THE LOST VILLAGES OF FINDHORN
The village of Findhorn today stands on the north-east shore of the bay and mouth of the river with which it shares its name. In olden days the name was FINDERN and the river, the EREN (meaning a stream which forms a boundary between two districts). FIN comes from the Gaelic FIONN meaning white, so we have FINDHORN - the white river or perhaps the place where the river becomes white - a meaning obvious to anyone observing its exit over the Bar in a north-easterly gale!
Tradition has it that the present village is the third seaport to bear the name Findhorn. Many have speculated on the position of the first village. Theories abound and theories they remain as no concrete evidence from maps, charts or literature remains to pinpoint the exact position of the original village.
The Moray Firth, as we know it, has evolved over thousands of years, shaped by huge rivers flowing from glacial and upland areas and by the continual erosion and deposition of fluvial deposits by the sea. An example of dramatic change in relatively recent times is given by the submerged subterranean peat bed which extends a considerable distance into the firth in Burghhead Bay - indicating the existence, at one time, of lush forest vegetation. During the 19th century trunks of trees and roots were dredged up by the anchors of ships lying off there. Even today, after winter storms from certain directions, large rafts of compacted peat are washed up on the North Shore of the Findhorn.
In the vicinity of this forest stood an impressive man-made hillock, reputedly 200 feet high, called Douffhillock. This was probably iron-age in origin. It is in this region, some miles north east of the present village, and now under the Moray Firth that some historians have placed the Findhorn of the Middle Ages. (Let us call this theory 1).
Theory 2, as suggested by a greater number of authors is much easier to visualise. Before breaking through to the sea in its present position, the River Findhorn turned westwards, north of Elvin Point, and proceeded in a westerly direction for about five miles before entering the sea at the Old Bar. The suggested position of the village was on the banks of the river upstream of its entry to the Moray Firth.
Invasion of this area by blown sand was recorded as early as the year 1100 and at some time the first Findhorn is said to have been inundated and lost forever under the Culbin Sands.
The third theory as to the position of the first Findhorn is regrettably the least romantic but probably the most likely. This positions the village, still on the south bank of the river but three or four miles upstream from its mouth at the Old Bar, about the point where the river turned westwards on its journey parallel to the edge of the firth and separated from it by sand banks. The attractiveness of the shelter afforded by the river to mariners was tempered by the perennial problem of wind blown sand silting up the harbour. In 1660 the villagers were forced to start the construction of new warehouses on the opposite bank where the water was deeper. In due course the second village of Findhorn developed around the warehouses across the water from the original village which became known as the 'Altoun' or old town.
The second village of Findhorn, built on a broad spit of sand which divided the westward flowing river from the Moray Firth, is well documented in the maps and writings of the 17th century. It was regarded as the principal port on the Moray Coast, providing harbour facilities for vessels trading with the Baltic, Norway and the Low Countries as well as ports around Scotland and England. Its position is pinpointed in the 'Survey of Moray' of 1798 as follows:
'Prior to 1701, the town of Findhorn, regularly built, stood upon a pleasant plain a mile north-west from its present situation and now at the bottom of the sea'.
It was a busy bustling seaport servicing the towns from Elgin to Inverness and was made a Burgh of Barony in 1661.
During the ten years prior to 1702 the blown sand, which had been causing such devastation in Culbin, gradually choked the River Findhorn. In the words of J.B. Ritchie (1938): 'The water was dammed back by the sand into a huge lake from which it began to escape by a more direct route to the sea. Then came unusually high floods to which the barriers yielded. The pent up waters rushed along the new course, carrying with them every vestige of the older Findhorn'.
The date given for this disaster varies but the consensus opinion gives it as 11th October 1702. Although the final devastation came in a night, there was no loss of life due to the astuteness of the villagers who had anticipated such an outcome for some time and had already started building new homes about a mile south-east on the Muirtown Estate.
The remains of the buildings of the second village (now under the sea, about half a mile north-west of the present mouth of the river) became an ideal habitat for mussels, and large mussel scaups developed there. This is confirmed in the account of a court case in 1762 which states '…the present principal mussel scalp stands upon the very spot where Sit James Calder's cellars stood in the old town of Findhorn'. The harvesting of these mussels became an important industry for the fishermen of the new village.
As you may have guessed, the village built on the Muirtown Estate from 1700 onwards, is the present village of Findhorn. Doom merchants of the past predicted gloomily that this village could share the fate of its predecessors and finish beneath sand or sea. This may well have happened because, until the stabilisation of the Culbin Sands by the planting of trees, the village suffered great sandstorms and it is recorded that sometimes the villagers had to dig as much as two feet of sand out of their gardens following a westerly gale. Thankfully the menace has now gone.
The erosion of the sand dunes on the North Shore by winter storms had given concern for many years. The final breaching of the sand dunes took place in the winter of 1983 and the influx of a considerable amount of seawater endangered the fabric of many houses in that area. This prompted the Local Authority to resolve the problem for once and for all. The sea defences which are now concealed by marram grass on the shore side and sea deposited shingle on the other, comprise a line of massive rocks rising some 20ft above beach level and extending the length of the danger zone. This is supplemented by groynes of Greenhart wood placed strategically to arrest the migration of westward drift sand. So far these measures appear to have been effective.