Landscape Character Assessment: Moray and Nairn - Landscape Evolution and Influences
The PDF version of this document is at the foot of this webpage.
The PDF version of this document is at the foot of this webpage.
This document provides information on how the landscape of the local authority area has evolved. It complements the Landscape Character Type descriptions of the 2019 dataset.
The original character assessment reports, part of a series of 30, mostly for a local authority area, included a “Background Chapter” on the formation of the landscape. These documents have been revised because feedback said they are useful, despite the fact that other sources of information are now readily available on the internet, unlike in the 1990s when the first versions were produced.
The content of the chapters varied considerably between the reports, and it has been restructured into a more standard format: Introduction, Physical Influences and Human Influences for all areas; and Cultural Influences sections for the majority. Some content variation still remains as the documents have been revised rather than rewritten,
The information has been updated with input from the relevant Local Authorities. The historic and cultural aspects have been reviewed and updated by Historic Environment Scotland. Gaps in information have been filled where possible. Some reports have been combined where original LCA area coverage was very small.
The new documents include photographs. They do not include the maps or sketches from the original LCAs, but these are still available from the NatureScot Information Library. Additional information can be obtained from the websites of:
The content of this document was drawn from the background chapter information in the “NatureScot Review 101 – Moray and Nairn landscape character assessment”, 1998, Turnbull Jeffrey Partnership
If you have any comments, please email [email protected]
The Moray & Nairn area includes a rich variety of landscapes. This is largely due to the topographic progression from coast to uplands which is very characteristic of the area. Much of the ground in the south is over 300 metres above sea level and forms extensive moorlands which are mantled by rolling hills and plateaux. The uplands are cut through by the valleys of major rivers, such as the Nairn, Findhorn and Spey, which contain extensive ‘staircases’ of river and meltwater terraces. As the ground drops towards the coastal lowlands, it takes on a pronounced south-west to north-east topographic grain, the result of the processes of glaciation exploiting geological weaknesses. This is a zone of mixed farming and extensive forestry on thin, rather acid soils. The coastal plain is up to 10 kilometres wide and often underlain by thick glacial deposits. The terrain here is often gently undulating, with low mounds and ridges composed of sand and gravel deposited as the last ice sheet melted. The sandy soils provide rich arable farmland, and free-draining gravels tend to be forested. The coast itself shows two main types. Between Cullen and Portgordon, and again between Lossiemouth and Burghead, the coastline is one of low cliffs and narrow, fringing rock platforms cut by the sea. The rest of the coast is soft with depositional landforms such as long sand and shingle beaches backed by extensive low, raised shorelines and sand dune systems, often covered with forestry.
The landscape of Moray and Nairn reflects the interaction of a wide range of physical and human processes over different timescales. Geomorphological processes operating over millions of years on a varied geology are responsible for shaping the main relief elements of hill and strath. Superimposed on this base are smaller landforms created by glacial erosion and deposition. In particular, the impact of glacial meltwater has been considerable, leaving thick and extensive sand and gravel deposits. In some areas the topography has changed little since glaciation but the ever present hazards of river floods and coastal storms have caused spectacular changes in river courses and coastal configuration in historic and recent times. Post-glacial weathering has led to the development of different soil types which in turn have influenced vegetation patterns. Humans have transformed the natural vegetation through settlement, farming, native forest clearance and tree planting, along with other activities. Recent land use and management changes provide a highly dynamic landscape which continues to evolve in character.
Several key components of the landscape make a strong contribution to the distinctiveness of Moray and Nairn as a whole. When viewed together, they provide striking visual features, for example the forests and woodlands of the area, the varied coastline which can be seen along its length from the higher ground, and the extensive heather moorland covering the uplands. Buildings are also important components of the landscape and this applies not only to the grand estate houses and lodges, particularly prominent in the west and often associated with designed landscapes and policies; but also the small traditional farmsteads and cottages which dot the landscape, and the distinctive planned settlements of the area. The prosperous and well-populated farmland of the coastal plain is also a feature.
The geological evolution of the study area spans the last 1000 million years and has provided a varied suite of rocks. The oldest rocks belong to the Dalradian Supergroup, a succession dating from Pre-cambrian to Ordovican age. These rocks were deposited within the supercontinent of Rodinia. Later tectonic plate rupturing led to the development of the Iapetus Ocean, with associated deposition of deep-water sediments. Closure of this ocean, when tectonic plates collided, resulted in the Caledonian Orogeny (mountain-building episode). Uplift and the creation of mountains of Alpine proportions were accompanied by folding, faulting and the intrusion of large bodies of igneous rock. These latter are of two broad types: red and grey granites, such as the intrusions at Ben Rinnes and Ardclach; and black gabbros, such as the large body at the Cabrach. Intense erosion accompanied uplift, and these deep-seated intrusions were eventually unroofed and exposed. Towards the end of this mountain-building cycle, gravels and sands were carried by rivers into desert valleys and basins to form the conglomerates and sandstones of Old Red Sandstone. Thereafter, earth movements never matched the scale of those during the Caledonian Orogeny, although significant fault movements and differential block movements probably continued into geologically recent times.
The Moray Firth basin began to form with the deposition of the Old Red Sandstone, associated with a large lake around 390 million years ago, which has left fish fossils in the area. Moray and Nairn lay on the margin of this basin as an alluvial plain comprising red sandstones and conglomerates of fluvial origin, with periodic incursions of the lake introducing lacustrine sediments. Following further uplift and erosion, sediments of the New Red Sandstone were deposited. These Permo-Triassic sandstones contain occasional fossils and footprints made by mammal-like reptiles. Several quarries in these rocks, which operated in the last century, were important for the growing understanding of geological correlations and environments and they are of national importance. The basin itself contains thick accumulations of Jurassic sandstones and dark shales, and erosion by ice sheets has carried these materials on to the coastal plain to give dark, muddy glacial deposits, with occasional fossils and shells, and rich, wet, clay-rich soils.
Geology and Landform
The variety of rocks gives rise to differing landscape forms. Schists and gneisses of the oldest part of the Dalradian occur in the west and are homogeneous over broad areas, mainly sandy in texture, and tend to break down into blocks. This generally gives rise to smooth, gentle slopes, with few cliffs and prominent rock hills, terrain exemplified by the area of the headwaters of the Lossie. Younger Dalradian schists and slates further east are much more varied in texture and mineralogy and occur in parallel belts which result in ridge and vale topography, as around Dufftown. Quartzites tend to form more isolated hills, such as Ben Aigan and the Bin of Cullen. The granites provide the highest summit in the study area, in the form of the rounded, tor-studded slopes of Ben Rinnes, but also form lower ground, such as around Ferness. Basic igneous rocks are restricted in extent but weathering of jointed gabbros has created striking tor landscapes in the basin of the Cabrach. Inland, the Old Red Sandstone is confined to basin and valley floors and is often largely hidden beneath younger deposits. The extensive Devonian sandstones of the upland border zone and the coastal plain are associated with a relatively gentle relief of smooth, ice-moulded ridges and intervening depressions filled with thick glacial deposits. These rocks weather readily to sand and, with the glacial deposits derived from them, give red sandy soils which are susceptible to wind erosion.
A key element in the topography of Moray and Nairn is the marked influence of structural lineaments. The Caledonian trend is dominant and imparts a pronounced southwest to northeast grain to the regional landscape. The oldest generation of landforms in the study area are the valleys and basins exhumed from beneath the Old Red Sandstone. These include the major rivers of the Findhorn, Spey and Isla, which have each exploited weak bands of rock or shatter zones. Later erosion has been confined to the removal of sediments and the exhumation of these ancient forms. Other structural trends are also significant, particularly the north-west to south-east lineation in lower Strathspey which combines with Caledonian fractures to create a compartmentalised landscape of hill blocks surrounded by linear valleys.
Another major group of features date from the Tertiary period, commencing 65 million years ago, when the climate was considerably warmer than today. A key process at this time was deep weathering, when rocks were broken down by ground water. Remnants of this weathering cover survive in pockets beneath glacial deposits at Clunas and along the Allt Bhreac near Drynachan Lodge. Boreholes for the Keith bypass showed that pre-glacial weathering extends to depths of several tens of metres beneath Strathisla. Rocks resistant to weathering, such as quartzite, produce isolated hills, such as the Knock of Braemoray, whilst weaker rocks, like gabbro, create basins, such as the Cabrach. On granite, the situation is complex, as granite rich in resistant quartz tends to give hills, whilst weaker biotite granite forms lower ground. The effect of jointing is also significant in guiding weathering and erosion and the tors of Ben Rinnes are the topographic expression of relatively unjointed rock masses. Before the onset of glaciation, the landscape would have comprised broad plateau surfaces, rolling hills and ridges and broad straths. That these remain clear in the present landscape is a reflection of the limited effectiveness of glacial erosion in areas outside the main valleys and the coastal strip.
The Effect of Ice
Around 2.5 million years ago, there was a major cooling of climate and the development of ice sheets in mountains around the North Atlantic, signalling the start of the Ice Age or Quaternary Period. The first ice sheets, however, probably did not reach the lowlands of Moray until after one million years ago. The bulk of the glacial deposits in the area date from the last ice sheet which lasted from about 26,000 to 13,000 years ago, but in places, such as Teindland Forest, older deposits occur which include organic materials providing evidence of changing environments during the Ice Age. These deposits and evidence from outside the area suggest that Moray has been repeatedly covered by ice sheets over the last million years and that the landforms of glacial erosion are a product of multiple glaciations. These ice sheets came from at least three distinct sources: from the Northern Highlands and across the inner Moray Firth; from the Great Glen; and from Strathspey. Each ice stream provided glacial deposits of distinctive character according to the nature of the materials traversed by the ice.
Large parts of the area show few obvious signs of erosion by ice. Classic ice-moulded bedforms are absent, except in a small area around Lochindorb.
The main valleys have been deepened by ice streams but there are open periglacial forms, often preserved by benches representing the former valley floor, as in lower Strathspey around Archiestown. On the coastal plain the effects of ice erosion are more profound and the sandstone has been eroded into a series of tapering bedrock ridges parallel to ice flow, as along Strath Nairn and the Muckle Burn. The valleys that descend steeply through the upland border zone often have thick fills of glacial deposits which form high river cliffs where river erosion is active.
