Sunday, 26 July 2015

Bleak granite towns

Scotland has a distinctively different appearance from England, largely because the old heart of every town and city is built in stone, most often grey granite.

Much of England is built of softer, less durable materials, because back in the days when one was ordinarily obliged to use only local materials, sand and clay and straw were pressed into service for vernacular building. And so much of old England was, if not wattle-and-daub on a timber frame, then brick. And generally not hard rock. Of course, there were exceptions in the West Country, and in Northern hill country, where stone was available in abundance; and really important buildings - castles, cathedrals, churches, palaces, mansions, town halls - were always built of stone, throughout the land, if funds permitted. But in Wales, and especially in Scotland, stone was the rule, even where brick would have done.

So in Scotland every village and small town that has not expanded too much since 1945 continues to show a grey face compared to similar villages and towns in most of England. This is sometimes offset by bright (if not lurid) exterior wall-painting, or (in summer) a profusion of hanging baskets. But many a Scottish town looks rather plain, if not actually grim. I'll show you some prime examples seen in my recent travels.

First, Macduff, on the northern coast of Aberdeenshire. Macduff is across the bay from Banff. They are practically twin towns. Banff is the ancient centre; Macduff is the working fishing town. Here is the harbour, which is spruce enough.

This is Macduff's main shopping street. Note the woman walking casually about, heedless of the traffic.

I'm not really poking fun at these places. I just wonder why people live there. To my Sussex eyes they seem almost devoid of shops and facilities. They don't seem to have places for people to go. Where are the coffee shops? Where are all the usual High Street chain stores with their lively shopfronts, that we take completely for granted in my part of the world? How do people 'pop out to browse in the shops', as a regular leisure pastime? Don't they do this? More than once I felt the lack of a humdrum-but-oh-so-useful Boots, or a W H Smith.

And where were the signs of decades of oil wealth - did it always pass these towns by? Could the decline of sea fishing in recent decades be the main reason for the apparent half-death of all these places?

I quite liked Banff - even though it too lacked a modern shopping centre - partly because the sun came out and lit up its best bits to advantage. Banff wears an air of importance. It has more history to show than Macduff, with several nice town houses, a market square, an ancient churchyard full of unusual tombs, and an attractive steep alleyway, connecting the upper and lower levels.

If you look closely in the picture just above, you can actually see a man wearing a kilt. The only other time a kilted man came within photographing distance of my camera - apart from those wearing it for tourist reasons on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh - was on the Border, way down south, on the English side of the River Tweed, at a place called Norham. I arrived with a friend just when a little service of commemoration was going on, although at the time we thought it was a private funeral, and stayed discreetly at a distance. Norham was where Piper David Laidlaw of the King's Own Scottish Borderers boldly made possible the winning of a German position at Loos in 1915, by leaping out of the trench and piping his company forward. See He won a VC for that, and he is still remembered every year with a service in his honour, and a Piper playing a lament for him. This was the Piper in his kilt, posing specially when I asked him to, in full piping kit. How splendid!

And this was the Order of Service, and the grave:

Back to Banff. This was the ancient graveyard:

I've no idea why those grave slabs were raised off the ground.

Another stone-built coastal place in Aberdeenshire. This time, just a village - a little place called Sandend. I liked it very much. It was small and peaceful, the only place I found on this part of the coast that I would personally describe as 'pretty'. The sea water was wonderfully clear, and the rocks were interesting and photogenic.

It's not Devon, but definitely picturesque in its colder, Northern Scotland way.

Further west, some coastal places in the next region, Moray. Lossiemouth is a fairly big place for the area with an important RAF base nearby. This is one of the main streets in the town centre. Where are the shops? Where are the people?

Here is the Town Hall, and the less-than-inviting Youth Café at its rear. I wonder if it ever opens?

This is the furniture store, accommodated in what once might have been the town cinema, though I'm not sure.

Lossiemouth has a beach, and the nearby facilities do have a certain modern style, such as this impressive toilet and open-air performances building, around which holidaymakers can soak up the sun in deckchairs - although none were there on my visit.

Lossiemouth does have a quayside next to its harbour, but they don't make much of it. (All the time, keep in mind that this is June, not November)

Now we'll look at Burghead, another Moray Firth fishing town, although this one also had a huge malting factory, still very active. It was also long ago the site of a Pictish headland fort. I was expecting a different look to the place, something not nearly so bleak. But I was wrong.

It's not very green, even allowing for the stiff breezes! And it's early summer, remember. I developed a theory that in such places the outward appearance of the town didn't matter: it was what went on indoors that did, and especially what went on between the people who lived there. So a half-deserted, almost barren, townscape was deceptive. These places had a hidden, inner life. And I possessed some evidence: every person I ever spoke to in these windy towns was cheerful, and clearly taking a keen interest in life and local affairs.

