Thursday 22 December 2011

St Abbs Head

If like me you grew up on the west coast, where the hills meet the sea in an island-studded eternity of summer twilight, you'll probably scoff at the supposed beauties of the southeast coast. What possible interest is there beyond Edinburgh? This is an attitude born of ignorance. For the coast of Berwickshire is one of Scotland's little known highlights. Burnmouth, Coldingham Bay, St Abbs Head, Fast Castle, Cove: yet sometimes it seems only divers care for the Berwickshire coast, and that is because of the amazing subsea reefs and psychedelically coloured creatures beneath St Abbs Head. My west coast eyes were first opened on a walk from Dunbar to Tynemouth (you can read about it here). Then I first became aware of the character and beauty of the Berwickshire - and Northumberland - coast.

Cliffs at St Abbs Head:

St Abbs Head has become associated in my mind with winter walks, enjoying the wind and exposure at the lighthouse, and shivering in the shade at Coldingham Bay. I love walking along the cliff edge in the exhilarating wind, looking at the sea stacks and geos, and heading down into the picturesque village of St Abbs and the beach at Coldingham Bay. Because it is always winter, and it is always late afternoon when we visit, it always seems to be dark at Coldingham - but St Abbs Head juts out a bit and catches the last of winter daylight.

The lighthouse:

St Abbs is named after the 7th century princess Aebbe, the daughter of Aethelfrith of Bernicia, the kingdom that stretched from the Forth to the Wear. When her father was killed in 616, Aebbe and her brothers fled to the sanctuary of the court of Donald Brecc of Dalriada (modern day Argyll). There they learned Christianity at the feet of monks who had known Columba. Their fortunes turned and in 633 Aebbe's brother Oswald became king of Bernicia. At the same time as Oswald invited Aidan over from Iona to set up Bernicia's most important abbey at Lindisfarne, Aebbe set up religious communities at Ebchester and, in 640, Coldingham, where she stayed for the rest of her life.

The village of St Abbs from the Head:

St Abbs therefore is a placename that can be precisely located in time, but not the time you might think. This village was called Coldingham Shore until 1890, when the local laird had it renamed. We walked past the houses clustered round the harbour and down to the beach of Coldingham Bay. The sand was frozen solid. "It's a sign that it's a bit cold for that!" I said to a surfer, who grinned back loonishly, waxing his board, whilst his friend stripped off in the keen wind for a neoprene wetsuit. No matter how daft you think you are in getting your kicks, there is always someone crazier than yourself out there.

Crazy fools:

Back at the lighthouse it was just about to get dark, and a strange searchlight swept the hillside. What was that? Where was the helicopter that must have shone it? There was no noise except the wind. The light came again and then it dawned on me. It was the beam from the lighthouse. We enjoyed this silent sweep of light as we scrambled back up to the head and our wind-buffeted car, rosy-cheeked and looking forward to a bath and a fire.


blueskyscotland said...

Hi Robert.
Nice history of the area.
I love that coastline,there is always something going on
of interest.Always fancied catching a big winter storm on the cliffs and beaches there but high tide always seems to be around 5.00pm which is late for photography.

Robert Craig said...

Alternatively you could go for 5am... I have a friend who used to do that in summer, drive out to the east coast and do a bit of surfing for a couple of hours before driving back to Edinburgh in time to start work at 9.

Crazy but admirable!

blueskyscotland said...

Did think about it....then went back to sleep again.I,m not that keen!

mike said...

Many years ago we had a neighbour who had been the lighthouse keeper at St Abbs. His name was Dennis Cormack and had served at several lighthouses throughout Scotland. Denis is now long dead and we no longer have the Hogmanay celebrations we used to.