The Role of Meltwater
During ice retreat, huge volumes of meltwater were generated. Steep-sided, narrow channels were cut by large meltwater streams at Dulsie Bridge and south of Dallas. Large lakes were ponded against the margins of the Moray Firth ice lobe as it wasted back, into which meltwater delivered vast quantities of sand and gravel. At Sandy Hill, Rothes, these meltwater deposits are over 50 metres thick. Late and post-glacial river down-cutting has formed a staircase of terraces descending to the present floodplains. These terraces are particularly well developed along the Streens Gorge of the Findhorn, in the basin south of Dallas on the Lossie and in Glen of Rothes. In Strathspey, broad terraces are referred to as haugh lands that have allowed settlements and improved land to penetrate far inland. Related fluvioglacial features are the parallel mounds and ridges of sand and gravel formed in crevasses, hollows and tunnels within the melting ice. These form a distinctive undulating topography with intervening boggy depressions, termed eskers, such as those found around Kildrummie and Lhanbryde, and which frequently form the sites of gravel quarries. The Flemington esker at Kildrummie, which extends westwards towards Inverness airport, is one of the longest continuous features of its type in Scotland.
There is a particularly sharp contrast between the smooth slopes covered by glacial deposits west of the Spey and the hummocky sand and gravel characteristics of much of the ground between the Spey and Buckie.
The End of the Ice Age
By around 13,000 years ago, the ice had melted due to climatic warming. Rapid sea level rise, combined with rebound of the land from the weight of overlying ice, created raised shorelines along the present coast. Analysis of plant and insect remains, as well as landforms, shows that the Ice Age did not end in a smooth transition to interglacial conditions but instead saw a series of rapid climatic shifts. A warm interlude around 12,000 years ago saw the establishment of open tundra vegetation with dwarf willow and grasses. Cold conditions returned around 11,000 years ago, with the development of permafrost and widespread flow of earlier glacial deposits downslope in response to summer melting of surface layers. The climate then quickly warmed once more to bring in the post-glacial period.
Landscape Stabilisation and Vegetation Succession
Around 10,000 years ago temperature conditions similar to the present were established. The broad pattern of post-glacial vegetation development meant that at first, vegetation was sparse and rivers were able to continue removing loose glacial deposits. Pioneer communities of sedges, grasses and dwarf shrubs then colonised hill slopes and valley floors and the binding effect of root systems helped to create more stable ground conditions and reduce soil erosion. By around 9,600 years ago a birch-juniper scrub had colonised upland valley floors. The next stage in the succession brought an expansion of hazel and then, around 7,300 years ago, a marked expansion of birch and an influx of warmth-loving deciduous trees, such as oak and elm, into the lowlands.
It is possible that Mesolithic humans caused small-scale disturbances in the pattern of woodland. A reduction in the area of woodland took place in many parts of Scotland around 5,000 years ago, and by around 2,000 years ago large areas were deforested. On the higher ground, the growth of blanket bog on mineral soils caused the deaths of the trees, now marked by pine stumps in peat cuttings, and waterlogging prevented tree regeneration. In recent times, renewed tree growth has been prevented by burning for moor management and overgrazing by sheep and deer.
Ongoing Physical Processes
In many areas of gentle slopes away from rivers and the coast, post-glacial modification of the landscape has been limited. The rivers of the region, however, are prone to major flooding in response to intense storms. The Morayshire floods of August 1829 were the most severe in Scotland over the last 200 years. Very large areas of agricultural land were inundated, crops destroyed and people and livestock killed. Landslides of saturated ground occurred throughout the region and rivers transported huge volumes of debris and shifted channels in their lower courses. These flood channels are still clearly visible along the Findhorn today. The mouth of the Spey fluctuates violently, because of its heavy load of pebbles and its variable regime, also the river’s spit has undergone three cycles of breaching and growth since 1829. The ready availability of sand along the coast makes for a highly dynamic environment and the inter-relationship of the river and coastal systems are unique in a western European context. Significant changes of coastal configuration have taken place in the past due to a combination of extreme weather events and man-induced changes in fragile ecosystems. Perhaps the most famous example is the dunes of Culbin, where sand-blowing has continued for many centuries and where, in 1694, a great storm started a phase of accelerated dune encroachment which finally led to the abandonment of farms.
The nature of the coastline
The character of the coastline of Moray and Nairn reflects the operation of nearshore marine processes on varied coastal materials, with a long-term trend towards a fall in relative sea level. The coastline exhibits an extensive range of hard and soft coastal features. The stretches of rocky coast comprise an irregular series of rocky promontories, low, linear cliffs, uninterrupted by bays or inlets, and fronted by narrow wave-cut platforms, stable headlands, rocky coves and sheltered bays, backed by Old Red Sandstone cliffs and raised beaches, which form abrupt margins with the Firth. Stacks formed in relation to modern and earlier sea levels are a striking feature, with fine examples in the Old Red Sandstone found on the low raised beach at Cullen and in the Permo-triassic sandstone at Covesea. The famous Bow Fiddle at Portknockie is an arch cut into a stack formed in quartzite.
The soft coastal shore, which is constantly being moved westwards as a result of the forces of the sea, consists of several actively forming sand and shingle bars and spits. The Bar at Culbin appears to be migrating westwards at about 1.5km per century, leaving a broad salt marsh in its lee. The soft coast also includes the flat, sweeping, wide and gently undulating Culbin Sands dune system, which culminates in the Lady Culbin dune (over 30m high), the largest in Britain. Where the rivers Findhorn and Spey meet the sea, large, sheltered, open bays of saltmarsh indent the coastline.
The highest raised beaches occur at up to 30 metres above sea level near Nairn and Ardersier and were formed close to the retreating margin of the last ice sheet. A sequence of raised coastal flats of post-glacial age occurs below a height of about 10 metres. These flats mainly represent former sandy beaches but small areas of muddy carse land are found north of Elgin beneath the Laich of Moray. Across the mouth of the Spey between Buckie and Lossiemouth is a particularly fine set of shingle beaches and ridges which are recognised as being of national importance. These beaches are locally worked for well-sorted quartzite gravel but give only infertile, drought-prone soils. Similar storm beaches also occur west of Burghead, where they link this former island to the mainland. The very extensive dune systems around Findhorn Bay have been active in recent centuries, although the forests have acted to reduce wind action in the last few decades. Significant changes of coastal configuration have taken place in the past due to a combination of extreme weather events and man-induced changes in fragile ecosystems. Perhaps the most famous example is the dunes of Culbin, where sand-blowing has continued for many centuries and where, in 1694, a great storm started a phase of accelerated dune encroachment which finally led to the abandonment of farms.
The influence of topography and climate results in the area having a distinctive weather and seasonal pattern, evident in the relatively early spring and often clear weather of the Moray Firth and coastal plain contrasting with the long-lasting snow and short summer season within the uplands.
The Moray and Nairn region is well-sheltered to the west and south by mountains that shelter them from the prevailing west and southwest winds from the Atlantic. This means that the area is within a rain shadow from the south and the west. Due to this Moray and Nairn is known for its warmer and drier climate than much of Scotland, and is warmer than expected at this latitude. There is more exposure to winds from the east and north which can mean that the area is prone to prolonged heavy rainfall associated with slow-moving depressions in the North Sea and strong winds. In winter this can lead to heavy snowfalls. Orographic uplift (the effect of mountains in forcing moist air to rise) also increases rainfall inland over the upper reaches of the major river catchments in the area. This is more likely in late summer. Spring is generally the driest season and this, coupled with bare fields and sandy soils, can lead to localised dust storms and soil erosion. The inland areas are also notably cooler with average temperatures up to 3oC lower in January. July average temperatures range from 21oC to 16oC with exposed coasts to the east and upland areas cooler and the sheltered west higher.
Rainfall events are likely to become more intense in this area which, coupled with higher precipitation in winter, is likely to increase the incidence of flooding in the lower reaches of the rivers. This is likely to be exacerbated by increased storm surges leading to coastal flooding. A trend of hotter and drier summers has already been noticed, which will reduce soil moisture in both summer and autumn, potentially increasing the incidence of dust storms at this time.
The Moray and Nairn area is one of the sunniest in Scotland with around 1300hours of sunshine per year, and driest with an average rainfall of around 700mm. This high level of sunshine is one of the reasons that two RAF bases were situated on this coast, giving rise to good flying conditions. Close to the coast sea fog (haar) occurs, most commonly in late spring, which can reduce sunshine hours and can linger in the right conditions.
Across the Moray and Nairn area the rivers predominantly drain north towards the Moray Coast. The main catchment rivers are the Nairn, Findhorn, Lossie, Spey, and the Deveron (which drains east). Movement in faultlines has, in the past, diverted rivers into the systems. In the Moray district the Spey and Findhorn are cutting deeply into the rock. The Findhorn runs in a scenic gorge, often not much wider than the river itself, and the Spey is cutting a new gorge in the floor of its existing glacial valley. In their lower reaches, all the rivers meander through the coastal plains and the mouths of the rivers, especially the Spey’s, naturally migrate due to the fluctuating water load and associated material from upstream and erosion.
The Moray and Nairn area is prone to flooding in the valleys and lower reaches due to the large catchment areas and high rainfalls in the upland areas. The rivers Nairn, Findhorn, Lossie and Spey are considered to be at high risk of flooding in their lower reaches and have flood defences built to protect built-up areas. Previous to this management, flooding could be extremely dramatic: at Randolph’s leap on the Findhorn the river is marked as reaching 15m above the normal river level during the “Muckle Spate” floods of 1829.
There are few lochs in the Moray and Nairn area. No long deep valley lochs are present. The most notable lochs are Lochindorb, on Dava Moor, which is the largest of the kettlehole lochans in the area, and Loch Spynie, surrounded by marshland and habitat for waterbirds. The Spynie Canal, built around 1808 and designed by Thomas Telford, drains this area into the sea reducing the size of the loch considerably and draining much of the marshland, making the area suitable for agriculture. The Innes Canal, to the east, has a similar role.
A wide variety of soil types occur in the area, whose character usually reflects the texture and mineralogy of the underlying rocks. On the summit of Ben Rinnes, frost-disturbed soils of Arctic character occur. Lower hills have a cover of blanket peat which has accumulated under waterlogged conditions over the last 5,000 years. Soil is a major influence on the colour of the arable landscape and on the type and nutrient value of the vegetation and so underpins the diversity of many ecosystems and habitats.
Soils form by the interaction of parent material, climate, relief and living organisms, usually over a long period of time. Some soils in Moray and Nairn are at a very early stage of development. Examples are soils forming on bare scree (for example in the upland areas around the Cabrach and Ben Rinnes); recent river gravels (for example the River Spey); and coastal dunes (for example Lossiemouth), colonised only by lichens and pioneer species.
A common pattern in this area is to find soils with free drainage occupying the flanks of hills, poorly drained soils on the foot slopes and very poorly drained soils on the depressions and bottom lands. Clayey texture, slope irregularities and the proximity of bedrock modify this slope sequence but the soil type is a major factor influencing agricultural practices and land use.
