Finalist, Terrain.org 10th Annual Contest in Nonfiction
Monadhliath Mountains to Culbin’s Lost Villages
A day of summer heat, air roughed by the breeze and I am at Culbin, on the south coast of the Moray Firth. I stand on a fringe of coast looking over a belt of sand to the sea. And beyond, a silk ribbon, luminous blue, silhouettes dark hills on the north side of the water. The mountains are violet, their tops indistinct in the humid haze of this unusual heat.
Behind me, a shallow lagoon is fed by water from the River Findhorn. Sunlight sparks across the pool to where a burn runs out, slicing the beach to the shoreline, where it slips into the sea in a liquid, glycerin shimmer.
At the low dunes, just at the point where the sand disappears into the tree roots at the edge of a dense Scots and Corsican pine forest, I pause my walk, sitting to watch as waves break at the shore, churning, a timeless, rolling boil. Then a man and dog. Walking away from me, they shrink to dots. Then the shore is empty leaving only pure things: the bands of sand, water and sky, arcing to the world before me. I am minded of Pelagos, Hepworth’s sculpture at St. Ives, the wide arms of a bay reaching round to embrace the sea.
But, this place is not empty. I train my binoculars on the waterline and find the shore bus station busy. Birds emerge from the backdrop of sand, their beaks picking, poking, prodding. Oystercatchers strut like men in black tailcoats propped on lanky orange legs. Ringed plover move in plump scuttles, heads dipping, their beaks needling the sand. Nearer me, I count 15 seals—living beach boulders, smooth, rounded, and pebbled in different shades of brown and grey. Putting down the binoculars I find I am surrounded by butterflies—speckled woods and ringlets flicker in the bent grass. I am still but the place is alive. Yet the same place is an expanse of sea marsh and shingle, sand, water, and time, seven-eighth’s sky with the sea vanishing at its edges.
The stillness of horizon and the teeming micro life of the lens are not the only ways to be in this space. I remember Culbin from childhood, when my family visited on summer holidays. Every summer there would be a five-hour pilgrimage from Glasgow to the northeast to stay with Granny. Here on day trips, I ran free, my legs fighting the warm, shifting sands beneath my feet. You could run forever there and never run out of sand. At night, in Granny’s council flat, aunties told tales of yet another Culbin, a human settlement with a grand house, a chapel, and houses. There had been salmon traps, fields of wheat, bere, and oats. Meadows too, with flocks and herds. Today, years on, the stories come back to me.
For all its pristine wildness, people have always been drawn to Culbin. It is a treasure trove for archaeologists: there are nearly 30,000 artifacts from Culbin in the National Museum of Scotland. Past visitors left Iron Age bracelets and Roman glass, and a pebble of quartz dug out of the dunes—smooth as a shelled quail’s egg. It would have been unremarkable had it not been encased in a small copper cage—someone’s pendant or lucky charm. Iron Age people transformed the sand here to glass beads, tinting some sulphur-yellow with iron oxide. Others they made a translucent ice-gray, almost the color of stars. Archaeologists found lithic scatter here, tiny residual flakes from flint knapped to sharpness and the tools of fishing and cooking: cutters, points, spear heads, barbs. Pebble pot boilers lay scorched and cracked where they had finally cooled from the heat of long gone fires. This shifting liminal place of river mouth and sand bar, beach and sea also offered a place to settle, with food and shelter, a landing place, a safe stop.
Culbin sits where the Moray Firth floods deep into the east coast, two-thirds up the map of what is now Scotland. The Firth’s coast is strung with traditional fishing villages: Findhorn, Burghead, Hopeman, Port Soy, Buckie, Buchan. Culbin could once have been added to the list of names; a village and laird’s estate stood where there are now only sand and memories of holiday tales in my childhood.
