Forvie map. 'Sand and Silence' article.

Forvie map. 'Sand and Silence' article.

Forvie map from Scottish Studies Group, University of Aberdeen
Except for the map, all images are © forviemedia, in order as follows:-
Sun setting over the Cotehill Loch
Cotehill Loch, Sands of Forvie, Ythan estuary at Newburgh, eider, Rockend, walking into a blizzard, cliff at Broadhaven, celadines in spring, early Iron Age hut circle, Forvie Kirk, northward from Foveran Links, lichen, smuggler Philip Kennedy's gravestone in Collieston, Riley digging, tree trunk, autumn sunset, windswept moor, seals, frosty morn on Forvie Moor, sunset over the Sand Loch, Menie links.
Article edited and adapted from 'Sand and Silence' (1986) by D.P. Willis © Centre of Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen
Sands of Forvie


SAND and SILENCE

'The wondrous weird and waste tract known as the Sands of Forvie' - William Ferguson of Kinmundy (1881)

Fishing on the Ythan estuary, Newburgh
On the knuckle of North-East Scotland, the river Ythan flows into the grey North Sea. From its inland infancy to its slow meandering among the fertile farmlands of lowland Aberdeenshire, the river has collected the rich dark silt that forms its centuries-old estuarine mudflats. Mussel beds line tidal banks, where eider ducks gather in a life-consuming search for food.
Eider nesting above Ythan estuary
Close by nestles the village of Newburgh-on-Ythan, once the new burgh and outport for the bridging point of Ellon upstream. Newburgh, Ellon and Collieston are now commuter settlements for Aberdeen to the south.

Across the Ythan’s fertile ooze, where piping oystercatchers follow the ebb tide and beyond the bustle of the village, there lies a world of sand and silence and an ancient lost settlement.
Forvie Sands from Rockend

Hemmed in by the river on one side and the open sea on the other, the peninsula of Forvie is an inviting place on a warm summer’s day when sandwich terns scream above the dunes at the Ythan’s mouth and grouse cocks boldly proclaim their territories from heathery tussocks.
Walking in a blizzard.
But when the force of an easterly gale rips at the very roots of the anchoring bent grass and spume flies in across the moor, Forvie becomes a place transformed. At these wild times, it is hard to think that such a forbidding place could ever have been home to a community of people. Forvie’s landscape still bears the marks of the folk who knew the moor in all its varying moods.
Cliff at North Broadhaven
Celandines in spring

The story of the earliest human interest is written not in stone foundations, but in midden heaps of shells that line the Ythan’s shore. From these remains we may conjure up a shadowy picture of an ancient race travelling the sea-road of the north, and making landfall wherever conditions seemed most favourable. The sheltered river mouth of the Ythan was such a place. The fact that such remains were interbedded with layers of blown sand is itself a commentary on the uncertain and changing nature of this coastal environment, and a pointer to the difficulty that man has had to contend with through time. It had long been guessed that the interior of Forvie Moor might once also have been the site of more extensive prehistoric settlement. Sharp-eyed visitors frequently chance upon flint flakes and even arrow heads among the sand. While flint is commonly associated with more southerly places, early North-East man did have access to a local supply of the material in a low ridge running across the flat plain of Buchan. The numerous antiquarian naturalists of the last century found little else to augment their meagre knowledge of the ancient history of Forvie.
Iron Age hut circle, Forvie Nature Reserve

During 1951 and 1952, a substantial movement of sand uncovered an unexpected assemblage of late Bronze Age - early Iron Age hut circles, the material remains of a prehistoric village community. Such a find was clearly of considerable local interest and a team from the University of Aberdeen, guided by Dr Douglas Simpson began an examination of the site. From this investigation William Kirk of the Geography Department was able to reconstruct a picture of “a small community cultivating the light sandy soils near their circular homesteads, grinding their own grain in stone querns, pasturing sheep, pigs and oxen, adding to their diet by hunting deer in the interior and fishing in the estuary, and possessing a dry site within easy reach of water and a copious supply of raw materials such as flint”.
Forvie Kirk