The dominance of sandy parent materials in the study area, particularly along the coastal plain, makes for coarse, free-draining and acid soils. The poorest land in the region lies on nutrient-poor quartzites and is generally given over to rough grazing and forestry. In contrast, the basic igneous rocks give loamy soils with an inherently high degree of fertility, rich in nutrients and trace elements. These soils once supported a rich mixed deciduous woodland. In some areas, notably in the vicinity of Keith, Cullen and Forres, plant nurseries occur on such soils, particularly where these are combined with a sheltered microclimate. The fertility of the coastal lowlands derives from underlying silty deposits, which may be of glacial, marine or fluvial origin, and the less fertile meltwater and coastal gravels tend to be used for forestry. There are pockets of alluvial soils present in the flood plains and mineral gleys related to the drained marshland.
On parts of the coast itself, there are large areas of windblown sand. Here, the soil profile development is limited, due partly to the effects of continual deposition of sand. For example, soils on windblown sands, like Culbin Sands, are little more than a thin organic layer developing directly on the sand itself. Distinctive dune vegetation communities can be seen. Where the soils have been longer established, a greater variety of grasses can survive, making the land suitable for grazing or for use as golf links. The main restrictions on land use in the coastal strip are periodic drying out (due to sandy soils and low rainfall levels), and also exposure to strong winds. Where these limitations cause particular problems, the land is used for pasture rather than crops. Forestry was also used to stabilise areas like Culbin where the organic layer still remains thin and easily displaced. There are recreational pressures associated with the use of the dune soils for activities like mountain biking, walking and camping. These include compaction and increased susceptibility to erosion.
Soil erosion is not widespread but can be significant in the lowland and coastal areas. There may be a number of causes, for example leaving fields bare at vulnerable times of the year and removing field boundaries. Small scale dust storms are not uncommon in this area, especially during early spring when rainfall is low and the fields are still un-vegetated. A gradual decline in organic matter content (important in binding soil particles together), following centuries of cropping, may also be involved. Another important issue is the use of fertilisers which, if applied in excess, can lead to nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus being released into watercourses.
The landscape of the Moray and Nairn region is essentially one that has grown out of the prehistoric and medieval use of the Laich of Moray and Nairn and the lands to the south. Its specific character is largely the result of 18th and 19th Century agricultural change and the development of communication routes, which continued through to today with the creation of increasingly larger fields and straighter roads. But medieval patterns do remain, in the distribution of the small town burghs and baronial castles, if not the field patterns of the Laich itself.
However, little remains of the prehistoric landscape – it is largely buried under the ploughsoil, appearing most summers when viewed from the air as cropmarks - buried archaeological remains revealed through differential vegetation growth and visible in aerial photography. Inland, the landscape is less well understood – but the heather-clad open hills with the remains of both prehistoric and more recent farmsteads, could have been the cumulative product of prehistoric tree clearance rather than medieval or more recent felling of timber. Historically, the Moray and Nairn landscape is one that reflects the importance of agricultural production over the past 6,000 years and although the pre-18th Century evidence is harder to see, it does still exist in the area. Evidence of stock pens and farm building at sites near Forres indicate mixed agriculture was established in the area before 2000BC.
The appearance of the present day landscape of Moray and Nairn, while owing much to the physical influences outlined previously, is also a product of human influences on vegetation and land-use patterns. Although the human influences on the landscape are generally presumed to be a direct result of changes in land tenure and management since 1745, the area probably does bear a slight resemblance to that which might be imagined for the later prehistoric and medieval periods, although the changes that have been wrought since approximately 4,000 years ago, when the climax vegetation existed across the hills and slopes of Moray and Nairn, and the Laich of Moray comprised a broad swathe of coastal sand-dunes, are considerable.
The description of physical influences has shown that the landscape of Moray and Nairn has been altered by natural forces in recent times. There have been significant changes in the soft coastline of sand dunes that stretches along the edge of most of Moray and Nairn and also changes on the Laich of Moray itself. However, inland, the overall lie of the land has presumably changed little over the millennia of human occupation in the area, even though the flora and fauna have been altered considerably. Today the coastal plain, also known as the “Laich of Moray”, is one of large arable fields, small woodlands and larger scale coniferous forests which gradually give way southwards to predominantly afforested hill slopes bisected by the major rivers of the area.
Humans have had a significant effect in shaping the landscape of Moray and Nairn, and it is really only through an understanding of the past that this can be appreciated. On the coast, afforestation has stabilised the sand dunes while fishing villages have been established on more stable parts of the coast. The wetlands and much of the Loch of Spynie which covered the coastal plain have disappeared due to 18th Century drainage and reclamation schemes, while the large open fields evident in this area are a result of modern agricultural practices. Further inland the larger settlements are as nucleated as they were in the medieval period, but the dispersed farmsteads which formerly existed on the higher ground have largely been abandoned. In their place are heather grouse moors and conifer forests.
Before 1750, the landscape is likely to have been dominated by fermtouns based within an open-field system with runrig wherever arable agriculture, mixed with the keeping of cattle, was possible. The woodlands would have been carefully managed where they still existed or after 1700 were planted anew by visionary landholders. Within this farmed and woodland environment were the buildings of the landed gentry and burgh magnates: castles, tower houses, mansions and townhouses, each with their own area of green space, whether it be parkland or ground.
Across the Laich and the bordering rolling hills a little of this pre-1750 pattern survives. The smaller farms of the hillsides, like those immediately south and west of Strath Nairn, north of Keith and across towards Marnoch, are presumed to be built upon the sites of their predecessors, inheriting the broad divisions between arable and grazing lands rather than the specific field boundaries. Certain features even date back to the 12th Century – the establishment and growth of small market towns, castles and their environs, and the church.
The pattern of land use changed dramatically after 1750. The open fields were gradually swept away and enclosed, often within very regular field boundaries, as around Gordonstoun and Altyre. The pattern of land use changed in other ways too. In the 19th Century people were moved to “more favourable” homes, either on the estate home farm or in new villages. The lands immediately around country houses were extensively landscaped and changed. Some larger estates, such as Brodie, planted and altered a greater extent of the wider landscape, often to focus views from the core of the landscape towards distant natural landmarks.
A key contributor to 19th Century change was the arrival of the main railway lines to Elgin in the 1850s, and the southern Dava and Speyside routes in the 1860s. New towns grew around new “industrial” centres – particularly around the whisky distilleries, many of which were built alongside the new railways for ease of distribution. Small towns continued to function and, in certain instances, grew dramatically, taking advantage of easier communication and trade routes – as at Elgin and Keith.
Since the early 20th Century, new large-scale land-use changes such as military air bases, extensive afforestation, out-of-town business parks, wind farms, expansion of towns and sporadic housing development in rural areas have begun to change the rural character of the area. Since the 1970s, the ongoing closure and redevelopment of smaller farms has resulted in large new houses or groups of houses starting to change the character of areas that were once the preserve of traditional farmsteads. Nevertheless, Moray and Nairn is still relatively dependent on farming and fishing, supporting a rural economy as it would have done over 4,000 years ago. But the intensity with which this way of life is maintained today is very different to that of the late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age.
Hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic
There is still uncertainty about when people first inhabited the landmass we now know as Scotland. Although it is possible that inhabitation took place during the Lower Palaeolithic, any archaeological evidence before the end of the Ice Age – the Last Glacial Maximum - has not been found as Scotland was completely submerged beneath ice sheets. However, based on evidence elsewhere in Scotland, it is probable that such communities would have been established here at least 10, 000 years ago.
Mesolithic Land use (around 8,000 – 5,000 BC)
It is worth remembering that there is very little visibility of Mesolithic archaeological evidence in Scotland, with only a few sites identified by scatters of lithic artefacts known as microliths, cave and rock shelters and middens. As well as being relatively ephemeral in the first place, Mesolithic archaeological evidence is also more vulnerable to geological processes. Much of the Mesolithic evidence to date (8,000 to 4000 BC) has come from islands on the West Coast (e.g. Islay, Colonsay, Oronsay, Coll, Rum, Skye and Jura), perhaps reflecting the coastal bias of the landscape survey studies that have been undertaken. However, evidence from elsewhere in northwest Europe suggests that communities with predominantly inland or coastal territories may have co-existed.
Evidence that Mesolithic peoples traversed this area has come from the Culbin Sands, which have yielded a variety of small, retouched flint flakes, known as Tardenoisian-type microlithic forms, which have been identified as Mesolithic tools. The source of the beach pebble flint that would have been used to make these tools has been found to be between Burghead and Branderburgh, Lossiemouth. The availability of such easily found and worked sources of flint would have been particularly attractive to the Mesolithic people. It, therefore, seems highly likely that other flint scatters are awaiting discovery along the coastal margins.
To the east of Culbin along the coast, erosion of the old land surface at Findhorn has revealed flint flakes and spalls, shattered cooking stones and a midden containing shellfish along with animal bones in the area. Flint working sites have also been identified inland, at Lochindorb and the Cabrach for example. This demonstrates that settlement, even temporary, was present in these areas, during the Mesolithic, although the long-term impact on the landscape seems to have been minimal.
The Neolithic period (4,000 BC – 2,500 BC)
This is the period when monuments first appear in the landscape, along with the domestication of wild plants and animals, the first appearance of pottery and new types of stone tools. It was into a landscape with constantly changing coastal margins that these first farmers came. Sea-borne, in vessels capable of sea and river steerage, the light soils and associated light forest cover of the drier parts of the Laich of Moray must have been particularly attractive. They would have made clearings in the natural cover for both arable and pasture lands and gradually changed the landscape of the Laich. A distinct patchwork of clearings in the climax woodlands would have developed during this period, but they would have still been surrounded by oak and ash, pine, birch and hazel, in mixed open forests, within which wild boar, wolf and red deer would have been prevalent.
The coastal plain of Moray and Nairn is unusual when compared to other parts of northern Scotland in that there is a range of material from the Neolithic period, from areas near Roseisle, Fochabers, and Buckie, as well as from the Culbin and the Findhorn Sands. Polished stone axes have also been which suggests the clearing of woodland, although they may also have been symbolic. The actual farmsteads of these first settlers have not been identified; instead, the upstanding evidence for the period is, or rather was until recently, the long mound or cairn which is a ritual and funerary monument dating to the Neolithic or Bronze Age. One of the few surviving examples is Tarrieclerack long cairn south-east of Buckie. Long cairns are typically rectangular or trapezoidal non-megalithic stony mounds with human remains in cists rather than a large chamber. Tarrieclerack is a large and impressive monument aligned broadly east-west and is situated right beside a modern road which may have been an old routeway in the past. It seems likely that these monuments were originally sited in an open, farmed environment, indicating that even 5,000 years ago parts of the landscape had been well cleared of trees. Further inland on the lower, more wooded slopes and the higher, but still afforested hills of Moray and Nairn, there is no recorded evidence that Neolithic farming had taken hold.
