Tumultuous waves slamming into iconic rock formations. Quaint fishing villages retaining a true sense of community. Whales, dolphins and seals frolicking in the vast blue. Colourful beach huts contrasting with the remnants of war defences, stretching out across wide, sandy beaches. There’s all this and so much more to discover when you stride out into the salty air of the Moray Coast Trail, one of the Scottish coast’s most spectacular journeys.
Consisting of 44 miles (70 km) of magnificently varied coastal walking, there’s something for everyone. A region famed for its resident bottlenose dolphins, its rich array of seabirds and its dramatic cliffs and skerries, this is a trek that has a veritably wild flavour without ever straying too far from civilisation.
On the trail you’ll tread many different surfaces, from clifftop paths and sandy beaches, to forest tracks and old railway track beds. There’s very little in the way of elevation change, so the going is fairly easy most of the time. Thanks to the wealth of old fishing settlements that cling to the coast, there are plenty of places to refuel and rest.
This means that you can take things at your own pace, enjoying the sights, sounds, smells and tastes found beyond every cove and beachfront. Be it the smoky flavours of the Cullen Skink, the sweet scent of the coastal pine forests, the awesome geological spectacle of Bow Fiddle Rock or the piercing call of the swooping oystercatcher, your senses will be truly heightened throughout.
Every season brings new beauty and character and the good news is that the route is practicable all year round. Be sure to bring sun cream in summer and plenty of layers and waterproofs in winter, as many of the coastal sections have no shelter for long periods of time. Accommodation may be harder to come by in winter and daylight hours are obviously in shorter supply. Summer is the best time to spot the famous dolphins, whilst guillemots and wildflowers are also present during the warmer months.
Starting in the ancient town of Forres, the Moray Coast Trail follows the broad curves of the coastline from west to east, finishing in the attractive village of Cullen. Guest houses, B&Bs and inns can be found in pretty much all the towns and villages on the route. Cullen is the only settlement with a bunkhouse, worth knowing if you’re on a budget. Caravan sites can be found at Findhorn, Hopeman, Burghead, Lossiemouth, Strathlene, Findochty and Cullen, with tent pitches available in all but Burghead.
The whole coast has a long history of human habitation, but it is the fishing industry that has obviously left the most pertinent mark on the lovely towns and villages that line the coast. Cod, skate and haddock were the original mainstays, until herring fishing became prosperous, reaching its prime in the 19th century. During this time, a network of railways served this burgeoning region, the legacy of which can be seen in fine viaducts and other architectural wonders.
In the early 20th century, the ravages of the First World War and the ensuing depression of the 1930s took its toll on business. Today, Buckie and Lossiemouth are the last remaining significant fishing ports. However, the wonders of this special coastline now attract all manner of folk, from hikers and surfers, to wildlife enthusiasts and beach-seeking day trippers. The settlements are all equipped to cater for their needs with friendly Scottish hospitality.
I have split the route into four stages, which is the usual way of enjoying the trek. None of the days are particularly lengthy; the hike between Lossiemouth and Buckie is the most strenuous, at just over 16 miles (26 km). This can easily be split by staying in one of Kingston, Garmouth or Spey Bay. If you’re feeling fit, you might choose to tackle the route in three stages, with stays in Burghead and Kingston.
The paths are clear and waymarked throughout. Despite some sections of coast feeling adventurously rugged, you are never far from an inn, café or bus stop. Even the infamous midge is less prevalent in this part of Scotland, though some repellent would not go amiss. With all this taken into account, the Moray Coast Trail is ideal for newcomers to multi-day hiking; it is perfect for the whole family. Dogs are welcome on the trails but be prepared to clean up after them and check with accommodation providers when booking.
The whole trail is also tremendously accessible. Elgin and Forres both benefit from mainline train stations, with Elgin in particular well-linked to all the coastal settlements by bus. If you’re travelling by car, the A96 will get you to Forres in about 40 minutes from Inverness and you can get to Cullen in an hour and a half from both Inverness and Aberdeen. Nearby Inverness Airport welcomes internal flights from many major UK cities.
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