Inverbervie to Stonehaven
Monday 17 April 2023
31.32km • 8h (including breaks)
lowest: -2m • highest: 136m • total ascent 707m
I’d built this day up in my head so long because I’d been away from the walk for months, and I knew I was coming back to more or less a day of road walking, which I don’t love. I kept looking at the route and trying to will a way through on the cliff tops. There are a handful of people who have put their routes online and have picked along some questionably narrow bits of land between a fence and a drop-off, but I know where my limits are for that sort of thing. It’s hard to know what to expect when you read someone else’s account because you don’t know how comfortable that person is with a knife edge.
I kept having to tell myself to stop thinking of it as a bit I had to get through. There are definitely parts of this that are better than others, but that is rarely about the state of the actual coastline. Sometimes you can’t get there. Or sometimes the weather is terrible. Or sometimes you’re just having a shitty day. The stretch of coast from Inverbervie to Stonehaven is incredible, but the access to it is not. It’s still something to do though.
I got a fairly quiet, early train to Stonehaven. The weather leaving Edinburgh was a bit misty and the Forth was flat and glassy, but once we went north of Dundee, we entered a cloud. I had my coffee and a cinnamon bun from Kvasa and an audiobook, so I tried to enjoy the sitting while it lasted.
I had to get to a bus stop in Stonehaven that was about 15 minutes walk from the station, for a bus that left 16 minutes from when my train arrived (how does this shit happen?), and not again for another hour. It wasn’t the end of the world if I didn’t make it, but I really wanted to try, so I as close as possible to ran down (thankfully) the hill and I managed to step onto the bus about 30 seconds before it pulled away. 15 minutes later, I was stepping off in Inverbervie, fully immersed in the mist.
I set off down towards the beach and over a footbridge on the river where I proceeded up a very boggy hill. My feet were soaked immediately (to which in my head I bellowed ‘Welcome back to walking in Scotland, sucker!’). I must have scraped the back of my calf on some gorse because I noticed some minor irritant pain, but I assumed it was a nettle sting and soon forgot about it while concentrating on the task at hand. Only 8 hours later when the water hit my leg in the shower did I realise it was actually quite a large, gnarly-looking scrape that I was surprised could have happened without ripping my trousers. (But then, my trousers are absolutely more bombproof than my leg. The Fjallravens are now proving their worth for the 6th year.) Perhaps this is proof that pain is largely in the mind.
I was trying to find the first critical bit of the route I wanted to take around the farm buildings halfway up this hill then on to the fence line around some radio towers, but the only way I could see was completely overgrown with brambles, and I wasn’t fighting my way through that. So I had a look at the map and went back down the hill.
One of my primary goals for the day was to stay off the A92 at all costs, because it’s horrible, let alone dangerous. I knew I’d have to walk a bunch of roads, but I wanted to stick to minor ones and farm tracks. I was now worried I was going to fail at the first hurdle because I needed a way around this hill to get to the first minor road I knew I had to take. But back at the edge of town, I spotted a low fence line at the edge of a farm field that ran up to the high fences around the radio towers and decided to go for it.
I made my way up the hill slowly, very happy that I wasn’t trying to find a bit of grass verge on the road, which I could see to my left. At the top, I followed a track around the radio tower fences. There was a big herd of sheep grazing up there, and they ran away as I approached, but when I rounded the corner of the fence and my back was to them, they all came back and tentatively followed me for a while. This has never happened before and it was hilarious. I’d stop and turn around to look at them and they’d stop and look at me questioningly. Then I’d keep going and they’d tentatively follow. Usually sheep just get spooked and go away, as they did for the rest of the day when I came anywhere near them, even when they were on the other side of a fence. There were a lot of lambs about, so it makes sense, but these guys up the hill were lamb-less and curious.
I got to the minor road, which was also part of National Cycle Route 1, and trodded along. I could still at least see the sea at some points. I also met a hilarious squad of ducks along the way. My first goal was to get down to Todhead lighthouse. It was a good spot to pick around the outcrops into the sea and have lunch, and my first taste of the sheer volume of seabirds that hang out on the cliffs.
One of my more conscious goals is to be able to identify the stuff I see on this walk, starting with the birds and the seaweed, but including all other animals and plants. I have a long way to do it and I should really understand more about the environment I’m in in a more detailed way than, ‘that’s cool’.
I’ve been surprised to realise I know more of the birds than I thought I did. This is probably because I live near the sea, and I also really like ducks (who doesn’t?). There’s room for improvement though. I finally got myself the little Collins Gem Seashore guide to carry with me. I’ve got apps, but I like having a little book more.
