Culbin's human history timeline
Before 7500 BP (Before Present)
Bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers came here to make use of the abundant natural resources, although the shoreline would have been much further inland. Many archaeological finds of tools show that people have used this area since the earliest times. Hunter-gatherers would have been attracted by the inland woods (for game) and the sea (for fish and shellfish).
After 7500 BP
Early settlers arrived to make use of the fertile lands and mild climate for agriculture.
The shingle ridges which form the backbone of Culbin today are driven inland and soil slowly forms around them. Natural species and early peoples adapt to the changes in the landscape around them.
The earliest site identified within Culbin itself, a shell midden and hut shelter, dates from this time. (See the early peoples page for more on Culbin's earliest inhabitants.)
The Roman governor of Britain, Agricola, probably marched his army through this area en route to Inverness and the innermost Beauly firth. His fleet could well have anchored in the mouth of the Findhorn, in the shelter of the long bar, as they marched on land and were supported by sea. Inverness is believed to be the most northerly point reached by the Roman empire. Agricola would have added auxiliary forces to his own troops from local tribes encountered along the way.
Moray coast floods, the sea driven inland by great storms.
First documentary reference to Culbin when Richard de Moravia is described as being ‘de Culbin’ in 1235.
The Barony of Culbin is inherited from the Morays of Culbin by the Kinnaird family, comprising 735 acres lying to the west of the mouth of the Findhorn.
Between 1654 and 1685 Findhorn moves to its new location at the mouth of the Findhorn river following the breaching of the bar on which the old village stood (now lost). The Culbin estate probably comprises a mains house, a dovecot (for winter meat - these were only permitted by Scots law on estates that produced substantial grain crops each year), a home farm and about four other crofts, some of which included or relied on fishing.
1658 / 1659 / 1663
Alexander Brodie, laird of the neighbouring estate inland, noted in his diary ‘great inundations of water and sand’ along the coast and threatening Nairn.
The Culbin harvest had to be abandoned because the fields were covered with fine sand blown from the massive dunes to the west.
The new Laird of Culbin is Alexander Kinnaird, a young man with a new wife (and soon after, a baby son).
Culbin estate has been shrinking for years as gales bring the dunes further and further east. The major westerly gales finally engulf all the estate buildings, including the mains house. Only one croft of the five (Earnhill) is spared. Alexander Kinnaird is devastated by his loss and appeals successfully to the government to be exempted from land tax soon after. He greatly exaggerated the wealth of his estate to help in this, leading to the myth of extensive and fertile farmlands lost below the sands.
Scottish parliament introduces an Act forbidding the pulling up of bent (dune grasses), juniper and broom, which was believed to have caused the sand to drift so drastically (marram did help to stabilise the sand but it was much in demand for thatching locally). This law is still in force today.
Our archive film of Culbin tells the story of the effect that pulling the marram ultimately had on the community.
Kinnaird is living beyond his means and is in real trouble - he appeals again to the government, this time for personal protection from his creditors. The impact of deteriorating weather conditions on his lands coupled with increased taxation and general failures in harvests locally bring both laird and estate to their knees
Kinnaird sells the remnants of the virtually worthless estate to Duff of Drummuir. Kinnaird goes to Panama to try to make money in the Darien Scheme but he and his sons die soon after. His widow is alive in 1723. Their only surviving son joins the army, dying a captain in 1743 without children. Legends of a Kinnaird curse arise from this tragedy.
Over the next 200 years further storms batter Culbin, drastically changing the sandscape once more and revealing some of the mains house (and other buildings?). Some stone is removed for local building work. Winter lochs appear each year amid the dunes: these are thought to be on the old course of the Findhorn.
Early 19th century
The ‘desert waste’ is some 7 x 2 miles and is now seen as romantic and picturesque by the affluent young local generation newly returned from the Grand Tour of Europe and beyond: ‘Unspeakable loneliness… utter desolation’. The northern naturalist Charles St John reports finding human skeletons here, believed to have died on getting lost in the sandy wastes, but more likely to have been evidence of much earlier burials revealed by the shifting sands
Local landowners begin planting the strip of land to the south and west of the main dune area to prevent further encroachment by sand: main species planted is Scots Pine, most of which will be felled during WWI. Grant of Kincorth was one of the pioneers at this time, establishing tree cover to the east; others planted on the more stable sands, which resulted in the area known as Low Wood.
Later in the 19th century
Tree species are being collected and brought back to Scotland by enterprising travellers. Chadwick of Binsness plants Corsican Pines on his estate on the SW side of Findhorn Bay – it is here that some of the trees were almost completely buried by dunes (30-40 feet high) – some survive today having just kept their upper branches above the sand.
1888 and 1889
The sandy wastes of Culbin attract an unexpected influx of Pallas’s sand grouse from central Asia which local sportsmen enjoy wiping out (the flocks never returned): conservation was not an issue at this time and all the major conservation charities had yet to be founded.
Enough timber is growing in the forest to warrant the building of a light railway to remove it for war use.
1919 / 1921
The new Forestry Commission begins acquiring Culbin land piecemeal, and spends its first ten years replanting the areas felled during WWI before turning its attention to the main dune area. It first tries planting marram grass with some success, but this is time-consuming and expensive. Thatching proves much more effective - brushwood was laid east-west over the sand (and wired down in exposed areas) and seedlings were planted amongst the thatch. This prevented sand blowing away, provided shelter for the seedlings, conserved soil moisture and added humus when it rotted.
Our archive film of Culbin details early attempts at planting and the success of thatching the dunes.
New forest was planted in ‘compartments’ of around 20 to 30 acres. The compartments make it easier to manage the forest and the clear strips between gave access; these also acted as fire breaks (and many eventually became roads/tracks). ‘Brashing’ – removing the lower branches of the trees to head height – also improves access and these branches are used for thatching the sand as planting continues eastwards.
1937 - 38
Hill 99 is planted with Corsican Pine after some of the first thatching. Planting gradually moves west to east, so that the newest plantations were protected from the prevailing westerly winds.
Large area of forest destroyed by fire, its ash adding to the nutrients in the soil on replanting. Planting ceased during WWII as area taken over for military exercises.
Thatching process withstands a big storm on 31 January and there is little damage to seedlings.
Replanting with thatching completed, although some areas remain so exposed that trees still do not grow properly. The stabilising, planting and maintenance work provides 50 full time local jobs.
Our archive film of Culbin highlights the employment benefits the establishment of the forest brought to the area.
Ecology of the area now utterly transformed by the new forestry. Some are sorry to see the loss of ‘Britain’s Desert’: however, later natural evolution of Culbin provides unexpected compensation as the extraordinary landscape and species here are recognised internationally.