Writing in New Statistical Account, the parish minister observed that “the foundation of the Old Kirk of Forvie is still visible, being the only vestige throughout the whole sands, commonly called the links, which indicates that this district was once the habitation of man. Graves have been discovered around it, but nothing found in them except a few bones”. Locating the site was not easy, as William Ferguson’s account relates:- “We crossed in search of the ruins of the Old Kirk, but though we had found it on former visits, this time we failed to do so, it is so wonderfully hidden among the sandhills near the shore. It is a wild and lonely scene - no human being visible except perhaps along one beaten pathway on the horizon a long train of fishermen and fisherwomen, returning from a six mile tramp to the estuary, laden with mussels and lobworms for bait. This track lies along the western verge of the sands and when you leave it, even for a few yards, you are in the heart of a wide solitude, the haunt of great coveys of grouse and innumerable rabbits”

Today, one of the joys of a visit to Forvie is contact with its abundant wildlife, and there is no reason to suggest that things were not always so. In the past such natural resources were there for the harvesting, whether in the form of nesting birds and their eggs or the small dark summer fruits of crowberry. There has also been a long continuity of interest in fishing, for the site of the village lies two miles south of the old fishing settlement of Collieston. It seems to have been well positioned for a dual economy, based both on land and sea. Sitting as it does almost hidden beside a small burn deeply downcut into the sand and underlying red glacial till, the ruined kirk is today a scant memorial to the life and times of the folk who worked the rigs around it, and worshipped within its walls. It was inevitable that such a lonely and poignant reminder of a long lost village should have intrigued the generations of visitors who experienced Forvie’s “weird feeling of profound solitude”.

Some shift in the pattern of distribution of the sand must have taken the life from that community of folk, but when and why are questions that are difficult to answer. Local legend asserted that the 18th August 1413 was a day to remember along the North-East coast, a day when a fierce easterly gale blocked the mouth of the River Don in Old Aberdeen with sand. Forvie was said to have succumbed to the moving mass of sand in one fateful blow. A 16th Century ‘preacher of the gospel’ is reputed to have asserted that “the folks of Forvie suffered this heavy judgement because they were Papists and grossly ignorant”. Folklore has also handed down a more romantic interpretation of that fateful act of overblowing by sand. This embodies the notion that such a catastrophic event must surely be the working of some fateful scheme of retribution. Tradition relates that an orphaned heiress - some versions have it that there were three - was duped by a scheming uncle. In order to secure her inheritance for his own wicked ends, the villain of the piece cast the hapless maiden adrift in a boat. As it drifted away from the land, there carried towards the shore a plaintive sound, now embodied in the local traditional folklore stanza:
“If ever madenis Malyson
Ded licht upon drie lande
Let nocht be funde on Forvy’s glebes
But thistle bente and sande”.
From Foveran Links


Though colourful, this curse seems a dubious reason for the overwhelming of Forvie village. In local folklore it probably belongs to that same category of what might be termed “retrospective prophesying'.

In an attempt to shed some more light on the uncertain story of Forvie’s past, a local doctor set to work to excavate the ruined kirk at the end of last century. Brought to the light of day was a piscine, a roughly shaped stone basin used by the celebrant of the holy sacrament. But after this promising find, Forvie was reluctant to yield much more of the true secret of its past. As a result, only a little is known of the history of this kirk among the sand anciently dedicated to St Adamnan. In the 16th Century, however, there is an interesting record of the church of “Furvie” having been given by King James VI to King’s College in Old Aberdeen.

Now encrusted with lichens, the walls of the kirk once enclosed folk who had gathered in the face of an impending environmental catastrophe.
Lichen, Forvie Kirk
In the distance loomed large the towering mounds of sand that were soon to advance and draw a curtain of silence over the entire place. The ruined kirk is not their sole surviving memorial. Here and there the eye may vaguely discern a ground surface faintly etched in patterns of ancient plough rigs, the very life blood of the agricultural community that was fated to perish beneath the suffocating sand. It is clear that these last worshippers were doomed to see their precious lands taken from them, as their homes and kirk were lost from sight beneath an engulfing march of sand. Did things happen in a sudden catastrophic way, or were the signs of impending disaster perhaps obvious long before? One of the greatest features of interest in Forvie for the geographer is what Kenneth Walton saw as the “interplay of physical processes and the changing fortunes of the inhabitants of the coastal area,” and William Kirk considered as human history “being literally interwoven with a story of environmental change”.