The Later Neolithic / Early Bronze Age (2,500 BC– 1,500 BC)
Evidence for settlement further inland than the coastal plain has been uncovered by archaeologists. Beside the major rivers of the area are upstanding remains of distinctive burial cairns and standing stones. These are likely to be remnants of a once much greater distribution of funerary and ritual remains of this period. Once again, there is no evidence of the farming settlements that must have existed during this period, but clearings by the rivers and within the forested higher ground are likely to have been made so that domesticated animals could graze the pastures, even if the growing of crops was less important on the heavier soils or on higher ground.
A similar lack of evidence for farming settlements of this period exists on the Laich of Moray. However, there is a lot of other evidence of use of the landscape in the area. There are standing stones (e.g. Balnaroid, Nairn), groups of standing stones (e.g. Templestone, Rafford and Moray), cup-marked rocks (e.g. Roseisle, Moray) and numerous cist burials in cairns or in the ground (e.g. Foulford Bridge, Cullen, Moray, and Easter Delnies, Nairn).
There are also some very distinctive earthen burial mounds (e.g. Shian Hillock and Hangman’s Hill, both Nairn, which still stand at over 3m high). A rich variety of Early Bronze Age metalwork has also been recovered (e.g. gold jewellery from Orbliston, Moray and early bronzes from Sluie, Moray) which indicate links between Ireland and the northeast of Scotland before the advent of Christianity. There were also possible waves of immigrants and ideas from Europe during this time; one of the most distinctive were the Beaker people (named for their distinctive pottery) who introduced the cist cairns to the area.
Upriver, at the periphery of the Moray and Nairn area, there is evidence of either contact with neighbouring groups or an expansion of other tribal groups into this area. To the west, the typical monument of this period is the Clava cairn. These are a distinctive type of Early Bronze Age monuments which are normally located in and around the Moray Firth. They include some of the attributes of passage graves, ring cairns and stone circles and are often found in close proximity to one another and were probably in use between 2300 and 1750 BC. They are found in a variety of places in the landscape, including valley floors and on the sides of valleys or hills. There are four such burial sites around the River Spey–River Avon confluence, but surprisingly none recorded by the River Nairn.
To the east, the typical monument is the Recumbent Stone Circle, two occurring by the river Bogie. These Bronze Age stone circles, which are unique to the Grampian region, comprise a recumbent stone flanked by two uprights which are usually the highest stones in the circle, and often the other stones are graded in height. Many recumbent stone circles are located on elevated positions and are positioned to have wide-ranging views over the landscape. Views towards these monuments are also an important part of their setting as many are located on elevated ground and appear sky-lined against the horizon.
They were built in this changing environment, where clearances could provide open views of the surrounding landscape and significant topographic features within it which may have been regarded as part of the ‘sacred geography’ of the prehistoric worldview. These monuments may also have held ritual ceremonies at certain times of the seasonal calendar in order to observe and celebrate movements of the sun, moon and stars. Because this necessitates good views towards the sky, this suggests a degree of wider woodland clearance both in and around the monuments, although the actual extent of this is presently unclear.
Subsequent prehistoric land use (1,500 BC – 1,000 AD)
It seems likely that the most attractive areas of Moray and Nairn in terms of their topography, climate and soils were already settled by around 1,500BC. Increasing population numbers presumably led to the spread of settlement southwards, and therefore to the partial clearing of woodlands and forests on the slopes and hillsides inland. But most of the known evidence for settlement still lies within the Laich of Moray itself and its hillside edges.
The earlier buried and upstanding evidence
Buried, vestigial remains of prehistoric Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements are recorded each year through aerial photography, and indicate that the Laich landscape was as inhabited as it had ever been during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods, and possibly more so. There are a few small defensive sites, such as that at Quarrywood, Elgin and the crannogs on Loch of the Clans, Nairn. The proliferation of several types of cropmark sites throughout the Laich of Moray is striking, although it is difficult to assess to what degree the prehistoric settlement pattern had an impact on the landscape of today. Excavations at Forres in 2010 and Birnie in 1996 found evidence of Iron Age and earlier settlements for over 2000 years including evidence of settled pastoral farming and arable farming.
Beyond the arable and wooded lands of the Laich of Moray there is little known evidence of settlement of the Bronze and late Iron Ages. Today’s afforested slopes and heather moorlands could have supported farming in the past. Indeed to both the north (in the Highlands) and to the south-east (in Grampian), there is plenty of evidence for such prehistoric land use, in the form of roundhouse footings, platforms, field systems, and clearance cairns. Small prehistoric settlements are found in the Nairn hills, as around Carn Maol and Carnoch, and another at Tulloch Wood in Moray, but the sum of this evidence does not constitute what might be expected. This could be due to subsequent agriculture destroying evidence, an indication of the development of differentiating agriculture (pastoral) which leaves less evidence; issues with mobility as the rivers were not easily navigable; or that there was no need to migrate inland from the fertile Laich at that moment.
Clarkly Hill near Burghead also provided evidence of settlement during excavations by the National Museums of Scotland in 2012, as well as industry with iron and bronze works situated here. These sites were protected by the remnants of sand storms which would have protected these sites and by the subsequent Pictish sites built over them. There is evidence that Cluny Hill in Forres, still a major landmark in the area, may also have been used as a hill fort or defended settlement around 800BC.
There are several explanations for the lack of evidence further inland. It is possible that the Laich was able to support its growing population adequately, without the need to spread to the hills, particularly at a time when the climate was deteriorating. Alternatively, the most recent centuries of afforestation on the lower slopes of the Moray and Nairn hills have masked or even obliterated the evidence. The lack of evidence of prehistoric settlement along the main rivers may also be attributed to more recent agricultural practices. However, it must also be borne in mind that there have been no intensive archaeological field assessments of upland Moray and Nairn.
What does survive inland, however, are the few examples of defended sites of the period beyond the edge of the Laich of Moray and Nairn, some distance from those rich farmlands. Such sites include Dunearn, the Doune of Relugas and Little Conval by Dufftown. Their positions appear to be strategic, near water or passes, and would suggest that defence of trade routes may have been a contributing factor to their establishment. There is little evidence of arable farming near them, however, this may have been destroyed by land-use changes and would have likely been limited by local geography.
The campaigns of the Roman army
During this period the Roman army is thought to have undertaken at least two campaigns into the area – in the latter part of the first century AD (perhaps under the Roman Governor Agricola, a biography of whom survives) and possibly in the early 3rd Century under the Emperor Septimius Severus and his sons. The ploughed-out remains of at least three marching camps have been discovered in Moray – near Keith, Fochabers and Elgin. However, the effect of these very temporary incursions on the local inhabitants and their environment is likely to have been relatively minimal in the long term. Coin hoards and a major programme of excavations at the Iron Age settlement site of Birnie has shed light on potential trade and bribery between the invaders and local community, with the hoards possibly representing a ‘buying-off’ of the locals.
The Picts (1st Millennium AD)
The Picts are the indigenous inhabitants of what we now know as eastern and northern Scotland who were given their name Picti by the invading Romans and lived in the first millennium AD. They were the direct descendants of the Iron Age people whose farms dotted the landscape under the rich plough lands of the Laich of Moray and whose few defensive sites sit atop small promontories by the rivers that flow through the area.
The main archaeological evidence comes from symbols on standing stones and other objects; place names containing the word ‘Pit’; and diagnostic square burial sites. Pictish symbol stones are perhaps the most visible part of the Pictish archaeological landscape. Although few are in their original location, they tend to be found located next to routeways or at church sites and many are re-used prehistoric standing stones. Given this, it is important that their relationship with the wider landscape is considered. One of the most impressive of these is the Sueno Stone (AD 800’s-900’s) on the north-easterly edge of Forres. This is the largest surviving Pictish stone in Scotland standing over 6.5 metres high.
However, excavations in recent years are providing a fuller picture of their lives including settlement sites. Taken altogether, the distribution of these types in Moray and Nairn replicates the pattern that has already been noted for the previous millennia – that is, one that is concentrated on the Laich of Moray with small outliers some distance up-river.
Probably the most important site in Moray and Nairn during this period was the massive fort at Burghead. The potential importance of Burghead in the development and maintenance of the landscape should not be underestimated. It could be that the political strength of the tribal chief at Burghead was such that settlement patterns, (and the associated payment of tributes or tithes), the establishment of smaller defensive sites and the spread of settlement inland, was all controlled from the one centre. Little remains of this settlement apart from Burghead Well. Other significant sites at this time include Sculptor’s Cave at Covesea, which contains some Pictish carvings, and the square burial cemeteries, which can be seen on aerial photographs, as at Kildrummy, Nairn and Urquhart, Elgin.
The coming of Christianity
The evidence for the introduction of Christianity to the area and the development of an inter-relationship between secular and monastic society is not clear. There is evidence of Pictish Christianity and the later Gaelic Christian structures, which originated in Ireland. However, it is not clear how interlinked these were. But there are sites that have strong connections with the early church that continue in use today. Pictish early Christian cross-slabs are associated with Elgin Cathedral and the old church at Mortlach, whilst slightly later 9th Century Christian sculpture is associated with church sites at Kineddar, Burghead, Duffus and Birnie. Whilst none of these have upstanding Pictish foundations, Mortlach is likely to be one of the earliest Christian sites in Grampian. Sueno’s Stone shows both a Christian cross and royal inauguration and battle scenes, and was once erected as a landmark over the floodplains of the Findhorn. This may represent the takeover by the Gaelic-speaking kings over the Picts, bringing Irish Christianity in their wake but may also represent legend or stories. It is likely that, as Christianity evolved in the area, it assimilated existing beliefs and early Christian religion as opposed to replacing it, meaning that styles of monuments and are not clearly defined.
A Viking incursion
Two Viking male graves have been found by the Spey, seemingly isolated from the general known distribution of such burials, which is concentrated around Dornoch, Sutherland and in Caithness. They are regarded as anomalies within the general development of the landscape. However, the inference might be that there was considerable short-term hardship caused to the people of Moray, because of the plundering and firing of the lands through which any marauding Viking bands passed. There is a suggestion that the name Elgin may be of Viking origin, named after a Viking commander called Helgy and there is evidence of at least a castle here in AD1040 which would tally with that. It is, however, unclear on the relationship between the area and the Vikings, and it may have not been antagonistic.
Continuity rather than change
The evidence for further landscape change during the first millennium AD is scant. Although changes were incorporated into Pictish society – whether they be the result of the temporary sacking of an area by a Roman army or Viking raiders, or the gradual acceptance of the Celtic Church – there is no evidence that either the settlement pattern or the economic basis that supported the people altered. Indeed, Moray as a tribal area appears to have consolidated its strength extending from the Spey to the Ness, and possibly beyond, both southwards and westwards.
The importance of Burghead (and its tribal chief) appears to have continued throughout the period into early medieval times. Whilst the fort itself was abandoned towards the end of the millennium, the Mormaer (lord or king) of Moray himself became a very powerful player in Pictish/Scottish politics, controlling an area much wider than modern Moray.
