The Moray Firth, it might just be coastal perfection…
The Scottish coastline from Inverness to Peterhead at first might seem a little tame to those who love the fjord-like dramatics of the west coast, but with picturesque harbour villages, waves crashing over towering sea cliffs, huge swathes of beach, incredible changing light and not forgetting a famous soup… after recently spending a week exploring the Moray Firth, it might just be my new favourite part of Scotland.
What to do on the Moray Firth
The Moray Firth is Scotland’s largest firth (sea inlet in Scots) stretching all the way from John O’Groats on the very north coast of Scotland to Peterhead in the east. Much of the Moray Firth coastline has long been part of the North Coast 500, but the southern edge of the firth has been much more untouched by tourism.
Now part of a new initiative, the North East 250, whether you want to go dolphin spotting, sailing, or walking the Coastal Trail, exploring the Moray coast is about to become top of your Scotland list. From Morayshire to Banffshire, here is how to explore the Moray Firth.
Where to stay on the Moray Firth
- Culbin Edge is a dog friendly cabin near Forres with a fabulous wood fired hot tub
- Lochanshelloch Cottage (sleeps 6) is 30 mins from Findhorn, perfect for exploring the western part of the Moray Coast.
- Saplinbrae Hotel and Lodges is located in the heart of Aberdeenshire and 30 mins south of Gardenstown and Crovie.
- Meldrum House Hotel is just 40 minutes south of the Moray Coast and offers up country house hotel style
Get a view: Culbin Forest and Hill 99
Culbin Forest stretches 8 miles between Nairn and Forres. Explore the sandy forest trails to reach the spectacular Hill 99 viewpoint tower for a 360 view over the forest and the Moray Firth. If you are feeling more energetic, walk through the forest to the coast – visit the Gut, a muddy bay home to wading and water-birds, or right out to Findhorn Bay for a view across to the village. Visit Culbin Forest.
Walk: Findhorn and Hopeman Beaches
Most famous for its off-grid eco-community (The Findhorn Foundation) and nearby RAF Kinloss, Findhorn also has a spectacular (but windswept) 7-mile beach. The village sits at the mouth of the River Findhorn, which has formed a beautiful bay ringed by mudflats and sand dunes – we spotted a colony of grey seals basking out on the sand! Follow the coastal path to the village of Burghead at the other end of the bay (stop here for lunch!) and then walk to Hopeman with its row of pretty beach huts. Read more: our Findhorn to Hopeman walk.
Eat: the Bothy Bistro at Burghead
With a bistro menu that offers up a selection of fancy pieces (Scots for sandwiches) fish n chips, hog roasts and decadent crab and chilli mac & cheese, this is a Moray Firth restaurant worth making a detour for. We went for a lunch of small plates – dirty fries (parsley, paprika, chilli & cheese) a wild mushroom bruschetta, amazing pasta nachos with an arrabbiata dip (this was a brilliant dish – so unique) and carrot and onion bhajis – but I wanted to try everything on the menu. The Bothy Burghead also do evening meals – I’d love to go back! Highly recommended.
Visit: the seaside resort of Lossiemouth
What was once three villages – Branderburgh at the harbour, Seatown, and Stotfield – now forms the settlement of Lossiemouth sitting at the mouth of the River Lossie. Home to a yachting marina, a large harbour and lots of local services, there are incredible views over to the spit of East Beach – reached by a wee bridge across the river. To the west of Lossiemouth is West Beach with Covesea Skerries Lighthouse at its end.
Spot: Dolphins at Spey Bay
The Moray Firth is famous for its dolphin population – it is estimated that around 130 Bottlenose Dolphins live in the waters off Inverness and Morayshire. The best place to see the dolphins mucking around is Chanonry Point on the Black Isle north of Inverness, but they can be seen all along the coast including at Spey Bay where there is also the Scottish Dolphin Centre.
The best time to see Dolphins is on an incoming/rising tide which brings in the food for the dolphins. Either try and spot them from the land (don’t forget your binoculars) or take a boat trip out onto the Moray Firth with North 58 who do dolphin watching trips. You might also be lucky enough to spot Orcas too!