In the summer of 1976, when a heat wave had the country on hosepipe ban as temperatures rose and rain did not fall, my brother, sister, and I were oblivious to the worries about water or garden plants. Like the rest of Scotland we took to the outdoors. On a daytrip to Culbin, we swam in a clear, greenish sea, and ate sand-grit egg and cress in bread rolls passed out by aunties and Granny and Mum while they sat on a great tartan travelling rug, drinking tea poured from enormous flasks and gossiping about family and neighbors. My father used a rock to hammer futilely at the stakes of a striped canvas windbreak. They ended up squint, the canvas sagging between them, flapping in the breeze. Afterwards, in the late afternoon when we were loaded in the back of the car, sun-scorched and sticky with the salt of sea water, we tried to leave. Dad gunned the engine, but the wheels just span in deepening troughs, sand spitting out behind. It took four locals to haul us out after laying pine branches in front of the wheels for traction.
Three-hundred years earlier the sand caught other humans out in a way far more devastating than us in our battered 1970s Volvo. Alexander Kinnaird inherited the Culbin estate in 1691. The estate included manor places, houses, biggins, yards, tofts, crofts, and dovecots. Kinnaird was also master of the Hill of Findhorn, the ferme coble on the water of Findhorn, mussel scalps, and salmon fishings, known as the Stells of Culbin, the lands of Binn, known as Middle Binn, the whole of the lands of Laick and Sandifield, the land of Deliath, or Delpottie, the mill of Delpottie, the whole of the Manse of the Chapel of St. Ninian, all the salmon fishing on the Earnhill and all the lands of Easter Binn. Despite this apparent plenty, in 1695 “young Culbin” endured the humiliation of having to petition the Scots Parliament for relief from his taxes. Like many of the Scots gentry, he had struggled to extract the wealth needed for a gentleman’s lifestyle from a rocky, sandy landscape. A long list of angry creditors refers to a useless and wastrel laird.
But in the end his financial downfall came not from some drunken wager or ill-advised brawl but from his own land. The sand at Culbin was, at the time, an unyielding and persistent menace. It had crept up on Kinnaird’s estate, blown by the wind over years, covering his fields and those of his tenants. Slowly, it stole any hope the people had of continuing to cultivate the land. They watched sand creep across their fields, in advancing layers, turning fertile land barren as its rivulets crept on and on. Finally, in the great storm of 1694, sand buried the entire estate. Storms had come and gone with the sand before then but this time the villages and houses had to be evacuated and then abandoned. In the space of a few days, all was gone and there was nothing of Kinnaird’s manor house, yards, orchards, or farm buildings. There was just sand.
John Martin of Elgin described what he saw:
The wind comes rushing down through the openings between the hills, carrying with it immense torrents of sand, with a force and violence almost overpowering. Clouds of dust are raised from the tops of the mounds and are whirled about in the wildest confusion and fall with the force of hail. Nothing can be seen but sand above, sand below and sand everywhere. You dare not open your eyes but must grope your way about as if blindfolded.
The tragedy, the lost livelihoods of the people who had farmed and fished at Culbin, was in one way a tragedy of nature turning against humans. But in another, it might be seen as nature turning on a negligent laird. The villagers had long cut the Marram grass, which grew in the dunes behind the beach and beyond, for thatch and mixing with compost. But harvesting of the grass had weakened the land’s defenses. The problem had been known for years to the extent that the local Nairn Town Council had banned the cutting of turf and Marram grass close to the sea. But the hard-pressed people did not stop, and their laird did not intervene, and the sands continued to shift until in one single event, the community called Culbin vanished, the village lying suffocated below.
After a while, stories emerged from the silence and crept along the Moray coast like the sand itself. Tales of lost villages and abandoned buildings were easily verified. But there was also talk of voices, heard from below. My aunts said as girls they had heard St. Ninian’s Chapel bell ringing. Another time they’d seen the chimney of the main house poking up, the sand around it having blown away, and heard, on leaning over it, the sound of voices, laughter, dancing, and music coming from the hall below. In truth, the chapel tower did reappear once and was robbed of its stones before the sand blew over again. Today, there are no traces of the village or its buildings. It is not even clear where they lie amid the thousands of trees planted in the 1940s to stabilize the area.