The Medieval and pre-Culloden period
The surviving evidence for the development of medieval and post-medieval Moray and Nairn is, in many ways, quite distinctive. The strength of the Earls of Moray and, for certain periods, their autonomous lordship over the area, had a clear impact on the landscape. Individual buildings of the period and their immediate environs are extant, as are the quasi-urban settlements of the time, and they still influence the landscape today.
The historical evidence of the 12th – 14th Centuries AD
Once David I had established a royal hold over Moray (around1135) he granted burgh status to Forres and Elgin. Whether small settlements already existed at these sites is not confirmed. (See earlier comments on Elgin under the Vikings section.) The establishment of markets (with tax-raising powers) and royal castles at such river crossings were an important political development which must have had considerable social and economic impact. Elgin was particularly well-placed to become a medieval town and port of renown, with its rich agricultural and afforested hinterland and easy access to the sea. It was soon trading with East Anglia, London, France and elsewhere.
By 1214 the number of burghs in Moray and Nairn had been increased to five, with the addition of Nairn, Auldearn and Cullen. Sheriffdoms were established at this time, centred on Nairn, Forres and Elgin, confirming the king’s powers over these rich lands. Most of the Laich of Moray and Nairn and the southern hillsides were also declared Royal Forests – centred on Darnaway, Pluscarden and Elgin. These lands were not completely afforested, but were lands where the king had the rights of hunting (a more accurate term would be “hunting reserves”) and management of the timber resource. Thus, the king established a power-house of tax-raising opportunities from the rich lands of Moray and Nairn and, in the 13th Century, was responsible for the development of the managed woodlands of Darnaway, initially a royal hunting forest, and elsewhere. This established what was to become a long tradition of forest management in the area, which is still continued by Moray Estates and the Forestry and Land Scotland.
The old political centre of Burghead might have been abandoned, but new, trusted families were brought into the area to ensure the king had “friends” in the north. They established their own earth and timber strongholds, or mottes. These families included the Freskins at Duffus, and others at Cantraydoune, Strathnairn, along the Nairnshire coast and elsewhere.
The Church also developed its power in the area during this period. The bishopric of Moray moved from Mortlach to Birnie, thence to Kineddar and Spynie, where the bishops of Moray remained in residence until 1682, despite the cathedral moving to the outskirts of Elgin itself. Elgin Cathedral was begun in 1224, and was regarded as one of the most beautiful of Scotland’s medieval cathedrals. Although damaged by fire and invasion it was reconstructed and continued in use at the heart of its precinct until the Reformation. Smaller churches within a parish system were also gradually established throughout the area during the 12th and 13th Centuries, and certain royal foundations were made in the agricultural heartlands of Moray. Kinloss Abbey was founded in 1150, Pluscarden Abbey in 1230, (which is still an active monastery to this day), and two friaries were eventually established in Elgin.
The later medieval period
The Laich landscape was gradually changing. The aristocracy had added monuments to the landscape and new boundaries must have been carved out through the open fields around the new royal and baronial castles, burghs and forests. From the 14th Century onwards the baronial castles were being built of stone, as at Rait, Lochindorb, Duffus and Balvenie. They used locally quarried sandstones, from the same coastal sources as those that had been used for the cathedral and its associated precinct. To what degree the more inland hills of Moray and Nairn were farmed or utilised is still largely unknown. Castles such as Drumin were built strategically on river confluences. This would have been defensive but would also have given control over local trade. The likelihood is that farming would have been mainly pastoral with limited arable for household use in contrast to the more profitable arable farming further north, where cereals were widely farmed. The houses of the time leave little traces and it is likely that upland farming practices would have left little too. However, by the 14th Century one lordship was certainly managing the assets of the landscape – Darnaway estate was providing oak timbers for the construction industry, presumably floating them downstream and over the water, to such places as Dornoch for use in the new cathedral there.
The burghs, with their timber and clay buildings and cobbled streets had been established in the heart of the Laich lands, by suitable crossings of the main rivers. Both the burghs and their associated river anchorages or nearby harbours were providing livelihoods for the poorer inhabitants and taxes for the rich. Tracks must have developed from the dispersed fermtouns (their buildings constructed of turf, clay and timber rather than stone) and the rural castle strongholds, to the burgh markets – presumably on much the same routes as those of today. Travel east-west, between burghs, must have been dependent upon ferry crossings at the main rivers. But these were also troubled times: 1297 saw the destruction of Forres, Duffus and Elgin castles, and in 1390 both Forres and Elgin were attacked, the timber buildings of the towns were set on fire and ecclesiastical buildings were targeted for destruction by the ‘Wolf of Badenoch’. Elgin Cathedral was never rebuilt and is still in ruins although parts of it were in use until the Reformation.
The following centuries were an age of relative prosperity. The agricultural production of the Laich, the management of timber from the forests of Moray and Nairn, and the salmon and other fishing from river and sea, possibly assured most of the inhabitants of the area a certain standard of living perhaps over and above subsistence level. Others who lived in the fermtouns of the riversides and hills to the south must have lived at a subsistence level, but little evidence has been recognised of their settlements or the associated shielings.
In stark contrast, today’s landscape is marked by the 15th and 16th Century castles and tower houses that were built by a variety of rich families to confirm their holdings in Moray and Nairn. For example, Darnaway was strengthened and extended by the Douglas family; the tower at Cawdor dates from 1454; Kilravock Castle was built by the Roses; and Auchindoun was built as a seat of the Earls of Huntly. These buildings would have had a localised impact on the landscape. However, it was in the succeeding centuries that the landscapes around such baronial residences were significantly altered as the focus of their use changed from defence to pleasure.
If there was any modification of the Moray and Nairn landscape in the 16th Century it would have been as a result of the changing tenure of the ecclesiastical land-holdings following the Reformation. A slightly broader spectrum of feudal landlords emerged, who copied the trappings of wealth of the older families of Moray and Nairn. It was during the 16th and 17th Centuries that castles such as Brodie and Gordon were built, as well as tower houses such as Coxton and Burgie. Unrest led to fortified buildings and watchtowers being common, for example, Ardclach Bell Tower. Nevertheless, it is not known what real impact these tenurial changes had on land management in the area – the arable and pasture open-fields of the Laich, presumably with associated runrig, and the grazings of the hills to the south, with their smaller areas of in-fields, show little change through this period.
One of the largest landscape changes reported to have occurred during this time was the loss of Kinnaird Estate at Culbin during a sandstorm in 1694. Reports tell of villages, a manor house and farms being swallowed up by the sands and stories of houses and churches appearing from the dunes were reported in the following centuries. It is, however, likely that it was a slow process of dune encroaching, exacerbated by the dunes being destabilised by harvesting marram grass, and that the estate was in decline before the storm finished the process off. Records suggest that five farms and their lands were lost.
The Age of Improvement 1750 – 1900 AD
The vision of some of the major landowners in Moray and Nairn, coupled with their recognition of the appalling hardship suffered during certain years of famine in the late 17th and mid-late 18th Centuries, were but two of the factors that led to the adoption of improvements in agricultural practice during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Farmlands were consolidated, open fields and runrig were enclosed and major drainage projects were undertaken. Certain farms were abandoned because of coastal change – as at Culbin, directly opposite the new port of Findhorn. Other farms were significantly increased in size as a result of new drainage projects – such as around the Loch of Spynie within the Laich of Moray. New crops were also introduced and fresh management techniques were employed. Home farms were established, with stone buildings around a courtyard providing all the accommodation that was needed by the new regime, as at Gordonstoun. All of these developments had profound effects on the landscape of Moray and Nairn.
From the late 18th Century onwards, both on the Laich of Moray and Nairn and further inland, the layout of the fields was gradually altered. The open fields and runrig finally disappeared during the 19th Century. Farming settlements were restructured and many also disappeared altogether. Evidence of several thousands of years of evolution of the landscape and its associated settlement patterns were largely swept away during this period. At the same time the major landholders started to establish new villages, particularly in Moray, both to keep farm labourers in the area and to persuade others to take up new forms of employment. In this way the few landlords that there were strengthened their hold on the land even more.
Apart from the changes wrought directly on the land by agricultural improvements, the 18th and early 19th Centuries saw the concentration of settlement into new villages, both inland and by the sea, rather than in numerous dispersed fermtouns (a group of cottages for farm workers). These new, nuclear settlements had housing constructed of stone rather than clay, turf and timber and are generally laid out on a grid system with a spacious village green and church in the centre. Many of their names reflect the names of the landowners and their families like Archiestown and Grantown. They still mark the landscape today and are described in the settlement section below.
In certain instances, the major landholders established new means of employment in the new villages for the labouring families. Sawmills were developed, spinning wheels were provided for home use, waulk or carding mills (for woollen cloth making) were built or adapted from existing corn mills, as at Dunphail, Nairn, and Knockando Woollmill, which has operated since 1784. A bleachfield (field for bleaching cloth) was laid out at Cullen. The principal industry that has survived today is that of whisky distilling. Based on easy access to fresh, clean water, peat and barley, both the Laich of Moray and Nairn and its inland rivers proved ideal locations for the development of distilleries.
However, the effects of enforced agricultural change on population distribution were by no means altogether benign. Many people left the land altogether for foreign parts. Others were removed and moved on to the manufacturing towns and cities of the Central Belt. Those that remained were fishermen, farm labourers, forestry workers, estate employees, or those involved in work at small, rural manufacturers.
The towns of Moray and Nairn
By the middle of the 18th Century, the burghs of Moray and Nairn are most likely to have been characterised by stone buildings. The arcaded buildings of Elgin – still to be seen in part – date from the end of the 17th Century. But the burghs still functioned in much the same way as they had throughout the medieval period. They were market centres, prosperous only as long as the hinterland produced goods for sale which could be transported to urban centres such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh or London.
During the 19th Century these small towns expanded with the development of a middle class, one of the results of growth in service industries such as banking, schooling and improved communications. The development of land-based communications, through the construction of turnpike roads, bridges and eventually the railways, confirmed the local importance of the small towns such as Nairn, Forres, Elgin and Keith. The market towns of Moray are covered further in the section on settlements below.
From the mid-18th Century, until at least the beginning of the 20th Century, the lands of Moray and Nairn were held by very few people. They exerted control over agricultural improvements and the lives of the labouring people, and had the resources to remodel their own grand homes and create new gardens, parks and extensive woodlands and forests. The estate settlements are covered further in the section on settlements.
New modes of transport
The landscape was also affected during the first half of the 18th Century by the surveying and building of new turnpike roads and bridges. These facilitated travel and land transport by wheeled vehicles, particularly east-west, and southwards along the Spey valley. It was the construction of bridges across the wide, potentially dangerous rivers Findhorn and Spey that made the greatest impact, ensuring an ease of travel that had only been previously available to those who went by sea. The first Spey Bridge at Fochabers was probably designed by Thomas Telford and built in 1804, but floods have necessitated several reconstructions. In contrast, the iron bridge, certainly designed by Telford and built in 1814 to cross the Spey at Craigellachie, has survived the floods of passing years and is now considered the oldest iron bridge in Scotland.