Photo stop: Portknockie and Bow Fiddle Rock
The star of many an Instagram shot, Bow Fiddle Rock is a humongous arch rock formation just to the north of the seaside town of Portknockie. Does it look like an elephant or a whale to you? Read more: a lovely walk to Bow Fiddle Rock from Cullen
Eat: Cullen Skink, at Cullen
What must be Scotland’s most famous soup, Cullen Skink wasn’t always made with smoky fish and cream. In fact, skink originally meant a soup made of beef knuckle. The story goes that at the turn of the century in northern Scotland times were a little hard and beef scrapings were hard to come by on the Moray Coast. What Cullen did have was loads of fish – smoked haddock to be precise – and Cullen’s own version of skink was born.
The Cullen Skink recipe might be pretty simple (potato, onion, smoked haddock, bay leaves, chicken stock, cream and black pepper) but the title of Queen of Cullen Skink is still hotly contested annually in Cullen. Try Cullen Skink at the Rockpool Cafe. Leaving Morayshire behind and heading into Banffshire the Moray Firth coastline becomes rockier and the villages become even more precariously placed – in fact, they look like they are hugging the coast for dear life!
Visit: Small boats, pirates and a great pub at Portsoy
Boasting the oldest harbour on the Moray Coast (much of what was built in 1692 remains) Portsoy is possibly my favourite of the Moray Firth villages. Portsoy is thought to mean Saithe (fish) Harbour – and even though we visited on a windswept Autumn day – you can just imagine the harbour bustling with people and boats. Whilst the salmon and herring industry has moved on to Aberdeen and Peterhead, the Portsoy fishing heritage is still celebrated at the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, which takes place each year in June.
The Festival isn’t Portsoy’s only claim to fame – the village is also famous for its quarried red and green marble (actually serpentine, a magnesium silicate) and for its delicious Portsoy ice cream and the harbour represented the main village of Todday in the 2006 remake of Whisky Galore! As the wind was blowing a hoolie we sheltered in Portsoy’s great harbour pub – the friendly Shore Inn.
Visit: Macduff Marine Aquarium
The Marine Aquarium at MacDuff isn’t just a stopping point on the Moray Coast if the weather isn’t on your side (or you just need to entertain the kids for a couple of hours) but a lovely traditional attraction in its own right. Telling the story of the Moray Firth habitats, the aquarium has a unique kelp reef, daily talks and touch shows, as well as some greedy stingrays! Tickets for the MacDuff Marine Aquarium are Adult: £7.25 and Child aged 3-4: £2.90 – and are valid all day so you can come and go for the shows.
Photo stop: Gamrie – Gardenstown and Crovie
The Banffshire villages which make up Gamrie – Gardenstown and Crovie – are probably the most picturesque of the Moray Firth villages – and a popular spot for photos of the traditional fishing cottages hugging the coast. Gardenstown has a lovely 19th Century Harbour and Crovie has no road – the cottages are only accessed by foot. If you want to take the popular shot of Crovie there is a car park at the top of the village with a good viewpoint of the string of cottages below.
Sadly most of the Crovie cottages are now holiday homes, which does leave a rather ghostly feel to the place. Gardenstown is a wee bit more bustling! Tip – don’t drive out along the sea wall at Gardenstown – it is a rather precarious proposition. There is a car park to your right at the bottom of the hill.
Visit: the most famous red telephone box in the world
With a row of cottages built end on to face the wind, Pennan is at first sight little different to nearby Gardenstown and Crovie, but visitors come to this wee village for one thing – the cult Scottish film about an oil company trying to buy an Aberdeenshire Village. Lined with washing poles, a traditional hotel, and a harbour, you can see why Pennan was chosen to represent the a-typical Scottish seaside village in Local Hero. The red phone box was actually a prop for the movie and was removed after filming. An outcry led to the phone box being returned – although it is in a slightly different location.
How to get to the moray firth
The Moray Firth Coast starts at Inverness and passes through Morayshire and Banffshire to Peterhead.
The Moray Firth is best accessed by car but there are train stations at Elgin and Forres. Book your train tickets with trainline.com.
Stagecoach run the local buses – get a Dayrider Ticket for the Moray Coast or Banffshire Area.
By car, the western part of the Moray Firth is accessed by the A96 Inverness to Aberdeen and the eastern part by the A98 to Peterhead.
I’d make the Moray Firth home in a heartbeat. Wouldn’t you?
Love, from Scotland x
I’m Kate – a travel writer and photographer living in Scotland. Love, From Scotland is the Scotland travel guide that shows you where to stay and how to get outside in Scotland.