My task as I sat eating lunch was to see if I could tell the difference between the Herring Gull and the Lesser Black-Backed Gull. They look VERY similar. I’m used to gulls being all up in my business if there’s food about (apparently the bold chip-stealers are more likely Herring Gulls), so I thought this would be a good game. But here, where I assume very few people eat their lunch, I was ignored by the birds. They’ve got better things to do. Or maybe they just don’t expect a sandwich out here. They kept to flying around over the water and hanging out on the cliffs, and it was harder to see the differences in their backs in the overcast weather. I could spot the Fulmars though.
Unfortunately, it was just about exactly high tide, so I wasn’t going to be able to scramble around too far on the little beach down below the lighthouse. If I could have, it may have been possible to make it around to the next farm track that way. The cliff-top was just too narrow for me. I went halfway down to the beach just to have a look, but ultimately ended up heading back out the farm track the way I came in to get back to the road that would take me to Catterline.
Because it was Monday, the pub in Catterline was closed, or else it would have been a nice pint stop. I had a look at the bay but didn’t go down into it because I knew I’d just have to climb back out, and I still had a significant amount of walking to do, so I went back out the road and continued on towards RSPB Fowlsheugh.
There’s a great path along the tops of the cliffs of the reserve here, and it was really nice to be walking along the actual sea again. I’ve never seen (or smelled) so many seabirds so close. The cliffs are absolutely covered in them and their shit, and there are so many birds flying about in the little bays and inlets it just looks like swarms of white bugs from a short distance away. The noise and the smell are overwhelming, and not easily captured in any crappy iPhone photo or video. Unfortunately, I did not spot any nesting puffins, but I saw loads of other things.
I walked all the way to the end of the reserve-managed path where there is a very nice bird hide. It was unexpectedly unlocked, so I went in and had a seat for a bit. It’s pretty weather tight so you can’t actually hear the birds anymore once you’re inside, which is impressive considering how loud they are. From there, there is technically a path all the way to Dunottar Castle. Or there used to be anyway. It’s not maintained, so it was unclear how passable it would be. I wanted to have a go at following it so I decided I’d go as far as I was still comfortable and if I ran into a bit that made me feel like I’d plummet to my death, I’d just turn around. I was hoping that wouldn’t happen, but about 1k into my exploration, I got to a bit of clifftop along the farm fence that was just too risky looking. You never know these things until you get right on top of them though. There were plenty of other places that looked sketchy from far away, but once I was closer, they revealed themselves to be quite tame.
I am acquainted with too many people who have had near misses in life lately, and I also respect the idea of a lack of control enough to know that you at least want to give yourself the best possible circumstances. So when I run up against a very narrow cliff edge, the answer is, without hesitation, ‘Nope’. Even if it means walking back another 3-4km to a blasted road.
It was still worth going out to the reserve. Even if I had come within spitting distance of that castle and hit the danger point then, if I couldn’t find a safe way around, I would have walked back. I’d have been incredibly angry about it and even more tired than I already was, but I’d still be alive and not smashed on a birdshit-smeared cliffside on the North Sea. One likes to avoid these things wherever possible, for everyone’s sake.
So I turned around and went all the way back through the reserve and out to the road, where I had to cross over the main road and onto another farm track. One of the farmers popped her head over the fence when she heard all the noise I was prompting from the sheep and she confirmed I was smart to turn back off the cliff path. It’s always good to get the backing of the locals.
I probably ended up walking double the distance it actually should have been to the castle, and this time there was one bit of the road that was unavoidable because the cycle route which I was still half following ran on it for maybe 300m. There was a shared path for part of it and a wide grass verge for the rest, but it was still unpleasant. And when I got to the turnoff for the castle, there were these two pavements that went from the bus stops to nowhere. It’s like they’ve thought about putting in infrastructure for walkers but then fell asleep on the bus. At least I was back off the road for good now though.
Reaching the castle was a relief because I knew there is a coastal path between it and Stonehaven, which was only another 30-40 minutes away. I was too late to go into the castle ruins, but to be honest I’m happier looking at it. The clouds had cleared up and it was turning into a very nice evening with actual sun and serious magic-hour light. I had a snack and kept walking towards Stonehaven, very much looking forward to a fish supper.
There was a steep path down the hill from the cliffs into the harbour, which I walked around and towards the main beach promenade. I was unfortunately too late for ice cream, which is sad because the ice cream in Stonehaven is excellent. I dropped my things in the hotel and went back out immediately for a few snacks and my fish and chips, which I brought back to the beach to eat while I watched all the dogs run around. Once again, unharassed by birds! I can’t remember ever having eaten chips on a beach without a gull stalking me. Even in the US, I’ve been dive-bombed while eating boardwalk fries.
After dinner it was back to the hotel for a shower and walk admin and reading til I passed out. My little no-frills room was in the roof of a house, and you could just see the sea between the roofs of other buildings through the window. I kept it open all night so I could hear the birds and the water.