Nowadays, humans have made a new accommodation with nature at Culbin, and created a home for wildlife. Oystercatchers lay their eggs in pebble hollows. Behind the dunes, marram and bent grass grows. The beach is a home for plover, redshank, and curlew and is one of the largest areas of coastal sand dune and shingle in Scotland.
On this bright day I become the latest human witness of sand and time by sitting here low in the dunes and watching. The shore is pristine. I look again at the waders at the waterline and I see their legs bending and stretching like walking angle poise lamps, the waves beyond them washing at the sand bar. I see then that the beach is moving, the wind whipping it from place to place, the water working on it slowly, giving it a life of its own. The sand offered early humans a home, the sand destroyed the homes of humans who undermined it, and now the sand is protected by humans so it can cover a home once more, this time to the smaller beings—the birds, insects, and plants of a wildlife reserve.
Defining sand is difficult. One dictionary has it as “finely divided particles.” So sand can be particles of anything but commonly it is stone, coral, mineral, or shell. Every grain was once part of something bigger—a crag or a buttress, the action of rain and wind carrying away a mountain, speck by speck, into rivers and onto beaches. Sometimes sand was part of a coral reef, or the homes of sea creatures worn to hard grains—shells churned with pebbles in the sea wear to become white beaches. Even for laymen, then, sand is not one thing but many.
For those with a professional interest, “sand” itself is a crude description. For builders, it defines the size of the particles used. Its grains are bigger than silt but smaller than gravel. For engineers in the United States, sand is sand when a grain is between 0.074 and 2 millimeters. Or, if using standardized sieves to measure sand, it is classified as anything between an American standard number 200 sieve and a number 10. Soil scientists have a different measurement. Their grains count as sand when they are between 0.05 and 2 mm or between sieves 270 and 10 while sedimentologists have yet other definitions. There are scale systems to decide what sand is and what it is not. There is the Wentworth scale and the phi scale, where sand is graded as very coarse, coarse, medium, fine, and very fine. Or there is the sieve method, such as the American one, where material is judged as sand depending on whether it can pass through a mesh of a particular grade. There are also categories of non-sand called boulder, cobble, gravel (categorized, like sand, into very coarse, coarse, medium, fine, very fine). Then there is silt, clay, and colloid. Sand, on this scale, comes after gravel but before silt. For those who use it, sand is about size.
Geologists have a more appealingly romantic definition. For them, sand is anything fine enough to be lifted and carried by the wind but not so light that it stays up in the air. I like this, because sand has everything to do with geology and here at Culbin, it has everything to do with the wind. The purest sand is quartz, or a relation of quartz called chalcedony, minerals which dominate because they are most resistant to weathering. But sand can contain other stone types that have not yet weathered away. Feldspar and minerals can be present in a grain of sand depending on where it comes from. There are black beaches made of volcanic rocks like basalt, once molten lava. Elsewhere the sand can be Dulux white, ground from minerals like gypsum. There are beaches of coral on the Isle of Skye and on Hebridean islands off West Scotland where the sand is made of single-celled marine creatures who built chalk houses millions of years ago. These machair beaches, meaning “fertile plain” in Gaelic, are unique to Scotland and Ireland. They support abundant wildlife, with the sand part of nature’s bounty in subsistence economies.
Under a microscope sand becomes a different kind of wealth. There it will dazzle you with amber and green and black crystals. You’ll see stars and needles or a jumble of gemstones cast by a generous hand on a glass plate. When shaken the view is similar to that of a child’s kaleidoscope. When still magnified sand can be a stained glass window—ruby-encrusted, spiked with shards of black obsidian. Lit up, it is exquisite.
