Here I am, living in what was a vibrant fishing town on the wild North Sea coast in Scotland. I’ve been here now over five years and it seems that every day I learn something new about this hidden part of Scotland. People travel through Angus on their way to ‘somewhere else in Scotland’. If only they knew what a hidden gem they are missing.
I’ve discovered it’s a place that accepts people and welcomes them as it has done over hundreds of years. On wild, wet and windy days, you can sense the history in the red sand stone walls of the houses – stone stolen over the ages by the townspeople from the ruined Abbey on the hillside. The very Abbey where the Declaration of Independence was written almost 600 years ago.
Arbroath is a town that has many unexpected and surprising qualities. Friends make the six hour train journey from London along a magnificent coastline and as they step off the train they visibly relax and start to breathe more gently. They look up at the huge skies and I can see the magic of the place begins to work on them.
It’s a magic that starts with the ever changing ocean. The majestic seas that batter the coast sending spray rattling down the windows of my cottage; crashing waves that pound over the harbour walls making the boats rock violently on their moorings. Without warning, there are days where the light shimmers on a sea that is like a mill pond but, even then, the silhouette of the Bell Rock Lighthouse on the far horizon continues to flash.
Arbroath has two distinct harbours. The outer one is home to the handful of small inshore fishing boats that still work the crails and bring in the lobsters and crabs. Sadly these days the lively crustaceans are almost all whisked away by air to Spain. The inner harbour, which fell into disrepair after the demise of the fishing industry, has been transformed with EEC support into an attractive, small marina. Here keen amateur sailors enjoy messing about on their yachts and occasionally setting sail throught the lock gates into the North Sea.
Close by on Old Shore Head, my wee 300 year old cottage with its dark blue door, nestles at the Fit o’ the Toon (Foot of the Town). This area was once a bustling community of fisher folk mending their nets and baiting lines with a thousand live mussels on every line. Now the lifeboat crew and locals still gather at the old Commercial Inn and talk about what’s going on in the town.
A mile away the magic continues with a backdrop of cliffs equal to Australia’s Great Ocean Road. The well maintained cliff path takes you close to the edge where far below you can see local fishermen perched precariously on dangerous outcrops, casting their lines for haddock and cod. Tales abound of smugglers, illegal immigrants living in caves in the cliff face, beached whales, unexploded mines and even a cargo of grapefruit washed up on the rocks after a shipwreck.
Here you can fly your kites on isolated ‘Chariot of Fire’ beaches whilst gulls swoop down to investigatetthem. Ot yu can watch the local wild salmon fishermen drive their small tractors to the nets they have previously ‘pegged out’ on the beaches. As the tide goes out, these Herculean fishermen wade into the sea and gather the still-thrashing salmon, caught in the huge anchored nets.
In the town itself the ancient abbey presides on a hillside . The sun filters through its great O shaped window; an O that has guided many storm weary sailors to safety over the years.
If this once bustling fishing town has lost its industry, it still retains a world wide reputation for a local delicacy – the Smokie. A Smokie is a locally caught haddock, gutted and smoked according to various family recipes in the traditional Smoke House. Believe me there is nothing to equal a warm and succulent Smokie after a day out on the cliffs. (And, for those who enjoy battered fish and chips, there is even a local chip shop that batters the Smokie.)
Arbroath is a town of surprises. Look beyond the fish and chips, ice creams,playgrouds and charity shops and you’ll discover the local art gallery has two original Peter Brueghel paintings hanging on the walls. A reminder of Arbroath’s former wealthy and philanthropic residents.
it’s an mazing town. Scratch the surface and there’s a wealth of experience available at every turn. Within a year. I’d learned to fly-fish with my grandson and been taught the art of water divining by Tom, a ninety-year old farmer who many years ago regularly used the skill to find water up in the hills for his sheep.
Fisherfolk, farmers and artists, all in different ways have shared their gossip, wisdom, experiences and history. with me. One day as I cleaned the brass numbers on my blue front door a man walking his dog greeted me with the surprising line “I was born in your wee cottage”. It was true. His family had lived in my house for generations. He and his parents had lived on the ground floor and his grandparents on the first floor. He remembered his grandfather playing the harmonium in the attic whilst his grandmother cooked soup in a big black cauldron over an open fire in what is now my bedroom. He looked at my small walled garden full of herbs and runner beans with a patio and sun loungers in front of the old smoke house and said “This was a yard with an outside ‘privy’ Down there by the smoke house is where the women prepared the nets and baited the lines with theb mussels for the men on the boats “. I was hooked.
As the winter weather continues I think about the harsh conditions endured by the families who lived here over the decades. As I close my front door I appreciate the warmth of the central heating, the glow of my living room fire and settle down to enjoy my fish supper.