The Culbin area, covering 28km2, was once considered the 'Granary of Moray'. It supported the Barony of Moray with its Mansion House and beautiful gardens and orchards, several farms, many crofts and the small fishing villages of Nevistoun (near Nairn) and Hill of Findhorn (near Binsness), also according to legend, the original village of Findhorn which lay close to the Old Bar where the river entered the sea - about five miles west of the present village of Findhorn.
Reports of the invasive nature of blown sand appear from as early as the year 1100 but the Barony was not overwhelmed until the period 1670-1695, particularly in the Great Sand Drift of 1694. Most of the sand came from the longshore drift which moved beach sand westwards as the bay between Burghhead and Findhorn developed. Fine sand was also washed down the Findhorn and Nairn rivers. Locally the instability of the sand-dunes was aggravated by villagers pulling up the roots of bent, juniper and broom and uprooting the marram grass to thatch their homes.
Much has been written about the horrific great sandstorm which overwhelmed everything before it, leaving behind it a landscape reminiscent of the Sahara Desert. However research has shown that, although a sand storm of particular intensity had occurred in the Autumn of 1694, there had been a constant influx of sand for many years and the fertile Granary of Moray had been supporting an ever decreasing number of families over many generations.
However the final devastation came very quickly and the once fertile land became a barren desert of ever changing hills (some over 100ft high) and valleys of sand. The scene became one of total desolation.
Many stories, the product of naturally curious and superstitious minds, developed. How could such a disaster befall the once wealthy lands and families of Culbin? Women were accused of witchcraft and put to death by the Laird who, in turn, was accused of playing cards on a Sunday with the Devil with his estates at stake.
The Culbin area had been inhabited since prehistoric times and as dunes shifted as a result of storms, treasures of the past were uncovered. Flint and bronze arrowheads and articles of jewellery found in the sand are evidence of successive civilisations inhabiting the Culbin shore. Ancient artefacts from Culbin numbering several thousand are in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. A few specimens can be seen in the Elgin and Forres Museums.
To go 'treasure hunting' in the Culbin Sands became a popular pastime for local people, especially after a windstorm. Hills and valleys migrated to reveal parts of the old mansion house and, occasionally, walls of farm houses. When this happened the old stones were regarded as fair quarry for neighbouring farmers and many dykes in the vicinity are said to have been built from its source. Conversely, some things were lost forever. A story is told of smugglers hiding a cargo of brandy and tobacco beside a sand dune. That night the wind blew and the hoard was lost forever.
For over a hundred years the Culbin Sands remained a desert. The land was sold several times and divided into smaller estates. It was not until 1839 that anything was successfully grown on it. Then, Grant of Kincorth, growing marram grass to stabilise the sand planted the first shelter belt to be successful. In 1842 Grigor of Forres, a tree nurseryman, planted 300 acres on Moy Estate. He introduced the technique of 'thatching' to tree planting in Culbin. This was the key to the ultimate success of planting trees on sand dunes. Branches and tops of trees cut for thinning were laid on the ground, the tree seedlings being planted through the branches. These dead branches remained, holding the sand, protecting the small trees from wind slowing down evaporation of moisture, and eventually adding some much needed humus to the soil.
Between 1922 and 1945 the estates constituting Culbin were acquired by the forestry Commission who, over a period of 32 years, planted over 9000 acres of trees. They stabilised the mobile sand by first planting marram grass whose plexus of spreading roots bound the sand. This was successful on the less hilly terrain but the thatching system, pioneered by Grigor in 1841, was found to be necessary for holding the larger sand dunes.
Many species of tree were experimented with - the Corsican and native Scots Pines proving to be the most successful. There are also small plantations of Lodgepole Pine, Douglas Fir and Norway Spruce.
During the war, a large part of Culbin and adjacent coastal areas were commandeered by the Army for manoeuvres in preparation for the D-Day landings. 'Lost' shells and rockets have been found during planting and in 1986 a wrecked aircraft was discovered, having lain undisturbed for 40 years.
The early trees planted to arrest the sanddrift are now a mature forest which is being harvested and the area replanted. The tall straight trees are of value as telegraph poles, while the remainder go to be pulped or shredded. As a result, timber production is now a well developed industry in Culbin. Wildlife abounds. The shy roe deer, badger, and red squirrel enjoy the shelter and peace of the forest along with the more common rabbit, weasel, and bat. Amongst the profusion of birds, the crossbill, a native of the Scottish pine forests can be seen. The Osprey soars over the trees on its way to Findhorn Bay for its daily fishing expedition at low water.
1966 the Nature Conservancy Council (forerunner of Scottish Natural Heritage) designated the Culbin area a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It also now forms part of a Ramsar site, a Special Protection Area and a Special Area of Conservation This unique region is visited and studied by geologists, botanists and zoologists and other interested parties from around the world.