A festive campervan escape to Scotland
Words and photos: Vivienne Crow
We’re getting the planning for our annual Christmas campervan escape down to a fine art with the north always exerting its magnetic pull on us.
But, once we’ve looked beyond the Scottish border, we can never decide between east and west so we wait until we’ve seen the forecast and then decide.
That’s where we were on 22 December; no campsites booked and two plans on the table – either we’d head towards Angus and see how far up the east coast we could get, or we’d make our way towards Ullapool and explore some of the hidden coves and beaches on the northwest coast. The Met Office website had been suggesting that both the east and west would be fairly dry.
Finally, the day before we were due to set off, the Met Office map showed a liberal sprinkling of sun symbols over northeast Scotland while much of the rest of the UK sat under white clouds. Decision made...
Our first taste of the North Sea coast was Arbroath, birthplace of both the fourteenth century Declaration of Arbroath, proclaiming Scotland’s independence and of a less controversial smoked haddock speciality. Unfortunately, though, this was Christmas Day and we didn’t get an opportunity to sample any smokies.
We did, however, get to wander along the top of Seaton Cliffs to the north of the town. Famed in the summer for their nesting seabirds and wildflower displays, they’re an impressive sight in winter, too, when their red sandstone seems to glow in the low sun.
The path was busy with fellow Christmas escapees, many of whom headed off-piste to explore the stacks, blowholes and caves that have been sculpted by the waves over many millennia. One man stood on top of an exposed headland and posed Instagram-style for an unseen companion armed, no doubt, with a mobile phone. Another family, clambering excitedly on the rocks, kept looking up, smiling and waving, as their drone flew backwards and forwards. I felt positively dinosaur-like with my old-fashioned, handheld brick of a camera.
Clifftop walks became a common feature of our trip. Some of the most spectacular natural features were to the north of Cruden Bay. Having spent a night parked at Port Erroll’s harbour, waking to the soothing sound of the calm sea lapping up against the harbour walls (and having deposited £10 in the honesty box for the privilege), we headed up to the Bullers of Buchan. The jagged cliffs here are home to remarkable arches as well as an enormous blowhole. I stood on the vertiginous edge and peered down into this collapsed cavern. The waves had breached the opposite wall, creating a natural archway through which the sea entered to fill the gaping hole below.
Not to be outdone by nature, humans have created their own impressive structures on top of these Aberdeenshire cliffs. Nearby, the sixteenth century New Slains Castle is said to have inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula.
More remarkable still is Dunnottar Castle, near Stonehaven. We walked to the ruins of this medieval fortress from the town’s Caravan and Motorhome Club site.
A traffic-free promenade enabled us to walk behind the stony beach, avoiding the town ‘proper’ and visit the sheltered harbour where eighteenth century townhouses line up along the waterfront. It’s hard to believe this sedate and refined place is the home of the deep-fried Mars bar and a Hogmanay celebration that involves the townsfolk marching through the streets swirling – goodness gracious – great balls of fire.
A stiff climb from the harbour led us onto the cliffs and past the distinctive, octagonal war memorial crowning Black Hill. Designed by a local architect, John Ellis, in the early 1920s, it was built to resemble a Greek temple.
From Black Hill, we meandered along a good clifftop trail towards the eerie silhouette of Dunnottar. A long flight of steps dropped us from the cliffs onto the slender neck of land that connects them with the otherwise impregnable rocky headland on which the castle is precariously perched. We entered through a dark archway and up a cobbled tunnel.
There have been fortifications here for at least 1,300 years, although stone buildings didn’t go up until the fourteenth century. Scotland’s Crown Jewels were hidden here in 1651, in the weeks before the castle became one of the last places in the country to fall to Parliamentary forces. When Cromwell’s men finally gained access after a protracted siege, the ‘Honours of Scotland’ (as the jewels were known) had already been smuggled out.
Dunnottar Castle was just one of a large number of attractions that were open between Christmas and Hogmanay, although there were a few disappointments. You’d think that carved Pictish standing stones sitting beside a public road would be a safe bet. Think again!
Having seen photos of the stones at Aberlemno, I was eager to see them in the flesh, so to speak. Sadly, though, there was no ‘flesh’ on display. If you like huge wooden boxes, I’d recommend an off-season visit!
Just five miles away, close to Forfar, the ruins of Restenneth Priory are open all year. A sturdy tower dominates the site.
On approaching the medieval remains in the morning gloom, I assumed the tower was a more recent addition. Interpretation panels, however, revealed it to be about 900 years old.