Burghead did have a nice harbour:

I got the impression that it reckoned itself to be something of a holiday destination. A North-Eastern Scotland version of Padstow. Well, possibly...

Finally, two inland towns, to show that away from the coast the towns can be more welcoming in their general appearance, even if stone-built. Here's Forres:

This is where I chatted to Sally and Karen...

...and tried on silly hats at the Falconer Museum:

And finally Tomintoul, claimed to be the Highest Village in the Grampians. Given its situation high in the mountains, I was expecting it to have a last-outpost-of-civilisation atmosphere, but no: there was a sunny main street, and, wonder of wonders, a big lawned square with nice trees! To be sure, Tomintoul was the local focus for winter sports, and the Lecht Ski Centre was just up the road. So it had acquired modern reasons to exist, and several of the shops were the sort that catered for the sporty tourist. But I still found the lawned square charming.

It all looks crisp and almost military in the mountain sunshine, doesn't it? But stone can do crisp very well. I respect these stone-built towns, and want to see much more of them in further travels; but I do prefer the softer, mellow, colourful, flower-planted garden walls and thatched cottages of Southern England. Such as those in these scenes from Amberley in West Sussex:

And I never saw a hedge like this one, near Portelet Harbour on Guernsey, when walking around Macduff, Banff, Lossiemouth, Burghead, or even Sandend, even though it was June: 


  1. You poor southerners, have to use grass for roofs whilst our grey "sandstone" houses have to make do with Scotch slates...

    Keep it up Lucy, the roads are far too busy with tourists, please keep showing them how awful it is up here.

  2. Thanks for an interesting travelogue. I'm very sorry Coline, but these photos have whetted my appetite for exploring the east coast of Scotland.

  3. Steerforth, Coline is saying this with a tongue in her cheek. If you venture into Aberdeenshire, you will find much to reward the eye. But it isn't like Sussex.

    For me, Scotland has called since childhood, and only now am I free to go there as I please. I don't think I have enough time left to see it all, but I can try.


  4. Nobody has time to see it all! So many different aspects of the country to explore. The small towns have changed a lot with big supermarkets sometimes in the next town, sucking away all the local trade and small places become commuter towns, not what I used to find...

    My advice is fill up your tank when you see an open garage, all the small ones have vanished except for far flung expensive ones with reduced opening times.

  5. Lovely pictures, Lucy! You are so lucky to be able to visit Scotland.

    Your Sandend pictures looked like something I might have seen in Coline's blog.

    There are all of these cute villages, and then there's Lossiemouth. It seems so......plain. Almost like a town in one of the rural American working class towns.

    Oh, and the flowers on the hedge. I love them! Do you know what it is?

    Thanks so much for sharing all of this.

    Calie xxx

  6. It's Aubretia on the garden wall in Guernsey, Calle. Ordinarily it doesn't form such a giant display!

    Lossiemouth was much less dour on its outskirts, where the houses were modern, and looked nicer. But what I saw was a far cry from the vibrant, sunny place in the video 'Lossie's a fun place- welcome to Lossiemouth!' on the official tourist website - see


  7. Lets face it Lucy, there is a lot more money floating around in Brighton than there is in Macduff. But places have their ups and down. I'm under the impression Brighton had its dark days, and was a bit seedy once. Jerrico in Oxford was the poor area before gentrification set in, as was Greenwich Village in New York. Poor people have to live somewhere. If people are complaining about the property prices in Essex, send them to the North East - as long as they can make a positive contribution to the area.

  8. OK I stumbled on this one and ended up having to get the wife to calm me down :)

    As a local journalist in Lossiemouth, I pride myself in researching every story - in particular if I'm about to lay criticism in the direction of a local community.

    Clearly, research for this writer just gets in the way of her attempt at 'witty banter' - to to hell with the damage it may do the local community she has just 'studied'.

    Lossiemouth has not one beach, but two. Both are stunning and renowned throughout the world - no attempt was made to show these beaches, in particular the East Beach, one of the finest you will find anywhere in the UK. No, instead we got a pic of our bandstand - I can show you pics of that same bandstand with thousands of people around it - but like just about every town, we don't hold events every day for the convenience of a passing critic.

    Our Town Hall (great pic by the way) houses our Library, and the 'Youth Cafe' at the back is a very successful initiative - it's not a cafe open to the public every day, it's a youth club girl, you could've found that out just by asking someone.

    The 'sleepy main street' was nothing of the sort but one of our residential streets. Noted you did not bother taking an image of our Promenade.

    The Furniture Store was indeed our Cinema at one time - how many 1930's Cinema buildings still stand?

    The Marina was another cheap shot - note, it is full of boats. That is what Marina's are - and this one, far from being dead, is quite clearly thriving. It's full of boats - get it?

    Next time you visit Moray, check first - learn something.


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