The mechanics of mass sand movement suggests that the truth is more likely to lie in some gradual process threatening Forvie over a much longer period. Inevitably the strongest storms would have been capable of the most spectacular movement of loose material, but it is unthinkable that one gale could have resulted in such a remarkably rapid change in the fortunes of the place.

Once the sand movement
Tombstone of smuggler Philip Kennedy, Collieston
was underway, the inexorable march of loose material would have threatened any farmlands that lay in its path. By the 19th Century, the massive shifts of sand had virtually ceased, and the present day pattern had largely been established. In recent times the degree of change has been fairly small, although minor movements along the seaward edge appear to have been something of an inconvenience to the smugglers who plied their trade along Forvie’s coast. At the end of the 19th century, gin hidden among the bents got covered by sand; it remains there to this day. There's also (unexploded) ordnance from military training and shipwrecks. Watch out for metal shells when digging, Riley!
Digging on Forvie Sands

Forvie’s fate in the historical record has been intimately linked with the movements of the sand in which the peninsula is covered. The existence of such vast accumulations of fine sand to accomplish this task should occasion no real surprise when it is remembered that uncontrolled torrents of glacial meltwater once carried an enormous load of ground-down rock to the sea. When subjected to the force of strong winds coming in off the sea, these fine beach deposits, consisting mostly of hard quartz grains, can easily blow inland and in time advance like a dry wave. Thus the history of Forvie landscape is interpreted by geographers in terms of seven dune waves arranged at right angles to the coast. The youngest lies at the peninsula’s southernmost tip, with the landscape becoming progressively older to the north, culminating in the first or oldest ridge that delimits the moor’s northern flank. It is against the background of this dune wave system and its development that the story of human occupation has been enacted.

Tree trunk, Forvie Sands
Forvie Moor - autumn sunset
Windswept moors
Forvie’s heather-clad moor retains only a few last reminders of its vanished past, and the area has survived as an island of unreclaimed moorland that serves to highlight the scale of man’s transformation of the lowland landscape of North-East Scotland. Changing human perception of the value of such an undisturbed area has given Forvie Moor an added value and a new role. Because of its great significance as a sand dune system and as unreclaimed coastal heathland, with all the associated ecological richness, the area was designated the Sands of Forvie National Nature Reserve in 1959. Indeed, it was one of the first such reserves, and two decades later its area was augmented by the addition of the Ythan estuary, a rare example these days of a largely unspoiled and unpolluted estuarine area, one of the finest protected ecological sites in the northern landscape.
Seals at Whinnyfold

In addition to present day attractions, however, Forvie’s fascination for the visitor lies deeply rooted in its past. When the silence of evening falls round the ruins of its ancient kirk the summer cries of nesting seabirds carry on the updraught from the shore and become lost in the loneliness of a place that once resounded to the sounds of a village now silenced by sand.

At such times, against the timeless background dirge of the sea, it is easy to feel that Forvie‘s past and present are somehow mingled as one. And however much we may dismiss the old local tradition of the maiden’s malison as superstitious myth, we cannot but acknowledge that in today’s covering of thistle, bent and sand, nature has achieved her own fulfilment of an ancient prophesy.
Frosty morning - Forvie Moor

Sunset sky over Sand Loch


References:-
Ferguson W (1888) The Sands of Forvie Trans Buchan Field Club Vol 1
Jamieson T F (1865) On Some Remains of the Stone Period in the Buchan District of Aberdeenshire Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
Kirk W (1953) Prehistoric Sites at the Sands of Forvie, Aberdeen University Review
New Statistical Account (1845)
Ferguson W (1901) The Sands of Forvie in The Book of Ellon
Pratt J B (1870) Buchan
Walton K (1966) The Ythan Estuary, Aberdeenshire in Geography as Human Ecology
Dalgarno J (1896) From the Brig o’ Balgownie to the Bullers o’ Buchan
Menie Links




Menie links




Abandoned Communities
Ref:
Date:
Location:
Photographer:
Forvie map. 'Sand and Silence' article.

