.
The curved shingle bay below the village was said to be a landing point for St Ninian around 400 as he began the conversion of the Picts to Christianity. The current church in Catterline was built in 1848 on the site of a much earlier church, possibly one of a line leading right back to St Ninian's time.
Through the 1900s Catterline became known less for its fishing than for its artists. A number of artists including Joan Eardley, Annette Soper, Angus Neil and Lil Neilson together formed what some have referred to as a Catterline School.
Inverbervie appears in written history at least as far back as the 12th century and became royal burgh in 1342. Fishing thrived from the shelter of the mouth of the River Bervie for almost 500 years, and harbour improvements were made by Thomas Telford in 1819. By 1830, however, a shingle spit had grown across the mouth of the river, making access difficult for boats, leading the fishermen to move further down the coast to Gourdon.
While there, make sure to check out The Bervie Chipper, which was awarded the title Fish & Chip Shop of the Year 1997.
There is evidence to suggest there has been a fishing settlement around the natural harbour of Gourdon since Neolithic times, 5,000 years ago. The first written reference to the village was in 1315, to a farming and fishing settlement called Gurden, which is how the name of the village is still pronounced by those living here. An active port was in operation by the 1500s and by the end of the 1700s the population had reached 200 and in the 1881 season over 8,000 barrels of herrings were exported from Gourdon.
The original harbour was simply a gap between rocks, but in 1819 Thomas Telford built what is now known as the Old Harbour or West Harbour. This was expanded in 1842 and another harbour added in 1859. The harbours at Gourdon were most recently renovated in 1960.
Join us next time when our family adventures take us on a tour of Bruges, Belgium.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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