408 - 362 million years ago
The old red sandstone which forms much of the seabed and shoreline of the Moray Firth is laid down during a warm period of evolution - when fish are beginning to grow legs and the first spiders are appearing on land.

Effects of the last ice age

18,000 - 12,500 years ago
Sand and gravel from glaciers are deposited in the firth during melting of ice in the last Ice Age.  Wind, waves and currents shape and grind the deposits into shingle and moving sandbanks.

7,500 years ago
The melting ice causes changes of up to 5.5m in sea levels which in turn leads to varying heights of shingle ridge pushed inland by the highest tides. The sea then retreats, leaving the shingle ridges high and dry.  At this time the backbone of Culbin is formed from a complex of these shingle ridges all driven along the beaches westwards, growing as a hooked bar over the mouth of the river Findhorn.  

5,500 years ago
As the Culbin bar system grows westwards, it also deflects the mouth of the Findhorn westwards so that the river flows to the south of present-day Culbin.  As the sea level falls, blown sand begins to accumulate among the shingle ridges, the beginnings of the dune system.  Slowly then, over many thousands of years, scrub takes root and in places a thick soil forms between the ridges.

Recent history

Pont’s earliest map of the area shows the river Findhorn as flowing westwards with a long single bar along its seaward side (so basically the Nairn and Culbin bars are one).  These moving coastal bars often shift during storms and high tides to trap the Findhorn, and are now forcing it to change its course west and parallel to the coast.

Nairn town council forbids the cutting of seaside turf for house-building, middens and fuel, so there is already concern about coastal erosion and sand movement.

Earliest references to Culbin’s sand blowing: this would tie in with the removal of turf (see above) and marram grass for roofing in this period.  This seems to have been combined with a period of stormy weather.

The shifting sands of Culbin finally completely bury the ‘barony’ of Culbin, forcing its inhabitants out.

Our archive film of Culbin tells the story of the end of the estate.

Huge waves, rain-swollen river action and shingle driven by the tide cause a break through the bar, giving the river Findhorn direct access to the sea once more.

The coastal ridges are constantly moving as the sea tries to reclaim the sand and shingle.  This is carried westwards by ‘longshore drift’ and inland by westerly gales.

The first recorded attempt at planting trees at Culbin (Grant of Kincorth plants belts of Scots pine and broadleaves) is driven by a desire to improve the look of his lands rather than by profit.

An academic named Murdoch calculates that there are 50,000,000 tons of sand in Culbin’s dune system - no-one has yet disproved this!
Geological survey pictures of Culbin show a dune-based landscape with some scrub vegetation and some limited areas of planting where individual landowners are trying to stabilise the sand.

1914 - 18:  The First World War
As elsewhere, logging takes place to support the war effort and so some plantation trees are felled and the sands shift again.

The Forestry Commission begins to buy Culbin land and spends the first ten years replanting the wartime fellings.

Our archive film of Culbin outlines early attempts at planting and the steps taken to establish the forest.

1939 - 45: Second World War
Tree plantings are suspended when Culbin is taken over for military manoeuvres.

Planting recommences, with early marram grass stabilisation being replaced by planting seedlings among a thatch of smaller tree-branches, from west to east.  This shelters the seedlings but also provides a small amount of nutrients and useful fungi as it rots down.

Our archive film of Culbin explains how thatching the sand dunes was successful and helped establish the forest we see today.

1946 - 54
Trials of different species of tree take place at Culbin: European and Japanese larch fails entirely, Monterey and maritime pine (native to the Mediterranean) find the climate too harsh, lodgepole pine is successful but not widely planted at Culbin, and native Scots pine is the most widely-planted species of all, surviving even when only the very top of the tree protrudes above the shifting sand.  The mature trees which survive from these species trials can be seen at Culbin today.

Ovington, a dune scientist, calculates that the largest dune, Lady Culbin, is still shifting by 6.5cm/day over a six-week period of recording.  This sand movement continues during planting, creating a strange tapering effect in the tree-trunks growing here.

The most easterly planting at Culbin (on the largest dunes opposite Findhorn Bay) is completed.

Read more about Culbin's human timeline.

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