Forvie map. 'Sand and Silence' article.

Forvie map from Scottish Studies Group, University of Aberdeen
Except for the map, all images are © forviemedia, in order as follows:-
Sun setting over the Cotehill Loch
Cotehill Loch, Sands of Forvie, Ythan estuary at Newburgh, eider, Rockend, walking into a blizzard, cliff at Broadhaven, celadines in spring, early Iron Age hut circle, Forvie Kirk, northward from Foveran Links, lichen, smuggler Philip Kennedy's gravestone in Collieston, Riley digging, tree trunk, autumn sunset, windswept moor, seals, frosty morn on Forvie Moor, sunset over the Sand Loch, Menie links.
Article edited and adapted from 'Sand and Silence' (1986) by D.P. Willis © Centre of Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen
Sands of Forvie


SAND and SILENCE

'The wondrous weird and waste tract known as the Sands of Forvie' - William Ferguson of Kinmundy (1881)

Fishing on the Ythan estuary, Newburgh
On the knuckle of North-East Scotland, the river Ythan flows into the grey North Sea. From its inland infancy to its slow meandering among the fertile farmlands of lowland Aberdeenshire, the river has collected the rich dark silt that forms its centuries-old estuarine mudflats. Mussel beds line tidal banks, where eider ducks gather in a life-consuming search for food.
Eider nesting above Ythan estuary
Close by nestles the village of Newburgh-on-Ythan, once the new burgh and outport for the bridging point of Ellon upstream. Newburgh, Ellon and Collieston are now commuter settlements for Aberdeen to the south.

Across the Ythan’s fertile ooze, where piping oystercatchers follow the ebb tide and beyond the bustle of the village, there lies a world of sand and silence and an ancient lost settlement.
Forvie Sands from Rockend

Hemmed in by the river on one side and the open sea on the other, the peninsula of Forvie is an inviting place on a warm summer’s day when sandwich terns scream above the dunes at the Ythan’s mouth and grouse cocks boldly proclaim their territories from heathery tussocks.
Walking in a blizzard.
But when the force of an easterly gale rips at the very roots of the anchoring bent grass and spume flies in across the moor, Forvie becomes a place transformed. At these wild times, it is hard to think that such a forbidding place could ever have been home to a community of people. Forvie’s landscape still bears the marks of the folk who knew the moor in all its varying moods.
Cliff at North Broadhaven
Celandines in spring

The story of the earliest human interest is written not in stone foundations, but in midden heaps of shells that line the Ythan’s shore. From these remains we may conjure up a shadowy picture of an ancient race travelling the sea-road of the north, and making landfall wherever conditions seemed most favourable. The sheltered river mouth of the Ythan was such a place. The fact that such remains were interbedded with layers of blown sand is itself a commentary on the uncertain and changing nature of this coastal environment, and a pointer to the difficulty that man has had to contend with through time. It had long been guessed that the interior of Forvie Moor might once also have been the site of more extensive prehistoric settlement. Sharp-eyed visitors frequently chance upon flint flakes and even arrow heads among the sand. While flint is commonly associated with more southerly places, early North-East man did have access to a local supply of the material in a low ridge running across the flat plain of Buchan. The numerous antiquarian naturalists of the last century found little else to augment their meagre knowledge of the ancient history of Forvie.
Iron Age hut circle, Forvie Nature Reserve

During 1951 and 1952, a substantial movement of sand uncovered an unexpected assemblage of late Bronze Age - early Iron Age hut circles, the material remains of a prehistoric village community. Such a find was clearly of considerable local interest and a team from the University of Aberdeen, guided by Dr Douglas Simpson began an examination of the site. From this investigation William Kirk of the Geography Department was able to reconstruct a picture of “a small community cultivating the light sandy soils near their circular homesteads, grinding their own grain in stone querns, pasturing sheep, pigs and oxen, adding to their diet by hunting deer in the interior and fishing in the estuary, and possessing a dry site within easy reach of water and a copious supply of raw materials such as flint”.
Forvie Kirk