The second half of this period was marked by the surveying and construction of the new railways. Short lines between some of the small towns and their coastal ports were the first to be laid down, as with the Elgin-Lossiemouth railway of 1852. Miles of lines were added in Moray and Nairn over the next 30-40 years. The east-west route was completed between Aberdeen and Inverness. For a while, the main line from Aviemore to Inverness passed through the western fringes of the area, and there was a main line along the Spey to Craigellachie and the south. The fishing villages of the east of Moray were linked by rail – the fine viaducts at Cullen, dating to 1882-84, provide a reminder of this, having been built due to the Countess of Seafield’s reluctance to allow the tracks to pass through the grounds of her estate.
The 20th Century
Some of the most significant changes of this century are associated with technological improvements and developments. These have affected the more populated coastal plain, including the establishment of large military airfields, forests, settlement expansion, road building and railway closures, and amalgamation of fields and loss of hedgerows. Railway closures occurred in the 20th Century, sometimes being regenerated as long-distance footpaths, while roads have generally been improved. Wind farm development has also occurred in the uplands and lowlands since the early 21st Century.
The distribution and pattern of vegetation cover are closely related to the geology, topography, soils and the drainage of the landscape. The pattern of vegetation cover generally comprises heather moorland and montane vegetation on higher land. Conifer forests tend to occur on lower hill tops and slopes and these are often interspersed with areas of rough pasture and heather moorland. A small remnant of Caledonian pinewoods occurs at Lochindorb.
Conifer forests are most common on the higher land, and, although extensive areas of Scots pine and native deciduous woodland have been managed commercially for over 250 years, considerable planting of coniferous species has occurred since the 1920s, for example at Culbin Forest. Large-scale afforestation of what was formerly heather moorland has also occurred since the 1960s and the dynamics of change are evident in upland areas such as Dava Moor, where Scots pine and birch is now naturally regenerating on a significant scale, as recent initiatives on deer management have been implemented. Traditional monoculture plantations with introduced species are becoming less common and mixed planting and selective forestry is the preferred approach, especially on land managed by Forestry and Land Scotland.
Moray and Nairn is one of the most well-wooded areas in Britain with a cover of approximately 28% of the total land area, including native woodlands and forests (compared with an average of around 19% within Scotland). Approximately 7% is considered Native or Nearly Native by the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland, with the remainder being managed for forestry. There is a wide range of types and species. The predominant forestry type is Scots pine, with much of this woodland occurring both in the upland areas and on the poorer gravels found in the vicinity of the coast. Upland forestry includes the conifer blocks on Ben Aigan and other forests close to the Spey Valley, and the older estate forests such as Darnaway, to the west. The coastal forests, such as Culbin Forest, which was established on one of the largest sand dune systems in Britain, are unusual features in Britain and provide a distinctive backdrop to the coast. There is little ancient woodland but much classified as long-established plantations, most of which had natural origins, having been managed for a number of centuries. Woods such as Quarrelwood (on the western outskirts of Elgin) are on the sites of ancient oakwoods, but this is now managed with beech and conifers as well. Much of this area was deforested before this replanting occurred.
Some of the commercially managed forests of the area, particularly those principally comprising Scots pine, have considerable nature conservation value, providing habitat for fauna such as the red squirrel and supporting a range of plants that are uncommon or rare elsewhere in the country. Forests such as Culbin are also valued for their recreation value for both visitors and local residents and trails for bikes and walkers are widespread.
Native broadleaved woodlands are also a feature of parts of the Moray and Nairn landscape and these are most extensive within some of the river valleys, for example, the Spey and the Findhorn. Mixed species woodlands are evident in these valleys and are much influenced by the estates. Within the Findhorn valley, the Lower Findhorn Woods are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in recognition of their status as ancient semi-natural woodlands, outstanding in the northeast of Scotland for nature conservation. They include pine/oak/birch and beech woodland, ash and wych elm on the mid slopes and alder woods on parts of the river bank. The Kellas Woodlands SSSI comprises one of the few remaining acid oak woodlands in northeast Scotland. The Lower River Spey SSSI comprises alluvial alder woodland considered to be of European importance.
Heather moorlands dominate the landscape of the uplands and extend down the hill-slopes, petering out to form patches of moorland and scrub amongst the managed pine woodland, coniferous forestry and farmland to the north. Many small and some extensive areas of high-level blanket bog and tussocky grassland occur within these heather moors. The absence of any significant tree cover accentuates the smooth landform and open character of the upland areas and creates a distinctive expanse of bright purple/pink during the summer months.
Some areas of lowland bog and peatlands occur in the study area, including the Moss of Crombie (SSSI), one of the few remaining large-scale blanket bog sites with outstanding examples of lichen-rich peatland vegetation, and Moidach More (SSSI) which forms one of the most extensive remnants of lowland peat within north-east Scotland, and is remarkable for the sheer extent of actively growing peat bog vegetation. There is limited fen remaining near Loch Spynie which is protected for its value as a habitat for migrating water birds.
The coastal area of Moray and Nairn is of particular interest for both its geomorphology and complex vegetation patterns of shingle heath, Scots pine forestry, birch woodland, saltmarsh and scrub woodland. Large stretches of the coastline are designated SSSIs and these include:
Coastal habitats include the dunes and their succession communities. The dune grasses (such as marram grass) and other pioneer species stabilise into more established dunes with gorse scrub. This is a diverse environment, used for recreation and rich in pollinators. However, it is still fragile and susceptible to erosion, either by weather or by humans. These dune systems are found along much of the coast but are especially extensive near Culbin and Findhorn, the dune system inland from this were planted to stabilise them and protect inland farmland as well as for forestry use, it is however likely that the dunes were not the only source of the sand blowing onto the farmland.
A large part of the study area is farmed. Intensive farming, including a high proportion of arable land, occurs on the fertile, silty soils of the coastal plain, while the undulating lower hill slopes and valleys immediately fringing this area generally comprise pasture with a smaller proportion of arable land. Semi-improved pasture and rougher hill grazing occur on the uplands to the south.
The Laich of Moray is renowned for its agriculture, this being behind its success in previous centuries. The light, deep, and free-draining sandy soil, coupled with flat or undulating terrain and favourable climatic conditions, means that it is ideal for arable farming. Due to its creation from sediment as the sea retreated it was however a marshy area in places. The Loch of Spynie and low-lying areas between Spynie and Lossiemouth were drained by the Spynie Canal by Thomas Telford in the 19th Century to improve agriculture. Loch Spynie survives as a small loch.
In recent times, arable and pasture fields have been significantly enlarged, particularly on the Laich of Moray and Nairn, as modern machinery and farming techniques have been adopted and smaller farms have ceased to operate. The incremental redevelopment of these farms for housing has had a marked impact on the character of the lowland areas of Moray. Hedgerows have declined, likely due to these changes in agricultural practices, in both Moray and Nairn districts. These changes in farming have also exacerbated the problem of soil erosion common across the Laich of Moray. Some abandonment of farms in the uplands of the study area is also evident.
The lowland areas of Moray and Nairn have agricultural capacity graded as 2-4 which suggests the land is capable, to varying degrees, of maintaining arable agriculture, especially cereal, including barley for whisky production and oats and forage crops. Soft fruit was also common; traditionally Baxter’s jam-making business was situated here due to the success of soft fruit in the area, but this is now less widespread. Grazing and forage crops are also widespread with pigs, dairy and beef common. Inland farming opportunities are less extensive and these areas are more likely to be used for rough grazing or game. Likewise, the exposed coastal areas, where dunes and loose sandy soil, are more common are not of high value for agriculture and are more likely to be used for forestry.
There has been a forestry industry in this area for centuries, not only on a domestic scale but also to provide timber for shipbuilding from the Darnaway forest which has been actively managed for over 250 years. From the 1920s onwards, conifer forests were planted on the poorer soils close to the coast. Areas like Culbin were planted from the 1850s but much of this was felled during World War One. A concerted program of replanting started in the 1920s and 1930s as part of the work of the state Forestry Commission, but also to reduce erosion and damage to settlements and farmland from the sand dunes in the area. Between 1940 and 1970 the area of such forests quadrupled throughout Moray. These later-established forests were largely planted on heather moorland on the poorer soils of upland areas and have been a key characteristic of Moray’s lowland landscape until the advent of felling in recent years. The establishment of conifer forests still continues, although recently many of these have been under the Native Pinewood Scheme administered by the Forestry Commission (now Scottish Forestry), and are likely to have a different character and therefore effect on the landscape of Moray and Nairn. Woodland expansion is still occurring across Nairn and Moray, as across Scotland overall, but there is a change of approach towards mixed native Scots pine and broadleaves, or native upland birch, instead of uniform non-native conifers. Culbin and other older planted forests have natural value with Culbin Sands, Forest and Findhorn Bay designated a SSSI for the plant, lichen and fungi species supported by the Scots pine forest.
Most Forestry And Land Scotland-owned woodlands are now promoted and managed for recreation as well as timber with trails, parking and visitor facilities created. This attracts visitors from the region and further away.
In the early to mid-20th Century, the military established large airfields along the coast, from Nairn in the west to Spey Bay in the east, taking advantage of the fine weather corridor of the area, but disrupting the pre-20th Century agricultural landscape. An example of this is RAF Dallachy which closed in 1945 after only two years, but it is still a prominent landmark from the air despite being slowly reclaimed by natural re-growth. During the Second World War the coast was used for landing exercises and the establishment of two airbases at Lossiemouth and Kinloss changed the area, with the airstrips standing out from the surrounding agricultural land. The associated housing bears little resemblance to local styles. More recently, use of one of the airfields has been discontinued but there is an ongoing military presence, with the Army moving into the space. Leading on from the decommissioning of the airfield, housing development has also replaced some of the runways and buildings.
The extensive defences along the Culbin Sands also distinguish this extensive area of coastline.
In the 16th and 17th Centuries the upland areas of Moray were ideally located for illicit distilleries producing whisky due to proximity to the barley; clean water from the Spey especially; and nearby ports, coupled with remote and inaccessible locations. Many of these became officially established when whisky production was legalised in 1823. The distinctive shape of the malt whisky distilleries, with their pointed, multi-tiered pagoda-style roof ventilators, is recognisable in many of the villages and hamlets in Moray. Whisky production is marketed as an attraction for visitors to the area as well as being an important employer in smaller villages such as Dufftown and Rothes. Often distilleries have visitor centres, including the strikingly designed new centre at the Macallan Distillery near Craigellachie, whose design, especially its roofline, is inspired by the surrounding hills.