Possibly older still is the 86ft-tall round tower attached to nearby Brechin Cathedral, one of only two Irish-style towers that still exist in Scotland. Its single doorway more than six feet above the ground and its paucity of windows give it a Rapunzel-like quality.
Probably the most unusual attraction we visited in northeast Scotland was Peterhead Prison Museum. Built in the 1880s and later known as Scotland’s gulag, it served as a prison until 2013.
As we entered the intimidating, razor-wire-topped compound, smiling museum staff, wearing the uniforms of the former prison guards, put us at ease. Among them was 89-year-old Jackie Stuart, an ex-prison officer who was taken hostage during a riot here in 1987. Stabbed three times, he was taken onto the roof during the prisoners’ five-day siege and paraded for the media to see. The terrifying stand-off ended only when the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, sent in elite SAS troops. They blasted their way into the block with explosives and, using stun grenades and tear gas, quickly managed to free Jackie and take back control.
Today, museum visitors are able to chat with Jackie and listen to his story – and the stories of other prison guards – during a fascinating audio tour of the notorious prison. We visited the claustrophobic, walled exercise yards before crossing to the main wing. Stepping over its threshold, the temperature was several degrees below the December chill outside. It’s still a menacing place, as if its former inmates have left an imprint of themselves in its very fabric.
One particularly chilling area was the small wing kept for just one inmate, regarded as so dangerous that he had to be kept isolated from other prisoners.
There were lighter moments on the tour as well, including the story of the inmate who’d been allowed to turn one of the wire-fenced exercise yards into an aviary. He’d been equipped with wire cutters to fashion perches for the birds. The inevitable happened. Luckily, though, he was only on the run for a couple of days and was recaptured after having been spotted waiting for a bus.
I found my time ‘inside’ a real eye-opener, but the highlights of the trip, for me, were the outdoor experiences. Forvie National Nature Reserve, about 15 miles south of Peterhead, has some of the biggest sand dunes in the UK. From the village of Collieston in the north to the Ythan Estuary in the south, it sprawls across a three-mile line of coast and stretches upstream for several miles.
We arrived mid-afternoon, hoping to walk to the ruins of a twelfth century church, which had lain hidden in the shifting sands until the end of the nineteenth century. There were height and width restrictions on the roadside car parks closest to the church, though, so we had to start our walk from the visitor centre car park near Collieston.
With the December sun already plunging rapidly towards the horizon, we quickly realised we’d not reach the church and get back to the campervan before dark, so we made do with a shorter stroll to the coast. We followed trails that headed out across the featureless heathland and then wound between the inland dunes in disorientating fashion. Only the position of the blindingly low sun confirmed that, generally speaking, we were heading towards the sea.
Suddenly, after a slow climb to the top of one dune, we found ourselves staring down into a hidden cove where jagged lines of dark rock erupted from the sand, which was almost orange in the setting sun. The sea, inky black, lapped against the beach indolently.
Earlier in the trip, we’d visited the St Cyrus National Nature Reserve just north of Montrose. Parking had again been an issue here. With the main car park sporting a height barrier, we used the smaller parking area outside the visitor centre opposite. A walkway led across marshland and into the dunes before depositing us on a golden beach. Two miles long, this immediately received the canine seal of approval from Jess, our terrier, who set about trying to reach Australia.
It took us nearly a week to drive slowly up the east coast. By the time we reached Fraserburgh and turned the corner to head west along the Moray Firth coast, we were running out of time.
Long walks along the cliffs, wilder and more rugged beyond Rosehearty, were abandoned in favour of brief stops in some of the many fishing villages. I’d already fallen in love with colourful Johnshaven, north of St Cyrus, where crab and lobster creels lay piled up by the waterfront ready for the fishermen who still work out of this small harbour.
In contrast, the residents of Pennan, on the north coast, have abandoned the seagoing lifestyle of their ancestors, but the village remains an enchanting spot.
Having nervously negotiated the steep, winding road, we arrived at the edge of the tiny harbour. There’s not much room between the cliffs and the sea here – just enough for a single row of cottages and an old-fashioned red telephone box. It’s the telephone box that many people come to see.
Those of a certain age might remember the 1983 film Local Hero, which was shot in Pennan. They might even remember the phone box, which played a key role in the plot. But they probably won’t know that the box was just a prop, brought in temporarily by the film-makers. The missing booth proved such a disappointment to film fans on pilgrimage to Pennan that villagers had one installed. It’s now a listed building.
We didn’t spend long in Pennan, but it was long enough to understand how the Texan oil executive in Local Hero was won over by its charm.
How could anyone fail to be seduced by this charismatic corner of Scotland?