Writing in New Statistical Account, the parish minister observed that “the foundation of the Old Kirk of Forvie is still visible, being the only vestige throughout the whole sands, commonly called the links, which indicates that this district was once the habitation of man. Graves have been discovered around it, but nothing found in them except a few bones”. Locating the site was not easy, as William Ferguson’s account relates:- “We crossed in search of the ruins of the Old Kirk, but though we had found it on former visits, this time we failed to do so, it is so wonderfully hidden among the sandhills near the shore. It is a wild and lonely scene - no human being visible except perhaps along one beaten pathway on the horizon a long train of fishermen and fisherwomen, returning from a six mile tramp to the estuary, laden with mussels and lobworms for bait. This track lies along the western verge of the sands and when you leave it, even for a few yards, you are in the heart of a wide solitude, the haunt of great coveys of grouse and innumerable rabbits”

Today, one of the joys of a visit to Forvie is contact with its abundant wildlife, and there is no reason to suggest that things were not always so. In the past such natural resources were there for the harvesting, whether in the form of nesting birds and their eggs or the small dark summer fruits of crowberry. There has also been a long continuity of interest in fishing, for the site of the village lies two miles south of the old fishing settlement of Collieston. It seems to have been well positioned for a dual economy, based both on land and sea. Sitting as it does almost hidden beside a small burn deeply downcut into the sand and underlying red glacial till, the ruined kirk is today a scant memorial to the life and times of the folk who worked the rigs around it, and worshipped within its walls. It was inevitable that such a lonely and poignant reminder of a long lost village should have intrigued the generations of visitors who experienced Forvie’s “weird feeling of profound solitude”.

Some shift in the pattern of distribution of the sand must have taken the life from that community of folk, but when and why are questions that are difficult to answer. Local legend asserted that the 18th August 1413 was a day to remember along the North-East coast, a day when a fierce easterly gale blocked the mouth of the River Don in Old Aberdeen with sand. Forvie was said to have succumbed to the moving mass of sand in one fateful blow. A 16th Century ‘preacher of the gospel’ is reputed to have asserted that “the folks of Forvie suffered this heavy judgement because they were Papists and grossly ignorant”. Folklore has also handed down a more romantic interpretation of that fateful act of overblowing by sand. This embodies the notion that such a catastrophic event must surely be the working of some fateful scheme of retribution. Tradition relates that an orphaned heiress - some versions have it that there were three - was duped by a scheming uncle. In order to secure her inheritance for his own wicked ends, the villain of the piece cast the hapless maiden adrift in a boat. As it drifted away from the land, there carried towards the shore a plaintive sound, now embodied in the local traditional folklore stanza:
“If ever madenis Malyson
Ded licht upon drie lande
Let nocht be funde on Forvy’s glebes
But thistle bente and sande”.
From Foveran Links


Though colourful, this curse seems a dubious reason for the overwhelming of Forvie village. In local folklore it probably belongs to that same category of what might be termed “retrospective prophesying'.

In an attempt to shed some more light on the uncertain story of Forvie’s past, a local doctor set to work to excavate the ruined kirk at the end of last century. Brought to the light of day was a piscine, a roughly shaped stone basin used by the celebrant of the holy sacrament. But after this promising find, Forvie was reluctant to yield much more of the true secret of its past. As a result, only a little is known of the history of this kirk among the sand anciently dedicated to St Adamnan. In the 16th Century, however, there is an interesting record of the church of “Furvie” having been given by King James VI to King’s College in Old Aberdeen.

Now encrusted with lichens, the walls of the kirk once enclosed folk who had gathered in the face of an impending environmental catastrophe.
Lichen, Forvie Kirk
In the distance loomed large the towering mounds of sand that were soon to advance and draw a curtain of silence over the entire place. The ruined kirk is not their sole surviving memorial. Here and there the eye may vaguely discern a ground surface faintly etched in patterns of ancient plough rigs, the very life blood of the agricultural community that was fated to perish beneath the suffocating sand. It is clear that these last worshippers were doomed to see their precious lands taken from them, as their homes and kirk were lost from sight beneath an engulfing march of sand. Did things happen in a sudden catastrophic way, or were the signs of impending disaster perhaps obvious long before? One of the greatest features of interest in Forvie for the geographer is what Kenneth Walton saw as the “interplay of physical processes and the changing fortunes of the inhabitants of the coastal area,” and William Kirk considered as human history “being literally interwoven with a story of environmental change”.