Fishing – marine
The Moray Coast and Nairn have a long history of fishing for salmon, white and oily fish and shellfish. Burghead and Buckie harbours still function as fishing harbours but many of the smaller ones such as Spey Bay are no longer used by the fishing industry. Nairn and other similar sized harbours no longer support fishing boats, although inshore boats for shellfish are still common, although limited in numbers. Portgordon is typical of many of the smaller fishing villages in the area: designed as a fishing settlement in 1797 and remained a significant harbour until the 1950s, its wane led to the decline of the railway in the area and now the village. It is a feeder settlement for Buckie with limited leisure craft and small-scale lobster fishing using the harbour. From the 1900’s to 1960s herring was a key catch with over 300 steam drifters operating from Buckie at its height. A characteristic of the coast to the east of Fochabers is the distinctive design of the houses in these fishing ports which were built to a largely standard design during this period of expansion. The fishery was closed in the 1970s after the herring population in the area crashed and stocks have been slow to improve so the industry has become much diminished.
The harbours and infrastructure are still obvious in many of the smaller villages despite the decline of the industry. Many of the smaller marinas, like Nairn and part of the Lossiemouth harbour have been converted to marinas for recreational vessels. Historic infrastructure like the icehouses have either declined or are used for other purposes, such as the visitor centre at Findhorn. Two fish processing plants at Buckie are still prominent near the harbour and one of the three boat building yards operating 30 years ago still runs, meaning that employment by the fishing industry is still high in Buckie, even though the off-shore fishing is much declined.
Very few deep-sea boats run from the area now. Most of the fishing in the area is shellfish-based and inshore, prawns, scallops and lobster feature highly, as does squid.
Aquaculture has not become established in this area. Inland there is considerable line fishing for trout and salmon but that is addressed under the Tourism and Recreation section.
Energy generation and utilities
Like much of Scotland, renewable energy projects have become more prevalent in the last couple of decades and this seems likely to continue.
A demonstration offshore site is operational in the Moray Firth and two offshore wind farms adjacent to this are likely to be built in the next few years. Linked to this there will probably be substations and overhead wires, and pylons linked to a submarine connection between Caithness and Moray, focussing on Keith.
There are already more than 25 wind farms within this area. These include large developments at Dava Moor and a considerable number of single or small groups of small- to medium-sized turbines, especially in the foothills inland, for instance near Rothes.
There is also a biomass-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plant built at Rothes which uses a combination of whisky distillery by-products and wood chips, generating enough energy to supply around 9000 homes as well as heat. There has been recent interest in solar farming in the area and permission has been granted for 20MW solar farm near Urquhart to take advantage of the good sunlight level in the area.
Mineral extraction – coastal and inland stone
Hopeman Sandstone has been extracted in areas such as Quarrelwood for centuries to be used in building, and this continues in a limited level to this day. Clashach sandstone has some recognition in the building trade and is used in restoration and new-build projects, across Scotland and internationally. There is also some sand, aggregates, cobbles and limestone extraction. Historically, small-scale iron extraction occurred across the area but this was never at a level that would be profitable after the industrial revolution and most had declined before then.
In recent years mineral extraction has increased in Moray, averaging approximately 330,000 tonnes per year. This is projected to continue over the next decade with three new quarries approved and another under consideration. The demand for minerals is resulting from major infrastructure projects, such as the A96 dualling and settlement expansion.
At one point Lecht Mine was largest manganese mine in Scotland. It was opened in the 1730s, initially as an iron ore mine then reopened as a manganese mine. However, it was not competitive against imported manganese and closed before the 1900s.
In Moray and Nairn the key transport links are the A96, the trunk road that goes between Inverness and Aberdeen, and the railway which follows a similar route. There are limited A roads in the area, most connecting the towns along the coast with towns further inland. These roads still follow historic routes down the river valleys with bridging points across the rivers, this can make them vulnerable to the effects of flooding and many of the bridges have been replaced repeatedly. Other key routes include the coastal route, and the A98 through Buckie and Portsoy. Traditionally these road have gone through the centre of the towns along them and in some instances, like Elgin and Nairn, this is still the case. In others such as Fochabers and Forres bypasses have been built allowing heavy freight to avoid the towns. At present, there is limited dual carriageway and the main roads can emphasise a feeling of rurality due to their winding nature; there is, however, a plan to upgrade the entire length of the A96 to dual carriageway by 2030 with bypasses built where practical as part of this.
Outwith the main A roads the B and C roads are very narrow, in some parts single track and accessing the upland areas can be slow and dangerous in the winter. The area is linked to two international airports (Aberdeen and Inverness) by the A96 and the railway which has improved its accessibility to visitors, although it is still limited for goods transport.
Tourism and Recreation
Tourism is an important industry in Nairn and Moray. It became a popular area in the 19th Century when its proximity to the Highlands increased the number and use of game estates. The introduction of the railway to the area increased its popularity with the upper-middle classes as well as the landed gentry and resulted in the development of some of the coastal towns as popular resorts due to the good climate. Today, the historical and natural heritage of the area is a key attraction with the castles and religious monuments attracting visitors as well as both marine and land based outdoor recreation opportunities. Wildlife watching is popular, especially around Spey Bay; and long distance paths, cycling and canoeing are all promoted down the Spey and other rivers. In recent years the whisky industry has been used to promote the area. The Whisky Trail links distilleries and inland towns in a scenic fashion and is currently heavily promoted in local tourist information centres. Game and course fishing (salmon and declining quantities of trout) utilise much of the upland areas of the district. In the upper parts of the rivers, fishing huts and permanent access points on the bank, as well as the associated estate maintenance, can give a more cultivated character to the banks, while tracks increase accessibility. Golf courses are a frequently-seen feature along the coast of Moray and Nairn, particularly in the links areas adjacent to its historic resorts.
The settlement pattern of Moray and Nairn is dominated by the three ‘industries’ of fishing, mills for grinding and power, and distilleries. A number of these are planned settlements. The main towns such as Elgin, Nairn, Keith and Forres developed into market towns and flourished with the expansion of the railway system, improvements in agriculture and the growth of tourism. The towns of the area have expanded significantly in recent years, often accommodating substantial areas of new housing and, more recently, industry on their fringes.
Many of the towns and villages within Moray and Nairn were originally planned by enterprising landowners mainly during the 18th Century, and included some of the fishing villages as well as inland villages. They were designed to be laid out to a traditional pattern of parallel streets and connecting roads. The inland planned villages included New Keith, which was established about 1750 by the Earl of Findlater, and the new Fochabers, which was created in 1776 by the Duke of Gordon by removing the inhabitants of the old village from his castle policies. Like many of the planned settlements in Moray, Fochabers straddles the main road and is laid out as an east-west parallelogram. As with all planned towns, the heart of the settlement is the square which is usually dominated by a church. Other planned villages were established even further inland. Charlestown of Aberlour was created in 1812 and Dufftown in 1817 – both of which became prosperous distillery villages. The new town of Cullen, laid out in the 1820s to a grid pattern, and which sits on the higher land above the seaport, is one of the best and most openly designed of the planned towns in the area. The larger settlement of Forres is of particular architectural interest, being established as an ancient Royal Burgh and laid out to a traditional medieval pattern, with the high street broadening out into a triangular marketplace and dominated by the 1844 Mercat Cross. The well-preserved and compact core and prominence of spires and monuments of these settlements make an important contribution to the landscape of Moray and Nairn.
The structure and buildings of these planned settlements are generally well preserved due to the use of stone to construct housing. This contrasts with the traditional clay, turf and timber dwellings which have mostly disappeared from the landscape. Although well-designed, and often including small industry and harbours for employment, the move of inhabitants to these settlements was not entirely benign and depopulation from the area, especially the rural districts, increased as people relocated to the industrial Central Belt and further afield.
Fishing Villages and Harbours
The legacy of the 19th Century fishing industry and the development of harbour ports for the export and import of goods, such as wood from the forests and grain, is evident today along much of the coastline of the Firth. There are the many fishing villages – some of which evolved over the centuries, as at Findhorn and Cullen, whilst others were planned and built in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, like Hopeman and Portgordon – with their small piers and harbours, single-storey stone housing and smoking sheds.
The fishing villages also include Portknockie, which probably dates from 1677 and Lossiemouth, which was established in 1703. Garmouth was founded as a ship-building port in 1784 and Portgordon was laid out in 1797 to take advantage of the fisheries. Burghead was laid out in the early 19th Century and construction largely destroyed the Pictish fortifications. In the 1820s the medieval burgh of Cullen was moved by the Earl of Seafield from its original site close to Cullen House to its present location by the Sea-town. Kingston is one of a number of settlements that were originally dockyards for the export of timber from the Forest of Glenmore. Moreover, towns such as Nairn have distinctive fishermen’s quarters. Fishertown in Nairn, in which the tightly packed houses and lanes focus on the sea, contrasts heavily with the later Victorian resort-style buildings and 20th Century suburbs.
Notable features in the landscape are cliff-top fishing villages such as Portknockie, and harbour villages such as Findochty, Findhorn, Cullen and Portgordon. In general, the fishing villages and ports are laid out as rows of solid stone fishermen’s cottages, laid gable end to the water, with narrow lanes between them. The older stone, single-storey (some with attic rooms), and brightly coloured houses of Findochty, sitting gable-end to the sea on the harbour foreshore, are a typical feature of many of the coastal settlements.
With the decline of the fishing industry the harbours in many towns have either fallen into decline or been repurposed for use as leisure marinas such as Nairn and Lossiemouth. The harbours are too small and the shores too shallow for access to large cruise ships but recreational boats and fishing, as well as limited shellfish fishing, vessels still use most of those harbours which are still active.
There are mills associated with the farm lands and towns – for grinding corn, powering weaving looms and other small-scale manufactures. By 1868, Newmill at Elgin had become the main industrial employer in the area. Johnstons of Elgin is still one of Scotland’s oldest family businesses, originally using the River Lossie as its power source. Although manufacturing has declined across Moray and Nairn, as everywhere in the UK, its share of employment was never as high and thus the impact of its decline muted. In fact, Moray now has a slightly higher rate of employment in industry than the rest of the UK - about 12% compared to around 9% nationwide. In the 18th Century the mills were coupled with spinning schools, merchants and a bleachfield, all since gone, as well as grain mills processing the cereals produced in the area for whisky and other consumption. Forres also had an important flax spinning industry in the 18th Century but the town did not develop the large-scale technology and the industry declined.
Smaller villages, such as Brodie, contain smaller mill buildings, commonly water-powered, for localised cereal or timber processing. These were run for the benefit of the estates, and Pluscarden Abbey ran their own as well. Lhanbryde and Knockando were focussed on woollen mills, again set up in the 19th Century and reflecting the change in land use in the upland areas.
