THE CULBIN SANDS
(Extracts from a lecture delivered in the Mechanics' Hall, Forres, by Mr. Martin from Elgin)
Two hundred years ago there was a very fertile and well-cultivated estate on the southern shore of the Moray Firth, (two or three miles to the north-west of the town of Forres). It was known as the barony of Culbin (locally pronounced Coo-been). Amidst the various farms of which the property was composed, stood a well-built mansion in which the owner dwelt; and close by was an extensive orchard, rich in fruit-bearing trees. The family then in possession was distinguished among the gentry of the neighbourhood, and was connected, by Blood or marriage, with some of the leading nobility of Scotland. Surrounded by a flourishing tenantry, and rejoicing in a fair estate of many hundred acres, it seemed as if nothing could be more secure than the position which the family of Culbin was privileged to enjoy; but a few years brought utter ruin, not only on the owner, but on the greater portion of those who farmed his ground. In 1694 the proprietor, driven from house, and lands, had to petition Parliament for relief from taxes, which the complete destruction of his property had rendered him totally unable to pay. The once lovely spot had by that time become a waste howling wilderness of sand. Where once the ploughman whistled and merry reapers sang; where once verdant fields were clothed with lowing herds and bleating flocks, or else waving in autumnal days with seas of golden grain, there have been, for more than one hundred and seventy years, nought but hills and plains and valleys of ceaselessly shifting sand, as barren, for the most part, as the sea-beaten shore.
For some generations, this ocean of sand has covered considerably more than the barony of Culbin. Its extent is now fully seven miles long by two miles broad. In the loveliest summer day it is a peculiarly dreary place, and the attempt to cross it is felt to be exceedingly toilsome. You reach a height at which you have been aiming, and find that a broad valley stretches out before you, ending in another hill, higher, apparently, than that on which you are perched. You push on, perspiring from every pore, and your feet sinking some inches at every step. At length, half-blinded by the glare, you stand upon the top of the little eminence up which you have just been struggling, only to find a repetition of the same weary scene, and heights beyond heights stretching away in the distance, and giving no encouragement to advance.
But vastly more dreary and desolate is this locality, when a wild wintry wind is blowing. Then the whitish-coloured dry sand flows along the surface, with a continuity and a force resembling the movement of an immense river. Over hill and along vale it rushes, pouring down from the heights as if it were a waterfall, and rolling up and over heights further on, not seeking any lower level, but going over the hills as easily as along the plains. Such a sight I beheld in the winter of 1867. To make one's way across the flood of sand, even for a little distance, was no easy task. Into eyes, and ears, and nostrils, it poured. It beat upon the skin like small hail, and completely impregnated the clothing. Our company were glad to beat a speedy retreat, carrying with us new ideas of the awful desolation which reigned around, and of the terrible instrumentalities which the Almighty Creator has always under complete control.
Never had more magnificent crops promised to reward the labours of the husbandman, than those which decked the barony of Culbin in the autumn of 1686. The earliest grain upon the most westerly farm was now ready for the sickle. As was the custom of the times, the farmer called friends and neighbours together to a feast, intending to begin his harvest next morning in his most westerly field, which was crowned with a crop of barley of extraordinary richness. A large number of strangers assembled, and partook: with the family and servants of the tenant, of the dainties which had been liberally provided;. while the host, encouraged by the promise of such bountiful crops, was more than usually elated, and more than usually earnest in pressing his hospitalities on all. The hours passed joyfully and quickly, and it was far in the night ere the company broke up. A perfect calm reigned in the atmosphere. As friend after friend shook hands with their entertainer, the plain rang with jocund laugh and cheery farewell. Scarcely one had any misgiving as to the weather of the morrow; and none could, in his wildest dreams, have fancied the dire calamity which was impending.
Not an hour had passed, after all was quiet in the house and farm-yard, till a change came. The merry-makers had retired to rest to refresh themselves for the pleasant labours of the coming day. Gusty blasts began to play ever and anon around the chimney-tops. Uncertainly, and at ever diminishing intervals, these whirling winds came at first; but ere long a hurricane from the west was heard raging without, which awoke the soundest sleeper, and made the strongest quail with terror. For hours it roared and raged, while the inmates of this and every house in the district crouched pale with fear in the quietest corner of their dwellings, not knowing but the next blast might hurl down the building, and crush them to death in the ruins. It appeared as if the dreadful night would never pass; but a perceptible diminution of the fury of the storm was at length observed; and gradually it fell as it had risen, till comparative quiet was restored, and the terror-stricken began to think of looking abroad. It was now full day, and the farmer and his men set out for the barley field. But lo! what was waving yesterday with yellow grain was now a great heap of dry sea sand, with only a few heads of the crop here and there showing themselves above the desolation. Several fields around were devastated more or less in a similar manner; and the poor husbandman, overwhelmed by the sudden calamity, could gather only a miserable handful, where yesterday he had promise, sure as earth could give, of a rich reward.
Great heaps of sand had for many years been gathering on the shore of the Moray Firth, at some distance to the west of the property of Culbin. The unexampled and sirocco-like tempest, which visited the shore during that awful night, had caught up the sand, dried by weeks of ceaseless sunshine, and hurled it along as a flood on the doomed spot. And thereafter, year by year, the storms which came from the west drove on those desolating wave, until farm after farm, house after house, the mansion of the laird and the cottage of the ploughman, were whelmed in one fell destruction. In ten years from the first onslaught, the Barony of Culbin, once so beauteous and fertile, was covered with the ever-shifting and yet never-decreasing desolation, which renders it such a dreary spot. Constantly do the winds carry away, as in a stream, a portion of its surface into the sea; but as constantly do the western shores of the Firth yield a new supply, which the winds drift onwards to make up for what has been removed. The sand-hills are unceasingly changing, according to the atmospherical currents to which they are subjected. Where there is a hill today, there may be a valley in a week, but, though changeable almost as the sea, the sandflood, like the sea, continues to cover the territory, over which, more than a hundred and seventy years ago, it assumed such a disastrous dominion.