The mechanics of mass sand movement suggests that the truth is more likely to lie in some gradual process threatening Forvie over a much longer period. Inevitably the strongest storms would have been capable of the most spectacular movement of loose material, but it is unthinkable that one gale could have resulted in such a remarkably rapid change in the fortunes of the place.

Once the sand movement
Tombstone of smuggler Philip Kennedy, Collieston
was underway, the inexorable march of loose material would have threatened any farmlands that lay in its path. By the 19th Century, the massive shifts of sand had virtually ceased, and the present day pattern had largely been established. In recent times the degree of change has been fairly small, although minor movements along the seaward edge appear to have been something of an inconvenience to the smugglers who plied their trade along Forvie’s coast. At the end of the 19th century, gin hidden among the bents got covered by sand; it remains there to this day. There's also (unexploded) ordnance from military training and shipwrecks. Watch out for metal shells when digging, Riley!
Digging on Forvie Sands

Forvie’s fate in the historical record has been intimately linked with the movements of the sand in which the peninsula is covered. The existence of such vast accumulations of fine sand to accomplish this task should occasion no real surprise when it is remembered that uncontrolled torrents of glacial meltwater once carried an enormous load of ground-down rock to the sea. When subjected to the force of strong winds coming in off the sea, these fine beach deposits, consisting mostly of hard quartz grains, can easily blow inland and in time advance like a dry wave. Thus the history of Forvie landscape is interpreted by geographers in terms of seven dune waves arranged at right angles to the coast. The youngest lies at the peninsula’s southernmost tip, with the landscape becoming progressively older to the north, culminating in the first or oldest ridge that delimits the moor’s northern flank. It is against the background of this dune wave system and its development that the story of human occupation has been enacted.

Tree trunk, Forvie Sands
Forvie Moor - autumn sunset
Windswept moors
Forvie’s heather-clad moor retains only a few last reminders of its vanished past, and the area has survived as an island of unreclaimed moorland that serves to highlight the scale of man’s transformation of the lowland landscape of North-East Scotland. Changing human perception of the value of such an undisturbed area has given Forvie Moor an added value and a new role. Because of its great significance as a sand dune system and as unreclaimed coastal heathland, with all the associated ecological richness, the area was designated the Sands of Forvie National Nature Reserve in 1959. Indeed, it was one of the first such reserves, and two decades later its area was augmented by the addition of the Ythan estuary, a rare example these days of a largely unspoiled and unpolluted estuarine area, one of the finest protected ecological sites in the northern landscape.
Seals at Whinnyfold

In addition to present day attractions, however, Forvie’s fascination for the visitor lies deeply rooted in its past. When the silence of evening falls round the ruins of its ancient kirk the summer cries of nesting seabirds carry on the updraught from the shore and become lost in the loneliness of a place that once resounded to the sounds of a village now silenced by sand.

At such times, against the timeless background dirge of the sea, it is easy to feel that Forvie‘s past and present are somehow mingled as one. And however much we may dismiss the old local tradition of the maiden’s malison as superstitious myth, we cannot but acknowledge that in today’s covering of thistle, bent and sand, nature has achieved her own fulfilment of an ancient prophesy.
Frosty morning - Forvie Moor

Sunset sky over Sand Loch


References:-
Ferguson W (1888) The Sands of Forvie Trans Buchan Field Club Vol 1
Jamieson T F (1865) On Some Remains of the Stone Period in the Buchan District of Aberdeenshire Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
Kirk W (1953) Prehistoric Sites at the Sands of Forvie, Aberdeen University Review
New Statistical Account (1845)
Ferguson W (1901) The Sands of Forvie in The Book of Ellon
Pratt J B (1870) Buchan
Walton K (1966) The Ythan Estuary, Aberdeenshire in Geography as Human Ecology
Dalgarno J (1896) From the Brig o’ Balgownie to the Bullers o’ Buchan
Menie Links




Menie links




Abandoned Communities
Ref:
Date:
Location:
Photographer: