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Culbin Sands from the air showing a sandy spit formation. (Credit: © Highland Council Historic Environment Record/ Dave Shillabeer)
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The Culbin Sands

By Melissa Davies

This story belongs to a ten-part series of stories gifted by Nairn Museum. Many thanks to Melissa Davies, the director of Nairn Museum, for kindly gifting these stories to the Spirit: Stories archive.

The Culbin Sands on the Moray coast is now a haven for wildlife and an area of natural beauty, but at one time it was home to a farming township which vanished in a sandstorm in 1694.

A large tract of land around Culbin formed part of the Kinnaird Estate. Coastal dune marram grass, which kept the sand dunes in place, was used to thatch the roofs of the houses. Its removal caused the dunes to gradually become unstable and winds to blow the sands inland, ruining fertile land, fields, orchards and gardens. Eventually, disaster struck with a great sandstorm which destroyed and completely engulfed the farms and buildings. The wind continued to blow the sand eastwards for several days, blocking the estuary of the river Findhorn and changing the course of the river to the east away from the Old Bar. Kinnaird Estate was abandoned in 1695. During the 19th century, local estates began planting trees around the area and in 1922, the Forestry Commission started to plant trees and dune grass to help stabilise the sand.

In the past, a superstitious society would have sought ways to account for this 'divine retribution' and there are many myths and legends relating to the great storm. Some saw the storm as a punishment for whisky smuggling or even playing cards on a Sunday. The Kinnaird Estate comprised of a large house, a church, acres of fertile lands, crofters cottages and many farms. It is said that a great dune called The Armoury once lay over the smithy, where Rob the Smith was reputed to have engaged in warlocky and made 'elf bolts'.

One legend suggests that the storm was brought on by a curse as young Kinnaird had condemned some local women for witchcraft. He had also disregarded the Sabbath while he was playing cards late into Saturday night. He insisted on playing past midnight, and despite warning, boasted that he would play with the devil himself. There was a great clap of thunder and the Devil appeared. The game went on for so long that Kinnaird was unaware of the sands engulfing the estate. Another story was that the sandstorm was a punishment to the locals for hiding smugglers amongst the dunes.

As the sands continued to shift over the years, it is said that a dovecot was revealed as well as a chapel and parts of a manor house. The chimney of this house was once uncovered and a brave local boy shouted down it only to receive a ghostly reply which frightened him so much that he ran away as fast as he could. Was it a ghostly former inhabitant or just an an echo? There is another local tale that as the sands continued shifting, the top branches of the trees in the Laird's orchard were revealed, and they blossomed and bore fruit.

Perhaps over the years, more of Culbin's past will be revealed. Many generations of antiquarians and collectors have visited Culbin and various objects have been discovered, including flint tools, prehistoric burial evidence, shell middens, bronze buckles, and needles and pins, finds from the medieval estate through to modern times. There are also the remains of a crashed WW2 fighter jet.

In 2011, Nairn Museum held an exhibition, 'Culbin Sands: prehistory to present', put together by the local community and museum volunteers, demonstrating some of the archaeological finds from activity here over thousands of years, including some artefacts from the Museum.

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