Whisky distillery settlements
The Spey is renowned for its whisky production, and there are more distilleries here than in any other area of Scotland. The distinctive stills and bond-houses are to be found close to plentiful supplies of clean water, mainly of the Spey and its tributaries. Although not immediately obvious, a significant number of the area’s picturesque distilleries were built during a large expansion of the industry in the 1860s and were located beside the newly-arrived railway lines that allowed for ease of supply and distribution. The inland villages of Dufftown, Archiestown and Rothes have a heavy dependence even today on the whisky industry for their prosperity, which has been there since they were founded. Moray Council state that there are over 55 distilleries in their area. Alongside Walkers Shortbread and Baxters, they are the major employers in an industry that accounts for 36% of Moray’s economy (compared to 4.4% for Scotland overall).
The Royal Burghs of Elgin and Forres have held on to their medieval layout in the centres. These still show the original arrangement of a high street with a central marketplace and tolbooth (or church) and closes running off at right angles along its length. The historic town centres still retain their service and market functions. In recent years the populations of the main towns in this area, including Nairn, have increased and there has been development around the edges of these towns, as well as redevelopment of brownfield sites in the centre. Much of this is of a modern design and suburban character which is very different to the medieval centres.
Modern settlement development
Like much of Scotland, the towns and villages in Moray have experienced pressure to continue to expand, leading to suburban 20th and 21st Century development around the periphery of most. Other places where domestic development has focussed has been around the disused military land where the new housing resembles the military estates built in the second half of the 20th Century, and smaller clusters around most of the smaller towns and villages in the area. Development has also occurred around Findhorn where a spiritual retreat was founded in the 1960’s. This has expanded and evolved into an ecovillage with a range of different housing concepts present. An expansion plan, with a mixture of self-build and developed plots, aims to reach good energy efficiency. Linked to the settlement there are three small wind turbines. The original village of Findhorn, in juxtaposition to this, is a traditional salmon fishing village focused on the harbour.
Infrastructure changes such as dualling sections of the A96 and building bypasses have significantly improved the amenity in towns, such as Fochabers and Mosstodloch, but have resulted in significant land-take for their construction.
One of the main developments around the towns, other than residential, has been extensive flood alleviation works. As mentioned earlier, the rivers of Moray and Nairn have been prone to flooding which, through the centuries, has damaged infrastructure along the floodplain. In recent years a number of large flood alleviation schemes have been undertaken to protect the towns along the rivers. The largest has been at Elgin where embankments, flood walls, relief channels and new bridges have changed the riverside interface of the city. Other schemes at Forres, Rothes and Lhanbryde have also been completed. Although Nairn has traditionally been prone to flooding little work has been carried out to date, limited to repairing existing walls and dredging the river mouth.
From the mid-18th Century, until at least the beginning of the 20th Century, the environs of several country seats, such as Cullen House and Gordon Castle, were redesigned. This involved new tree planting, walled gardens, and orchards in the fashion of the estates of southern Scotland and England. Boundaries around the fields of the home farm were marked by stone dykes or hedges and trees, as at Cawdor and Fordyce. Large-scale tree-planting immediately around the castle was an integral part of the late 18th Century redesigned landscape. Another feature of 18th Century landscape design was the creation of planting in the extended landscape which focused views from the house to distant natural features. Many of the houses and gardens on Moray’s coastal plain face south towards a small number of distinctive hills. As seen at Brodie, planting in the outer parts of the policies formed a series of avenues to these features and may also have provided a commercial return. The 9th Earl of Moray had over twelve million trees – both deciduous and coniferous – planted at Darnaway between around 1780 and 1810 and this forest management policy has continued through to the present day. It obviously influenced other major landholders in the area, as most of the estates, with their country houses and home farms (like Kilravock, Glenferness and Pluscarden) had, and continue to have, a significant interest in mixed forestry.
Many of the original farm buildings linked to the estates have been redeveloped as steading-style clusters of housing. This is the main style of housing in the countryside where new housing has been limited and has become a noticeable feature of these areas.
Whilst the ancient country estates were generally located in prosperous farming areas, the later 19th Century saw an explosion in estates bought for recreational purposes and, in upland areas, estate management has evolved to be mainly game-related. It is possible that in addition to earlier clearances of land for sheep farming, the rise of the shooting estate maintained the circumstances that prevented the re-establishment of ancient woodlands and farms. Fishing, stalking and shooting are still extremely popular attractions in the area and can make a profit on these estates which have little income from agriculture. The estate housing is mostly used for guests and staff with some being sold by the estates in recent years.
The Moray and Nairn area spans two major regional cultures. In the east of Moray and Nairn is the vibrant Doric culture of song and verse; while to the west, the Highland Gaelic culture is more dominant.
Historically, few artists, either born here or just visiting, seemed to draw inspiration from the area, except from the great ruins of places such as Elgin Cathedral, Pluscarden Abbey or Spynie Palace. The majestic grandeur of these medieval wonders have been set down on paper by a variety of antiquarians, artists and architects, including John Slezer (late 17th Century), Paul Sandy and David Roberts (mid-18th Century), and David Alexander (mid-19th Century). They also took the opportunity to record some of the castles in the area, such as Cawdor and Darnaway. 18th Century paintings and sketches of Cullen Castle by Robert Adam give a good illustration of the landscaping at the time his father and brothers were working on designs for the estate.
While the lords of the manor and the aspiring landed gentry sought out portrait painters from London or Edinburgh to record their own and their family’s existence on canvas, little artistic talent was directed at recording the landscape of the area. It would appear that it was not until the late 19th Century that a few watercolourists began to explore the possibilities offered by the fishing villages around the Moray coast. These artists included Andrew Black and David West. Peter Anson spent the mid-20th Century extensively painting the fishing villages and boats of Moray providing an interesting snapshot of a declining industry. Today the landscapes of Moray and Nairn are the inspiration for an active local visual and literary arts scene.
From an antiquarian perspective, ever since the early 18th Century the Moray and Nairn area has been a rich fount of knowledge, with individuals like Lachlan Shaw, George Gordon of Bernie and William Cramond publishing the first studies of the area. Learned Societies were established later that century in both Nairn and Elgin to further the opportunities for collecting and interpreting natural history and archaeological specimens, from home and abroad. Important fossil beds were explored on the coast east of Burghead, and various prehistoric mounds were investigated.
More recently, a small number of authors have told the story of their upbringing in the area, mainly in the late 19th and 20th Centuries. Robert and Elsie Thomson’s diaries of life in Ardclach and Glenferness in the latter half of the 19th Century, and David Thomson’s personal view of Nairn, are exemplars of this. These, and other sources, perhaps give the most easily accessible understanding of the cultural identity of the area through the eyes of the middle classes. References to the area in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ and poetry by Robert Burns (such as Castle Gordon) mean that the area is better known than maybe expected for somewhere that feels quite remote from the rest of Britain.
There are certain traditions in the area which have their origins in prehistoric times and continue to be practised. Beliefs associated with the healing powers of fresh water wells are known throughout the north of Scotland. In Moray and Nairn one such example is associated with Botriphnie parish church, where to heal the sick the statue of St Fumac is taken to the holy well, washed and then taken round the parish on May 3rd.
The tradition of Burning the Clavie (a barrel of staves) at Burghead on the 11th of January (New Year before the Gregorian calendar) also continues. It is carried around the town in order to distribute good fortune before being burnt to ash at the ancient Pictish fort. Its origins are obscure but its continuation would seem to be down to determination. The Church condemned the practice in the 18th Century, and it was in fact outlawed in 1704, but Burghead continues the practice to the present.
Similar festivals were probably celebrated in other places in Moray and Nairn. This is confirmed by 18th Century parish records where ministers were recorded as decrying the burning of fires to sanctify crops. Such traditions gradually died out from this time.
Perceptions and views
The landscape of Moray and Nairn is richly varied, this principally stemming from the gradation of topography from the uplands to the south, the rounded foothills and valleys to the coastal plain, and the Moray Firth which is a prominent feature of the area.
The flat, open coastline of the northwest of the area opens out to views across the Moray Firth to the Black Isle and further. The dunes, intertidal flats and beaches create a feeling of isolation, emphasised by forest and woodland where it has been planted behind. To the east, the irregular coastline gives shorter views and a more contained experience with coves, pebbled beaches and open sea views.
The high proportion of woodland and forest within Moray and Nairn also contributes to the character of the area. Views northwards from the largely open uplands give a panorama of densely wooded foothills. The coalescence of tree belts and conifer forests also makes the more open coastal plain appear well-wooded from such elevated viewpoints. This creates a landscape character that strongly contrasts with many other parts of Scotland.
Much of the Moray and Nairn area gives the experience of ordered and productive landscape, with farming, woodland and compact towns. The absence of significant tree cover in moorland areas in the south accentuates the smooth landform and open character of the upland areas and creates a distinctive expanse of bright purple/pink during the summer months. Further inland the upland moorland of Dava Moor is more expansive and remote. The absence of peat hags, heather and the relative absence of manmade structures can make it feel comparatively wild. The long-distance Dava Way footpath follows a disused railway line, emphasising the feeling of emptiness, despite the presence of the main road close by.
The Cabrach is a remote area south of Dufftown; the community was based on illicit whisky distilleries (due to its isolation) and subsistence farming. Always a small community, it was decimated by World War One and many of the disused steadings stem from then. The depopulation of the area - between 1861 and 1961 75% of the population left - gives the landscape an eerie and abandoned feel in many places. Some new development at Inverharroch may reverse this depopulation in the future.
Moray has a diverse range of landscapes, and historically this included landmarks such as Ben Macdui and features such as the Fords of Avon that are now in the Cairngorms National Park. The coast from Culbin to Cullen is recognised for its scenic qualities by a series of Special Landscape Areas as are inland areas such as the Findhorn, Spey and Deveron valleys and the wooded estates of Pluscarden, Spynie and Quarrelwood. Moray has many areas of high value for nature, including Findhorn Bay and Culbin Sands. It also has a wide variety of listed buildings and designed landscapes showing its tumultuous but prosperous past.
The place-names of Moray illustrate both its landscape and its history. Many names are of Pictish origin, such as Aberlour, Pluscarden and possibly Lhanbryde. Later names are Gaelic, for example agricultural communities evidenced by the predominance of baile (homestead) and achadh (field). Dallas comes from Dallais meaning in the meadow. Norse influences are found in Elgin. As the features of the area towards the coast are less distinctive they do not show a great range of descriptive Gaelic pronouns, but the upland areas are described through carn (cairn, such as in cairn-shaped mountain), glen, loch, muir (moorland) and knock (from cnoc, meaning small rounded hill), illustrating the upland moorland character of this area.
From the Middle Ages onwards Scots words can be seen to permeate names, reflecting the dominance of the lowland ruling classes. Examples include the Laich of Moray, meaning low and burn, (stream).
English and Anglicised names become the norm from the 16th Century onwards and later the use of the names of landowning families become common, such as Gordonstoun.