Yet with its gem-like grains hidden from the human eye without a microscope, sand has tended to serve as cultural background, to be used rather than treasured. In English we stick our heads in sand, we draw a line in it, and we visualize time with it using sand clocks to see minutes made real, our lives running before our eyes. Computer applications use the hour glass as a symbol to tell us to wait while a hard drive does its work. We use miniature sand glasses in board games and to boil an egg. Sand reminds us of the temporariness of our lives: biblical houses built on sand and castles made of sand, even by children on a beach, are dissolved by the tide, ramparts and turrets washed to roundness before disappearing under the tide. In “Ozymandias,” Shelley’s traveler talks of the crumbled desert remnants of a statue to Ramesses. Its “vast and trunkless legs of stone” and a gigantic statue face lying broken with the vainglorious inscription: “My name is Ozymandias, Kind of Kings / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Sand has the last word on such psychopathy. Ramesses’s time was as fleeting as anyone’s. As at Culbin, “the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
At Culbin the sand has not blown out like it blew in. Partly this is due to the Forestry Commission plantation but, from my seat in the dunes, I realise that all this sand must come from somewhere. But from where? In 1897 Doctor Mackie of nearby Elgin presented a study to the Inverness Scientific Society and Field Club called The first scientific analysis of the Culbin Sands. In it, he revealed that the quartz and feldspar in the sand at Culbin matched perfectly the sand found not only in the River Findhorn but also the nearby River Nairn. The sand at Culbin came from rivers and Doctor Mackie concluded the source of the sand as being, ultimately, “the hills beyond.”
Sixty or so miles inland, to the south, but north of Loch Laggan, beyond the crags of Creag Meagaidh, there is a small Highland loch. It sits in the mountains of the Corrieyairack Forest among the Monadhliath corries of Moy and Ardair. The places round the loch have old forest names—Vraeroy, Aberarder, and Glenshirra—but there are few trees nowadays, just the odd patch of Scots pine isolated in these high places, remnants of woods long gone. The loch is Loch Spey, the source of the River Spey, better known for its salmon beats and the grain fields through which it cuts and which supply Speyside whisky distilleries. In these hills water rises and combines to form the Rivers Findhorn and Nairn. The River Findhorn runs north through Strathearn, past Tomatin to Findhorn village and the Culbin Sands and to the sea. The stone it carries is Monadliath Schist, one of the commonest rock types of the Monadhliath mountain range, a rock type called Moinian semipelite. It consists almost completely of the minerals biotite, sodic andesine, and quartz. Schist is metamorphic, sedimentary layers of particles, squashed and heated and bent. It is named from ancient Greek, meaning “split” and its layers will flake when struck with force. Heat and pressure made the molecules in the stone line up—in multiple micro-layers. A grain of quartz, once taken by water from its rock home, will not erode much further.
Culbin is formed from the mountains, and brought here as grains in springs and streams and then the running of the river. Each particle crosses the land and the ages, the downbeats of which are millions of years. Their journeys are difficult to comprehend, moving in fits and starts at time scales both too short and too long to relate to human experience. Which pebble and water crevices did they lodge in for a human lifespan, to be swept a few feet further after a brief winter storm and then taken again by the current to the next stopping place? Another, a solitary grain, might have raced swiftly for a mile or so in the rush of an August downpour before resting, trapped in a trough for years.
So the beach at Culbin can be traced to the rivers and thus also to where the rivers rise and run—in the mountains. I look at the river again, watching its bright dance across the beach. There are abundant fragments of mountain lying in its waters. They were there when my ancestors were here 4,000 years ago. They were there when Kinnaird lost his estate to the sand. They will be there when the mountains are gone and the rivers run dry.
I shiver. The breeze has picked up. The man and his dog are gone and the clouds are opening onto the hills beyond the firth. I take a fistful of sand and squeeze. It feels cool and smooth as it runs through the gaps where my fingers join my palm. I hold my hands in front of my face and see grains sticking there. Four or five stand out on each, glittering in the light like tiny metal flakes. It occurs to me that each one has made a great expedition to end up on my hand. It has travelled there from a mountain, miles to the south. I brush them and they are caught up on the breeze to be blown then landed and buried, or swallowed by the sea, layered under others, compressed by the earth’s forces, and embedded to become, over time, stone once again. Then they may rise as mountains, after all here has gone, and ride on earth’s plates to a place where they may be ice-sculpted, water-worn, and transported onto some future beach where another might own an estate, or run as a child, or simply stop as an adult to pass the time of day.
Header photo of Culbin Sands by Colin French.