Set on a peninsula that juts out into the Moray Firth and visible for miles around, Burghead is hardly one of Scotland's hidden gems. Thousands of visitors to the Rndhorn Foundation have seen it in the distance at the eastern end of Findhorn Bay. Among Scotland's historical and cultural treasures, Burghead is worth more than a mere sighting. It can be reached via the six-mile walk along the beach from Findhorn, or less strenuously by car or bus.
On clear days, the views are stunning particularly from the headland, where there is always the chance of spotting dolphins, seals, Minke whales, seabirds, oil platforms and in the summer cruise liners. Every year, the town's past and present meet in the ceremony called the Burning of the Clavie, described in more detail later.
Burghead has a long history, elements of which remain clearly visible. The map made by the Romans after they sailed round Britain's coast in 86AD shows a settlement on the easily fortified peninsula. It was either a Roman camp or a Celtic village. Around 400, the Rets built a huge fort, the largest yet discovered in Scotland, which extended beyond the banks and ditches still evident on the grassy headland.
The Rets are renowned for their elaborate stone carvings, and the Rctish occupants of Burghead carved images of bulls, perhaps as a symbol of strength. Although 30 bull carvings were found in Victorian times, only six remain. Four are on view locally, one is in the National Museum of Scotland, one is in the British Museum, and the rest may have been used to build the harbour walls.
Also called the Roman Well, St Aethan's Well was probably Rctish in origin. Cleared in 1809 and now the property of Historic Scotland, the chambered well is hidden behind stone walls. Visitors who manage to collect the key from the key holder enter a grassy enclosure with stone steps leading down to the square water tank. Whether or not the well had ritual uses, it is, like the carved bulls, unique to Burghead.
Sigurd, the Viking Jarl of Orkney, captured the fort in 884 and profited from the export of local peat to Norway. Torfness, as it was then called, remained a Viking stronghold in an area contested by Picts, Scots and Vikings. The Scots were finally victorious around the time Macbeth was born in the vicinity of Burghead. In MacBeth (sic) the King novelist Nigel Tranter makes Burghead the site of the Battle of Torfness between his hero and Duncan in 1040, although the battle's actual location is as warmly debated as most facts about the real Macbeth. Wherever it occurred, victory at Torfness won the Scottish throne for Macbeth and he ruled until 1057.
Early in the 1800 s, the new town of Burghead was built in a neat grid pattern. Thomas Telford designed the harbour and the granaries. Not only was Burghead a thriving fishing port, it also became a popular destination for Victorian tourists. Recently, the Burghead Headland Trust has converted the old coastguard watchtower into a visitor and heritage centre.
Important though the past is, Burghead is not trapped in it. About 1650 people live there, and locals refer to themselves as Brochers. While visitors are very welcome, the town's economy is not reliant on the tourist industry. Since the ‘60s, the town scape has been dominated by a large, ugly mass of concrete. This is the Burghead Maltings, where every year enough barley is soaked and dried to make 100 million bottles, about 20% of Scotland's annual production of whisky.
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